Christmas Creep and Other Joyous Holiday Traditions

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[We repost this piece by Eric Schultz, which originally appeared on November 19, 2013.]
Eric B. Schultz

Not long ago, a friend sent me a video which featured a new holiday character, “Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus,” with a note saying how appalled he was with the way retailers had hijacked
the holidays.

I’m pretty jaded myself by holiday retailers. But even I’ve winced a few times this fall.  There was the Christmas wrapping-paper sale I stumbled upon in mid-October, for example, and the recent news that many large retailers would be opening their doors at 8 or 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening.  (Who’s going to eat cold turkey sandwiches with me?)  Now, I’d been introduced to the Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus offering proof positive that Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas had finally been smashed together into the twisted wreckage of one long retail extravaganza.

Remember the time when Christmas was simple and less commercial, when you could step out of your door into a Currier and Ives print.  No?  How about a $29 Thomas Kinkade “Memories of Christmas” print?  Precisely.  One of the greatest of all holiday traditions is recalling a holiday seasonhistorian Stephen Nissenbaum reminds us in his superb book, The Battle For Christmas—that never existed at all.

Commercial Christmas presents were already common in America by the 1820s, Nissenbaum writes, and in 1834 a letter to a Boston Unitarian magazine complained about aggressive advertising and the fact that “everybody gives away something to somebody,” turning the holiday into a source of bewilderment.  In 1850 when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her Christmas story, readers could identify with the character who groaned, “Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody!  Dear me, it’s so tedious!”*  Just a few years before, Philadelphia’s confectioners had begun displaying huge cakes in their shop windows a few days before Christmas, actively competing for customers.

Professor Nissenbaum also reminds us that the figure of Santa Claus, all but invented in the early nineteenth century, was first employed to sell Christmas goods in the 1820s.  By the 1840s the jolly old chief of elves had become a common commercial icon.  Christmas had turned into “the thin end of the wedge by which many Americans became enmeshed in the more self-indulgent aspects of consumer spending.”

Few technologies would have a greater impact on Christmas and consumerism than the railroad.  In The Search for Order, Robert Wiebe tells us that it was two great explosions of railroad construction following 1879 and 1885 that, combined, produced hundreds of miles of feeder line designed to connect countless American towns—once isolated communities—into a single, massive, national distribution system.  This was aided by agreement on coordinated time zones in 1883, and a standard railroad gauge largely adopted by 1890. 

Retailers heard the whistle and jumped on board.  In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward produced his first mail-order catalogue, in 1874 Macy’s presented its first Christmas display, and in 1888 the first Sears catalog was published.  By 1890 many Americans were trading Christmas cards (thanks to affordable imports), and Santa had gone from icon to messenger, his arrival defining the holiday for many children.   Mass distribution had become a reality, though Santa might have felt more at home in a boxcar than a sleigh.

In November 1924, editor and journalist Samuel Strauss (1870-1953) penned “Things Are in the Saddle” for the Atlantic Monthly, an essay that addressed head-on the issue of American consumerism (or what he termed “consumptionism”, i.e.—the science of compelling men to use more and more things). “Something new has come to confront American democracy,” Strauss sounded the alarm.  “The Fathers of the Nation did not foresee it.”  And then he asked the reader, “What is the first condition of our civilization?  In the final reason, is it not concerned with the production of things?  It is not that we must turn out large quantities of things; it is that we must turn out ever larger quantities of things, more this year than last year?” Writing in the month leading up to Christmas, Strauss concluded, “The problem before us today is not how to produce the goods, but how to produce the customers.”

What had happened, he concluded with some pain, was that the American citizen had become the American consumer.  Civic duty now meant buying goods as fast as the great machines of industry could produce them, and the great trains of industry could deliver. 

Strauss implicitly understood that the relationship between our year-end holidays and merchant needs has always been incestuous.  While the Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus didn’t exist in 1939, for example, President Franklin Roosevelt most certainly did.  When merchants complained that a late Thanksgiving (on November 30) would reduce the number of shopping days before Christmas, he gladly changed the date.   The Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1939 declared the date of the holiday to be not the last, but the second-to-last Thursday of the month.

That same year, Robert L. May created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for Montgomery Ward.   And, of course, it’s just a lucky coincidence that 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street wove Santa Claus, Christmas, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the company’s flagship store into one happy story.  In 1966, another of our beloved holiday classics, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, frankensteined Christmas and Halloween when Linus sat in the most sincere of pumpkin patches, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to arise and deliver toys to all the boys and girls.  In fact, you might remember that it was in yet another Peanuts special, It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, when the kids are disgusted to find Christmas store displays in the middle of April and a sign warning that there are only 246 days left until Christmas.

I don’t mean to sound like the Grinch, but hopefully your children have talked you into purchasing tickets (at $115 per seat) to his live holiday show by now.

In any event, Stephen Nissenbaum, Samuel Strauss, and Robert May all remind us that we come by the “Ho-gobble, gobble” of Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus honestly, one in a long line of characters that has contributed to what is now called “Christmas Creep.”  We’ve even developed an entire vocabulary around the launch of retail Christmas, including Grey Thursday, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  It is the very reason you can hear David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing "The Little Drummer Boy" long before the jack-o-lantern on your front porch goes soft and mealy.

Columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote recently in the Boston Globe that she was shocked to find a house adorned in Christmas lights on the first week of November, and “the red snowman cups at Starbucks came out on Nov. 1. Ditto the elves on shelves at CVS. The wall-to-wall carols weren’t far behind.”  Indeed, global warming scientists warn us that our lawns are moving the equivalent of 6 feet south every year due to climate change.  It seems the Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus is here to warn us that Christmas is moving right before our eyes as well, a few hours earlier every year—a cultural movement that is nearly 200 years old and just as traditional as Old St. Nick himself. 

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The History of National Thanksgiving

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[Here we repost a piece on the history of Thanksgiving that originally appeared on Thursday November 25, 2010]  
Heather Cox Richardson

Anyone who cares about the history of Thanksgiving generally knows that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags shared a feast in fall 1621, and that early American leaders periodically declared days of thanksgiving when settlers were supposed to give their thanks for continued life and—with luck—prosperity.

The story of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday is fuzzier. I’ve always heard that Lincoln proclaimed a national holiday in 1863, but just how and why was never clear.

The answer is that Lincoln appears essentially to have been pushed into declaring a national holiday in 1863. With that pressure behind him, he recognized that he could use a holiday for an important political statement. Consummate politician that he was, he did so. But he did not stop there. Lincoln pivoted his political statement to express a larger vision of what America should stand for.

Here is how it happened:

An astonishing seventeen state governors declared state thanksgiving holidays in November and December of 1862. The war was going badly for the Union, but the armies still held. Leaders recognized the need to acknowledge the suffering, and yet to keep Americans loyal to the cause. New York governor Edwin Morgan’s widely reprinted proclamation about the holiday reflected that the previous year “is numbered among the dark periods of history, and its sorrowful records are graven on many hearthstones.” But this was nonetheless a time for giving thanks, because “the precious blood shed in the cause of our country will hallow and strengthen our love and our reverence for it and its institutions. . . . Our Government and institutions placed in jeopardy have brought us to a more just appreciation of their value.” (NYT, 11/27/1862, p. 8)

The following year, ahead of the many expected state proclamations, President Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving. He issued his proclamation on July 15, and the relief in the document was almost palpable. After two years of disasters, the Union army was finally winning. Bloody, yes; battered, yes; but winning. At Gettysburg in early July, Union troops had sent Confederates reeling back southward. Then, on July 4, Vicksburg had finally fallen to U. S. Grant’s army. The military tide was turning.

