Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas at Mount Vernon

How did George and Martha Washington observe the Christmas season? Check out this informative video from the folks at Mount Vernon...

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Christmas 2010 Gift Ideas: New Books on the American Revolution Period

Do you have a history buff or two on your Christmas gift list? There are several new books on the American Revolution available for this Christmas season (or, for those politically correct..."holiday season"). While I have not been able to review all of these books, here are some that look very interesting...
  • Robert Morris: Financier of The American Revolution -- Would the American cause have been triumphant in the Revolutionary War, were it not for the innovative, financial machinations of Robert Morris? Though he is one of the "forgotten Founders" today, he was certainly not "forgotten" in his day. A close friend of George Washington, Morris made things happen money-wise for the Continental cause. This new biography by Charles Rappleye is the first comprehensive, full-length treatment of Morris, and looks very interesting. I have a copy myself and plan to read it over this Christmas season.
  • Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry And The Call to a New Nation -- The patriot leader who "smelt a rat" in Philadelphia and therefore refused to attend the Constitutional Convention has, in the years since 1787, slipped into the second tier of America's Founders. Though he's been overshadowed in the history books, Henry was larger than life during his time period. As biographer Harlow Giles Unger reminds us, Henry was among the first to call Americans to arms against Britain and also to call for a national bill of rights, when ratification of the new Constitution (and a strong central government) became increasingly inevitable. 
  • Ratification: The People Debate The Constitution, 1787-88 -- Historian Pauline Maier examines not simply the Federalist Founders who crafted the Constitution and defended it in such well-studied tomes as The Federalist, but rather looks carefully at the ratification debates which ranged across the young United States. Maier looks at the battles which took place at the state and local level, and thus highlights one of the most important dramas in early American history. 
  • Valley Forge: A Novel -- Historical novelists Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen tackle the most famous winter camp in U.S. history. In the spirit of Michael Shaara and his son, Jeff Shaara, Gingrich and Forstchen take readers into the middle of history, rather than just telling them about it. If this novelization is as good as To Try Men's Souls (their novelized, but factually accurate take on the Battle of Trenton)it's worth your time. 
Happy Reading and Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Why Did The American Revolution Happen?

Ask the average American why the Revolutionary War happened in the first place and, if you don't get a "deer-in-the-headlights" blank stare, you'll likely hear something about taxes. Two hundred and thirty-four years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the myth that the American Revolution was essentially a tax revolt continues to persist. The reason behind this perpetual myth is likely threefold:
  1. Anti-tax conservatives, including the current "Tea Party" movement, enjoy portraying their cause as being in association with the nation's Founding Fathers.
  2. Critics of the Founders (and these critics are usually from the left side of the political spectrum, often the Far Left as is the case with the now late, though still sadly popular Howard Zinn) enjoy undermining the credibility and heroic stature of the Founders, with arguments that the Founders were motivated purely or primarily by greedy, monetary interests. 
  3. Sam Adams, the Sons of Liberty, and the Committees of Correspondence were extremely effective with their public relations campaigns of the 1760s. Let's face it. The Founders were so good at their protest against taxation without proper representation that it's helped shape and define the legacy of the Revolutionary War itself. 
The truth is far more complicated and nuanced than simple slogans or sound bytes. Unfortunately, most Americans haven't the patience or attention span to fully appreciate the truths and facts within history. While I certainly don't pretend to have complete knowledge of the truth myself, I do hope, in this brief blog post, to encourage you to seek out the correct information from the best sources, when it comes to historical questions such as this one. And in the case of the causes of the American Revolution, the best sources are those who started and fought the Revolution! 

Was The American Revolution About Taxes?

While one might argue that the social and political upheaval of the Revolutionary period extends from the French and Indian War of the 1760s through the middle of the 1800s, the actual war itself began April 19, 1775, when British troops clashed with armed colonists in the New England villages of Lexington and Concord. 

The bloodshed surrounding Lexington and Concord (and the long, painful British march back to Boston) took place ten years after the most egregious and hated of the taxes imposed on the colonies. That tax was the Stamp Act of 1765. While it certainly resulted in riots and mob violence, there was no war. There certainly was no movement for independence. That would come much later, after many "injuries and usurpations." 

The American Revolution was not about taxes. It was about the colonial assertion that they had a right, as British subjects, to govern themselves, as defined by the colonial charters and British constitutional tradition. The power to levy taxes was part of the overall debate over self-government. Only the duly elected assemblies within each colony (such as the Virginia House of Burgesses or the Massachusetts legislature) had the right to pass laws or levy taxes within each colony. That was the main issue at play, and all grievances stemmed from that. 

What Were The Colonial Grievances?

Anyone looking for an explanation of the causes of the American Revolution, at least from the perspective of the North American colonies, need only look as far as the Declaration of Independence. Laid out for the entire world to see are all the grievances which the colonists had against Great Britain. Here is what the Declaration of Independence has to say:
"The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. 
  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
  • He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
  • He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
  • He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
  • He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
  • He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
  • He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
  • He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
  • He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
  • He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
  • He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
  • For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
  • For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  • For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
  • For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies
  • For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
  • He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
  • He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
  • He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
  • He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
  • He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

And there you have it....the colonial grievances against King George III and the British Parliament. Were some of the reasons perhaps over stated? Maybe. But that's for another blog post. The point here is that the Second Continental Congress very clearly laid out the reasons for their war for independence. Taxation was simply one of them. It was not the only one, nor was it the most important. And taxation would not have been an issue at all, were it not for the overriding disagreement over self-government.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Daniel Day Lewis to Play Spielberg's Lincoln

Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis will pick up a stovepipe hat to play one of history's most iconic figures. Steven Spielberg's long-awaited, long-discussed biopic film about America's 16th President has finally been given the green light. And for the main character, Spielberg turned to Lewis, who won Academy Awards for My Left Foot and There Will be Blood. Fans of American history movies will likely remember Lewis for Last of the Mohicans.

Liam Neeson, the original choice to play Abraham Lincoln, left the project some time ago. Neeson would've brought a lot of gravitas to the role, and it's a shame he backed out of the project. But put a beard on Daniel Day Lewis and a stovepipe hat on his head, and there is an uncanny resemblance to the legendary President. What's more, Lewis is an extremely talented actor. He may very well pull off the kind of mesmerizing portrayal of Lincoln that Paul Giamatti came close to achieving for the title character in John Adams and Laura Linney nailed for Abigail Adams.

My biggest concern for this biopic film project is that it strikes me as a better miniseries than a movie. Ted Turner's Gettysburg, an adaptation of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer winning The Killer Angels, worked well as a movie, because it focused on one battle in the American Civil War. By contrast, Gods and Generals faltered badly, because its scope was just too wide and its characters too rich to be adequately contained in a single film. This is a lesson that was likely not lost on the makers of John Adams, who chose to go the route of a miniseries rather than a single film.

But who am I to tell Steven Spielberg what he should do? :-) If he wants to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln, I'll gladly buy my ticket, grab some popcorn and a soda, and enjoy it! Let's hope that this movie finally gets made.

And then let's hope it's wildly successful, so Hollywood will then turn its attention to the man who was truly America's greatest President and most indispensable figure....George Washington.

Monday, November 08, 2010

David McCullough Takes Readers on a Stirring Adventure in 1776

The most important year in American history is 1776. Few can credibly dispute that statement, since 1776 is the year that the United States of America was officially created and the year its budding independence hung precariously in the balance. It was the year that the Second Continental Congress, driven by the able leadership of statesmen such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, formally severed ties with the British Empire and, thanks to the eloquent pen of Thomas Jefferson, articulated the principles upon which the United States would be established. Yet this assertion of independence, with all its grandiloquent references to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" could easily have been snuffed out, were it not for the courage and perseverance of George Washington and the sacrifice and dedication of the Continental Army.

McCullough's book opens by showing King George III's stubborn refusal to heed colonial grievances. McCullough doesn't portray King George III as a buffoon, for he was not that. But McCullough does show how the British leadership, embodied by George III and Lord North, had become inexcusably and tragically disconnected from their subjects across the Atlantic. McCullough's narrative encompasses the politics of the war, but he brings a special focus on the military situation, which looked quite dismal for the American side through most of 1776.

When we look back on 1776 from the twenty-first century, it is difficult for us to appreciate how close the nascent United States came to losing its War for Independence. David McCullough's 1776 helps readers overcome that difficulty. He grippingly transports the reader back to those tumultuous weeks and months of 1776. Thanks to McCullough's consummate research and gift with language, our minds can relate with at least some of the anxiety that confronted George Washington when he wrote that "few people understand the predicament we are in."

Though he is sometimes (and sadly) dismissed by some of the more snobby (often left-wing) "elites" of academia, David McCullough is one of the finest writers of our time. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (once for Truman and another for John Adams) and the National Book Award, David McCullough is simply amazing with his Royal Standard typewriter, which he purchased secondhand in 1965 - and still uses today!

The main complaint against McCullough is that he emphasizes the "story" part of the word "history," and he's unapologetic in his patriotism and respect for heroes -- something that resonates throughout his work. Left-wing historians, who resent what they disparagingly call the "Great Man" approach to history, simply can't abide this, even if the patriotism and respect for heroes is justified, as is certainly the case, when dealing with people like George Washington.

Anyone with even the slightest interest in American history should pick up a copy of this book. Books like 1776 are what cause people to deepen their appreciation for history. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

George Washington Gets the Chernow Treatment

Ron Chernow, the award-winning biographer of John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton, turns his attention to the greatest, and in some ways, the most elusive, figure in American history: George Washington. With Washington: A Life, Chernow attempts to shatter the image of the "wooden, unemotional man" most Americans have in their minds when it comes to George Washington. In its place, Chernow paints America's preeminent Founding Father as a dynamic, vibrant, and at-the-time wildly popular leader who was (in every way) larger than life and truly indispensable to early American history.

George Washington is not an easy person to write about. He kept much of himself private, remaining aloof quite often. Martha destroyed much of their correspondence upon his death, thus adding another security layer to Washington's privacy. But Chernow had an advantage that many of Washington's previous biographers did not. Since the late 1960s, the University of Virginia began to publish a new edition of Washington's papers, based on 135,000 documents gathered from around the world. Chernow calls this collection a "veritable feast of scholarship," and it was a feast not available to Douglas Southall Freeman and other notable biographers of Washington.

That Washington has been such a difficult and elusive subject for biographers is something Chernow conveys masterfully in his prelude, when he points out that Washington was also not the easiest person to paint. I found the introductory story about Gilbert Stuart to be a great "lead in" to the biography, as it truly set the stage for the daunting challenge of trying to understand Washington.

George H.W. Bush, the nation's forty-first President, once famously remarked: "Don't put me on the couch!" It was a reference to the increasingly popular tendency of 1990s talk shows to thoroughly unmask and psycho-analyze public figures. A man of his time, Bush was clearly uncomfortable with such brightly illuminated, often highly subjective analysis - an analysis that respected few, if any boundaries, as it probed deep into one's private life, personal background, religious views, family upbringing, etc. In the Age of Oprah and Dr. Phil, this has become the norm, and it's a world most unwelcome by people like George H.W. Bush - and, were he alive today, George Washington.

In his day, Washington went to great lengths to preserve some semblance of decorum and privacy. To James Madison, Washington wrote that he wished to avoid "too free an intercourse and too much familiarity." This aspect of Washington is something Chernow explores in great detail in his biography, including how Washington, as President, cultivated a tightly scripted and highly effective persona. Yet even in this rigidly planned and enforced context, the personal side would occasionally come through. Chernow writes of Washington's fondness for female company and how he clearly relished the attention he received from women admirers.

Chernow also dissects Washington's personality. In fact, it was revelations concerning Washington's personality that led Chernow to take on this project. While working on his previous biography on Alexander Hamilton, Chernow came across letters by Hamilton describing Washington as "moody, irritable, and temperamental." It was a side of Washington that Chernow knew he had to explore more. And the result is this massively researched work.

Chernow sticks to the facts when dealing with his subject. In the case of Washington's religious faith, for instance, Chernow doesn't grind any axes or throw in with any particular camp to advance a personal or cultural agenda. He points out (correctly) that Washington was, in no way, the kind of Deist who sees God as a "watchmaker" who winds up the world and lets it run according to "natural laws" with little to no intervention. In Washington's mind, God was decisively interventionist, with (writes Chernow of Washington's view) "a keen interest in North American politics." One need only look to Washington's First Inaugural Address as evidence of this.

On the other hand, Chernow acknowledges that, while Washington was regarded by many of his peers as "a sincere believer in the Christian faith," the man himself did not "directly affirm the deity of Jesus Christ." Some historians, such as Peter Lillback, would dispute that last statement, arguing that Washington's affiliation with the Anglican (and later Episcopal) Church constituted an affirmation on his part of Jesus' deity. That may be true, but it's also true that Washington wrote and spoke often of Providence, and rarely did so of Jesus.

Chernow's portrait of Washington includes a detailed and comprehensive look at his relationship with his mother, his infatuation with Sally Fairfax, his exploits in the French and Indian War, his generalship in the Revolutionary War, critical presence at the Constitutional Convention (in which he was far more than the figurehead many Americans think of), and of course his presidency. In 817 pages, Chernow succeeds in bringing Washington to life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Civilization 5: Play as George Washington and Lead Your Civilization to Greatness

Sid Meier's Civilization V has hit the marketplace, and it's so popular that stores are having a tough time keeping copies in stock. Civilization V is literally flying off the shelves. And no one should be surprised. This fifth installment of what is perhaps the greatest PC strategy game franchise of all time is well worth the purchase price. And, yes, you can play as George Washington! (You could play as George Washington in Civilization IV as well, but the animations are even better in Civ V!)

As my readers know, I like to occasionally deviate from the serious stuff -- and just have some fun. PC and board games are a great way to have fun with history. My dad and I used to play tabletop wargames all the time, as I was growing up. Among our favorites were the classics Gettysburg and Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. Unfortunately, Dad passed away in 1992, too soon to enjoy the wave of PC wargames that swept the marketplace in the 1990s and continue to be enormously popular today. Nevertheless, if Dad were alive today, I know he and I would be playing Age of Empires II, Age of Empires III, and now Civilization V quite a bit.

Those unfamiliar with Civilization may wonder why I'm blogging about it here. Well, as my readers know, I generally don't blog about things, unless the topics relate directly with early American history. And this is no exception. While the Civilization games encompass all of history, that history includes the colonial period. In fact, you might say that the transition between the Renaissance-era Middle Ages and the Industrial Age is the most significant point of the game. If you don't transition your civilization quickly and effectively from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Age, you will likely lose.

In fact, this period is so critical, that the Civilization franchise includes a standalone title called Civilization: Colonization. It plays similarly to Civilization IV, and features a great system of trade and economy as you settle a new continent and then try to break away from Europe. A word of's very tough to successfully declare independence from Europe. But I digress.

With Civilization 5 (as in the previous installments), you take over a fledgling, nomadic, and primitive people - and lead them through the span of history to (hopefully) become a powerful, dynamic civilization. And did I mention that you can play as George Washington? In fact, you can play as a very long-living George Washington! This immortal aspect to your character is why Civilization is often called a "god game." As a pastor, I'm of course uncomfortable looking at it that way. And, in fact, the only "divine" characteristic you possess in the game is an immortal lifespan. Still, however you want to accept (or not) that aspect of your game's character, Civilization is a fun franchise to tackle.

Every single installment of Civilization has been addictive and immersive. Civilization V ups the ante with expanded visuals, absorbing audio (though Leonard Nimoy's narration from Civilization IV is missed), and adjustments / improvements in game play. Two big changes from Civilization IV are the absence of religion and the shift to a hex-based map. The jury is still out on whether the former is a good change, but I definitely approve of the latter. Hexes make for a richer, more tactical experience than squares.

Civilization V gets a solid A+. 5 stars out of 5. Whatever grading system you want to use, Civilization V rocks the house. :-)  It's well with your time. And, believe me, it will soak up LOTS of your time.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Congress Approves the Bill of Rights on September 25, 1789

On September 25, 1789, the First Congress approved twelve (12) amendments to the new Constitution of the United States. Upon congressional passage, those twelve amendments went to the states for ratification. The states ratified ten (10) of the amendments, forming what we now know as the Bill of Rights.

Origin of the Bill of Rights

Rights were critical to the Founders of the United States. Virtually all of them embraced Imago Dei (the Judeo-Christian principle that Man is created in the image of God) as well as the natural law theories of John Locke. Deeply influenced by English traditions of limited government and popular rights (traditions echoed in documents such as Magna Carta and the 1689 English Bill of Rights), the Founders believed that the people derive their fundamental rights from the Creator, whereas government derives its authority from the governed.

These values were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and in the various state constitutions and bills of rights. One of the most notable expressions of these rights at the state level was penned by George Mason. The author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason was a staunch advocate of limited government and individual liberty.

When the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called to address the failures of the Articles of Confederation, there was great reluctance to give too much power to the national government and thus compromise the liberties of the American people and of the various states. George Mason was among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and he ultimately refused to sign the document for lack of a bill of rights. Returning to Virginia to join anti-Federalists (opponents of the Constitution) like Patrick Henry, Mason exerted his influence against this new form of government.

As a means of insuring ratification of the Constitution, James Madison agreed to introduce a bill of rights, once the new Constitution went into effect. When Madison was elected to the First Congress, he moved to honor his agreement. Writing to a friend, the Virginia patriot said the amendments are "limited to points which are important in the eyes of many and can be objectionable in those of none. The structure & stamina of Govt. are as little touched as possible.”

Congress Passes Twelve Amendments

On September 25, 1789, the First Federal Congress sent twelve amendments to the state legislatures for ratification. The first two amendments, dealing with numbers of constituents and congressional pay, initially failed to get the requisite number of states to agree to them. Consequently, amendments three (3) through twelve (12) were ratified, becoming the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The amendment concerning the number of constituents remains dead and will likely never again see the light of day. The original second amendment, however, was resurrected nearly 200 years later. It dealt with congressional pay was finally ratified on May 7, 1992, long after Madison and his colleagues were dead.

The Bill of Rights

Upon ratification by the requisite number of states, the Bill of Rights went into effect in 1791. The first ten amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America are as follows:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III
No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Amendment VII
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

For more information, visit the Library of Congress exhibit page on the Bill of Rights.

Friday, September 24, 2010

September 24 in History: The Judiciary Act of 1789

On September 24, 1789, President George Washington signed into law the first Judiciary Act under the newly ratified Constitution. The Judiciary Act of 1789 filled out the judicial branch of government, which had been established (but not composed) by Article III of the U.S. Constitution. This first Judiciary Act established the structure and jurisdiction of the federal court system and created the position of attorney general.

Upon signing the statute, President Washington nominated John Jay to be the first Chief Justice of the United States and named John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson to be associate justices. Edmund Randolph became the nation's first attorney general.

