So What Day Is it After All?
Okay. We all do it. It’s printed on calendars and posted in bank windows. We mistakenly call the third Monday in February Presidents Day, in part because of all those commercials in which George Washington swings his legendary ax and “Rail-splitter” Abe Lincoln hoists his ax to chop down prices on everything from mattresses and linens to SUVs.
But, this February holiday is officially still George Washington’s Birthday –federally speaking that is.
The official designation of the federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February was, and still is, Washington’s Birthday.
But Washington’s Birthday has become widely known as Presidents Day (or President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day). The popular usage and confusion resulted from the merging of what had been two widely celebrated Presidential birthdays in February —Lincoln’s on February 12th, which was never a federal holiday– and Washington’s on February 22, which was.
Created under the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which gave us three-day weekend Monday holidays, the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is technically still Washington’s Birthday. But here’s the rub: the holiday can never land on Washington’s true birthday because the latest date it can fall is February 21, as it did in 2011.
There is a wealth of information about the First President at his home Mount Vernon.
Read More About the creation of the Presidency, Washington, his life and administration in DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT® THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS. Washington’s role in the American Revolution is highlighted Chapter One of THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR.
And George Washington’s role as a slaveowner is fully explored in IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.
Of the many what-ifs of history, this is a big one.
In September 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt -then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy- was carried off the troopship Leviathan by stretcher. He had just inspected U.S. troops in Europe and, either before leaving France or on board the transport, he came down with the Spanish Flu –then sweeping the warring world.
The fifth cousin of the 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR was taken to his mother’s Manhattan apartment. He had the flu and was deathly ill.
What if… Franklin D. Roosevelt had not survived this bout of the Spanish Flu?
Roosevelt did survive. Previously a New York State senator, he returned to politics and was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1920.
In August 1921, Roosevelt fell ill with what was thought to be polio, which left his legs crippled. (Recently, it has been suggested he might have had a different illness.) Remaining active in Democratic politics, FDR continued his recuperation, learning to walk with the use of braces and a cane. He made sure that he was not seen using a wheelchair in public.
Despite this disability, Franklin D. Roosevelt went on to be elected Governor of New York in 1928. After the Great Depression began, he ran for a second term and addressed the economic crisis with relief packages which President Hoover resisted on the national level.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
In 1932, Roosevelt ran against the incumbent Hoover. With the nation in the depths of the Great Depression crisis, the worst economic downturn in American history. He had promised Americans a “New Deal” and started a series of federal relief programs to get the American economy moving again. Despite the continuing national depression, he was reelected in 1936 by a landslide and again in 1940, becoming the first U.S. President to win a third term in office.
By then his attention had turned to foreign affairs and the threat posed in Europe by Hitler and Mussolini and in Asia by Japan. He led the United States into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Born on January 30, 1882, Franklin D. Roosvelt died on April 12, 1945. Here is a chronology of FDR’s life as part of his New York Times obituary.
More resources on Roosevelt’s life can be found at his Presidential Library and Museum.
(originally posted on 1/24/2013; revised 1/24/2019)
Born today in New York City in 1862: Edith Newbold Jones, who achieved fame as Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 (for The Age of Innocence).
Romance, scandal and ruin among New York socialites—long before this was the stuff of People, and “Gossip Girl,” it was the subject matter for Edith Wharton’s most famous works. In such novels as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton painted detailed, acid portraits of high society life. In doing so, she created heartbreaking conflicts beneath the façade of wealth and manners. Again and again, characters like Newland Archer and Lily Bart were forced to choose between conforming to social expectations and pursuing true love and happiness.
Edith Wharton in France during World War I (Photo: Courtesy The Mount Edith Wharton’s Home)
The other lesser-known aspect of Wharton’s life is her experience in France during World War I, where she founded hospitals and refugee centers for women and children. She also wrote urging the United States to join the war.
American novelist Edith Wharton set up workshops for women all over Paris, making clothes for hospitals as well as lingerie for a fashionable clientele. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for refugees and tuberculosis sufferers and ran a rescue committee for the children of Flanders, whose towns were bombarded by the Germans. Her friend and fellow author Henry James called her the “great generalissima”.
Source: Radio France International: “Edith Wharton-The American novelist who joined France’s WWI effort”
Her most famous work set outside the realm of high-tone New York was Ethan Frome (1911), set in wintry, rural Massachusetts.
Know your Wharton? Try this quick quiz–
TRUE or FALSE (Quiz adapted from Don’t Know Much About Literature, written with Jenny Davis-Answers below)
1. Edith Wharton wrote about wealthy New Yorkers to escape the poverty of her own upbringing.
2. Though Edith Wharton was unhappily married, she could not get divorced because it was socially unacceptable.
3. In addition to her fiction, Wharton published several books on interior decorating and landscaping.
The Mount is Wharton’s restored home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
The Edith Wharton Collection of manuscripts, correspondence and photographs is housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Edith Wharton died in France in August 1937. Here is her New York Times: obituary.
