Sunday, February 27, 2011

Old Letter From Martha Washington Turns Kansas

The people of Concordia, Kansas have something rather extraordinary to talk about. It seems a letter penned by the First Lady, as in the very first First Lady, has turned up in their small, little town of 5,700 people. The letter was written by Martha Washington in 1793, during her husband's presidency, and somehow made its way over the years to rural Kansas.

To read more about this very interesting story, click on the following link...

Friday, February 25, 2011

History Channel War of 1812 Documentary Waves The Flag

THE HISTORY CHANNEL® PRESENTS: THE WAR OF 1812 is a must-have for anyone that's remotely interested in early American history. The DVD box set includes the following programs:
  • FIRST INVASION: THE WAR OF 1812, which portrays a young United States "on the brink of annihilation" just 30 years after its independence
  • SAVE OUR HISTORY: THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER, which takes viewers through a history of the American flag and the poem that became America's national anthem
  • THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS, which covers General Andrew Jackson's lopsided and crucial victory over the British in 1815, weeks after the War of 1812 had officially concluded
  • Special Features, including a behind-the-scenes look at First Invasion and an episode from Extreme History on surviving in an 1812 battleship.
The real prize in this boxed set is the documentary First Invasion: The War of 1812. The documentary, which first aired on The History Channel in 2004, portrays a young United States of America "on the brink of annihilation" as it battles the largest and most powerful empire on earth. The clearly pro-American documentary chronicles primarily the final phase of the war, focusing almost exclusively on the British sacking of Washington, the assault on Fort McHenry, and the climactic encounter at New Orleans.

First Invasion tries to tie in the infamous "September 11" date by pointing out that British warships were descending on Baltimore and Fort McHenry, backed by an invading army, in the month of September 1814. To the Americans besieged in Baltimore and to a young attorney named Francis Scott Key, the assault on Ft. McHenry, coming on the heels of the capital being overwhelmed, was every bit the "September 11" of that generation.

Critics say First Invasion is far too pro-American, and that it ignores or downplays other elements of the War of 1812. Well, First Invasion is indeed guilty of "US spin" (as one critic called it). I'm not sure this is necessarily wrong, though. Michael Moore is famous for turning out documentaries that advocate a certain point of view and "spin" facts accordingly. While I'm not necessarily a Michael Moore fan, I don't have a problem with documentarians coming at their subject with a perspective or viewpoint. In this case, the makers of First Invasion clearly are Americans and they are patriotic. Or at least they are appealing to patriotic Americans. Not a problem, as far as I'm concerned.

Is it accurate? Yes, the documentary is very accurate. It points out that American looting and burning in Canada is what set the stage for the British torching public buildings in Washington. The film also acknowledges some of the expansionist greed that was behind some of the US politicians who supported the war. Nevertheless, the film very correctly points out that the United States was fighting for its viability as a free nation, if not its independence altogether. In many respects, the War of 1812 was a second war for independence with Great Britain. Losing the conflict would have been disastrous to the United States.

Of course, the United States was hardly prepared for the conflict. When war was declared, the U.S. had only 7,000 scattered soldiers under arms and roughly 16 warships. It could not strike directly at Great Britain, even though the Mother Country was distracted by Napoleon. So, the US had to invade Canada, which it did in 1812. And that didn't go too well. Before long, the US was rocked back on its heels, facing invasion from several fronts. And that's where First Invasion picks up.

If you haven't seen the film, I highly recommend you pick up a copy at your local bookstore, order it online from this link, or try to borrow it from your local library.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Jefferson Books Found

It's a history scholar's dream come true! Dozens of Thomas Jefferson's books were found at Washington University in St. Louis. Some of the books include hand-written notes from the third President. You can read more about this news story at the following link...

Thomas Jefferson was, of course, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the third President of the United States, and the founder of the University of Virginia.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Horatio Hornblower DVD Series Takes Viewer Back to the Age of Sail

Many years ago, as an 8th grader, I was assigned to read a literary novel. When I asked my parents for a recommendation, my dad suggested C.S. Forester's classic Horatio Hornblower series. He knew I liked military history, and thought C.S. Forester's literary masterpiece would be perfect. He was right! The book I chose was Beat to Quarters, and I could hardly put it down. Shortly thereafter, my dad introduced me to the movie Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck. I ended up watching that film more than a few times! And, over the next few years, I read more of C.S. Forester's novels as well as those of Alexander Kent.

