Tag Archives: American History

Was John Hancock’s Signature Too Big?

0903declaraWhen John Hancock put his John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence he certainly wrote it large enough for all to see. In fact, Hancock’s grandiose signature is the stuff of figures of speech and insurance company jingles. But what’s the real reason behind the gigantic scrawl?

Ben Blatt, tongue firmly planted in his cheek, offers an explanation why in a recent Slate article.  It’s all about the number of men who originally signed the engrossed copy of the Declaration on July 4, 1776, instead of August 2, 1776. (Yes, this gets confusing, but the article does a good job of straightening out the whole “when was it signed” issue.)

In 1986, Wilfred Ritz, then a recently retired professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, published a paper titled “The Authentication of the Engrossed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776” in the journal Law and History Review. In it, he quotes numerous letters and journal entries written by members of the congress as evidence that some but not all members did actually sign on July 4.

So, Blatt argues, the size of the signature is about the space available.

If the historical consensus that approximately 51 men signed the Declaration on Aug. 2 is wrong, and Wilfred Ritz is right that the engrossed copy was actually first signed on July 4, and he’s right that it was signed that day by 34 men, and we accept that Hancock assumed only the 34 men present on the fourth would ever sign the document, then John Hancock’s signature was of a perfectly reasonable size. You might even congratulate him on signing at precisely the right size to accommodate all of his colleagues. Good show, John!

I guess size does matter — it certainly did to John Hancock.

 

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War Is Boring — But Writing About It Is Interesting

vietnam-war-01This has been a tough year for the blog. I’ve had little time to write and my injured arm made typing a painful, difficult chore for months. However, like the old cowboy too stubborn to stop roping cattle I am back in the saddle again.

One recent project involves contributing to the on-line magazine War is Boring.  The brainchild of war correspondent and author David Axe, who wrote the “Danger Room” blog for Wired, the site is an eclectic collection of independently reported stories on all aspects of war, the military, military history, and foreign policy. (By the way, the linked article about Axe explains the improbable name of the on-line magazine.) I recently wrote two stories: an article on how a WWII GI was misidentified as a German soldier, buried with his enemies, and declared MIA for nearly 70 years until DNA tests revealed his actual identity; and a story on the diplomatic and personnel skills of Eduard Shevardnadze as revealed in recently declassified documents from former Soviet and White House sources. I particularly enjoyed reporting and writing the latter story since it allowed me to return to my roots as a student of Russia and the Soviet Union, the topic that was my introduction to undergraduate history studies 30 years ago.

War is Boring is part of Medium, the news and culture group of Twitter.

I hope this is the beginning of a long association with the magazine, which would allow me to write about the military affairs issues so near to my heart and intriguing to my mind.

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Benjamin Franklin’s Not-So-Famous Sister

250px-Benjamin_Franklin_by_Joseph-Siffred_DuplessisThey called one another “Benny” and “Jenny” throughout their lives in the letters they frequently exchanged. He was the most famous American in the world at the time. She lived a life of obscurity as a woman in colonial America who gave birth to 12 children and made her own soap. Harvard historian Jill Lepore chronicles the dichotomy of these two lives in Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, the story of Benjamin Franklin’s sister and life-long correspondent. The public broadcasting show “Here and Now” offers a substantial selection from the book as well as an interview with Lepore talking about her book. 

“… One of the things that’s great about them is they really span the whole of the 18th century, which is just these epic moments in Western history, certainly in American history,” say Lepore during the interview. “And you can follow, over the course of their lives, everything happens to them. Most of them are things that Franklin is actually doing and responsible for and that Jane is a witness to. So it’s a fantastic story. And it’s traceable the whole way through because Franklin wrote more letters to his sister Jane than he wrote to anyone else. I mean, here’s this man who corresponded with kings, you know? But he remained deeply loyal to this sister, I think, felt singularly responsible for her. So you – it this great, untold story of American letters.”

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Filed under Book reviews, History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians

Agit Prof: David Greenberg Examines the Distortions of Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present made the Boston University professor a rock star among political liberals, Hollywood actors, and long-suffering AP U.S. history students searching for an “alternate view” of American history. It’s not every historian who gets Matt Damon to produce a History Channel special based solely on his book. Rutgers professor David Greenberg is among many critics of Zinn now emerging after his death who are pointing out one nagging fact: Zinn never let the facts get in the way of his historical interpretations. Granted, this news is no news. He may have been a celebrity among zealots with radical causes, but Zinn faced criticism for years from colleagues who shared his political beliefs but abhorred his habit of reducing “historical analysis to political opinion.”

However, in the guise of a book review Greenberg produces one of the most damning portraits of Zinn I have ever read. So much for speaking no ill of the dead, although the essay is hardly just an exercise in kicking the corpse of a famous scholar. I have criticized Zinn’s flagrantly simplistic and ideological interpretations of the American Revolution because of his almost naive desire to avoid examining influential men and women (the “elites”) without conceding they are part of the story no matter what you think of their behavior, as well as his desire to selectively write a narrative that furthers a political cause rather than illuminates the past. History should not be an exercise where scholars “have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Perhaps the tide is turning and Howard Zinn is losing his luster as a folk hero of the institutionalized left — or at least, his status American historian to the stars. Note that the essay is in The New Republic, which is hardly a bastion of right-wing thought.

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Hit Me Once Again: The Top Five Posts of 2012

0903declaraJust in time to finish up the first week of 2013, here is the first-ever list of the five most popular posts of the previous year.