President Lincoln wanted Union supporters to give thanks for the recent successes. He was also aware of faltering enthusiasm for the devastating war and the wavering loyalty of Democrats who were eager to make peace with the Confederates. A national day of thanksgiving for military success and for the protection of the Union would wed religion, thanksgiving, and the Union war effort. So the President declared a national day of thanksgiving.

But the nation’s first national Thanksgiving was not in November. The date President Lincoln set was Thursday, August sixth.

On that day, ministers across the country pointed out that the celebration was most apt, as they listed the signal victories of the U.S. Army and Navy in the past year. It was now clear that it was only a matter of time until the Union won the war, they told their congregations. Their predictions reinforced the war effort, of course, just as Lincoln had almost certainly intended.

While the roots of the national holiday we celebrate lie in the war years, though, the holiday we celebrate does not center on giving thanks for American military victories.

In October 1863, President Lincoln declared the second national day of Thanksgiving. It is this one that we celebrate, and its purpose was much broader than that of the first.
In the past year, Lincoln declared, the nation had been blessed:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to invite and provoke the aggressions of foreign States, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theatre of military conflict, while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. The needful diversion of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence have not arrested the plow, the shuttle or the ship. The ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect a continuance of years with large increase of freedom.*

The President invited Americans “in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands” to observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving.

It is this one, the celebration of peace, order, and prosperity, that became the defining national holiday.

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Rebunking the Pilgrims?

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One from the vaults: we repost Randall Stephens's contribution, which originally appeared on November 24, 2009.
[crossposted at Religion in American History]
Randall Stephens

As Americans prepare to stuff their faces with turkey, pie, turkey pie, and all manner of bread-related foods, and clock in millions of hours of TV football viewing, it’s worth considering the Pilgrims, originators of America's holiday. (I was just thinking that a Martian would have a very hard time understanding how football and overeating are linked to an otherworldly religious sect.) How do Pilgrims fit into American history and religious history in general?

How low the founders of our national myth have fallen. Nineteenth-century Protestants celebrated the Pilgrims as hearty, pure-of-heart forbearers. Yet even in the 19th century Pilgrims had their share of detractors. Eli Thayer, the Kansas prophet, and the Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale fussed about the place of Pilgrims in American history. Every lowly Kansan (which I proudly count myself among) had more grit and determination and was more deserving of panegyrics than were the not-all-that-great Pilgrims.

In 1881, Mark Twain delivered an uproarious address, in the form of a plea, to the New England Society of Philadelphia. Why all this “laudation and hosannaing” about the Pilgrims? he asked his audience. “The Pilgrims were a simple and ignorant race. They never had seen any good rocks before, or at least any that were not watched, and so they were excusable for hopping ashore in frantic delight and clapping an iron fence around this one.” “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims” was a classic piece of Sam Clemens’ contrarianism. As the whole country went mad with Pilgrim fever, Twain shouted, “Humbug!”

Good fun. But did Twain’s comic take on those “ignorant,” “narrow” Pilgrims win the day in the 20th century? And did it win the day minus the comedy? Historian Jeremy Bangs thinks so. In 2004, he wrote:


Those inspiring Pilgrims of my youth have taken a beating! According to today’s historians, the Pilgrims were among the least significant of England’s American colonists. Their tiny Plymouth Colony was soon absorbed by the larger and more prosperous Massachussets Bay. The Pilgrims were no friendlier to Indians than other Europeans in the Americas—which is to say, they were greedy, duplicitous purveyors of genocide. Nor did they invent democracy: the Mayflower Compact was just an expedient means of maintaining order in a new environment. And their first “Thanksgiving” was nothing more than a replica of a traditional, secular English harvest feast. The Pilgrims didn’t even call themselves Pilgrims, a term coined by the 19th-century Americans who invented these virtuous forbears out of thin air in an effort to grace the relatively new United States with a glorious past. Indeed, about the only aspect of my schoolboy Pilgrims that has survived this assault is their poverty.

The truth about the Pilgrims—and yes, I do still call them Pilgrims—is perhaps closer to the “myth” than to what we can learn from today’s textbooks.

So Bangs offers an erudite rebuttal to the Pilgrims' modern-day cultured despisers. His Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners (General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2009) sets the Pilgrims in their thick historical context. His well-written scholarly account has no rival as far as scope and detail goes. The book has a whopping 894 pages and by my reckoning weighs nearly 4lbs. As a bonus, it's richly illustrated with a variety of prints and photographs (Bangs has spent much time working on the material culture of English separatists.)

Bangs writes that Samuel Elliot Morrison, Darret Rutman, and Theodre Dwight Bozeman dismissed the Plymouth colony as insignificant, a backwater. Add to that Malcolm X’s turn of phrase: “We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters—Plymouth Rock landed on us!” (I'm not sure if Brian Wilson's immortal words count as a critique or a drug-related bit of wordplay: "Rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over . . .") Since the 1970s, a simple formula has guided much wisdom on the Pilgrims: Indians = good; Pilgrims = bad.

Why do the Pilgrims deserve a new look? Their lives and the record they left tell us something basic about the European roots and the hot Protestant context of America’s first English settlers. The Pilgrims later significance, Bangs notes, also reveals a great deal about what future generations wanted to remember (and one might add, forget) about early colonial America. Bangs argues: “No history of the Plymouth Colony, no history of Leiden, no history of the Netherlands so far explains adequately the Pilgrims' defining experience in exile.” Travellers and Sojourners “undertakes the necessary task of starting over, not simply to add incrementally to what is already known about the Pilgrims in Leiden but instead to reconceive the question of who the Pilgrims were and what contributed to the choices that make them interesting historically.”

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How the Pilgrims Repented of Socialism and Gave Thanks

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[This post originally appeared on November 20, 2013, on the Faith and History blog, and is reposted here with the permission of the author]
Robert Tracy McKenzie

As I promised in my last post, I want to share some thoughts about Rush Limbaugh’s recent book, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans. Released just three weeks ago, the book by the popular conservative radio host is now the second best-selling work on Amazon and has already elicited 470 reader reviews, nearly 90% of which are five-star raves. They praise it as a “factually correct,” “unbiased,” “true history” that will help to combat the “liberal propaganda that the children are being fed today.” (These are all comments that appear within the last twenty-four hours.)

What strikes me about these responses is how utterly confident the reviewers are in the historical accuracy of a work of children’s literature that centers on the adventures of a time-traveling talking horse. There are no footnotes. No bibliography. No list of suggested readings. No evidence of any kind.

Historical evidence, for most of us, is sort of like the foundation of a house. I remember when my wife and I were ready to buy our first home. In the back of my mind, I knew that the structure needed to rest on a firm foundation, but I didn’t waste much time thinking about it. I was a lot more concerned about floor plans and color schemes and square footage, and I remember being irritated when someone suggested that I should look underneath our dream home before buying it. (“You want me to crawl where?”) I think we tend to shop for history in much the same way. If a particular history book reinforces convictions that we already hold, it rarely enters our mind to investigate the underlying evidence. No need to go down in the crawl space when the rest of the house is so appealing.

When it comes to the use of evidence, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is simply a train wreck. I don’t say this gleefully, or with a sneer of condescension. Indeed, I say this as a political conservative who shares the author’s appreciation for the wisdom of our founders. I just wish he hadn’t botched the job so badly. The book may be entertaining–it may even inspire some young readers to want to learn more about their national heritage–but it fundamentally misrepresents the “Brave Pilgrims” it purports to honor.

As Christian historian Beth Schweiger puts it so eloquently, “in history, the call to love one’s neighbor is extended to the dead.” The figures we study from the past were image bearers like us. They had their own way of looking at life–their own hopes, dreams, values, and aspirations–and when we ignore the complexity of their world to further neat-and-tidy answers in our own, we treat them as cardboard props rather than dealing with them seriously as human beings. Put simply, we are not loving them but using them. Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims does this in spades. I could offer numerous examples of what I have in mind, but for now I’ll just concentrate on one: Limbaugh’s characterization of the Pilgrim’s economic values.

