On May 22, 1972, Richard Nixon went to Moscow. The Historiat has already covered at historic visit here, but there is plenty more to glean from the encounter.
The Kitchen Debate of 1959, for example, where Nixon, ever the lawyer from California, got into an impromptu debate with Nikita Khrushchev (ever the socialist) over the merits of their different systems of governance and economy. Nixon’s 1959 trip so impressed the Soviet First Secretary that Khrushchev later declared he did everything in his power to prevent Nixon from being elected President in 1960.
On May 13, 1846, the United States Congress, egged on President James K. Polk, declared war on Mexico. In 1879, Ulysses S. Grant, who had fought in the war as a strapping young lad, described the whole affair as “wicked” and that the land grab made him “ashamed of [his] country.” Abraham Lincoln was a freshman in the House of Representatives during the war, and he was one of its harshest critics. Alas, Mr. Lincoln was voted in to office after war had already been declared.
It wasn’t just Whigs who opposed the war, either. John C. Calhoun, one of Polk’s fellow Democrats, was relentless in opposing Manifest Destiny. For him, like the Whigs in the North, any territory taken from Mexico would only augment the wound of slavery throughout the republic.
“Class distinctions in America are so complicated and subtle that foreign visitors often miss the nuances and sometimes even the existence of a class structure. So powerful is ‘the fable of equality,’ as Frances Trollope called it when she toured America in 1832, so embarrassed is the government to confront the subject [...] that it’s easy for visitors not to notice the way the class system works.”
- Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System
On May 10, 1849, the oddest riot in American history took place in and around a theatre in Manhattan. Hundreds of people were injured in the Astor Place Riot, and somewhere between 22-31 people died in the violence.
The Astor Opera House was conceived as an upscale retreat for upper class Manhattanites looking to avoid the rabble that often attended theatre performances in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the founders of the Astor Place couldn’t quite keep non-elites out the way they’d hoped; part of the reason for this was for the simple fact that New York, and the United States more broadly, couldn’t attract many opera performances, nor could it attract consistent top-level theatre talent from the United Kingdom. In order to stay afloat of the books, then, the founders of the Astor Place had to take honestly earned money from theater goers who worked for a living.
It’s May Day, a holiday celebrated by leftists all over the world. In Venezuela, a leftist government is starving its citizens and shooting the complainers. In Russia, a country that was once the epicenter of violent socialist revolution, a May Day celebration is held, but the real activity is centered around preparations for the May 9 parade celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
The United States has never had a strong socialist movement, and it’s better off because of it, but individuals in this country have long taken advantage of the freedom found here to pursue leftist causes. Mary “Mother” Harris Jones is one such individual. This is her story.
April 20 was national pot-smoking dayin the United States. In Colorado, you can buy marijuana legally, smoke it legally, and grow it legally. In January 2014, the state officially legalized pot. Since then, several other states have joined Colorado in legalizing the wacky weed and one CBS poll says that 65% of Americans now favor legalizing pot.
Colorado is not just a trendsetter for today, either. In 1967, its governor, John Love, signed a bill on April 25 that legalized abortion. The controversy surrounding Colorado’s legislation has been unending, and still goes on today, but the now national issues all started in Colorado. Governor Love was a Republican, by the way, and served in the Navy during World War II. He earned not one, but two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
By now you all know April 15 isn’t just tax day, it’s also “Jackie Robinson Day.”
Since 2004, all Major League Baseball players have worn Robinson’s number (42) on that day in honor of his courage in becoming the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, which is a polite way of saying he broke racist segregation in professional American baseball. You all know who he is. Hopefully you were able to check out Bryce Harper’s tribute to Jackie Robinson this year, too. (Here’s a good link.)
You’ve probably never heard of Silas Dinsmoor. He was an Indian agent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, at a time when Indian agents were viewed by Washington policymakers more as diplomats than as corrupt, racist bureaucrats.
The early American presidents knew that the Native American nations surrounding their fragile republic posed an existential threat. In the early era of the republic, there were three competing factions when it came to the West (the Appalachian Mountains): the federal government; western colonists from Europe; and the Indians, who were usually further divided into pro- and anti-American factions. The aims and ends of these three factions are easy to predict.
On April 4, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will turn 70. This is an incredible historical feat. Alliances never last long, and the fact that NATO transcends oceans and continents makes the longevity of this alliance all the more impressive.
There are those in the United States who have never liked the alliance, or at least America’s participation in it, and often argue that America’s growth into the most powerful polity in world history, with the world’s freest people enjoying their liberties, has been done unilaterally thanks to our unique culture and set of institutions. Daniel Larison, a senior editor at The American Conservative with a PhD in History from the University of Chicago, is probably the most sophisticated proponent of this line of argument. Ron Paul, the former Congressman from Texas, is probably the most well-known proponent.
On March 4, 1897, Grover Cleveland left office for the last time. His second go-round as president of the United States is often used as a milepost that marks the end of the Frontier Era in American history. The so-called Wild West had come and gone, but so had the era on Republican domination of the Presidency and Reconstruction of the South.
In just 32 years, between 1865-97, the American republic swallowed up half of a continent after it took mostly English colonists and American republicans roughly 245 years, from Plymouth Rock to the onset of the Civil War in 1861, to reach the eastern bank of the mighty, muddy Mississippi and establish constitutional governance.
Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848. When I was a teenager my grandparents took me and my sister to Arizona during spring break to catch Spring Training. We took breaks from baseball to see Nogales, a couple of museums, and Tombstone. It was awesome. To celebrate Earp’s 171st birthday, and to pay tribute to my grandparents (they’re both still alive!), I figured I’d set the record straight on Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight.
First things first: the gunfight at O.K. Corral did not actually take place at the O.K. Corral. The 30-second gunfight took place six lots away from the Corral’s back entrance. Crazy, right? Just think: the further back you go in time, the more shrouded events can become in legend and outright falsities.
Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, had a tough job. He wasn’t even elected to be President of the United States. His predecessor was assassinated after waging a four-year war on several rebellious states within the federation his state belonged to, and his state was among the rebellious! He was picked by that same predecessor to be Vice President because of his ties to the opposition party (see Roger Schleuter’s explanation for Abraham Lincoln’s decision to pick a Democrat as his 1864 running mate). To top it all off, the assassination of Johnson’s predecessor occurred just five days after the rebels surrendered and ended the war.
That’s a tough slate.
The secession of Texas from Mexico on March 2, 1836 has much in common with the secession of 13 colonies from the British Empire on July 4, 1776. For one thing, the victors of both wars styled their secessions as “revolutions” rather than separatist movements.
There are other similarities, too, starting with the fact that Texas was not the only state in Mexico to try and secede from Mexico City. The self-declared republics of Rio Grande, Zacatecas, and Yucután also asserted their independence from Mexico, though Texas was the only state to actually succeed in its rebellion. Unlike the 13 North American states attempting to secede from the British Empire, the Mexican provinces did not band together to form a united front against a common enemy.
On Feb. 28, 1991 the first Gulf War was declared “over” and the victors packed up and went home. Iraq’s armed forces were crippled and Kuwait had been liberated from Baghdad’s grip. The American-led multi-national military force that repelled Iraq from Kuwait was hailed in almost all corners of the globe as a paragon of multilateral cooperation and a new world order.
George H.W. Bush, former head of the republic’s most prominent clandestine spy agency, mustered up enough international support to justify the invasion of the Gulf and the crippling of Iraq’s military. Thirty-five countries participated in Desert Storm, and Germany and Japan, neither of which sent any actual troops to region, wrote generous checks to the coalition for the war.
Yesterday was President’s Day, a day usually associated with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In the spirit of the holiday, I thought it’d be fun to highlight a short list of presidents who are unheralded and long forgotten. (Those who were assassinated or had an untimely death while serving as president are disqualified.) So, without further adieu:
5. Rutherford B. Hayes (presidential term: 1877-81). A Republican during an era of Republican domination of the presidency, Hayes lost the popular vote but won the office as a result of the electoral college. But just barely. Hayes was only allowed to enter office if he agreed to end Union occupation of the South, which he did. Hayes was not only responsible for ending Reconstruction, but also for reforming the civil service, which had been known for corruption since the Andrew Jackson era. Hayes had promised voters that he would run once and only once for president of the United States, and he kept that promise, stepping down in 1881 and retiring to his home in Ohio.
