Don’t miss PBS’s “The Great War!”; That time Theodore Roosevelt tried to get himself killed in France; Setting Little Round Top on fire; History’s most spoiled animals

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I am not even touching today’s Sean Spicer story, it’s just too easy. And pathetic.

Did you catch the first episode last night of PBS’s new American Experience documentary about the United States and WWI, The Great War? Wow! So good! Part II airs tonight, and the finale on Wednesday. If you missed it, you definitely need to get caught up by streaming it from the PBS site and setting your DVR tonight. The film footage they have is mesmerizingly good and actually surprising (and sometimes stunning), the research and commentary solid (though perhaps a bit too unquestioning of Wilson’s choice to enter the war, and thus not much attention is given to the hypocrisy of asking people to die in a fight to “make the world safe for democracy” when we didn’t even fully have it here. But perhaps that’s coming), and the broad range of topics covered is impressive. I am anxious to see how well they deal with Woman’s Suffrage and Alice Paul, as well as if they touch on the war’s impact on the spread and transformation of Jazz. Seriously, don’t miss this one.

Also looking forward to how they deal with Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to raise a regiment and personally fight in WWI, despite his advanced age. (The first episode has already nicely set up his rivalry with Wilson). In the meantime, Smithsonian has a good piece on TR’s attempt to go down in a blaze of glory in France.

If you’ve been to Gettysburg in the last few years, you know that the National Park Service has been doing an incredible job restoring the landscape to its 1863 appearance (if you haven’t been in a while, you need to visit again, it’s almost a completely new experience from just a few years ago). Yesterday, they continued the process by doing a controlled burn on Little Round Top. Check it out.

So you know how many have argued that the solution to the Confederate monument debate is contextualization instead of removal? Well, the University of Texas has figured out a way to do both with a Jefferson Davis statue. Its new placement in a museum has given them the ability to add more interpretation/contextualization than is possible with just small signage. What do you think?

More on Philadelphia’s brand new Museum of the American Revolution, I still plan to visit next month, so stay tuned for my review!

OK, fellow animal lovers, this one is for you: check out this list of “History’s Most Absurdly Spoiled Animals.”

Trump’s (apparent) foreign policy shift; A brief primer on the mess in Syria; Presidential War Powers; Historians weigh-in

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The big news, of course, is the US military strike on Syria in retaliation for their use of chemical weapons. The cynic in me says that Trump only did this to deflect from all the scandals ever-threatening his presidency, and to demonstrate that he is not a “Putin-Puppet.” (The president must expect that many of us will be cynical about it, which points to the problem of being a serial liar). But there can be no doubt that Assad’s use of chemical weapons did require an American response, though I am not qualified to offer much of an opinion as to whether this Tomahawk missile strike was the appropriate one. There have been a lot of people pointing out that as a private citizen and as a candidate, Trump criticized measures such as these, with the inference that this is a case of hypocrisy (and many have downright said it, on social media and elsewhere). I give him a pass on this, as many men have discovered that their conception of things change drastically once they see things from the perspective of the presidency. Yet this is indeed a big shift in the foreign policy goals he elucidated as a candidate and up to yesterday as president. Many of his supporters that applauded his campaign promise that we would stop being “the policeman of the world” are confused by this action. Does it mean he has changed his mind about the United States’ role in the world and is coming around to a more Republican (and ironically Hillary Clinton) stance, or was it just an impulsive response to a horrific event? It remains to be seen, but now if we could just get him to change his mind about Syrian refugees.

With the US now poised to possibly become more involved in Syria, it is a good time for another brief  history reminder of exactly what the conflict over there is all about, and Newsweek has got you covered. 

And then there is the weighty question of whether the president had the legal and constitutional authority to launch the strike. Democrats were quick to argue that he does not have that authority, and that he must seek the approval of Congress. While historians and legal scholars generally agree that the Founders intended for Congress alone to have the authority to go to war (except in cases of self defense), obviously presidents of BOTH parties have done so without congressional approval, and even the 1973 War Powers Resolution seems to have a loophole for these sorts of “one and done” type of strikes. The best article I have seen today that tries to dissect this complicated question is this one by Charlie Savage for the New York Times.

History News Network has quickly put together a brief collection of what historians have said about the Syrian strike. I’m not seeing a lot of detailed responses elsewhere, however, perhaps it is because so many of them are busy cutting loose right now in New Orleans at the OAH conference!

 

WWI & the German plot against horses; Protecting against English zombies; The enslaved people that (unwillingly) saved Georgetown University; Gorsuch & plagiarism; #SaveMercyStreet petition;

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Check out that gas mask!