Frankly, before 2012 I was reluctant to attempt a Top Ten or Top Five list. I maintain what I consider a healthy sense of proportion regarding my modest efforts as a commentator on the history of the Founding Period, American political culture, and the link between the nation’s past and contemporary politics. However, thanks to you the reader 2012 was the year that “The Shout Heard ‘Round The World” gained modest but respectable attention. Some of my most-read posts  generated several hundred views a day. That hardly puts me in the same realm as the Internet’s most popular bloggers, but the stats made me sit up and take notice. Apparently, I was joined by more than a few of you.

So, here are 2012’s Top Five — half as many as on Dave Letterman’s show, but twice as interesting:

No. 1: The provocatively titled “Is Slavery Really America’s ‘Original Sin’?” led the pack, a surprising result to me simply because the post was more of an effort to inform readers about independent scholarship rather than offer my opinion on the topic. The article directs readers to the an essay by Baylor University professor historian  Thomas S. Kidd, who examines the question of whether the Founders needed moral perfection in order for us to respect their accomplishments during the American Revolution and the early Constitutional period.

No. 2: My article in praise of Frederick Douglass and his understanding of the Declaration of Independence’s promise of political and economic freedom to all Americans. 

No. 3: Could 2012 pass me by without a comparison between the zombie apocalypse, the dueling notions of the social contract in the United States, and the U.S. presidential election?  I’d rather be eaten alive. Considering the average American’s taste in political news, I really thought this would be the No. 1 post, but numbers never lie. By the way, a hat tip to the nice people at ThirdRailers.com for picking up this piece for re-publication.

No. 4: My musings on Mr. Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address and how Lincoln’s rhetorical power is repeatedly based on the norms of rights, equality, and consent of the governed that he accepted as the basis for a civil society called the United States of America.

N0. 5: The world-wide influence of the Declaration included an admirer that might surprise most Americans: Ho Chi Minh drew his ideas (at least in part) from the document when he drafted the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945.

Finally, I will play favorites: My own pick for what I consider the best post of the year was my essay on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and its importance as the best cinematic explanation of how radically this nation needed to change in order for Jefferson’s promise of equality to take hold in the lives of all Americans.

Once again, Happy New Year! Soon, I get past the post-holiday sloth that has plagued me recently, and you will see even more posts during 2013. I am grateful for each and every one of you, the real reason why I write “The Shout Heard ‘Round The World.”

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Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence

What John Quincy Adams Tells Us About One-Term Presidents

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the United States of America

Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, prolific biographer and writer Harlow Giles Unger offers an essay on John Quincy Adams, a forgotten Founding Father whose career before and after his single presidential term is little remembered even by many professional historians. As Unger writes, JQA  was “the oldest son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams seemed destined for greatness from birth. He served under Washington and with Lincoln; he lived with Ben Franklin, lunched with Lafayette, Jefferson, and Wellington; he walked with Russia’s czar and talked with Britain’s king; he dined with Dickens, taught at Harvard … negotiated the peace that ended the War of 1812, freed the African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad … restored free speech in Congress, (and) led the anti-slavery movement … .” It was a stellar career, one that Unger portrays excellently in his new biography of the polymathic president.

One other message of the article is that JQA could serve as a role model for President Obama should he lose this November and himself enter the ranks of one-term presidents. (“One-term president” is usually a criterion used to suggest that the individual was also a failed president.) I suggest the best purpose of the essay is to remind readers of the long-lasting living link between the founding period and the mid-nineteenth century. People like John Quincy Adams (d. 1848), Dolley Madison (d. 1849), James Monroe (d. 1831), and even the infamous Aaron Burr (d. 1836) were long-lived individuals who spoke frequently of the times which created the United States. These individuals witnessed the formative years of American history from the dawn of the American Revolution to the eve of the Civil War. New research on the War of Revolution, how the Declaration of Independence was received by Americans of the era, and the political attitudes of the Founding Fathers and Mothers would be greatly expanded by new examination of the papers of these individuals, as well as memoirs and commentators written by family and friends that recall the reminiscences of those seminal individuals.

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October 6, 2012 · 6:41 am

A Portrait of the Revolution

Art history is not my strong suit, although I have possessed a love of fine art since my youth. I was fortunate enough to grow up in San Diego, Calif., a cultured city that is too often noted only for surfing and the U.S. Navy. In Balboa Park is the Timken Museum of Art, a gem of a smaller museum whose collection includes John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. Thomas Gage (1771), a portrait of the British general’s wife that was among the influences that prompted my interest in Revolutionary America. (Perhaps a picture is worth a thousand words when it comes to persuading a budding historian to become one of Clio’s sons.)

However, I acknowledge the importance of iconography, the systematic study and interpretation of paintings, drawings, and other portrayals of people and events, as an important tool used by historians to understand the past. There is also the intrinsic worth of the art in terms of its beauty or the uniqueness of the portrayal. How an event is portrayed says more than just the event itself — the wildly inaccurate but visually stunning Trumbull portrayal of the Declaration of Independence‘s signing that serves as the masthead of my blog is just one example of the celebratory “veneration of the Founders” that permeated early 19th century art and histories the Revolution. Look at a work of art and you will often look into a time machine that tells you about the artist’s time and place in history.

A wonderful on-line collection of art associated with the American Revolution is the Web site Portraits in Revolution (or PortRevolt, the short form of the name). The work put into the site, which is attractive and well-designed, is impressive enough. However, along with a rich collection of images there are links to various primary documents, advice on how to research topics in the history of the American Revolution, quotes from individuals from the period and historians who have written about the Revolution,  and a blog with historical commentary by the Webmaster. (At this point, the only identity that I can determine for the site’s author and designer is “JDN.” I welcome any hints regarding who he or she is. An e-mailed query to the site from me is also on its way.) I bookmarked the site and I recommend that anyone interested in U.S. history do the same.

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Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians