Blundering Into War: The War of 1812

Inhabitants of Canada! After thirty years of peace and prosperity, the United States have been drive to arms…To the peaceable, unoffending inhabitant, it brings neither danger nor difficulty. I come to find enemies, not to make them; I come to protect, not to injure you…In the name of my country, and by the authority of my government, I promise you protection to your persons, property, and rights; remain at your homes, raise not your hands against your brethren, pursue your peaceful and customary avocations…You will be emancipated from tyranny and oppression…If, contrary to your own interest and the just expectation of my country you shall take part in the approaching contest, you will be considered and treated as enemies, and the horrors and calamities of war will stalk before you…The first stroke of a tomahawk, the first attempt with the scalping knife, will be the signal of one indiscriminate scene of desolation…Instant destruction will be your lot.

— William Hull, message to the people of Canada, July 12, 1812 —

As Europe lay in the grip of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, tensions began to rise between the two great English-speaking powers: Great Britain and the United States. Just three decades earlier the American colonies had broken free of the mother country, and leaders on both sides felt there was unfinished business to attend to. British leaders pointed to America’s willingness to trade with revolutionary France as evidence of their perfidy, while in Washington a group known as the “war hawks,” led by Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky, railed against the Royal Navy’s practice of pressing American sailors into service and London’s support of Tecumseh’s Shawnee Confederacy as casus belli. President James Madison, who had authored the US Constitution and now sat in the White House, had resisted calls to war, but by the summer of 1812 the diplomatic crisis between the two countries had reached its peak. On June 1st, Madison sent a letter to Congress and asked for a declaration of war, citing British impressment on the high seas as the cause. On the 18th, only days before Napoleon’s invasion of the Russian Empire, Congress declared war on Great Britain.

Neither side was truly prepared for the war. The British fleet, though victorious over the French at Trafalgar seven years earlier, was engaged in a blockade that was slowly strangling Napoleon’s economy, and the British Army under the Duke of Wellington was locked in combat in Spain and Portugal. The United States Army was in a shambles, having endured brutal funding and personnel cuts under Thomas Jefferson. The Navy was in better shape, with six topof-the-line frigates that could match any other warship in their class, but they were outnumbered more than one hundred to one on the high seas! The Army and Navy departments were disorganized, and field commanders tended to disobey orders from the higher commands. Most importantly, the American political climate was bitterly divided on the issue of war. The Federalists opposed any conflict with Great Britain, citing their commercial interests and the threat of invasion from Canada, while Madison’s Democratic-Republicans were eager for war no matter the cost. As the two nations readied their forces, it was clear that this “Second War of American Independence” would be a case study in rapid preparations, disorganized command, and last-minute turns of the tide.

The War on Land, 1812-13

The early land campaigns in the War of 1812 were disastrous for the United States. Less than a month after the war began, General William Hull marched an army of twelve hundred men into Canada from Detroit, calling on the Canadians to surrender or suffer the “horrors and calamities of war.” When he learned of a Shawnee uprising in northern Illinois and Indiana, he promptly retreated back to Detroit and then surrendered to a British force one-third his own strength under General Isaac Brock without firing a shot. The Shawnee pledged to allow the defenders of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) and Detroit to return to Kentucky and Ohio unharmed, but they then ambushed the retreating Americans and murdered more than half of them—including women and children. The twin defeats at Fort Dearborn and Detroit meant that the United States had lost control of the northern two-thirds of the Northwest Territory (what is now the Midwest), and the eastern three Great Lakes were now closed to the Americans. Later that year, the United States tried to invade Canada across the Niagara River near Buffalo. General Brock, now in overall command of the Canadian defenders, held the line, though he was killed in the fighting.

The United States fared better in 1813. Hull had been courtmartialed and succeeded by General William Henry Harrison, the “Hero of Tippecanoe” who understood Native American battlefield tactics. After a reversal at Frenchtown in January, Harrison maneuvered and struck enemy targets to hold the British and Shawnee in Michigan and block their advance into Ohio. At the same time, an American army under Zebulon Pike, crossed into Canada and burned the capital city of York (now Toronto). Pike died in battle, and the Canadians were eager for revenge at the destruction of this very important city. By October, General Harrison had driven the enemy back into Canada, and he attacked along the Thames River in Ontario in October 1813.

The Battle of the Thames was decisive for the United States in three ways. First, it put an end to the British threat to the Northwest Territory; second, the leader of the Shawnee Confederacy, Tecumseh, was killed during the battle; and third, it propelled General Harrison to great fame as one of the two leading military figures of the war.