Lots of stories out there about the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into WWI, (including this debate about whether we should have been in the war—-put me down for a “no”), but the most unique one I’ve seen is this piece from NPR that discusses the role of horses and mules in the war. The United States sold untold thousands of the beasts-of-burden to the warring countries, shipping them out of Newport News, Virginia. This trade was so heavy that the Germans made many efforts to stop it by killing the animals, including a plot to poison them while awaiting shipment in Virginia. Damn the Kaiser!

The Walking Dead just ended their season (it was a weak one that took way too long to get where it was going, but that’s not a history story), which is perfect timing for this news: It seems that English researchers have unearthed a discovery they insist demonstrates that about 1,000 years ago people in North Yorkshire were afraid of a zombie outbreak. Yep.

I am just going to keep my opinions to myself on these controversial (within academic circles) opinions, but did you see that conservative historian Niall Ferguson has offered up some reasons for why he thinks there has been a decline in history majors and historical literacy? (Ok, I will give this opinion: I think he is partially right and partially wrong. Catch me sometime at the end of a bar and I will expound upon that).

In 1838, Georgetown University sold 278 enslaved people in order to finacially save the academic institution. The descendants of those that were sold recently met in a small Louisiana town where many of their ancestors had toiled after the sale. Prominent historians like Adam Rothman of Georgetown gave them more information about the history of their ancestors, and a discussion was held about reparations and the ways the university should honor those people that unwillingly played such a major role in the institution’s survival.

Lots of talk about plagiarism in the news again because of Gorsuch. Academics seem divided over whether or not he committed an egregious violation, but put me down on the side that insists they’d never let their students get away with what he did. The bigger problem these days is that students seem to have no clue what plagiarism actually is, (beyond generally knowing they shouldn’t use a direct quote without giving credit). Does this even get taught anymore in middle and high school? I wonder.

A petition has been created to save PBS’s Mercy Street (I’m going to have more to say soon on a higher profile site about why we need to save the show, so stay tuned), it has only gotten a few hundred signatures so far, so sign it and pass it along! #SaveMercyStreet.

And speaking of television, Underground‘s latest episode continued to move things in interesting directions, including a conversation between Williams Stills and Frederick Douglass concerning how publicity about the Underground Railroad simultaneously helped and hindered the abolitionist movement, a minstrel show that flips the normal script (unrealistically so, but in a way that powerfully forces today’s white audiences to consider the ways these shows shaped cultural perceptions of blacks), and an exploration of how some black women could use their sexuality as a means of resistance. Further, John Brown’s violent form of abolitionism also continues to be an interesting plot point. This season is still not reaching the heights of season one, but it can if it reels in the Cato storyline and turns back to  Harriet Tubman and Ernestine (which appears to be the case for next week).

Trump & basic US history; Uncovering slavery at Madison’s Montpelier; Hemingway the Russian spy? WGN’s Underground & John Brown

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I’ve been away from things for a bit again because of other projects (and grading tests!), but here are some quick hitters from over the last week:

As we all know, our last two presidents were well-read history buffs that infused much of their speeches with historical context and often let history guide them in policy decisions. That was not unique, as most presidents come to office with a strong base of historical knowledge. How about Trump? Um, not so much. Politico has a good review of all the times the so-called president has revealed his shortcomings in regards to basic US history (as when he asked if anyone knew that Lincoln was a Republican and yesterday asked the Women’s Empowerment Panel, “Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony?”—Though to be fair he was probably joking sarcastically). You’ll also get a good chuckle from this list of history lessons that Trump has offered up to the American people. Newsweek also provides “a brief tour through Trump’s questionable understanding of American history.” You know those videos that Fox News is prone to making of average Americans demonstrating a lack of basis US history knowledge? Hey Fox, I’m betting you could get some hilarious footage if you interviewed your president and asked him some of those questions. Do it, I dare you.

At James Madison’s estate in Virginia, Montpelier, (which is an awesome historical site, if you have not been there, put it on your list), they have been doing much work over the last couple of years to uncover and interpret the history of the plantation’s enslaved community (when I was last there two years ago a major archaeological dig was underway in the location of the slave dwellings). Now, we get this nice story from NPR about a researcher at the site who discovered while working on the project that she is descended from a man that was enslaved there. She’s now helping to build the recreated slave cabins.

History.com has a nice little piece on the 1867 purchase of Alaska by the United States. I have to admit, I do not give this as much attention in my US history classes as I should.