First, some background. Four centuries ago, the proposal to relocate a hundred people across an ocean to an uncharted continent was almost recklessly audacious. It was also prohibitively expensive, and most of the Leiden Separatists who were committed to the venture were also as poor as church mice. To succeed, it was imperative that they find financial backers who would bankroll the undertaking, and the company of London merchants who agreed to do so were no philanthropists. They were hard-headed businessmen who drove a hard bargain. And so, in exchange for the considerable cost of transporting the Pilgrims to North America and supplying them until they could provide for themselves, the Pilgrims agreed to work for the London financiers for seven years. During that time, under the terms of their agreement, everything they produced and everything they constructed (even including the houses they slept in) would belong to the company, not to them individually. At the end of the seven years, any revenue that had been generated in excess of their debts was to be divided among the London investors and the Pilgrim settlers.

Next comes a crucial plot twist: According to governor William Bradford’s history Of Plymouth Plantation, in the spring of 1623 the surviving Pilgrim colonists began to debate among themselves whether there was anything they could do to improve the next year’s crop. The answer, after considerable debate, was to allocate to every household a small quantity of land (initially, one acre per person) to cultivate as their own during the coming season. Because the land varied considerably in quality, the plots were assigned by lot, with the understanding that there would be a drawing the next year and the next after that, etc., so that the land each family was assigned would change annually.

While under the old scheme individual workers had minimal incentive to put forth extra effort (since the fruit of that effort would be divided among all, including the slackers), the new plan, according to Bradford, “made all hands very industrious.” The only flaw was the decision to reallocate household plots annually, for this discouraged families from making long-term improvements to their assigned tracts. To rectify that, Bradford explains, in the spring of 1624 it was decided to make the allocations permanent. The success of the new plan, the governor ruminated, demonstrated “the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”

This shift in economic organization looms large in how Limbaugh remembers the Pilgrims’ story, and he has been struck by it for at least two decades. I can say this with confidence because the talk show host also paid attention to the Pilgrims in his 1993 polemic See, I Told You So. In a chapter tellingly titled “Dead White Guys or What Your History Books Never Told You,” Limbaugh explained how “long before Karl Marx was even born” the Pilgrims had experimented with socialism and it hadn’t worked! “So what did Bradford’s community try next?” Limbaugh asks. “They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property.” And what was the result? “In no time the Pilgrims . . . had more food than they could eat themselves.” They began trading their surplus with the surrounding Indians, and “the profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London.” In sum, the free market had triumphed.

See, I Told You So never refers to the first Thanksgiving, but twenty years later, in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, Limbaugh claims that the Pilgrims’ celebration would never have occurred had they not abandoned their socialistic experiment. As a literary device, Limbaugh has Rush Revere and his talking horse, Liberty, time-travel repeatedly between the present and the winter of 1620-1621. (They are accompanied by two of Revere’s middle-school students–a trouble-making boy named Tommy and a Native American girl named Freedom.) In late December 1620, the time travelers pay a visit to the Pilgrims shortly after their arrival in New England and are surprised to learn that they plan on holding all property in common. “We are trying to create a fair and equal society,” William Bradford explains to them. “But is that freedom?” Rush Revere muses to himself.

They return three months later, in March 1621, and are discouraged to see that the settlement is not prospering. William Bradford is perplexed; he had thought that centralized economic controls “should guarantee our prosperity and success. . . . But recently I’m beginning to doubt whether everyone will work their hardest on something that is not their own.” At this point, young Tommy relates to Bradford how hard his mother works to win prizes at the county fair, prompting the Pilgrim governor to speculate whether giving each family their own plot of land might motivate the Pilgrims to work harder and be more creative. In an epiphany, Bradford realizes that “a little competition could be healthy!” “Brilliant!” Rush Revere responds. The rest, as they say, is history. 

When the time travelers return that autumn–having received a personal invitation to the “First Annual Plimoth Plantation Harvest Festival”–everything is changed. “Everyone seems so joyous,” Rush Revere observes, “far different than a short while ago.” Governor Bradford explains that “we all have so much to be grateful for.“ The turning point “came when every family was assigned its own plot of land to work.” Underscoring the point, the Pilgrims’ Native American friend, Squanto, explains, “William is a smart man. . . . He gave people their own land. He made people free.” Not only that, Bradford adds, but the profits they are now generating will “soon allow us to pay back the people that sponsored our voyage to America.” Yes, there was a great deal to be thankful for. But as Rush Revere notes as the time travelers are preparing to leave, “It was obvious that this first Thanksgiving wouldn’t be possible if William Bradford hadn’t boldly changed the way the Pilgrims worked and lived.”

The history lesson in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is clear: The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Lord’s granting of a bounteous harvest after a cruel and heart-wrenching winter. Instead, they celebrated because God had delivered them from the futility of socialism. As Limbaugh put it two decades ago, “Can you think of a more important lesson one could derive from the Pilgrim experience?”

There is just one problem: it’s not true. Oh, the Pilgrims undoubtedly moved toward the private ownership of property, but they did so in 1624, according to William Bradford, three crop years AFTER their autumn celebration in 1621. To make the movement toward private property the necessary precondition for the First Thanksgiving is, historically speaking, a real whopper. To use a pejorative label that the radio personality is fond of wielding, this is revisionist history with a vengeance!

But there is more amiss here than a chronological gaffe. When the Pilgrims did move toward the private ownership of property, the shift was not quite the unbridled endorsement of free market competition that Limbaugh would have us believe. Nearly two centuries ago, the brilliant conservative Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” Limbaugh’s characterization of the Pilgrims’ economic shift is clear, precise . . . and false. The reality is complex.

On a visit to Plymouth at the very end of 1621, deacon Robert Cushman (a church official in the Leiden congregation) was invited to preach to the Pilgrims and chose for his text I Corinthians 10:24: “Let no man seek his own: but every man another’s wealth.” The decision to allow each household to work its own individual plot represented a movement away from this ideal–but only partially. Both Bradford and his assistant Edward Winslow described the shift not as a good thing, in and of itself, but as a concession to human weakness. It was an acknowledgment, in Winslow’s words, of “that self-love wherewith every man, in a measure more or less, loveth and preferreth his own good before his neighbor’s.” Because “all men have this corruption in them,” as Bradford put it, it was prudent to take this aspect of human nature into account.

This was still a century and a half, however, before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations would celebrate the enlightened pursuit of self-interest as the surest way to promote the general welfare. In countless ways, the Pilgrims showed that they still belonged to an earlier age. In economics, as in all of life, they viewed liberty as the freedom to do unto others only as they would be done by. The golden rule meant that there were numerous instances in which producers must deny themselves rather than seek to maximize profit, and if they were unwilling to police their behavior voluntarily, the colony’s legislature was willing to coerce them.

Examples abound. The Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth reveal that producers were prohibited from selling to distant customers if doing so created a shortage among their neighbors. Under the laws of Plymouth, it was illegal to export finished lumber under any conditions, and farmers could only sell scarce foodstuffs (corn, peas, and beans) outside of the colony with the express permission of the colonial government. Similarly, one of the very first laws recorded in Plymouth’s records prohibited skilled craftsmen from working for “foreigners or strangers till such time as the necessity of the colony be served.”

Nor was it acceptable to gouge their neighbors by selling products or services for more than they were intrinsically worth. The colonial government passed laws regulating the price that millers charged, the fares ferrymen imposed, the wage rate of daily laborers, and the ever-important price of beer. Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins ran afoul of the latter, and was called before a grand jury for selling one-penny beer at twice the going rate. A few years later, a colonist named John Barnes was charged with buying grain at four shillings a bushel which he then sold at five, “without adventure or long forbearance.” He had not assumed a significant risk in the transaction, in other words, nor held the grain for a considerable period of time, and under the circumstances he had no right to a 25 percent profit, even if a buyer was willing to meet his price. In sum, there was nothing intrinsically moral about what the market would bear.

And what of Limbaugh’s claim that the Pilgrims’ shift toward free enterprise would enable them “soon” to repay the company that had sponsored them? This assertion, at least, is correct, if by “soon” Limbaugh meant twenty-eight years, which, according to William Bradford is how long it took the Pilgrims to erase their debts. In truth, the assertion is misleading in the extreme.

So where does this leave us? Before anyone concludes that I am a closet communist, I will say again that I am politically conservative. What is more, the fact that Limbaugh is badly in error about the Pilgrims does not, in itself, discredit his economic views. We don’t automatically have to follow the Pilgrims’ lead in this or any other area of life; God has granted them no authority over us. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, wear jewelry, or believe in church weddings, and I have no qualms whatsoever in choosing not to follow their example in such matters.

But I do feel compelled to call Limbaugh to account for such an egregious misrepresentation. As a historian, I think no good cause is ever served by distorting the past, whether intentionally or accidentally. And as a Christian historian, I am grieved that the Pilgrims’ timeless example of perseverance and heavenly hope amidst unspeakable hardship has been obscured, their faith in God overshadowed by their purported faith in the free market.

Robert Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of the department of history at Wheaton College. His most recent book is The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History (InterVarsity Press, 2013).

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Undergraduate Competency for History Students

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Dana Hamlin

The History Section of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association, recently announced that the association's Board of Directors approved a set of information literacy guidelines and competencies for undergraduate history students. A project more than four years in the making, these guidelines were developed by a committee of reference and instruction librarians, the majority of whom are subject specialists in history.

One of the members of the committee writes in an email sent to various history- and library-related listservs: "it is [the committee's] hope that the Guidelines will be used by librarians, archivists, and teaching faculty to guide teaching and learning throughout the undergraduate curriculum." Indeed, the introduction to the guidelines states that the document is intended to "provide a framework for faculty and librarians to assess [students' historical research] skills" and to "aid faculty in designing research methods classes, assignments, and projects," among other goals.

As someone who is part of the library/archives world and who has never taught history, I'm really curious about what the readers of this blog think about these guidelines. Are they helpful? Does a set of guidelines like this already exist in the teaching sector? Do you think this document has the potential to aid collaboration between history faculty and librarians?

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Umbrella Man

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Edward H. Miller

At 12:30 PM on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas—just as Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots into the presidential limousine—Louis Steven Witt stood on the sidewalk of Elm Street as the presidential motorcade passed. Witt was doing something that many of us would consider peculiar. He carried a large black umbrella opened widely as the sun shined brightly in the Texas sky. In Abraham
Umbrella Man at far left of photo.
Zapruder’s famous twenty-six second film that captured the assassination, Witt’s umbrella can be seen just as the limousine, having briefly been obstructed by a freeway sign, reappears and President Kennedy suddenly grasps for his throat. In the years following the tragedy, assassination theorists produced several outlandish accounts of what Witt—the Umbrella Man, as they named him—was actually doing. Some posited that Witt was a signalman for the supposedly numerous gunmen in Dealey Plaza that day. Another equally preposterous explanation was that the umbrella itself fired a dart, rendering the president frozen for the kill shot. Witt’s umbrella actually exemplified a common form of protest by the far Right, which was strong in Dallas in the 1950s and 1960s. The umbrella was meant to disparage any policy that involved compromise by invoking the memory of England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (who always carried an umbrella) and the failed policy of appeasement that he championed against Hitler at the Munich Conference in 1938.[1]

Umbrella protests first began in England after Chamberlain arrived home from the conference carrying his trademark accessory. Wherever Chamberlain traveled, the opposition party in Britain protested his appeasement at Munich by displaying umbrellas. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Americans on the
Neville Chamberlain and his umbrella.
far Right employed umbrellas to criticize leaders supposedly appeasing the enemies of the United States. Some politicians even refused to use them for that reason. Vice President Richard Nixon banned his own aides from carrying umbrellas when picking him up at the airport for fear of being photographed and charged as an appeaser.[2] Returning from the Geneva Conference in 1955, President Eisenhower had to give a speech in the pouring rain because Nixon had prohibited presidential assistants from carrying umbrellas.[3] Campaigning against Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent in 1952 and 1956, Nixon declared, “If the umbrella is the symbol of appeasement, then Adlai Stevenson must go down in history as the Umbrella Man of all time.”[4] When the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 and President Kennedy did not send American troops to tear it down, German students, as well as many Americans, sent him umbrellas.[5] Upon returning home after having established new cultural and commercial ties with China in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon was met with umbrella-wielding students, who shared William F. Buckley’s assertion that Nixon had “sold out” by meeting with the leaders of the Communist dictatorship.

While it is clear that many have been tagged as umbrella men over the years, Dallas’s Louis Steven Witt said that his real target of his protest was Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the ambassador to England at the time of the Munich agreement and whose support of Chamberlain was well known. Appearing before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, Witt explained that being a “conservative-type fellow” and, having heard from a work colleague that the umbrella was a “sore spot” for President Kennedy (because his father had been criticized intensely), he had wanted “to heckle the President’s motorcade” and thought the umbrella would do the job.[6]
Louis Steven Witt testifying in 1978.

Witt’s explanation is plausible, but what really matters is how others understood his actions that morning. If we consider the historical context—Dallas’s status as a redoubt of the far Right and the flurry of newspaper articles in Ted Dealey’s Dallas Morning News comparing Kennedy to Chamberlain and the 1963 Test Ban Treaty to the Munich agreement—it is likely that Witt’s umbrella was at least perceived by the crowd around him as a protest of President Kennedy’s nuclear disarmament policy. “Kennedy acts like Neville Chamberlain,” observed one letter to the editor in March 1963.[7] Another reader wrote in August 1963 that the “dissolution of the British Empire started at Munich with Neville Chamberlain, that of the United States in January, 1961, with the Kennedy regime.”[8] Another Dallasite, W.E. Parks, wrote in 1963: “the nuclear-test-ban treaty . . . is the Chamberlain-Hitler ‘peace in our time’ pact with a new cast and new lines.”[9] In an editorial on September 9, 1963, the Dallas Morning News drew what it called “parallels between the Munich agreement and the current U.S.-British-Soviet test-ban treaty.” Suggesting that President Kennedy was another Neville Chamberlain, the News observed, there “is no more encouragement today for believing that the Soviets have changed their aggressive intentions than there was to believe the Nazis had changed their goals in 1938.”[10]

The incident illustrates the potency and ubiquity of far Right ideas in Dallas in 1963. Elements of this worldview extended into different aspects of everyday behavior, sometimes even when ordinary moments turned into extraordinary events.

Edward H. Miller received his Ph.D. in History from Boston College. His manuscript, Into Nut Country: Dallas Republicans, the Southern Strategy, and the American Right, 1952-1964, is currently under review by the University of Chicago Press. Miller currently is an adjunct professor at Northeastern University. 

NOTES
[1] Attesting to the umbrella’s popularity as a sign on the Right in the 1960s, Todd Gitlin writes, “In one corner, right-wingers from Young Americans for Freedom hoisted black umbrellas, intimating that we were Munich-minded equivalents of Neville Chamberlain, and hissed sporadically throughout the evening.” The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam Books, 1987), 99.

[2] Richard Reeves, President Nixon: Alone in the White House (Simon & Schuster, 2001), 468;  Geoffrey M. Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012), 100; and Neil A. Hamilton, The 1970s (Facts On File, 2006), 87.

[3] Ira Chernus, Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace (Texas A&M University Press, 2002), 90.

[4] Kevin Mattson, Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952 (Bloomsbury, 2012), 168.

[5] Thomas G. Paterson, Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963 (Oxford University Press, 1989), 42.

[6] Dallas Morning News, September 24, 1978; September 26, 1978.

[7] Ibid., March 24, 1963.

[8] Ibid., August 12, 1963.

[9] Ibid., August 5, 1963.

[10] Ibid., September 13, 1963.


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The Slave Trade, 1885: George S. Boutwell Writes Home About His Legal Cases

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Brian Bixby

George S. Boutwell’s letters to his daughter Georgianna, “Georgie,” were not just devoted to politics. He wrote about the other cares of his life, whether inquiring about the asparagus on his farm at home or apologizing to Georgie for not writing on her birthday. And he wrote about his career. Boutwell was one of the few specialists in international law, such as it was in those days, and was several times
The Boutwell House, Groton, Massachusetts.
retained by foreign governments to act as their agent in American legal and political matters. In 1885 Boutwell was litigating a case of piracy!

The story began all the way back in 1861, when a ship flying a French flag with a captain named Latellier docked in Port Liberté, Haiti. Haitian authorities were suspicious, and rightly so. The ship was American, and the captain’s name wasn’t Latellier, but Antonio Pelletier. More importantly, he had bought the ship to engage in the slave trade, as late as 1861 with the Civil War beginning! The Haitians seized his ship, convicted Pelletier of piracy and slave trading, and sentenced him to death. But his sentence was commuted to a prison term.

The case might have ended there, but Pelletier escaped to the United States a few years later. Angered by his treatment, he requested that the U.S. State Department help him recover $2,500,000 in damages for what he called a miscarriage of justice. There being no international law courts with jurisdiction, the State Department came to an agreement with the Republic of Haiti in 1884 to have a recently retired Supreme Court Justice, William Strong, serve as arbitrator. Boutwell became involved because the Republic of Haiti retained him and the French diplomat Charles A. de Chambrun as their agents in the case.

When William Strong opened the hearings, Boutwell’s opening statement portrayed Pelletier as a liar who had previously engaged in the slave trade and had outfitted his ship for that purpose. Pelletier ducked out of the hearing after listening to Boutwell for no more than half an hour, and was found dead three days later. Yet the hearings continued; the death of the plaintiff was not enough to stop the proceedings of justice. In fact, the hearings ran on for a year. At the end, ex-Justice Strong’s verdict was an anticlimax. He held that while Pelletier’s ship had been outfitted for slave trading, it had engaged in neither slave trading nor piracy. However, Strong rejected most of Pelletier’s claims for damages, awarding him only $57,250 for his imprisonment.

Once they heard the judgment, the Haitian Government, no doubt with Boutwell’s help, protested that any American demand for the Haitians to pay damages to a known slave trader, in 1885, was improper and bad policy. And in a final, ludicrous note, ex-Justice Strong agreed with the Haitian protest! So the State Department agreed to officially relinquish the claim. And with Pelletier dead, the matter came to a close.

Boutwell went home for the summer after the Pelletier case concluded. There he had to manage the shaky finances of his farm, while consoling Georgie for losing her seat on the school committee earlier that year. But he went back to Washington in October, working on patent law cases, and enjoying the spectacle of Democrats fighting among themselves. Of the latter, he remarked to Georgie, “Democrats, with their slouched hats, are common in more senses than one.”

Boutwell often said he had never desired political office, and never really sought it. Yet I couldn’t help reading his letters to Georgianna from 1885 and think that his frequent political observations revealed a man who was still tempted by high office. Perhaps his wife Sarah, who hated Washington, thought so, too. In a letter she wrote to Boutwell back in 1882, on yet another occasion when he was working in Washington, she observed, “A man who holds a public office makes a sacrifice of his independence of thought & actions if nothing more.”

George S. Boutwell died in Groton in 1905, aged eighty-seven. His wife Sarah had died two years earlier. Georgie became the keeper of the family papers after her father’s death. She left the house to the Groton Historical Society when she died in 1933. But no trace of Boutwell’s personal letters remained. People assumed they had been lost or destroyed.

In the year 2000, volunteers were cleaning out the attic of the Boutwell House, which had been plagued by squirrels getting in. One of the volunteers found an old, dusty trunk and opened it up. And there were letters. Hundreds of personal letters between Boutwell and his family! They were all tied up with ribbons, with notes in Georgie’s handwriting about what was in each parcel. And none had been opened in all the years since her death.

That’s how we know Boutwell wrote fifty-one letters to Georgie in 1885. They were in one of those parcels, which was opened for the first time a few months ago. Who knows what other stories are in the many parcels that have yet to be opened?




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Gossip, 1885: George S. Boutwell Writes Home About Washington Politics

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Brian Bixby

Recently, I had the delightful opportunity to read some letters that hadn’t been seen in at least eighty years. The letters were full of interesting political stories from the Washington, D.C. of the 1880s. And
Photograph of George S. Boutwell by Matthew Brady.
they were written by a man whose political career helped shape the nation during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The man’s name is George S. Boutwell (1818–1905). Haven’t heard of him? You should have. If you pay income taxes, you can thank Boutwell, who was the first commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in 1862. He then went on to Congress, where he helped write the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship to the former slaves. After serving as a member of the House committee to impeach President Andrew Johnson in 1868, he went on to become President Grant’s secretary of the treasury, where he helped break the Gold Ring, a currency conspiracy, in 1869.

After he lost reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1877, Boutwell and his family returned home to Groton, to the house he had built in 1851 when he was governor of Massachusetts. However, Boutwell continued to spend much of the year in Washington, where he practiced patent law and international law. His daughter Georgianna missed living in Washington, and constantly wrote to her father for news of her friends and political gossip. And he obliged, frequently: fifty-one times in 1885 alone.

Boutwell’s 1885 letters to “My dear Georgie” are a wonderfully anecdotal history of Washington politics. Since 1884 had been an election year, 1885 began with a season of parties as the new president and Congress came to the city. There were so many, Boutwell told Georgie, that he’d decided to go to no more than one at each house!

Not everyone showed similar restraint. Among the fabulous Field brothers of Stockbridge, Massachusetts—each of whom became famous in his own right—was Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field (1816–1899). Field was a Democrat and weak on civil rights, which made him and Boutwell political enemies. Yet, in a letter from January 16, Boutwell mentions that Field greeted him warmly and was in “high, friendly spirits.” Boutwell, who had once run on the Temperance Party ticket, euphemistically attributed Field’s unusual geniality to having “dined” too much.

One mustn’t think Boutwell a complete killjoy. He did ask Georgie in February to pack up and send his billiard cue to him!

I’m pretty sure Georgie was in favor of women’s suffrage, since she actually ran for office and won a seat on the town’s school committee. But I’ve never been able to find out her father’s opinion. And he hedged his language even in his letters. He wrote to Georgie about how he had attended two church services on January 25. The minister at the morning service spoke out against suffrage, which was daring of him, because Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the famous suffragist, was in the audience, and loudly confronted the minister after the service. Boutwell snidely noted that her response was “more intelligible than elegant.”

But before you judge Boutwell, you should know that he thought it unfair that opponents of women’s suffrage were still using the lurid “free love” reputation of Victoria Woodhull against the movement, even though Woodhull had left the country in 1877. And that evening Boutwell went to a service at the Universalist Church conducted by Rev. Olympia Brown. There’s another name you probably don’t know, but should. Brown (1835–1926) was the first woman in the United States to graduate from a theological school and to be ordained. And she was firmly in favor of a woman’s right to vote. No doubt her sermon reflected her sentiments. As an aside, I must note that unlike Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony, Brown would live long enough to see women obtain the right to vote and to cast a ballot in a national election.