For more on this important landmark in U.S. judicial history, visit the Library of Congress "Primary Documents of American History" section on the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Revolutionary War Costumes: This Halloween, Get Your History On!

Listen up, history buffs! Halloween is right around the corner! If you're looking for Revolutionary War costumes this Halloween,  you've come to the right place. Halloween isn't just about zombies, vampires, and all that. It's also a great time for history buffs to showcase their creative flair and love for the past. For Revolutionary War fans, it's a chance to highlight what is arguably the most important era in American history.

Halloween Costume Ideas For History Buffs

If you're a history buff looking to dress up in a Revolutionary War costume this Halloween, here are some ideas and suggestions as to where, when, and how to make that happen...
  • Attend or host/organize a historical costume party
  • Participate in a local "Trunk or Treat" (many churches do these)
  • Go trick-or-treating with your kids as a costumed chaperone
  • Organize a history event at a local hobby or miniature gaming store
  • Connect with a local reenactor / living history group for further possibilities
  • Does your office have a dress-up day? If so, there you go!
Revolutionary War Costumes

Get your history on with these great Halloween costume possibilities...

British Officer Uniform

Want to dress up as the Bad Guys...errr...I mean "British"? :-)  Then grab this British Officer Uniform, which features red gabardine tail coat with white lining and blue collar, button lapel, and cuffs. The uniform has gold buttons down front, around the cuff, and yellow-gold braiding. Also includes white gabardine vest and knickers with elastic waist.

Colonial Woman

Dress up as a woman from the colonial American period. Check out this adult Colonial Woman costume, which includes dress and bonnet.

American Patriot (for Men)

This budget-conscious male Patriot costume features a blue jacket with attached gold vest, cuffs and accents, matching pants with attached black boot tops, white ascot, and basic ticorn hat. Supplement with a wig, deluxe tricorner hat, and/or a stage or imitation musket or sword.

Patriot Costume (for Kids)

Amazon's 1776 Revolutionary Patriot Kids Costume features a blue jacket with attached gold vest and cuffs, tan pants with attached black boot tops and white ascot. No sword or hat are included, so you'll need to get those separately.

There are many other possibilities as well. Check out this great selection of historical costumes at Amazon for more. And have fun this Halloween.

How Much Do You Know About The Constitution?

In honor of Constitution Day, I thought I'd offer a brief quiz to test your knowledge of the Constitution of the United States. Let's see how you do...

1) The Virginia Plan served as the blueprint for the new Constitution. Who was the author of the Virginia Plan?

2) Who refused to attend the Constitutional Convention because he "smelt a rat?"

3) The executive branch of the U.S. government is addressed in which Article?

4) Which Virginia delegate to the convention refused to sign the Constitution, primarily because it lacked (at the time) a bill of rights?

5) How many delegates actually signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787?

Post your answers in the comments!  Should be pretty easy for you.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Guest Article: The Top 10 American History Games

Periodically, I like to post articles from guest bloggers, other blogs, or article directories. This particular article was submitted to me by a reader as a guest post. While some of its content steps outside of our typical focus (early US history), I thought it might be of interest to you all, especially those of you who like computer games, since James' article deals mainly with PC games. Personally, I've played about half the games James references, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. :-)


The Top 10 American History Games
by James Mowery

1) Oregon Trail is probably the game most people associate with American History, and many students probably played it in school. Originally released in 1971, the game continues to see some niche releases to help modern Americans continue the life of a 19th century pioneer.

2) Gold Rush! was another classic game that might bring back a lot of nostalgia for older players. While it may be kitschy by today’s standards, it had very accurate depictions of the transit problems early America faced.

3) 1602 AD is probably one of the best demonstrations of what colonial building in early America was like. It’s therefore ironic that Sunflowers, the company that developed the game, is actually based in Austria. By establishing different economic and social centers, a player needs to grow their colony into something truly awesome.

4) 1503 AD is the sequel to 1602 AD. Like it’s older brother, it was actually developed in Europe. Continuing to expand upon economics, some aspects of the game rather realistically model food production
and distribution in the earliest days of colonial America.

5) Rails Across America, by Flying Lab Software, is one of the greatest demonstrations of the business aspect of the railroads that built America. It focuses on the strategy of developing a railroad company as a whole.

6) Railroad Tycoon does for industry what Rails Across America did for business simulation. The game, and its sequels, goes in depth about what sets American railroading into a class of it’s own. To this end, it allows the unique aspect of comparing American operations to those of foreign countries.

7) The History Channel’s Civil War offering has an interesting duality about it. On one hand, the game is somewhat similar to a chess match fought between the Union and the Confederacy. However, when pieces
collide, a real time strategy combat session ensues.

8) American Conquest is a unique real time strategy game that allows a player to either play as a colonial power, or oppose them as a Native American nation. This dynamic adds to the interest and intrigue of the

9) Another one of the games that show just how different the incredible American spirit is, Chris Sawyer’s Locomotion allows a player to explore how exceptional our nation’s industries are.

10) Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!, as well as it’s Antietam themed successor, is interesting in the way that it allows alternate possibilities for the Civil War to be played out. There’s a fairly large player modification community built up around it that continues to develop add on modules for the game, as well.

--James Mowery is a computer geek that writes about technology and related topics. To read more blog posts by him, go to LedTV.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Important Facts About General George Washington

George Washington is perhaps the most familiar name in the United States and one of the best known names in the world. Yet few people actually know much about George Washington, beyond the basic, elementary facts of his resume and a few well-worn (largely discredited) cliches involving cherry trees and wooden teeth.

A few years ago, while teaching American history in high school, I used to challenge my students with the question: "Do you think you know a lot about George Washington?" Since Washington is one of my heroes (and my students thus had heard me talk about him a fair amount), they were convinced they did. So, I would have them take out a piece of paper and write ten of Washington's specific deeds or accomplishments. I still recall how their confidence would inevitably and very quickly evaporate. Like most Americans, my students seemed unable to retain much in the way of specifics when it came to George Washington.

Several years ago, James Rees, resident director of Historic Mount Vernon, lamented this growing ignorance of America's father. "Among young people, and young adults, we find many who don't know Washington was the first president and can't say what century he lived in," said Rees. "My fourth grade textbook had 10 times as many pages on Washington as the one the same school uses now. And there is a sizable fraction of our visitors who can't tell you whose portrait is on the $1 bill."

This particular post will look at the most important facts about George Washington's military career. In a future post, we'll look at Washington's presidency.

Important Facts About General George Washington
So, what are the most important facts about George Washington's military leadership? Here are the basics:
  • George Washington was a respected Virginia plantation owner, colonial politician, and French and Indian War (Seven  Years' War) veteran on the eve of the American Revolution. (It is, of course, also important to know that the Seven Years' War or French & Indian War preceded the American Revolution, and helped set the stage for it.)
  • Washington supported colonial rights during the buildup of tensions with Great Britain, serving in both the First Continental Congress (1774) and Second Continental Congress (1775). 
  • Based on John Adams' recommendation, George Washington was appointed by the Second Continental Congress to command the Continental Army and lead armed resistance against the British Empire.
  • As Commander-in-Chief of the nascent and evolving Continental Army, Washington declined to be paid for his services, but kept meticulous records of his expenses during the war (which he submitted for reimbursement).
  • Washington became Continental Army general at age 43. Most movies and paintings show Washington leading American troops as an old man with white hair. In fact, Washington was tough, healthy, middle-aged man at the time of the Revolutionary War.
  • From 1775 until 1783, General Washington presided over the growth of a largely untrained, thoroughly ill-equipped and ill-prepared "army" into a formidable (albeit still inadequately paid and poorly supplied) fighting force.
  • Washington was a brave and courageous leader, risking his life under fire numerous times.
  • Washington was a creative, but inexperienced battlefield tactician. Though he made several battlefield mistakes, he nevertheless demonstrated great charisma, strong courage, dogged persistence, and a brilliant grasp of the strategic picture.
  • General Washington arguably saved the American Revolution with his famous, and quite audacious, crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night 1776 to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey.
  • The last major battle of the American Revolution was at Yorktown, Virginia (1781), where a combined French and American land force, supported by the French navy, bottled up Lord General Charles Cornwallis and his British forces. This resulted in a change-of-government in London and the beginnings of peace negotiations between Colonial America and the British Empire.
  • With peace negotiations ongoing, Washington kept his poorly supplied and insufficiently paid troops in the field for nearly two full years, working diligently to ease tensions and preserve domestic peace.
  • Washington flatly refused offers of any sort of dictatorship, and instead appealed to his officers at a famous speech in Newburgh to support the civilian government and stand down from any talk of insurrection.
  • Britain granted American independence in 1783, and George Washington resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief, becoming one of the only revolutionary leaders in world history to walk away from power. 
George Washington would, of course, come out of retirement in 1787 to preside over the Constitutional Convention and would soon become the nation's first President  under the new Constitution. But were it not for Washington's military leadership during the Revolutionary War, there would've been no Constitution and no presidency.

George Washington's generalship and his statesmanship (in the war's final stages) are what made America possible. This is something that all Americans should appreciate and never forget.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Help Save One of America's Historic Warships

With apologies to my readers, I am stepping outside the normal historic parameters of this site with this post, but I feel it's a worthy cause -- one that will be of interest to anyone interested in United States history, especially US military history.

Moored along the Delaware River in Philadelphia is the oldest steel warship in the world still afloat and the last surviving US combat vessel which took part in the Spanish-American War. The 5,500-ton Olympia, however, may soon see its last days. Without extensive repairs and refurbishing, the Olympia either will sink at its moorings, be sold for scrap, or be scuttled for an artificial reef.

While this blog normally stays within the pre-Civil War period, the historic significance of the Olympia is something of which all Americans should take note. For this reason, I'm asking all my readers to check out Friends of The Cruiser Olympia, read about the ship and its legacy, and see if there is any way you can help. Even small donations can add up. If you can help, I hope you'll consider doing so.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"All Men Are Created Equal" and Slavery: What Did Thomas Jefferson Mean by 'All Men Are Created Equal'?

With its eloquent declaration of equality and human rights, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most influential and moving documents in western history. Yet while declaring some of the most noble sentiments in history, it nevertheless was signed by men who in some cases practiced and in all cases tolerated slavery, one of the greatest evils in world history. What did Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress mean by the words "all men are created equal"?

Frederick Douglass vs. Alexander Stephens

On July 4, 1852, the abolitionist leader and former slave Frederick Douglass delivered a scathing rebuke to the hypocrisy of America's celebration of freedom in the shadow of slavery. In his famous 4th of July speech at Rochester, Douglass asked: "What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?"

Several years later, the white supremacist Alexander H. Stephens, newly inaugurated as the vice president of the secessionist southern confederacy, declared that Jefferson's ideals and principles, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, had everything to do with Douglass and other African Americans. This, however, was a great "error" in Jefferson's thinking, according to Stephens. In his famous (or infamous) "Cornerstone Speech," Alexander Stephens criticized Thomas Jefferson and America's Founders for embracing the supposed "equality of the races."

Frederick Douglass had every reason to take the United States to task for the nation's hypocritical acceptance of slavery, but it's interesting that his take on Jefferson's ideals differed from that of Stephens' in the way that they did. If Douglass was right, the Founders never really contemplated African Americans in their Declaration of Independence. This assessment seems to be the predominant one in modern times. But if Stephens was right, this raises very interesting questions as to how we today should evaluate our nation's origins.

What Did Thomas Jefferson Mean By "All Men Are Created Equal"?

In his landmark Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Joseph Story, an imminent early American judicial figure, wroite: "The first and fundamental rule in the interpretation of all instruments [documents] is to construe them according to the sense and the terms and the intentions of the parties."

While my postmodernist readers may differ, I wholeheartedly agree with Justice Story's take on language. When someone makes a statement or puts words on paper, that author infuses those words with meaning. Deciphering author intent is the ONLY fair way to answer questions related to the author's motive, meaning, and purpose.

Let me also add that the Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, which embodied modernist thinking. They would've had little patience for the postmodernist nonsense that tries to render language as wholly incapable of expressing coherent meaning.

So, what did Jefferson mean when he wrote "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence? How can we decipher his meaning?

The best way to answer those questions is to look at Jefferson's other writings as well as his actions. It's true that Thomas Jefferson, and many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, were slave owners. In this respect, it is tempting to dismiss Jefferson's words as eloquent, but useless or hypocritical, rhetoric. Yet Jefferson showed himself to be a man torn by the moral difficulties inherent in slavery and by the inconsistencies between his values and his status as a slave owner.

Despite being a slave owner himself, the Virginia statesman nevertheless called the institution of slavery an "abominable crime," a "moral depravity," a "hideous blot," and a "fatal stain" on the country's honor. He wrote  that the "rights of human nature [were] deeply wounded by this infamous practice."  And in spite of his condescending, paternalistic attitude toward slaves (and his tragic belief that Africans were socially inferior to whites), Jefferson nonetheless preached that "all men are born free."

In a 1770 Virginia court case, Jefferson declared: "Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance."

In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote:

"[H]e [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."

That the Founders weren't comfortable with such a denunciation of slavery in the Declaration of Independence, especially in light of the slave-based economies of the Deep South, is why this portion of the document was removed (much to Jefferson's chagrin). Nevertheless, it is instructive in understanding Jefferson's meaning. Clearly, Thomas Jefferson regarded slaves as "human" and as "men."  As such, they were most certainly included in the scope of his words "all men are created equal."

Reevaluating Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

While it cannot be denied that the Founding Fathers collectively fell short of their own expressed values and principles when it came to the issue of slavery, it is simply not accurate to say that they visualized only white people when Jefferson wrote and they approved the Declaration of Independence.

The Founders were human. And like all human beings, they were sinners. They didn't always live up to the highest ideals. But this doesn't discredit the ideals or principles. It merely reminds us that they were human.

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most eloquent and influential documents of all time, because it rests on the "equality of the races." In that sense, Alexander Stephens was correct. Tragically, Stephens saw this as an "error" on the Founders' part and hoped that the new Confederate States of America would correct it. Thankfully, Stephens' vision would not endure, but Jefferson's did.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Alexander Stephens vs Thomas Jefferson

On March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, the vice president of the newly formed Confederate States of America, declared that slavery was the "the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization" and criticized America's Founding Fathers (specifically Thomas Jefferson) for embracing ideals that "rested upon the assumption of the equality of races." According to Stephens, this was an "error." The new Confederate States of America, declared Stephens, is "founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner–stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition."

This remarkable critique of the Founding Fathers is what justifies our stepping somewhat out of this blog's parameters. Normally, we focus on early American history and not the American Civil War. But Stephens' assessment of the Founding Fathers raises some interesting questions regarding how America's Founding Fathers came down on the issues of race and slavery.

Who Was Alexander Stephens?

If one looks at the pre-Civil War career of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, it is somewhat surprising that the Georgia politician would become one of the national leaders of a secessionist confederacy. A pro-slavery Unionist, Stephens spent most of his political career advancing southern economic interests, while at the same time defending the Union against any talk of secession. As late as the 1860 U.S. presidential election, Stephens was speaking out against southern secession.

Increasing regionalism and polarization in the 1840s and 50s, however, had set the stage for civil war, and there was little Stephens and others could do to stop it. With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in 1860, the die was cast.

Stephens was elected to the Georgia secession convention, where he spoke out once again for Union, but defended the legal right of any state to secede. He soon found himself a member of the Confederate Congress, vice president of the provisional southern government, and finally vice president of the Confederate States of America. Though a reluctant secessionist, Stephens became an ardent supporter of the new Confederate government and its new Constitution.

The Deep South and Slavery

There are many Americans today who argue that slavery was but a minor factor or cause in leading to the American Civil War. These individuals, most of them serving as apologists for the "Lost Cause" myth of the American South, are correct that slavery wasn't the only issue of the war. They are also correct that Abraham Lincoln initially promised to leave slavery alone in the South, thus making clear that the Civil War (at least in the beginning) was not a war for liberation. But any efforts to downplay slavery as a relevant, defining issue of the Deep South run headlong into a high, thick wall of evidence to the contrary. For one thing, southern apologists who wish to downplay or ignore slavery must contend with the harsh reality of Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens' infamous "Cornerstone" speech.

The Deep South states were very much motivated by slave interests. Their own secession documents, as well as numerous speeches and writings of their leaders (including Stephens), attests to the unmistakable fact that the Deep South seceded primarily over issues related to slavery. This is perhaps not so much the case with the Upper South, but there can be no doubt as to the initial wave of secession that began with South Carolina.

Stephens on the Founding Fathers

Today, America's Founding Fathers are continually attacked in the media, in academia, and in various other quarters of our society for being racist, pro-slavery, etc. Alexander Stephens also criticizes the Founders on the issues of race and slavery, but not in the same manner as modern critics. For Stephens, the Founders were NOT racist and pro-slavery, and THAT (in his mind) was the problem. Here is an excerpt from Stephens' speech, where he raises these objections to the Founders and their ideals:

"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the 'rock upon which the old Union would split.' He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.'

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

According to Stephens, Thomas Jefferson and America's Founders believed in racial equality, but they had it all wrong. The races, says Stephens, are not equal. And, says Stephens, the new Confederate government understands this.

Very interesting.

Was Stephens Right About Jefferson and the Founders?

Hopefully, all those reading this will agree that Stephens is fundamentally, tragically, and reprehensibly wrong on the issue of race. All human beings are equal in God's eyes.

But was Stephens likewise wrong when he described Jefferson and the Founding Fathers as believing in racial equality?

Well, let's agree that America's Founding Fathers certainly did not practice racial equality, not with any kind of advanced twenty-first century understanding of racial equality anyway. But Stephens' critique is that their principles "rested" on the general assumption of racial equality and his remarks primarily dealt with slavery. So, for our purposes, the issues here are slavery and the general, overall principles associated with basic human rights.

Our question then is did Thomas Jefferson have non-whites in mind when he penned the eloquent words of the Declaration of Independence? When Jefferson said "all men are created equal," was he just contempating whites or did he have a broader understanding of the word "men"?

Stephens would say that he did. That would be his answer. Many of today's critics of the Founders say Jefferson did not. What's the truth?

That is the question we will take up in my next post. In the meantime, I invite you to read Vindicating The Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America by Thomas G. West.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Good Summer Beach Reading - Recommendations for Revolutionary War Fans

Getting ready to go on our every-other-year beach vacation with my wife's family. This is a family reunion of sorts, where all four of Jane's sisters, plus their husbands and kids come to the Outer Banks for a mini-family reunion. Since I'm not a huge fan of going to the beach itself, it's a great week to do some reading.

So, what will I be reading? Well, right now, I've got the following packed and ready to go...

Rora by James Byron Huggins

This book was published almost 10 years ago. It's historical fiction, inspired by and closely following actual historical events. While it's not about the American Revolution, nor is it set in American history, the themes of Rora resonate very well with liberty-loving people everywhere.

Rora follows the story of Joshua Gianavel, the military leader of the Waldensians, European Protestants who valiantly resisted the medieval Catholic Inquisition by force. It's an exciting page-turner, full of incredible action. This will be the SECOND time I read it, and I read very few novels twice.

If you can't find it at your library or a used bookstore, you can get it at Amazon very cheaply.

George Washington on Leadership by Richard Brookhiser

George Washington on Leadership came out a couple years ago. I'm a fan of all of Richard Brookhiser's books, and this one looks quite promising. The only frustrating thing about it is that I had the idea to write a leadership book featuring George Washington as a model. But I never acted on it. :-( Brookhiser did. And it looks like a good one. I'll be reading it this coming beach trip.

Other Recommended Books

In addition to the above, I'll be taking a long a couple books that aren't related to our topic, including a book on public speaking and another on writing fantasy novels. (Yes, I hope to do that someday).

However, a few other books I can recommend to you, if you haven't yet taken your summer vacation are....

*Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara
*George Washington's War by Robert Leckie
*To Try Men's Souls by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Happy Reading!

And I'll be blogging some more when I get back!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Recommended American Revolution Movies

Looking for American Revolution movies? Unfortunately, Hollywood has not done enough in covering this critical period of our nation's history. There just aren't that many films based in the American Revolution. But...thankfully...there are a few.

Here are my recommendations for American Revolution movies:

1.John Adams (HBO miniseries), starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney

One of the best film productions ever set in early American history, John Adams won numerous well-deserved awards! The miniseries stars Paul Giamatti, who portrays a believable John Adams. Laura Linney steals the show, turning in a breathtakingly awesome performance as Abigail Adams, one of the most remarkable women in American history. And I loved Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin!

Based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize winning John Adams and produced by Tom Hanks, John Adams is a must-see American Revolution movie (or, technically speaking, miniseries).

2. The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger

Okay, the plot doesn't exactly follow history closely and it's much too hard on the British. The antagonist, based on Banastre Tarleton (who was indeed ruthless and, at times, barbaric), is too evil. **Spoiler alert: Burning down a church with civilians inside is simply not something any British officer of the American Revolution would've done!

That said, it's nice to watch a big-budget Hollywood production, starring the same guy who portrayed William Wallace in Braveheart! (Though Braveheart is a better movie). If you just want to kick back, eat some popcorn, and enjoy a good movie set in the American Revolution, you should check out The Patriot.

3. George Washington, starring Barry Bostwick and Jaclyn Smith

This 1980s TV miniseries is a little dated. (You can tell it's a 1980s production, when you watch it). But it's worth your time, if you can get a hold of a copy. It unfortunately rarely comes on TV anymore. And you'll probably need to get in VHS. Like I said, it's 1980s.

Other American Revolution Movies...

I have mixed feelings about The Crossing, which stars Jeff Daniels, and Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, which features Aidan Quinn. It would take me too long to get into a review of them right now, so I'll save that for another post.

I absolutely do NOT recommend Revolution, starring Al Pacino. Of course, if you're a fan of the dark, cynical version of American history, parroted by the late Howard Zinn, then you'll probably like Revolution. Otherwise, skip it.

For kids (of all ages), I do recommend Liberty's Kids! :-) An excellent animated miniseries that covers the American War for Independence.

Okay, what about you? What are some of YOUR recommendations for American Revolution movies?

Over a Quarter of Americans Don't Know Country From Which US Declared Independence

In a recent Marist poll, 26% of respondents did not know that the United States declared independence from Great Britain. Yes, you read that right.

Thankfully, 76% of respondents DID know. I suppose this is some consolation. But for over 25% respondents not to know is troubling to say the least. Hopefully, the poll is not representative of reality. For if it is, it is yet another example of how shamefully ignorant many Americans are today.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Happy Independence Day

Today, July 4, is the official birthday of the United States of America (even though John Adams thought it would be July 2). I would like to wish all my readers a very safe and enjoyable Independence Day holiday.

Every Independence Day, I like to not only spend time with my family (which is important), but also read the Declaration of Independence. That is, after all, what the holiday is all about. So, if you'd like to read the Declaration of Independence, follow the below link to do so...

Text of the Declaration of Independence, courtesy of Archiving Early America


Friday, July 02, 2010

What Happened on July 2, 1776?

In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams predicted that "The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America." Adams had good reason to make such a prediction, since July 2, 1776 was an extremely significant day.

On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee's motion for independence. Lee's motion had been put forward on June 7, 1776, after months of debate and over a year of armed conflict with the Mother Country. Lee's motion read:

"Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

Thanks to some aggressive negotiations and politicking, John Adams and his supporters were able to get twelve of the thirteen colonies to vote in favor of Lee's motion. New York abstained.

This victory is what prompted Adams to write his wife, Abigail, the following:

"Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony 'that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.'

"You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell'd Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days. On July 2, 1776 the Association known as United Colonies of America officially became the United States of America."

That "Declaration setting forth the Causes" would end up overshadowing the hardfought legislative victory of July 2. On July 4, Congress followed up its vote for independence with an approval of the Declaration of Independence. And it is that vote, which Americans have chosen to remember as their national birthday.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Great Novels of the American Revolution

In general, I prefer reading nonfiction to fiction, but there are times I like to kick back with a good novel, especially great novels on American history! And since the American Revolution is my favorite period of history, here are some novels I have thoroughly enjoyed. I recommend the following novels without reservation...

1. Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Shaara

Jeff Shaara's father, Michael Shaara, is the Pulitzer winning author of the classic The Killer Angels, a Civil War novel set around the Battle of Gettysburg. Like his father, Jeff Shaara takes actual historical events as well as the writings (letters, diaries, etc.) of the key figures -- and builds a novel around them.

Jeff Shaara has written several such novels, including two on the American Revolution. Rise to Rebellion is the first in the two-part series, and the main heroes of the book are John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Highly enjoyable.

2. The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara

Shaara completes his two-part saga of the American Revolution with The Glorious Cause. In the first part, the main protagonists were Adams and Franklin. In this second part, Shaara shifts the spotlight to none other than George Washington. An excellent book! Highly recommended.

3. To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen

Even if you're a diehard liberal, you have to give Newt Gingrich credit for being an interesting figure, a credible historian, and an effective writer. Gingrich takes his love of history and his giftedness as a writer and teams up with bestselling novelist William Forstchen to write this novel set during the tumultuous and critical events of December 1776.