Was Hemingway a spy for the Russians? Getting a lot of attention this week is a new book that claims the famous author spied for both the US and Russia during the Cold War.

More accidental discoveries in Egypt: A life-sized statue that is believed to be of King Tut’s grandmother has turned up.

You guys been watching WGN’s Underground? I thought this week’s episode was pretty good, especially because events were put into the context of John Brown’s activities in Kansas and his brand of abolitionism. The episode featured a scene in which characters discussed the very real riff  that the fiery Brown caused within the abolitionist community over whether or not to embrace his violent tactics. I still hate the way the series is edited (they couldn’t even handle the basics of editing together a scene of people eating and talking around a table), and Cato’s storyline is very problematic (at best) and unrealistic, but this last episode starts to point this season in a better direction. Best of all was a bit of dialogue from an enslaved man in which he discusses how learning to read was a “curse.” It was a well written conversation that could have come direct from the mouth of Frederick Douglass. And speaking of Douglass, he will be making an appearance in next week’s episode. I guess Trump was right that the famed abolitionist ” is getting recognized more and more.”

King George III’s insanity; History channel & the presidents; thoughts on Underground; Arkansas divorces MLK from R.E. Lee; Shrine over Christ’s tomb is in jeopardy; Founding Fathers, original intent, & “necessary”

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A good mix of stuff again today!

Get this, researchers have created a computer program that analyzes a person’s writings to find proof of mental illness. They have used it on the writings of King George III, the so-called “Mad King” that we all know went insane later in life. The analysis confirmed it, but the researchers reject the long-held belief that his condition was a product of porphyria, an hereditary condition (which has long been a source of humor in regards to the British monarchy). Instead, they diagnose him with “acute mania.” Interesting. Someone upload Trump’s tweets into this thing.

Looks like the History channel is still developing shows to try and be taken seriously again. They have productions in the works that will examine our presidential history, describing it as their “most ambitious” scripted project ever. They have gotten the rights to several major biographies upon which the shows will be based. Shows on Reagan and Clinton will get things rolling, but projects on T.R. and Jefferson, among others, are already planned. Perhaps this will be good stuff, but History’s recent track record is dubious, and given recent shows like Sons of Liberty and the Roots remake, I have to wonder if they are going to turn these presidents into comic-book style action heroes. We’ll see.

And speaking of action heroes: I have to admit that the new season of Underground has thus far been a disappointment. Perhaps it is because I am still stuck on how great season two of Mercy Street was, but the show is just not working for me after three episodes. It has had its moments, and I am really intrigued by the story they are presenting in the opening scenes of each episode that feature an enslaved man that has taught himself to read. In episode three, we see him reading to his daughter the words of Sojourner Truth from an old abolitionist newspaper that has somehow made it into his hands. It is an interesting scene, and I assume that his slow enlightenment via his education (very Frederick Douglass-like) will lead him to make an escape attempt, aided by our show’s heroes. But at the moment, I wish we could see more of his storyline than the couple of minutes dedicated to it each week. The ordeal that Rosalee went through in episode three was also intense and worth watching, and I hope that Ernestine’s failed suicide attempt will now lead her into rediscovering her strength. But the pacing of the series, and the disjointed nature of how it tells its stories, is more of an annoyance at the moment than it was last season. Judging by the responses the show gets on Twitter, however, I might be in the minority on this one, as it seems to continue to provoke a lot of emotional responses from people that are getting a different depiction of slavery than they typically see. That can’t be a bad thing.

And speaking of Twitter, I saw a lot of praise on it last night for Arkansas’s decision to stop celebrating a day that combines Martin Luther King Day with commemoration of Robert E. Lee. Hey, it is a step in the right direction, and leaves only Mississippi and Alabama as the only two states that still insist on the combo. But I am not ready to give them too much credit when they are still setting aside a day to honor Lee (it will be in October). Stop the glorification of the Confederacy with these state holidays, and then I’ll give you credit. I’m guessing that won’t be anytime soon.

So as we know, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been undergoing a massive restoration project for months now.  But today National Geographic is reporting that the project has determined that the shrine of the supposed tomb in which Jesus was buried is in danger of “catastrophic” collapse. Yikes. To save it is going to cost around 6.5 million. Double yikes.