1. FALSE. Wharton was born to wealthy New Yorkers, and summered in Newport, Rhode Island. She grew up traveling through Europe, and was educated by private tutors. After an official debut into society, she married a rich banker twelve years her senior.
2. FALSE. She divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913.
3. TRUE. Her first book was The Decoration of Houses, establishing her fame as a writer. She also wrote about Italian landscaping and architecture in Italian Villas and Their Gardens, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.
Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.
-Thomas Paine Common Sense
One of the most significant pieces of writing in American history was published on January 10, 1776. It was Thomas Paine’s essay Common Sense and is widely credited with helping to rouse Americans to the patriot cause. Its sales were extraordinary at the time; given the American population today, current day sales would amount to some 60 million copies.
The pamphleteering Paine is best known for Common Sense and The Crisis, among other works that supported the cause of independence. But after the Revolution, Paine returned to his native England and later went to France, then in the throes of its Revolution. Paine was caught up in the complex politics of the bloody Revolution there, eventually winding up in a French prison cell, facing the prospect of the guillotine.
After eventually being freed, Paine wrote an open letter in 1796 angrily denouncing President George Washington for failing to do enough to secure his release.
“Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement. The lands obtained by the Revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interest of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator…In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington’s character appear in the world, when his declarations and his conduct are compared together!”
Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon
This was a serious case of bridge-burning and Paine swiftly fell from grace in America. But apart from dissing the Father of the Country, Paine had also fallen from favor for his most famous work after Common Sense. In 1794, he had published The Age of Reason (Part I), a deist assault on organized religion and the errors of the Bible. In it, Paine had written:
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
After returning to the United States, which owed so much to him, Paine was regarded as an atheist and was abandoned by most of his friends and former allies. He died in disgrace, an outcast from the United States he had helped create. The Quaker church he had rejected refused to bury him after he died in Greenwich Village (New York) in 1809. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York. A handful of people attended his funeral.
An admirer brought this remains back to England for reburial there, but they were lost.
You can read more about Thomas Paine, his relationship with Washington and his ultimate fate in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
While waiting for the arrival of More Deadly Than War (May 15) do check out In The Shadow Of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
•Notable Children’s Books-2017 ALSC/ALA
•A FINALIST for 2017 Award for Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction by YALSA — the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association.
•A selection of the 2018 Tayshas Reading List/Texas Library Association
•Named one of the BEST CHILDREN’S AND YOUNG ADULT BOOKS OF 2016 (Washington Post)
Did you know that many of America’s Founding Fathers—who fought for liberty and justice for all—were slave owners?
Through the powerful stories of five enslaved people who were “owned” by four of our greatest presidents, this book helps set the record straight about the role slavery played in the founding of America. These dramatic narratives explore our country’s great tragedy—that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles.
These stories help us know the real people who were essential to the birth of this nation but traditionally have been left out of the history books. Their stories are true—and they should be heard.
Some of the hidden history from IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY
IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY Published by Henry Holt & Co. | On sale September 20, 2016 ISBN: 978-1-62779-311-7 | Hardcover | Ages 10 and up | 304 pages | $17.99
Available in Audio from Penguin Random House
“Who was the last president born in a slave holding household?”
It might seem like a piece of trivia. But the answer is not trivial. President Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28 ,1856, the last of eight presidents born in Virginia. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister who did not own slaves himself. But the house in which Wilson was born was the property of the church Wilson’s father led and slaves came with the house. His father was a leader in the creation of the Southern Presbyterian Church which split from the main body of the church over slavery in 1861. Born Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the 28th was raised in Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina. He later recalled seeing Robert E. Lee as small child.
Wilson was elected in 1912 after one of the most extraordinary campaigns in presidential history. He defeated both the incumbent Republican William Howard Taft and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt.
-Wilson was the first and to date only president with a Ph.D. He had also served as the President of Princeton before becoming Governor of New Jersey.
-Wilson’s first wife Ellen Louise Wilson died in the White House of “Bright’s disease” (kidney failure) on August 6, 1914.
-Wilson married Edith Galt Wilson on December 18, 1915 in the home of the bride in Washington, D.C. Their engagement and wedding caused some scandal at the time coming only a little more than a year after the death of Wilson’s first wife.
-Edith Galt Wilson accompanied her husband to and from the Capitol at his second inaugural in 1917, establishing a new tradition. It was also the first Inaugural Parade in which women participated.
-Wilson delivered the annual message to Congress (“State of the Union”) to a joint session of Congress in person in 1913, the first time a president had done so since Thomas Jefferson began sending a written message in 1803. He also also established a tradition of regular press conferences.
_While negotiating the Versailles Treaty in France following the end of World War I, Wilson fell ill with the flu. The illness, which may have been “Spanish Influenza,” left him weak and seemed to change Wilson, leading to speculation that the illness affected his decision-making at this crucial moment in history. Read more in More Deadly Than War
-Wilson collapsed on September 25, 1919 and suffered a stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. His wife, Edith, kept him sequestered in the White House for five weeks, in one of the most serious cases of presidential disability in history. During this time, Edith Wilson served as his “steward,” as she described it, selecting which business he could tend to and making at least one important policy decision.
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is in Staunton, Virginia adjacent to the Woodrow Wilson birthplace.
Now available, this book recounts the story of the most deadly epidemic in modern times, the Spanish Flu pandemic, which struck the world 100 years ago during the last months of World War I. While U.S. doughboys joined the largest offensive in American military history (Meuse-Argonne) that began in late September 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic returned to America with devastating virulence and violence. It is an unforgettable story that has been forgotten.
The book and audio versions are available for preorder and links to online sellers can be found here.
Davis (In the Shadow of Liberty) immediately sets the urgent tone of his forthright chronicle, citing staggering statistics: the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in spring 1918 claimed the lives of more than 675,000 Americans in a single year and left a worldwide death toll estimated at 100 million. The author structures his exhaustive account of the origins, transmission, and consequences of the pandemic within the framework of WWI, underscoring the lethal concurrence of these “twin catastrophes.”
Invisible. Incurable. Unstoppable.
From bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis comes a fascinating account of the Spanish influenza pandemic that swept the world from 1918 to 1919.
With 2018 marking the centennial of the worst disease outbreak in modern history, the story of the Spanish flu is more relevant today than ever. This dramatic narrative, told through the stories and voices of the people caught in the deadly maelstrom, explores how this vast, global epidemic was intertwined with the horrors of World War I – and how it could happen again. Complete with photographs, period documents, modern research, and firsthand reports by medical professionals and survivors, this book provides captivating insight into a catastrophe that transformed America in the early twentieth century.
Listen to a sample of the Audio version coming from Penguin Random House Audio.
I hope you will also read my previous book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY.
The 2018 Winter Solstice arrives today, December 21, 2018. So ’tis a perfect day to talk about the real “reason for the season.”
And here’s the real first Christmas question: Why all the fuss over December 25?
For starters, the Gospels never mention a precise date or even a season for the birth of Jesus. How then did we settle on December 25 and all those festive lights?
If a bright light just went off in your head, you’re getting warm. It’s largely about the Sun.
In ancient times, a popular Roman festival celebrated Saturnalia, a Thanksgiving-like holiday marking the winter solstice and honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Saturnalia began on December 17th and while it only lasted two days at first, it was eventually extended into a weeklong period that lost its agricultural significance and simply became a time of general merriment. Even slaves were given temporary freedom to do as they pleased, while the Romans feasted, visited one another, lit candles and gave gifts. Later it was changed to honor the official Roman Sun god known as Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) and the solstice fell on December 25.
Two other important pagan gods popular in ancient Rome were also celebrated around this date. The Roman were big on adopting the gods of the people they conquered. Mithra, a Persian god of light who was first popular among Roman soldiers, acquired a large cult in ancient Rome. The birth of Attis, another agricultural god from Asia Minor, was also celebrated on December 25. Attis dies but is brought back to life by his lover, a goddess whose temple later became the site of an important basilica honoring the Virgin Mary. By the way, the symbol of Attis was a pine tree.
Candles. Gift giving. Pine trees. Dying gods brought back to life. Hmmm. Sound familiar?
All the similarities between Saturnalia and these other Roman holidays and the celebration of Christmas are no coincidence. In the fourth century, Pope Julius 1 assigned December 25 as the day to celebrate the Mass of Christ’s birth –Christ’s mass. This was a clever marketing ploy that conveniently sidestepped the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday while converting the population.
There is a scholarly argument that the December 25 date was marked earlier in some Christian communities, as argued by Yale Divinity school Dean Andrew McGowan. But the official recognition by the Pope cemented the date for many Christians. In other Christian communities, January 6 –the Epiphany, or the day the magi visited the infant Jesus– was considered more significant. The period between these dates also accounts for the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Other authorities disagree and say that December date was arrived at by adding nine months to March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the day of Jesus’s miraculous conception.