In the 1884 elections the Democrats had won the presidency for the first time since the Civil War and maintained control of the House of Representatives, leaving the Republicans with only the Senate. Boutwell was not happy about this, and looked constantly for signs that the Democrats were breaking up along factional lines. On May 15, he told Georgie that the Democrats would break up over patronage for federal offices. In November, he was hoping the scandal over Attorney General Augustus H. Garland’s involvement in a telephone company and associated litigation would bring the administration down. Boutwell would hope in vain, at least until the election of 1888, when Republicans reclaimed the House of Representatives and the presidency.

At least he was not like those people he mentioned who were still hoping even in January of 1885 that the Republican candidate James G. Blaine might still win the Electoral College. In the same vein, Boutwell thought the Republican defeat was why outgoing President Chester A. Arthur looked depressed just after relinquishing office, not realizing that Arthur was suffering from a serious illness that would lead to his death before the end of the next year.

Next: Boutwell tangles with a slave trader!

Brian Bixby received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for his study of Shakers and tourism. His childhood hobby of coin collecting developed into an interest in the history of money, which led him to George S. Boutwell's role in the currency controversies of the 1870s. That and Brian grew up only a mile away from the Boutwell House.

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What the Gettysburg Address Means for America Today

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Heather Cox Richardson

On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg. When the battered armies limped out of Pennsylvania after July’s brutal fight, they left behind them more than 7000 corpses in a town with fewer than 2500 inhabitants. With the heat of a summer sun beating down, getting the dead soldiers into the ground quickly was imperative. A local lawyer urged
Lincoln at Gettysburg, about three hours before he gave his address.
Washington to establish a national cemetery in the town, where the soldiers could be interred with dignity. Officials agreed, and the lawyer planned an elaborate dedication ceremony. The organizers invited state governors, members of Congress, and cabinet members to attend. They asked prominent orator Edward Everett to deliver the keynote address. And, almost as an afterthought, they asked President Lincoln to make a few remarks. While they probably thought he would not attend, or that if he came he would simply mouth a few platitudes and sit down, President Lincoln had something different in mind.

About 15,000 people gathered in Gettysburg for the ceremony. A program of music and prayers preceded Everett’s two-hour oration. Then, after another hymn, Lincoln got up to speak. Packed in the midst of a sea of frock coats, he began. In his high-pitched voice, he delivered a two-minute speech that redefined the nation.

President Lincoln reminded the American people what they were fighting for. He transformed into poetry the nation’s founding principles. While slave owners stood firm on the Constitution’s protection of property—including their slaves—Lincoln insisted that American stood for equality before the law. Dating the nation from the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution, he insisted that America was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln’s argument was about far more than race. In his youth, Lincoln and his friends, poor men all, had seen fabulously wealthy slaveholders gain control over the government. They had shaped legislation that permitted them to make more and more money, and which took away opportunities for men just starting out. Increasingly, wealthy men insisted that their economic system, which had enabled them to amass fortunes previously unimaginable, was the right one, for most men were dull drudges who must be led by their betters. There was no point in letting them have the tools to rise, for giving them opportunities would only divert the resources rich men would use better. When slave owners overturned longstanding laws to enable them to move their economic system into the West, Lincoln believed the very fate of the nation was at stake. “[W]e are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether . . . any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

In the late 1850s Lincoln quit his law practice and threw his lot with the Republicans, a new political party that promised to keep the American government from falling under the control of rich men. Regular people must control the government, he thought, for only they would guarantee that laws would continue to enable every man to rise. Nothing was more important, the president told his listeners at Gettysburg, than continuing to fight so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Most northerners blessed Lincoln’s speech, but opponents howled at the idea that America stood for equality. Surely “the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called Gipsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks, people of color, negroes, mulattoes, and persons of African blood,” were not equal to white people, Lincoln’s own vice-president would later rant. Others echoed the slave owners who warned that, unless the rich controlled government, it would confiscate wealth. Poor men would want tax dollars used for schools and hospitals, and the bulk of tax money would come from wealthier members of society.

Nonetheless, Lincoln’s position was clear. “[W]e can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground,” he noted. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” For Lincoln, the lesson of Gettysburg was for those left behind. “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Why does the Gettysburg Address still matter? With it, President Lincoln rededicated the nation to the principle of human equality, and to a government that reflected that equality by advancing the economic interests of all Americans. Now, as then, most Americans back Lincoln’s vision. And now, as then, there are those who oppose those principles for both racial and economic reasons.

Now, as then, we must grapple with the same questions Americans did in 1863: What does America stand for?

It is no fluke that Fun. used Civil War imagery in this brilliant video, or that it has had more than 86 million hits:



What do we stand for?






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Fighting the Mob, Welcoming Mobs

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Michael S. Green

Today thousands of Las Vegans and tourists will line up to go to a museum, thanks to Senator Estes
Frank Costello testifying before the Kefauver Committee, 1951.
Kefauver of Tennessee; a mayor who used to represent mobsters; and federal officials who proved more Las Vegan than Las Vegans.

The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, known as the Mob Museum, opened in Las Vegas on February 14, 2012, on a carefully chosen date: the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In 1929, in Chicago, Al Capone’s hoodlums executed several members of the gangs led by Scarface’s rival, Bugs Moran. The museum has the wall, complete with bullet holes and bloodstains.

Las Vegas seems like a logical place for this museum, since casino operators associated with the mob built and ran many of the resorts that dotted the Strip from the 1940s into the 1980s. Many continue to think it all began with Bugsy Siegel—or perhaps Warren Beatty—opening the Flamingo in 1946. Although the idea was somebody else’s, Siegel took over the construction and proved to be a lousy businessman, and he died before his dream had become a profit center for his mob-associated investors.

Las Vegas also turned out to be the epicenter for targeting crime families. The passage of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (the felicitously named RICO, as in Edward G. Robinson’s character in the 1931 film Little Caesar) and the expansion of Justice Department activities helped make possible the prosecution of major organized crime figures, including the leaders of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Kansas City mobs. The federal government also targeted their connections at the Teamsters Union and its Central States Pension Fund, including Allen Dorfman, who oversaw the fund that made loans to Las Vegas casino operators and was a Jimmy Hoffa ally and the stepson of a Capone lieutenant.

State officials also stepped up efforts to clean up Nevada’s image and major industry. More and deeper investigations and the expansion of the Black Book or List of Excluded Persons, which bars those suspected of mob ties from even entering casinos, helped drive out the operators of several Strip and downtown casinos.

By the late 1990s, Las Vegas and its gaming industry had gone corporate. Some residents saw this as a shame, recalling the city as safer during the mob’s heyday (since mobsters actually ran street rackets, this was a myth) and missing the smaller casinos with cheaper food. Others welcomed the change and hoped to sweep the past under the rug.

Then, the federal government decided to shutter the city’s first federal building, erected in 1933. Newer structures had made it obsolete, and almost every federal office housed there had relocated. Amid plans to raze it, in a reversal of the usual claim that Las Vegas blows up its history, Mayor Oscar Goodman sought to save it. As a young lawyer, he had argued his first case there, and went on to become one of the nation’s most prominent attorneys for those accused of being part of organized crime.

Seeking something connected to Las Vegas, not to mention marketable, Goodman proposed a museum about the mob. Making the case for him, on November 15, 1950, Kefauver had held one of his hearings about organized crime in the building’s second-floor courtroom. Kefauver listened to mobsters complain about how difficult their lives were and marveled that one of the casino owners served on the state Tax Commission, which regulated his industry, while the lieutenant governor co-owned several casinos. He concluded, “As a case history of legalized gambling, Nevada speaks eloquently in the negative.”