You can imagine then my excitement, when A&E debuted the Horatio Hornblower television movies, featuring Ioan Gruffudd as the title character. At the time, Gruffudd was a relative newcomer to acting, but has since gone on to star in The Fantastic Four films. In addition to Gruffudd, the cast included Robert Lindsay, Jamie Bamber, and Paul Copley.

If you haven't yet seen the award-winning A&E Hornblower films, you should order the HORATIO HORNBLOWER COLLECTOR'S EDITION from Amazon without delay. The Collector's Edition features all eight movies, where you can watch Hornblower rise from midshipman to ship's commander. It's awesome swashbuckling naval adventure!

The Hornblower movies ran from the late 1990s to the early 2000s on A&E, and then, due to apparent budget issues, further production was set aside. In interviews, Gruffudd has said he's interested in bringing them back, but it appears that may be a long time coming, if at all. Until then, you need these movies in your collection.

The Collector's Edition comes with an exclusive interviews, filmmaker commentaries, bonus programs, interactive features, photo gallery, and more. Order now.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What if George Washington Had Never Been Born?

What if George Washington had never been born? What if the "father of our country" was someone else? Would the French and Indian War have started? Would the Continental Army have defeated the British under someone else's leadership? Would someone else have successfully thwarted a military coup at Newburgh? Would a different general refused opportunities and requests for supreme authority? Would the Constitutional Convention been successful without his authoritative presence? And who would have been the first President of the United States?

George Washington and the French and Indian War

Would the American Revolution have taken place, absent the French and Indian War? Most historians would probably say "no," as the French and Indian War (aka "Seven Years' War") accelerated the cultural and political divide between the colonies and the Mother Country. Without the French and Indian War, Britain's treasury would've been in a much healthier position in the 1760s. Thus, it's unlikely Britain would've felt compelled to levy as many taxes on the colonies or station troops in North America.

Since George Washington was right in the thick of instigating the French and Indian War, it's tempting to conclude that the Seven Years' War might never have occurred. Thus, some might wonder if Washington was at least indirectly responsible for the Revolutionary War happening in the first place.

While the young, eager, and inexperienced Washington did indeed stumble his way into a skirmish that led to the French and Indian War, the nature in which that skirmish took place and the way in which tensions were already mounting between France and England leads one to believe that the French and Indian War was inevitable. It's going much too far to conclude that Washington was solely responsible for starting the war or that the war never would've happened without him. In the case of the French and Indian War, George Washington rode events more than he drove them.

George Washington and the American Revolution

As with the French and Indian War, George Washington was incidental to the American Revolution starting. Sure, he helped fuel tensions against the Mother Country from his estate in Virginia and seat in the House of Burgesses. Sure, he co-wrote The Fairfax Resolves. Sure, he was part of the First and (initially) the Second Continental Congress. But, as with the French and Indian War, he rode events more than driving them. The American Revolution would've happened, even if George Washington had never been born.

That's not to say, however, that the American Revolution would've been a victory for the Americans, had Washington not played his part in it. Yes, the Revolutionary War would've happened, but once it broke out, strong leadership was needed to see it through to a successful conclusion. And it's difficult to imagine who else could've provided that leadership other than George Washington.

Had Washington not been alive, the Continental Congress would've had to consider the likes of Artemas Ward (health issues), Israel Putnam (age and health concerns, a stroke in 1779 ended his career), Charles Lee (issues with competence, character, and loyalty), John Hancock (an impressive signature and trader, but an effective general only in his imagination), or Horatio Gates (an ambitious, conniving opportunist who showed his true colors at Camden). Their best choices would likely have been Philip Schuyler or Richard Montgomery, but neither of these men were optimal choices. Some of my readers may be thinking Benedict Arnold (who, aside from the whole treason thing, was an excellent leader), Nathanael Greene, or Henry Knox, but these men flourished under Washington's guidance and mentoring. The scenario we're considering is 1775, not later in the war, when either Knox or Greene would've been an able replacement to Washington.

Even though Washington's generalship in the Revolutionary War produced mixed results, he excelled in the areas that mattered most. His character was unimpeachable, thus he could be trusted with the army and the authority given him. He was brave, thus earning the just respect of his men and inspiring them to similar acts of courage. He was a superb strategist, in that he quickly grasped the nature of the "long game" and the need to keep his army in the field and not risk it in too many grandiose, stand-up engagements. He knew when he had to have a victory, such as a Trenton, and when to cut his losses, such as Germantown.