This is actually not the first Gingrich-Forstchen project. They wrote three awesome alternative history novels set around the Battle of Gettysburg. (The Civil War is outside the purview of this particular blog, but if you like "what-if" questions of history, you've GOT to read their Civil War novels! Start with Gettysburg, where the authors postulate a successful and daring end-run around the Army of the Potomac by General James Longstreet, resulting in General Meade's decisive defeat. What IF the South had won at Gettysburg? You've GOT to read it, if you haven't!). Gingrich and Forstchen have also written alternative history novels set around World War II.

To Try Men's Souls is NOT alternative history. In terms of the events portrayed, it's as accurate as they come. And it's a captivating novelization of a true story.

So if you like great novels on American history, then consider the above three. They are definitely well worth your time. You can follow the links to get them at Amazon or (better yet) check them out of your local library.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My Top Five Founding Father Biographies

I love reading biographies. As a fan of the American founding era, I've found the following biographies of Founding Fathers to be particularly excellent. I'm not suggesting that these are the very best biographies written, nor am I saying that they are the most scholarly. But they are a great balance between solid scholarship and excellent readability. They are highly recommended.

1. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by the man himself

There's nothing like reading primary source documents. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin remains an all-time great classic of American literary history.

2. John Adams by David McCullough

This Pulitzer Prize winner is one of the most comprehensive and absorbing biographies I've ever read. McCullough is unfairly looked down upon, because he lacks "proper" historian credentials. More evidence of the academic elitism that sadly permeates much of our culture. McCullough is a consummate researcher and a stickler for detail. His scholarship is solid. And he knows how to tap into the human element and tell a good (and accurate) story. I highly recommend McCullough and all his books, especially John Adams.

3. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands

Benjamin Franklin is one of the fascinating characters in world history, and certainly one of our most interesting Founding Fathers. H.W. Brands paints a vivid portrait of Franklin's life. I had a hard time putting this one down. Definitely worth your time.

4. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser

This is, by no means, a comprehensive biography of Washington. For that, check out Joseph Ellis' His Excellency (which I recommend with some qualifications) or James Thomas Flexner or Douglas Southall Freeman. However, Brookhiser does a superb job examining Washington's legacy in American popular memory. Very insightful and very interesting.

5. Alexander Hamilton, A Life by Willard Sterne Randall

I confess that I have not yet read Ron Chernow's very popular biography on Hamilton. If I had, I may recommend it, instead of Randall's. But, of the biographies on Hamilton which I've read, Randall's Alexander Hamilton is the superior one. I was swept up in the story of Hamiton's life. He is truly the rags-to-riches story of the American founding. In many ways, Hamilton epitomizes what it means to be an American more than any other Founding Father. Honorable mention goes to Richard Brookhiser's Alexander Hamilton, American.

Also Recommended...

While not a biography per se, I would also highly recommend Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. The book does a great job showing how the colorful characters of our founding era interacted to produce not only some of the most interesting dramatic episdoes in our history, but also the most successful nation the world has ever known.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Have You Been to the Disney Hall of Presidents Lately?

Walt Disney World's "Hall of Presidents" is one of the longest-running attractions in the Magic Kingdom. First opened in 1971, the Hall of Presidents is a multi-media attraction that honors all those (so far) men who have served as President of the United States. Since the early 1990s, though, the Hall of Presidents has undergone some significant changes. In the opinion of this blogger, not all those changes have been good.

My family and I just got back from vacationing at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. We of course enjoyed ourselves, though it rained much of our time there. (That was kind of a bummer). Still, does anyone actually have a bad time at Disney World? :-)

Though this was my fifth trip to Disney World, it was the first time I saw the redesigned Hall of Presidents. My first time to Disney World was in the late 1970s. I was a first grader and was absolutely blown away by the whole experience. Then, in the late 1980s, my parents took me back while I was in high school. I was older and able to take it in much more. And I had an absolute blast.

Yet the Hall of Presidents stood out as one of the most inspirational and moving experiences I had ever witnessed. Even as a first grader, I remember enjoying it. As an eleventh grader, though, I absolutely loved it and soaked it up. That and Epcot's "American Adventure." This was at a time, when I saw myself going into politics, so it made it all the more exciting.

My wife and I took our first trip together to Disney World (my third trip overall) sometime in 1993, and I once again soaked up the Hall of Presidents. Then, that same year (sometime after our visit) Disney changed the attraction. It would be the first of several.

In 1993, Columbia University professor Eric Foner helped revise the attraction to make it less iconic. His changes, supported by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, moved the Hall of Presidents away from Walt Disney's original vision. The most noticeable change was perhaps the diminished focus on Abraham Lincoln, Disney's hero.

The Hall of Presidents has gone through several more updates and changes since 1993, including a speech from the current President (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama have all spoken - depending on who was President at the time). George Washington now speaks, which is, in some respects, a welcome change. Yet, all these changes have made the Hall of Presidents less than what it once was.

Let me give you an example. In the classic version, the finale had George Washington seated in the center of all the Presidents. He stood during the roll call, surveyed all the Presidents as if he were the leading statesman. When the narrator had finished the roll call, Washington nodded to a seated Abraham Lincoln and then took his seat (as if he, Washington, were the presiding officer, yielding the floor). Lincoln then stood and gave a very moving and patriotic speech, adapted from his famous Young Men Lyceum's address, in which he said "If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher." It was a great send-off, reminding Americans of their sacred duty to carry on the torch. That's all gone now.

Sure, Washington speaks. But, frankly, having him speak almost makes him less statesmanlike.

No longer is Lincoln's wise and patriotic statesmanship the final send-off. Instead, we're given a generic, feel-good, rah-rah speech from the current President. That's all well and good, but it just isn't the same. Clinton, Bush, and Obama are not Lincoln.

Since 1993, the changes to the Hall of Presidents have frankly diminished it. Gone is that feeling of "wonder" evoked in the original version. Now, it comes off more or less as a multi-media patchwork, trying to cut a balance between highlights from a history book on the one hand and political correctness on the other. This isn't to suggest that the Hall of Presidents has drifted into Howard Zinn territory. (Thankfully, it's still pro-American). Nor is it to say that it's a bad experience. I still like it, but not as much as I once did.

The new Hall of Presidents is like what New Coke is to the Classic Coke. The new Hall of Presidents simply doesn't reflect Walt Disney's classic, patriotic vision like it once did. And I don't think that's a good thing.

If anyone at Disney is reading this, consider this a vote to bring back the classic version.