Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thomas Jefferson and his Hair: Can Jefferson's Hair Unlock Some of History's Mysteries?

Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, yet it's possible that some of his hair survives to the present day. Those who claim to own hair from Thomas Jefferson include the Library of Congress, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. If the hair owned by these organizations is indeed Jefferson's, then we have access to the actual DNA of Thomas Jefferson himself. Could that mean we may unravel some of history's mysteries surrounding our nation's third President, including solving the paternal question of Eston Hemings (Sally Hemings's son) once and for all?

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation claims to have “15 samples of hair purported to be Thomas Jefferson’s, from various family provenances." The Foundation, however, cautions that "it is impossible for us to know if these are what they purport to be.” Likewise, the Jefferson hair at the Academy of Natural Sciences comes from 19th century lawyer and hair collector Peter Arvell Browne. Some question whether it's really Jefferson's hair, but Browne apparently collected samples from the first 12 Presidents (all of which are now held by the Academy. Perhaps the strongest claim lies with the Library of Congress, which has three cuttings. These cuttings were received in the early 19th century from none other than Martha Randolph, who wrote on the envelope: "My dear father Thomas Jefferson."

Even if the Jefferson hair samples are authentic and even if the owners give them over for scientific research, genealogy expert Dick Eastman says we shouldn't get our hopes up. Says Eastman: "If we assume the hair is really that of former president Thomas Jefferson, any Y-chromosome DNA extracted would be identical to the DNA samples already obtained from Jefferson's other close male relatives." In other words, says Eastman, the hair samples give us "absolutely no new information." (See "Could Jefferson Hair Sample Provide New DNA Information?" by Dick Eastman)

Regardless of whether the DNA information can bring us new, groundbreaking information, it's still cool (at least to this history buff) that we have ready and literal access to a piece of our third President, a man who helped fashion and shape the United States of America.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Truth About George Washington's False Teeth

A subject that has long fascinated Americans of every age is that of George Washington and his false teeth. Standing at over six feet tall with a lean, muscular body, George Washington embodied physical toughness and rugged strength. He successfully fought off many illnesses in his life, but one area of his physique that showed serious wear and vulnerability was his mouth. Washington had terrible dental health.

Tooth decay was, of course, a serious problem prior to modern era advances in dentistry. Not surprisingly, Washington fell victim to this malady. Unfortunately for Washington, it was a particularly painful and debilitating struggle. In his magisterial biography Washington, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Ron Chernow writes that Washington's problems were "so severe as to be incapacitating and affected his life in numberless ways."

Over the years, Washington lost one tooth after another. By the time he became President of the United States, he had a single tooth of his own remaining. To compensate for this, Washington required dentures. Contrary to popular belief, Washington's false teeth were not wooden. According to Chernow, Washington's dentures consisted of "natural teeth, inserted into a framework of hippopotamus ivory and anchored on Washington's one surviving tooth." Chernow says that the myth of Washington's false teeth being made of wood stems from the "gradual staining of hairline fractures in the ivory that made it resemble a wood grain."

Washington's dentures painfully distorted his mouth and facial features. The need to so often set his jaws a certain way and tightly close his mouth probably enhanced his tendency to keep a tight rein on his words and emotions. That he lived with pain and discomfort every day undoubtedly bolstered his work ethic, sense of discipline, and dogged persistence. I will leave it to psychologists to more fully explore the ramifications and consequences of George Washington's false teeth, but it's safe to say that they did have an impact on him and thus, at least indirectly, on our nation as well.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in Colonial America

Many Americans today are uncomfortable with overt religious themes associated with Christmas, often preferring "holiday parties" or rather vacuous greetings like "Have a Happy Holiday." As awkward as Christmas may be today, it was perhaps even more offensive in the 17th and 18th centuries, for reasons explained by early history blogger Rebekah Brooks in an excellent article on the subject...