It's very difficult to imagine any other person leading the Continental Army to victory over the British Empire in the American Revolution.

George Washington and the Revolution's Aftermath

Washington's indispensable nature becomes truly evident in the closing years and immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War. After Yorktown, what little public sentiment there was to support the war effort began to quickly evaporate, leaving Washington's army in the field with poor supplies, inadequate pay, and broken promises. Washington didn't dare support the dissolution of his forces, because that would remove any pressure on the British to grant American independence in the peace negotiations he knew were taking place in France. Washington therefore had the dangerous and unenviable task of keeping an increasingly frustrated, desperate, and disillusioned army in the field.

Washington knew when to be harsh in his discipline and when to make concessions. And he knew when to risk his own reputation and possible safety. His performance at Newburgh is the stuff of legend. Can anyone possibly imagine someone else other than George Washington pulling that off?

What's more, when Washington was essentially offered the keys to the government and the ability to become a dictator, he refused. Would Horatio Gates have refused? Would Charles Lee have refused?

Without Washington's character, fortitude, and calming presence, the American Revolution would likely have degenerated into civil unrest and a military dictatorship. The dream of freedom and a republican form of government would've been stillborn.

George Washington and the Constitutional Convention

In terms of the actual content of the Constitution, Washington's participation at the Constitutional Convention was more symbolic than substantive. The members of the Convention understood Washington would likely be the first Chief Executive, so the way they hammered out the executive branch of government was likely influenced by this realization. In terms of actual discussion and debate, Washington said very little. It is certainly conceivable, though, that the Constitution would've been very close in content and composition to what it was, had Washington not been present.

Ratification of the new Constitution or the very fact that the Convention happened in the first place are different matters altogether. Washington was instrumental in laying the groundwork for Americans understanding that a stronger government, than the one provided for the Articles of Confederation, was necessary. And his attendance at the Constitutional Convention did much to allay fears and concerns that a monarchy or dictatorship was being erected in Philadelphia.

After the Constitution was signed, Washington lent his name and prestige to support ratification of the document. It's unlikely the Constitution would've been ratified, had Washington been absent from the Convention or had he declined to support it.

George Washington and the First Presidency

Ask the average American what George Washington did as President and you will get a smattering of answers, most of them sparse. There is the impression that George Washington was more a figurehead than a substantive leader, and that his contributions as President were minimal. Nothing could be further from the truth.

President Washington created the Cabinet, appointed the first Supreme Court, presided over the adoption of the Bill of Rights, kept us out of a renewed (and costly) war with Great Britain, put down the Whiskey Rebellion, and supported the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton which were necessary to get the United States on a sound financial footing. He also supported moving the capital of the nation to its present location, and took an active part in its initial designs. Most historians rank Washington as at least our second or third greatest President, falling behind only Abraham Lincoln and sometimes Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Washington was Indispensable

When you consider all that George Washington did for the United States -- and didn't do (such as becoming dictator or king) -- one has to agree with the late Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner, who wrote that George Washington was "the indispensable man."

Remove George Washington from history and you remove quite possibly the very existence of the United States of America and most certainly its nature and identity as the world's leading superpower and the greatest republic the world has ever known.


For more on George Washington, check on the latest biography Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.

Monday, February 07, 2011

What Would Francis Scott Key Think of Christina Aguilera?

Multiple Grammy Award winning artist Christina Aguilera made a whopper of a mistake as she sang America's national anthem prior to the kickoff of Super Bowl XLV. Following along with Aguilera's song last night, I recall thinking, "That doesn't sound right." My wife caught it just as quickly, saying, "She screwed up."

Sure enough, Aguilera fumbled the line "O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming" by singing instead "What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last reaming." Backstage, Aguilera was reportedly "devastated" by the error.

She released a statement after the game saying, "I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through."

I'll give Aguilera credit for her enthusiasm and heart, which certainly came through in her rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" last night. (Though I personally prefer a more traditional, straight-up singing of the national anthem). Nevertheless, when you're tapped to sing the nation's most famous song on the biggest sports night of the year, you'd think that a professional musician would study and rehearse enough in advance to give an error-free performance. As the Marines are fond of saying: "Proper prior planning prevents poor performance."

As to what Francis Scott Key would've thought, that's hard to say, but one can certainly imagine him in the stands last night, shaking his head and thinking: "That's not what I wrote."