Part of the festivities at the museum include showing a documentary about Kefauver by his daughter, Diane Kefauver, and son-in-law, Jon Rubin: Crimebuster:  Senator Estes Kefauver, Politics, Television, and Organized Crime. Kefauver had several motivations for going after the mob. He was indeed a moral reformer. He hated political machines, having won his Senate seat by overcoming the corrupt Crump machine in Memphis in 1948. And as Russell Baker of the New York Times described him, “He was an egghead masquerading as a yokel and what he wanted was the Presidency. For six years, with little more than a coonskin cap and the stamina of a drayhorse, he kept the most skillful politicians of the Democratic party in a nightmare.”

The idea for Kefauver to conduct the hearings came from Phil Graham, the Washington Post publisher and political backroom operator, who shared Kefauver’s distaste for gambling and organized crime. The hearings, held in fourteen cities and nationally televised in 1950 and 1951, helped lead to reforms and anti-gambling efforts in several areas.

For Las Vegas, Kefauver actually proved to be a boon. With casinos closing elsewhere, Nevada became a diaspora for casino executives and employees, mob or not. He also made it possible for Las Vegas to open a museum that remembers the violence and dangers—and occasional successes—of organized crime, and how politicians and law enforcement fought it and sometimes became intertwined with it. As befits modern Las Vegas, the museum is large, filled with bells and whistles, and costs some money to get into. On Kefauver Day, November 15, befitting old Las Vegas, it’s a comp: free admission.

Michael S. Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and the author of several books on Nevada as well as on the Civil War era. He was a researcher for the museum, and serves on its advisory board and content committee.

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More on Assassinations (Because Randall Got Me Started)

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Heather Cox Richardson

Cartoon of Charles Guiteau by Miriam Leslie, 1881.
Today is a curious anniversary. On November 14, 1851, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick went into print. Thirty years later, November 14, 1881, was the first day of the trial of Charles Guiteau, the man who shot President James Garfield. Although at first these two events seem entirely unrelated, in fact they explored the same profound American theme: How can a society succeed when its people act according to the dictates of divine inspiration?

Melville’s Ahab cannot stop hunting the white whale, even as the quest takes the lives of his crew, his own sanity, and eventually the entire ship. Guiteau insisted that he was on a divine mission when he shot Garfield, because God wanted Garfield replaced.

The question of the relationship between God and society was central in American intellectual life in the early republic. America’s Puritan divines insisted that their followers must have a personal relationship with God, but then got around the problem of divinely inspired antisocial acts by insisting that anyone operating in unorthodox ways was conspiring not with God but with the Devil. By the antebellum years, the country’s writers—Hawthorne and Melville, especially—had picked up the theme of the tension between God and society and explored it in the emotionally charged pages of their books. In the 1850s this question exploded into politics, with leaders like William Henry Seward claiming that there was a “higher law” than the Constitution that required their allegiance.

Seward’s argument horrified Abraham Lincoln, who insisted that the nation was one of laws, and who fought the Civil War according to the Constitution. Both Lincoln’s adherence to the Constitution and the sheer carnage of the Civil War effectively ended the idea that American society could accommodate the actions of those who believed themselves divinely inspired. By the time Guiteau tried to justify his actions to a jury, he was a figure of derision and disgust.


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Looking Back on Assassinations and Motivation

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To mark 50 years since the assassination of president Kennedy, I repost here a piece that appeared on the blog in January 2011.

Randall Stephens

On November 23, 1963 the New York Times announced "Leftist Accused: Figure in a Pro-Castro Group is Charged--Policeman Slain." Will Fritz, head of the Homicide Bureau, Dallas Police Department, linked Lee Harvey Oswald to the left-wing "Fair Play for Cuba Committee." Such connections proved more complicated than originally imagined. Oswald lied and was, by any account, a shiftless loser. Journalists and commentators grasped for a motive in the chaotic hours and days after President Kennedy's assassination. Texas, and Dallas in particular, was a hotbed of anti-Kennedy feeling and theories of a right-wing plot circulated widely. (Replace Texas then with Arizona now and some striking similarities in public discussion are apparent. Tea Partiers and John Birchers . . . anti-immigration and anti-communism . . .)

There was, in fact, enough hard-right political terrorism in the South to make such views seem credible enough. The Klan harassed and threatened civil rights workers and dynamited churches and schools. Pundits called Birmingham "Bombingham." In rare cases, gunmen assassinated black leaders and activists. The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968 created a political firestorm and produced innumerable theories as Kennedy's murder had less than five years before. After King's death in Memphis riots erupted across the country's cities and conspiracy theories of Klan involvement and a government assassin gripped the imagination of Americans roiled by the events of a turbulent year. Writing in Life magazine in June 1968 Paul O'Neil observed, "No real criminal organization conspired with [James Earl] Ray," King's alleged killer. Ray was, in O'Neil's words, like Robert Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, prone to bizarre fantasies and unreal self conceptions.

Medical professionals, journalists, and the general public have often questioned an assassin's sanity. And the current debate over the political motivations of Gabrielle Giffords' mentally unstable shooter parallel related events in history.

Was Leon Czolgosz, who shot and killed President McKinley nearly 110 years ago, insane? The American establishment, observes Eric Rauchway in Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), could not "admit that a low criminal had accomplished so much, and so from the start they insisted he was insane, and his action an accident of a callous fate" (x).

What of America's most infamous assassin? "One is naturally tempted to ask whether John Wilkes Booth, son of the 'Mad Tragedian,' might have been found insane under existing laws," writes Michael W. Kauffman in American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2005), 353. Wilkes's brother thought madness ran through the male portion of the family. But, in this case, notions of melancholy and madness were closely linked. And diagnosing someone from the the remove of nearly 150 years would certainly be difficult.

Historians often ask why people do the things they do. Is it trickier to answer that question about current figures than about those from ages past? Figuring out the motivations of men and women from long ago, like judging why an unstable young Arizona man went on a shooting spree, can be a tough game. David Hackett Fischer explored motivation in his controversial, argumentative Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1970):


Historians have often used motivational explanations in their work. Almost always, they have used them badly. Problems of motive in academic historiography tend to be hopelessly mired in a sort of simple-minded moralizing which is equally objectionable from an ethical and an empirical point of view. Lord Rosebery once remarked that what the English people really wished to know about Napoleon was whether he was a good man. The same purpose often prevails among professional scholars who are unable to distinguish motivational psychology from moral philosophy, and even unwilling to admit that there can be a distinction at all. Moreover, many scholars tend to find flat, monistic answers to complex motivational problems, which further falsifies their interpretations (187).

But that won't keep Americans from wondering, speculating, and trying to make some sense out of seemingly senseless acts of violence, past or present.

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“To a Sailor’s Eye A Monstrous Creature": The Salvage of the CSS Georgia

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Heather Cox Richardson

Last week the U.S. Navy began the process of salvaging the CSS Georgia. There were two Confederate ships that bore this name. One was a raider; this one was an ironclad battery moored before Savannah to protect the city. Confederates scuttled it in a channel of the Savannah River in
View from Fort Jackson of the buoy marking the wreck of the CSS Georgia.
December 1864 to keep it out of the hands of General Sherman’s advancing troops. Next year, 150 years after it went down, it will come back into daylight.

Although the CSS Georgia was placed on the National Historic Register in 1987, it had no great military significance. It might have slowed down the taking of Savannah; too slow to maneuver, it might not have. Indeed, in its twenty months of operations, the CSS Georgia never fired a shot. It shows up only rarely in records: there are no existing plans for its construction. We don’t even know how big it was; sources say anything from 150 to 250 feet long. It is barely mentioned in most histories of the Civil War. So why should anyone not deeply interested in the—admittedly very interesting—world of underwater archaeology care about this naval salvage operation?