The Gorsuch confirmation hearings has led to a lot of talk about “originalism,” and over on the History News Network they have a good essay by Professor Andrew Shankman in which he nicely untangles the problems with trying to discern original intent out of the Constitution. As I always tell my classes each semester, one major problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that the Founders all agreed about what our government and its powers should be, when clearly they didn’t. Shankman nicely focuses on their disagreement over what the word “necessary” meant in the Necessary and Proper Clause. Yet in the end, he argues that one thing Hamilton and Madison would agree upon is that we should not be bound by their conceptions of what our government should be (discussing the ability to amend, I think, would have helped strengthen his point). “In framing a system which we wish to last for the ages,” Madison insisted,  “we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.” Indeed. But don’t tell that to Rush, or Hannity, or O’Reilly, or Huckbee, or Cruz, or . . . . , well, you get the point.

Trump’s budget madness; Mercy Street can be saved; Jackson vs Clay; Huckabee should be ashamed; Eisenhower Memorial in DC?; Defending U.S. Grant on race & slavery; Do our sports rivalries define us?

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I’ve been away from the blog for about a week now because of spring break last week (and my completing of a book chapter for Cambridge University Press’s forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Civil War), but today is a good day to return to it. Lots of good stuff! (Much of it steming from Trump’s budget proposal,  visit to Andrew Jackson’s grave last week, and his praise of Henry Clay last night).

Trump’s budget proposal was a nightmare realized, and I have no doubt that it won’t go through in any where near the form it is now. There is no point in me rehashing what has already been repeatedly said by others (the best I saw was this piece by a former Republican congressmen, arguing that only tyrants fear the arts)  about the damage that would be done to this country if his cuts to the national endowments to the arts/humanities and etc. went through, as well as to parks and recreation (including many historic sites).

But one connection I have not seen made is to our beloved Mercy Street. The more we learn about why the show was cancelled, the more we know that it was an issue of funding. They lost some major corporate sponsors after season one, but a big budget show like this is a burden for PBS in more ways than one, so I just wonder if perhaps the network could foresee Trump’s proposed cuts coming? Anyway, good article today about the show’s struggles, the pride the producers took in it, and how it has gotten Hollywood’s attention. Is there still hope? YES, But MONEY is the key to saving it.

So last week, Trump went down to Nashville to bask in the adulation of his minions, and while he was there he took a trip to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. After a tour and wreath-laying photo-op, he gleefully compared himself to Old Hickory. Now we all know that Donald has probably never read a history book in his life, so he is obviously drawn to Jackson because other people have made the comparison based on his populist “damn the elites” appeal. But over on the Daily Beast, Asawin Suebsaeng makes the case that this is all Steve Bannon’s influence on the Putin-Puppet. It is true that Jackson might like aspects of Trump’s budget cut proposal, but it is ironic that today’s leader of the Republican Party is celebrating the founder of the Democrat Party. Of course the Democrats are a much different party now in ideology and have lately been running from Jackson’s legacy because he was a particularly harsh slaveholder, defied the Supreme Court, destroyed the economy by killing the National Bank, and has the blood and moral stain of the Trail of Tears solely on his hands. None of this would bother Bannon, however, as Suebsaeng points out that Trump’s top advisor once declared, “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. That’s power.”

Invoking Satan? But what about all those evangelicals that supported Trump because they believed he would surround himself with good people? One of those evangelical supporters was Mike Huckabee, and he let his sentiments be known about the Trump/Jackson comparison when he tweeted: “Hoping @Potus tells Hawaii judge what Andrew Jackson told overreaching court-“I’ll ignore it and let the court enforce their order.” Huckabee was referring to the Hawaii judge’s blocking of Trump’s latest travel ban, and connecting it to Jackson’s defiance of a supreme court ruling. The fact that Huckabee would do such a thing is beyond morally reprehensible, considering that Jackson’s defiance of the courts was when he ordered the forceful removal of Native American tribes from the southeast, and that thousands were killed or murdered as a result. And the thing is, I think Huckabee knows his history enough to know that. Disgusting, Mike Huckabee, disgusting.

And then last night, Trump got the historical community buzzing on Tweeter, cracking jokes about his praising of Jackson one day, and then of Henry Clay the very next week. It is true that Clay was all about encouraging American manufacturing as a means of creating jobs and making the US economy more self-sustaining, which is how Trump invoked him (though with a very shallow understanding of Clay’s policies and his times). But in his policies, Clay’s biggest rival was Andrew Jackson, and you could argue that the entire era was defined by their competing visions. (Lincoln’s political hero was Clay, so Trump is probably better served to try and make this connection rather than to Jackson). This is all stuff you learn in your US history classes, but in case you need a primer on why it is a bit head-scratching that Trump would embrace the policies of both men, Time has got you covered. (The good thing in all of this is that Henry Clay was trending last night on the internet, and that’s not a bad thing). But as I remarked on a Facebook post, I am pretty sure that Donald doesn’t know much about either guy beyond the fact that people compare him to Jackson, and that he happened to be in Clay’s Kentucky last night.

Despite Trump’s budget, it looks like a new Washington DC memorial to Dwight Eisenhower is about to get final approval and could break ground as early as September. I have no problem with an Eisenhower memorial (whom Trump seems to love, even though the so-called president’s foreign policy and efforts to fill many top Pentagon and Homeland Security offices with defense contractors would send Ike spinning in his grave), but as described here, it seems a bit gawdy.

Trump’s praise of Jackson caused one commentator, Shaun King, to argue that no president that ever owned a slave should be honored (or anyone else, for that matter).  That statement is problematic in itself (though King is way more right than wrong), but public historian Nick Sacco took exception to it in regards to U. S Grant, who at one brief moment in his life owned one slave. On his blog, Exploring the Past, Nick posted an impassioned response to King, extolling Grant’s overall record on race and slavery. It is a fine read not only because of what he says about Grant, but also because it is a big reminder that almost nothing in history is a simple as we often make it out to be.

And while we are on other blogs: my buddy Christian McWhirter, historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (such an awesome institution) has a really fine post today over on his Civil War Pop that has nothing to do with Lincoln or the Civil War: it is about a new exhibit that he worked on there which presents the history of baseball’s Cubs/Cardinals rivalry. Do baseball history and the history of sports rivalries matter? You bet they do, largely because of what they tell us about how we see ourselves.

And just a quick update on that story about an ancient statue of Ramses II rising from the Cairo mud: turns out it isn’t him, it is of another Pharaoh.

So who might save Mercy Street?; Underground’s season premiere was rousing but problematic; New Tubman museum!; Ramses II emerges from the Cairo mud

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#SaveMercyStreet! In the meantime, DVDs of both seasons are available!

So my review of the Mercy Street finale has become my most read posting ever, so I’m hopeful that is a sign that the show has a lot of support and has a shot at getting picked up by someone else. Do you guys recall that HORRIBLE Civil War pilot that Amazon tried out a while back called “Point of Honor?” It was a mess, but perhaps they might be interested in trying out another Civil War show, one that is a proven commodity. They have the rights to showing Mercy Street‘s reruns already, so it just seems to make sense. And let’s not forget that A&E has had a lot of success with their historical drama Turn, which is soon to come to an end. Maybe they would be interested? Even History channel has shown an interest in being taken seriously again, so why not them? Lastly, WGN has had much critical success with Underground, so might they want to step in and save the show? Thus I really think there are a lot of possibilities out there. (Unfortunately, we also got word that Josh Radnor has a new gig for NBC, so that might present even more of a scheduling problem. But as much as I like Radnor, Dr. Foster could be recast. It wouldn’t be the first time in TV history!) I’m thinking that Amazon is our best hope. Has anyone started a petition? If so, let me know so I can pass it along.

Speaking of WGN’s Underground, their second season got off to a rousing start last Wednesday. We saw Harriet Tubman back down a slave patrol posse with a shotgun and an axe, a daring rescue from the hangman’s noose, and a shotgun toting “sewing circle” of abolitionist women. The episode also ended with a stunning murder that I dare say caught us all off guard. It was all rather intense, but I am really worried that the series is going to become too much superhero action and less of a well-developed character study and history lesson. As of now, I am most hopeful about Ernestine’s storyline, as we see she is now working in rather harsh conditions on a rice plantation, has resorted to drug addiction to survive, and seems close to breaking. I’m guessing she will rediscover the strength and resolve she once had, and thus it will be interesting to see what this will convey about slave resistance. Let’s stay tuned and hopeful. With the fate of Mercy Street looking bleak, we need this show to survive and to reflect solid history.

And speaking of Harriet Tubman: The National Park Service opened its brand new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor’s Center and museum out on Maryland’s Eastern Shore! (Such a wonderful area on the eastern seaboard). Tubman spent the first 30 years of her life as a slave in the area, so it is an appropriate location. This is on my list of things to visit in May (along with Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution,  the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, and of course the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture). Sounds like a great trip, doesn’t it? Reviews forthcoming!

Meanwhile, in Egypt: Did you see the story about the discovery of a massive statue buried in the slums of Cairo? It appears that it might be a representation of Ramses II, but sadly, it has been broken into pieces during the excavation. Nice work.