But most modern Christmas traditions reflect the merger of pagan rituals, beliefs, and traditions with Christianity. The early church fathers knew that they couldn’t convert people without allowing them to keep some of their ancient festivals and rituals so they would allow them if they could be connected to Christianity.
The importance of the winter solstice, then, is crucial to understanding many of the other traditions of this season. Evergreen trees, mistletoe, holly, and Yule logs all relate back to pre-Christian practices and symbols that celebrate the return of light and life after the Solstice. That’s why the Puritans rejected Christmas celebrations under Cromwell and in the Massachusetts colony in 1659. (Read my post Who Started the War on Christmas?“)
While we are talking about dates, the precise year of the birth of Jesus is also a mystery. The dating system we use is based on a system devised by a monk around 1500 years ago and is seriously flawed. The historical King Herod who ordered the massacre of the innocents died in 4 BC (or BCE, Before the Common Era). The “census” ordered by Emperor Augustine is not recorded in Roman history, but a local census did take place in the Roman province of Judea in 6 AD (or CE, the Common Era). Is that all perfectly clear now?
You can read more about the mythic roots of Christmas and the gospel accounts of Jesus in Don’t Know Much About Mythology and Don’t Know Much About the Bible.
(Revision of post first published 12.11.2103)
It’s that time of year. Cue the lights, decorations, music.… and the “War on Christmas.”
Proclaiming a secular assault on the religious significance of the holiday has become a seasonal staple, just like the Macy’s Parade with Santa Claus. Saying “Merry Christmas” became a 2016 campaign talking point and it has been a staple of conservative talk show hosts for years.
The basic premise: Christmas is under attack by Grinchy atheists and secular humanists who want to remove any vestige of Christianity from the public space. Any criticism of public displays devoted to religious symbols –mangers, crosses, stars — is seen by these folks as part of a wider attack on “Christian values” in America. Mass market retailers who substituted “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” are part of the conspiracy to “ruin Christmas.”
But in fact, most religious displays are not banned. Courts simply direct that one religion cannot be favored over another under the Constitutional protections of the First Amendment. Christmas displays are generally permitted as long as menorahs, Kwanzaa displays, and other seasonal symbols are also allowed.
In other words, the “War on Christmas” is pretty much a phony war. But where did this all start?
The first laws against Christmas celebrations and festivities in America came during the 1600s –from the same wonderful folks who brought you the Salem Witch Trials — the Puritans. (By the way, H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as the fear that “somewhere someone may be happy.”)
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
–From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659
The Founding Fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not a festive bunch. To them, Christmas was a debauched, wasteful festival that threatened their core religious beliefs. They understood that most of the trappings of Christmas –like holly and mistletoe– were vestiges of ancient pagan rituals. More importantly, they thought Christmas — the mass of Christ– was too “popish,” by which they meant Roman Catholic. These are the people who banned Catholic priests from Boston under penalty of death.
This sensibility actually began over the way in which Christmas was celebrated in England. Oliver Cromwell, a strict Puritan who took over England in 1645, believed it was his mission to cleanse the country of the sort of seasonal moral decay that Protestant writer Philip Stubbes described in the 1500s:
‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’
In 1644, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations. Attending mass was forbidden. Under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, mince pies, holly and other popular customs fell victim to the Puritan mission to remove all merrymaking during the Christmas period. To Puritans, the celebration of the Lord’s birth should be day of fasting and prayer.
In England, the Puritan War on Christmas lasted until 1660. In Massachusetts, the ban remained in place until 1687.
So if the conservative broadcasters and religious folk really want a traditional, American Christian Christmas, the solution is simple — don’t have any fun.
Read more about the Puritans in Don’t Know Much About® History and America’s Hidden History. The history behind Christmas is also told in Don’t Know Much About® The Bible.
Like the Macy’s parade, here is my Thanksgiving tradition. I post two articles about the holiday that I wrote for the New York Times.
The first, from 2008, is called “A French Connection” and tells the story of the real first Pilgrims in America. They were French. In Florida. Fifty years before the Mayflower sailed. It did not end with a happy meal. In fact, it ended in a religious massacre.
TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the “New World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.
The complete story can be found in America’s Hidden History.
The second is “How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving” (2014) and tells the story of the Union League providing Thanksgiving dinners to Union troops.
Of all the bedtime-story versions of American history we teach, the tidy Thanksgiving pageant may be the one stuffed with the heaviest serving of myth. This iconic tale is the main course in our nation’s foundation legend, complete with cardboard cutouts of bow-carrying Native American cherubs and pint-size Pilgrims in black hats with buckles. And legend it largely is.
In fact, what had been a New England seasonal holiday became more of a “national” celebration only during the Civil War, with Lincoln’s proclamation calling for “a day of thanksgiving” in 1863.
Enjoy them both. Now for some football.