Calvin Coolidge is one of the most understudied Presidents in American history. He stepped in when President Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly in San Francisco, and then ran for the presidency himself in 1924, winning after taking every non-Southern state except for Wisconsin (which was home to the upstart Progressive Party’s candidate, Robert LaFollette). President Coolidge was a conservative Republican from New England.
Silent Cal’s demeanor might also contribute to his lack of attention in American history textbooks. Nobody wants to write about a scandal-exempt presidency or a peace-time executive or a boom-and-bust-free economy. Historians, especially the left-wing historians who dominate the American academy today, would prefer to focus on big issues that paint their heroes and villains in a light that fits their worldview. Silent Cal does none of those things, yet he was an immensely popular president (and state governor, of Massachusetts from 1918-20). Coolidge’s conservatism has also been misunderstood or misrepresented in history textbooks. His opposition to much of the “progressive” legislation that landed on his desk (only to be promptly vetoed) had more to do with his conception of the American federal system than with small government ideology.
So, Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring this year. Thanks to Bill Murray’s classic performance in the famous film, you know what I’m talking about. America has a lot of strange, offbeat traditions or holidays, which is to be expected in a commercial republic of 328.4 million people that bridges the world’s two largest oceans.
Immigration into the republic played, and continues to play, a role in the strange and offbeat traditions of America’s regions. The contributions that immigrants bring to the republic are immense, and include cultural as well as economic positives.
On Jan. 26, 1880, Douglas MacArthur was born in the barracks at Little Rock, Ark. to an Army Captain and his wife. MacArthur is one of the finest men the republic has ever produced. Aside from being a general during World War II, in which he led American forces to overwhelming victory while minimizing losses, MacArthur was also a presidential candidate, a father, an educational reformer, and, perhaps most interestingly from a historical standpoint, a benevolent conqueror (which will be the subject of this short Historiat post).
After the United States and the rest of the Allies conquered Japan, General MacArthur was tasked with helping the Japanese implement a new political order based on individual rights, democracy, and the rule of law. This was no small task, given that Japan had an autocratic constitution called the Meiji Constitution. Under the Meiji Constitution, the emperor was the supreme leader of the Empire of Japan (at least in theory) and the parliament of Japan, called the Diet, was led by a prime minister. The Japanese had copied elements of both the Prussian and the British constitutional models after the Meiji Revolution of 1868.
On Jan. 24, 1895, the Queen of Hawaii was forced to abdicate her throne, thus paving the way for American annexation of the islands (which culminated in statehood in 1959). The American annexation of Hawaii had three important ramifications:
1. It set up a clash with the Japanese that ended with World War II. At the time of the Hawaiian monarch’s abdication, the Japanese and Americans were competing for influence in Hawaii and the broader Pacific Islands region by subsidizing settler immigration to various isles. The Japanese had more people in Hawaii than the Americans, and were easily winning the culture war there, but the Americans had more money and Washington was more willing to flex its muscle in Hawaii on the settlers’ behalfs.
On Jan. 17, 1942, Cassius Clay was born in Louisville, Ken. Clay would go on to have an incredible career in the brutal sport of boxing, but his position as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century extends far beyond his 56-5 record in the ring.
Cassius Clay symbolizes the struggle of African-Americans in the United States, that much is obvious. But Cassius Clay - aka Muhammad Ali - also symbolizes the true triumph of the United States in the Cold War. The young republic did not defeat a foreign enemy so much as it, through the lens of Muhammad Ali’s life, defeated the racism that had characterized much of the world prior to the end of World War II.
On Jan. 8, 1877, the United States Army clashed with a combined Sioux-Cheyenne force during a brutally cold winter in the Tongue River Valley of Montana Territory. Less than 10 people died in the Battle of Wolf Mountain, but it was a clear psychological victory for the U.S. Army: the Sioux and Cheyenne could no longer take refuge in the Rockies during winter on the plains. The Americans had learned how to track, and fight in the snow.
To make matters worse, the realization that the Sioux and other Indian nations could not regroup during the winter prompted the great Sioux tactician Crazy Horse to call it quits and surrender to the United States government. The Indians that fought the U.S. Army often traveled with women and children, so the Rocky Mountain winter, coupled with relentless pursuit by professional soldiers, made Crazy Horse’s choice to surrender an easy one. By May, he and his family were in Nebraska on a reservation. By the end of September, Crazy Horse had been murdered, stabbed in the back to be exact, by reservation guards.