The story of the CSS Georgia beautifully illustrates the relentless press of the modern world on even the most deeply held outmoded beliefs.

The CSS Georgia was nicknamed “The Ladies’ Ram” because Savannah women (organized as the Ladies Gunboat Association) raised much of the money to build the ship. They did so because they believed so fervently in their cause: the preservation of a slave system that had been outmoded by the modern world. They gave their all to that cause, and yet by the time the ship was launched in May 1862, the Confederacy was beginning to feel the pinch of shortages. Many of the women who had raised money for the CSS Georgia would lose their husbands and watch their children cry with hunger as the war dragged on.

Only twenty months after the women of Savannah watched the ship they had funded slide down the ways, they would hear it had been scuttled. Then, on December 22, 1864, General Sherman offered their city to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Within six months, the modern world would rush in. Sleepy Savannah would turn to heavy industry and the export of naval stores, joining the modern economy. In 1866 a passing ship struck the wreck of the CSS Georgia, prompting officials to mark it with a buoy. Two years later, the Treasury Department hired a contractor to dynamite the ship, gather about 80 tons of iron, and sell it in the building boom. Everyone forgot the CSS Georgia until another vessel dredging the channel for more economic expansion snagged the forgotten wreck in 1968 and tore it apart. More dredging in 1969 1970, 1974, 1982, and 1983 further damaged the site. Also in 1982, a ship dragged the USCGS buoy marking the site downstream, pulling a ten-ton anchor through it. In 1979 diving operations recovered two cannons and other ordnance from the wreck. Investigations in 2003 showed that the ship’s hull was gone. The needs of Savannah’s modern economy tore the CSS Georgia apart.

Now, finally, efforts to expand the port of Savannah for the requirements of the 21st century demand that the ship be moved once and for all.

The story of the CSS Georgia’s salvage is interesting in its own right. But I can’t help thinking of those Georgia women who raised the money to build the ship to support an outmoded way of life. Their dedication to a system that the rest of the world had left behind required tremendous sacrifice. . .and for naught. The modern world ground on, no matter what obstacles they tried to anchor in its way.

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George Lawrence Price: The Last Battlefield Fatality of World War I

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Heather Cox Richardson

The guns in Europe fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.

George Lawrence Price
But that was three minutes too late for Canadian Private George Lawrence Price, serving in Belgium, who was shot by a German sniper at 10:57 and died a minute later.

Ten minutes before the armistice, Price and two other men in his company had begun to search homes
from which Germans had just been firing machine guns. They found only civilians in the first two homes they searched. As they stepped back into the street, a single shot hit Price in the chest. He fell into the arms of his comrade, who pulled him back into the house they had just left. As Price died, German soldiers cleared their guns in a last burst of machine gun fire that greeted the armistice.

Price’s commanding officer was furious that the men had taken it upon themselves to search the houses, commenting “Hell of a note, to think that that would happen right when the war’s over.”

He was not the only one to note the significance of Price’s death. It came to symbolize the seemingly pointless slaughter of World War I. When an irony of history put Price in the same cemetery as the first Allied soldier to die in the war, disgusted observers commented that the war had apparently been fought over a half-mile of land.

But what about the man who shot Private Price? We do not know who he was; although Price became well known, the shooter never acknowledged his part in that final drama. He lived in anonymity. What induced him to take one last life two minutes before the end of a world war? And how did he remember that final shot?

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Went With The Wind!

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Heather Cox Richardson

In honor of the birthday of Margaret Mitchell (November 8, 1900), I’d like to offer the very best thing to come out of Gone With the Wind: Carol Burnett’s classic spoof, entitled “Went With the Wind.” I discovered yesterday that none of my students had heard of this, and Burnett as Scarlett O’Hara in her new dress (at the beginning of Part 2) is one of the all-time greatest moments in comedic history:

Part 1:

Part 2:

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Wikipedia in the Classroom

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Elliot Brandow

Wikipedia is ubiquitous. It's at the top of your Google results, of course. And since 2012 it's in the right-hand sidebar of your Google results, dubbed the Knowledge Graph, as well. With this year's Apple iOS7 upgrade, when you ask Siri factual questions, those are Wikipedia entries you'll be offered in response. Even some library systems, like Serials Solutions' new Summon 2.0, can include Wikipedia entries alongside your list of books and articles.

It's also our dirty little secret. We know that students use it, but faculty use it, librarians use it, we all use it. Why? We like it for the same reasons that we've always liked encyclopedias: it's fast access to basic information on a topic you know nothing about. It gives you an overview in language written for a novice, offers you key terms that are helpful when you proceed with your search to more scholarly resources, and it increasingly cites some of that scholarly material right there in the references and external links sections. But it's the unmatched breadth and currency that makes Wikipedia invaluable: entries on wide-ranging--often esoteric or technical--topics, and near instantaneous updates in direct response to news and world events.

So why do we tell students not to use Wikipedia (which doesn't stop them) and why do we groan just a bit when we admit that we found that fantastic resource by checking the Wikipedia entry, not by searching the library catalog or databases, as if our find is a bit less valuable for the scandalous way we discovered it? Because these are articles born on the Internet, compiled by unemployed, underwear-clad slackers! No one checks it for accuracy and anyone can add and delete whatever they'd like!

Of course this isn't true--there are clear guidelines about editing Wikipedia, there are human and automated methods of stopping careless and intentionally destructive disregard of these policies, and the entire site is built on software designed to record every change, easily allowing you to compare versions and to revert as necessary.

There are other problems with Wikipedia, however. Some of them were recently in the news. But they have to do with the need for more editors not less. Wikipedia is based on an idealistic model of crowd-sourced collaboration. Early criticism focused on a belief that specialized expertise was more valuable than the wisdom of crowds. But recent concern about Wikipedia's decline is focused on the fact that not enough experts are joining the crowd, especially experts who aren't middle-aged white males. Wikipedia needs more editors, more diversity of thought, and it needs more people willing to navigate the sometimes intimidating philosophy and etiquette of the site.

Wikipedia has made several recent efforts to expand their community, especially to tap into the subject expertise of academia. They have encouraged editathons focused on specific underrepresented areas of the encyclopedia. They have created sample syllabi and assignments, offered volunteer ambassador support to deal with technical hurdles, and designed course page templates in an effort to encourage faculty to build class assignments around improving the encyclopedia.

These assignments help address the subject deficits in Wikipedia by building upon short or nonexistent articles on interesting academic topics. But they also offer students a wonderful opportunity to create a writing assignment that lives beyond one semester and one set of faculty eyes, and offer faculty an alternative to receiving the same term papers semester after semester. They also help students improve a very specific type of writing valuable in any field of study: collaborative writing for the web.

And whether the students continue to edit Wikipedia or not, these assignments offer them a new understanding of what's under the hood of their go-to encyclopedia. Wikipedia is demystified--no longer a monolithic source of all factual knowledge nor a horrible morass of unverified conjecture and politically motivated vandalism. It's a website built and monitored by a community of volunteers. It can be edited or reverted with a few clicks, for better and for worse. And you can explore the history of changes on any page or the rationale for those changes just as easily.

As a librarian, I'd love to see us remove the stigma of using Wikipedia by modeling when it’s useful to go there and teaching how to use it effectively in tandem with traditional resources—moving seamlessly between the two. I can't think of a better way to start than by taking Wikipedia up on their offer to create class assignments to improve specific entries. Numerous faculty are already embracing this idea, building engaging classes right on the site. The largest and most ubiquitous encyclopedia ever created is here to stay. We want it to be more accurate and complete, and they need us (and your students) to make it happen.

Elliot Brandow (@ebrandow) is the senior reference librarian/bibliographer for history at Boston College.

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