"When Christmas Was Banned in Boston"
by Rebekah Brooks

When the Puritans came to the New World in 1620, they brought with them their strict ways, their religious views and their distaste for Christmas. Although Christmas was widely celebrated in Europe as a Christian holiday marking the birth of Jesus Christ, Puritans saw it as a false holiday with stronger ties to Paganism than Christianity. Known for being pious and reserved, Puritans also took a dislike to the drinking and dancing associated with the holiday.

To continue reading, click on "When Christmas Was Banned in Boston" to be taken over to Rebekah Brooks' excellent blog on "The History of Massachusetts."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is Barack Obama the Fourth Best President? Obama Says His Accomplishments Rank Higher Than Those of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson

In what many analysts are calling a stunning display of hubris, President Barack Obama says he would put his record up against any President with the "possible exception" of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. In an interview with 60 Minutes, the President said: "I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history."

Obama's boast is understandably drawing scorn from the blogosphere. After all, the current President of the United States is ranking his accomplishments as greater than those of Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and just about every other President. Obama allows for the "possible exception" of Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ.

Since this blog is focused on the American Revolution and Founding Era, I will withhold commentary on how Obama ranks against Ronald Reagan (who led the USA to victory in the Cold War), Dwight Eisenhower (who gave us the Interstate Highway System), and Teddy Roosevelt (Panama Canal, Great White Fleet, helping end the Russo-Japanese War, etc.). Instead, I will briefly comment on Obama's claim that his accomplishments rank higher than those of our founding era Presidents, including James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

Ranking the Presidents

First of all, most presidential historians agree that it takes 20 years of separation and reflection before one can even begin to accurately assess a President's place in history. That means it's way too early for us to fully grasp George W. Bush's legacy in American history as well as Bill Clinton's. And it's naturally way, way too early to talk about Obama's legacy. Of course, with some Presidents, a comparison is easy. I have no problem with Obama saying he's accomplished more than James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, or Franklin Pierce. Such comparisons are easy. But to place himself, at this stage of his presidency, against Madison, Jefferson, Washington, or even John Adams is a bit presumptuous, to say the least.

Comparing Obama With Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison

President Obama led the nation through a massive overhaul of its health care system, ordered the assassination of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, and ended America's troop presence in Iraq. Additionally, Obama has pushed through several social policy changes popular with his progressive base, such as ending "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) in the armed forces. Most of Obama's record is still hotly debated and much of the changes he's pushed through could be reversed or significantly modified in the next several years.

By contrast, the United States stands pretty solidly on the accomplishments of our founding era Presidents. Madison led the nation successfully (albeit painfully) through the War of 1812. Jefferson gave us the Louisiana Purchase and the first President Adams avoided war with France during a very fragile time for the  United States. And then there's George Washington, who basically fleshed out the U.S. government that had been but a blueprint on parchment. While Obama may not be impressed with Washington's accomplishments, the first President created the Cabinet, supported the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton which solidified the nation's financial health, kept the nation at peace with Great Britain, put down the Whiskey Rebellion, steered the nation toward neutrality in foreign affairs (thus preserving America's identity as a separate power), and established the two-term precedent for American Presidents.

Of course, I've only scratched the surface with our founding era Presidents. In fact, I barely even got into the accomplishments of Madison and Jefferson. For Obama to essentially dismiss them, along with George Washington, shows incredible hubris. And it may show something else that's even more troubling. For a sitting U.S. President to show such little regard for the American founding era and its iconic heroes like Washington calls into serious question his grasp of the fundamentals of American government and the very heart of our nation's heritage. Forgive me for being political, but I simply can't vote for such a President.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Favorite Founding Father

In this video clip, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich shares his favorite Founding Father. Gingrich is of course seeking the 2012 Republican Party nomination for President of the United States. By suggesting this video, I am not endorsing Mr. Gingrich. If someone has a clip from any other presidential candidate, including incumbent President Barack Obama, discussing his or her favorite Founding Father, I will gladly post that as well. Mr. Gingrich's favorite Founder is...