The War at Sea, 1812-13

The United States fared much better at sea in the first eighteen months of the war. America’s six frigates, augmented by smaller vessels, began raiding British shipping on the high seas. These ships were faster and more modern than their British counterparts—able to outfight or outrun anything the Royal Navy had afloat. On August 19, 1812, the most famous sailing warship in American history, the USS Constitution, engaged the British warship Guerriere in a fierce battle four hundred miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Constitution’s hull was reinforced by iron bands and packed with surplus cotton unsold thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act, and many British shots bounced off her. Captain Isaac Hull, nephew to the defeated General William Hull, expertly maneuvered the Constitution to destroy Guerriere’s rudder, and the British ship struck her colors. For the first time in American military history, an American warship had claimed a vessel of the Royal Navy as a prize (though she was too badly damaged to be captured, and was burned instead). The Constitution’s victory earned her the nickname “Old Ironsides,” and she remains today a symbol of the strength and resilience of the United States Navy. The ship is now a museum in Boston Harbor, and she is still a commissioned vessel in the US Navy.

America’s frigates soon faced the wrath of the British in the Atlantic, and the USS Chesapeake was captured by HMS Shannon in June 1813. The US Navy was unable to win any major victories in the Atlantic after 1813 and failed to prevent the British invasions the following year. However, attention turned to the Great Lakes, where an arms race was heating up over which side could build the largest and most powerful ships on these placid waters. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry took command of all American forces on the Great Lakes in January 1813 with orders to prevent a British invasion of New York from across the lake. His fleet of nine ships faced six enemy vessels, and the two fleets engaged each other on September 10, 1813, in the Battle of Lake Erie. Perry’s flagship, USS Lawrence, was the first to meet the enemy, as it was the fastest American ship, and it took broadsides from all sides. Four-fifths of the crew was killed, and the Lawrence was soon a burning wreck. Perry and the survivors piled into lifeboats and sailed through the battle toward the Niagara, where he took command and soon defeated the British fleet. His message to President Madison and the Navy Department was curt and memorable: “We have met the enemy and they are ours!” With this victory, America had secured the eastern Great Lakes and ended the threat of a British invasion by water.

Britain Attacks

After Napoleon’s defeat in Russia and the coup de grâce at Leipzig in 1813, London began planning a final offensive to bring the Americans to their knees. They hoped to launch a threepronged invasion of the United States: from Lower Canada down the Hudson River Valley to cut New England off from the rest of the country, up the Chesapeake Bay to capture Washington and Baltimore, and at the mouth of the Mississippi River to seize New Orleans, America’s largest harbor. The northern attack never materialized, but four thousand British troops landed in Maryland in July 1814 and quickly overran a militia force at Bladensburg before marching toward Washington, DC.

President Madison received word of the British attack just hours before the enemy arrived. Having just sat down to dinner, the president and his wife Dolley quickly evacuated the White House with the Cabinet and members of Congress in tow. (Dolley saved a famous portrait of George Washington, which is the only surviving artifact in the White House.) The British were held up briefly by another small militia band outside the city, but they soon entered the capital on August 24th. Hoping to ransom the city for peace terms, they were unable to find any American official with whom to negotiate. After looting the city, they burned the Capitol, the White House, and every other public building except the Patent Office, which held numerous British copyright documents.

After destroying Washington, the British began preparations for an advance on Baltimore, America’s third-largest city, which would be a staging area for a planned move west toward the Ohio Valley. They planned to sail up the Chesapeake and land north of the city while the Royal Navy shelled Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore Harbor. However, the British underestimated the resilience of the American defenders at Baltimore—while they were unwilling to protect the national capital (whose loss would have crippled any European nation), they were determined to halt the British then and there. Thousands of Maryland militiamen and civilians flocked to Baltimore to prepare its defenses, and Fort McHenry was reinforced with additional cannons and steeled itself for the assault. By the time the British had landed, they were outnumbered three-to-one and were defeated at the Battle of North Point on September 12th. The redcoats then pulled back and waited for the navy to destroy Baltimore’s defenses; they would then move in and occupy the burning ruins of the city.

The Royal Navy fired nearly eighteen hundred rounds at Fort McHenry and the floating batteries in Baltimore Harbor for a full day, but they were unable to subdue its defenders. In the evening of September 13th, a young Baltimore lawyer and vocal critic of the war named Francis Scott Key led a delegation under a flag of truce out to the British flagship to negotiate a ceasefire. Watching from the deck of the British warship, he saw the explosions of rocket and cannon fire over Fort McHenry, and as dawn broke he could see the tattered American flag still flying high. Taking up his pen, he wrote a poem that opened with the words, “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light…” Having failed to destroy Fort McHenry, the British withdrew their forces from the Chesapeake region. Their second offensive had failed.

Undaunted, the British now pressed on with a final attack on the United States far to the south. New Orleans had been a French possession until 1803, and its population was the most diverse of any American city. Its garrison was commanded by General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, and when he learned that the British were approaching he cobbled together a motley force of nearly six thousand regulars, militiamen, freed slaves, civilian volunteers, and even a band of French pirates to defend New Orleans against eight thousand British regulars (many of them veterans of the war against Napoleon). General Sir Edward Pakenham, nephew of the Duke of Wellington, led the British attack, and he was confident of victory.

Jackson deployed his men just off the beaches along a narrow strip of land between the Mississippi River and a large swamp. From this position he controlled the only approach to New Orleans. Pakenham attacked on January 8, 1815, and the result was a slaughter of epic proportions. Two thousand British soldiers were killed or wounded, while the Americans lost only 71 men. General Pakenham was mortally wounded by cannon-fire and died later that day.

As the smoke cleared over the battlefield, Andrew Jackson stood atop the defenses and surveyed the carnage below. His glorious victory had made him the greatest hero of the War of 1812 (and a future president). He returned the body of General Pakenham to his family after having it pickled in a barrel of rum—one of many examples of Jackson’s macabre sense of humor.

The Lasting Peace

The irony of New Orleans was that Jackson had won his victory after the war had formally ended. Peace negotiations between the British and American diplomats in the Netherlands had opened only weeks after the war had begun. A new group of envoys led by John Quincy Adams, son of the former president, arrived in October 1814 with instructions to end the war at any cost, and they sought the best terms they could get from the British. The terms of the Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Day 1814, were status quo antebellum, “all things as they were before the war.” No territories were exchanged, which angered the “war hawks” who had hoped to annex part or all of Canada, and the British did not promise to stop aiding the Native Americans or end their pressing of sailors into the Royal Navy.

In the end, the War of 1812 represented the lowest point of Anglo-American relations outside the Revolution itself, but it was also the turning point between the two nations. From 1815 onward, the United States and Great Britain began to regard each other cautiously as potential friends and, perhaps, even allies. British and American interests were aligned for much of the 19th century, as both nations sought to maintain open commercial markets in Central and South America. There would still be conflicts between America and Britain—in the 1840s over Oregon, during the American Civil War, in the 1890s during a border dispute in Maine—but eventually the two countries would form a lasting “special relationship” cemented by blood during two terrible world wars, and one that endures to this day.

So what did America gain in the War of 1812? Not land, or glory, or treasure. Rather, America gained its true freedom from outside influence. For most of the thirty years between the Revolution and this war, America had been pulled in one of two directions: toward revolutionary France or reactionary Britain. The war forever severed all political and cultural ties between the United States and Great Britain, but these would be rebuilt even stronger than they had been during the colonial period. America also gained its freedom from outside interference in Native American affairs. Never again did a European power seek to aid native tribes in their resistance to American expansion, and that expansion soon accelerated across the North American continent. Fifteen thousand Americans perished in the war, in battle, of wounds, or of disease, and historians continue to debate the merits of the conflict. Nevertheless, as the country emerged from its second war of independence, it was now free to chart its own course in the world.


The Corps of Discovery: The Lewis & Clark Expedition

“As we passed on, it seemed those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end.”

—Meriwether Lewis—

It’s 1803, and under the direction of President Thomas Jefferson the United States has acquired the Louisiana Territory from France. The territory—around 828,000 square miles—is sold to the US for $11 million and is comprised of what is now fifteen states and two Canadian provinces, starting from modern-day Louisiana and stretching into southern Canada. In addition to increasing the sovereign land of the United States, one of Jefferson’s primary goals was to find a practical northwest passage in which to institute trade and lay claim to lands in the northwestern region before Great Britain and France. In his words, he wanted to find “the most direct and practical water communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce."

To accomplish this, he commissioned an expedition to investigate this possibility, to explore the newly acquired land, and map the western regions for future exploration. These not-so-humble objectives were the foundation for one of the most exciting adventures in American history. The land west of St. Louis was wild, unknown, and virtually uncharted. Beyond the confines of measurable civilization lay an unknown that brought wonder to all would-be explorers. In the modern-day, it’s hard to visualize what it would have been like to take the first step forward into what was then considered the true wild. Two men lead a group that held this honor, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.


Lewis and Clark came from the US Army. At that time, the entire Army numbered a little over three thousand men, with less than twenty having any experience in engineering. Lewis was serving as Jefferson’s private secretary. He had served as a Captain within the 1st Infantry, and had proved himself to be resourceful, a frontiersman, and leader. Clark was still serving in the Army within the Artillery corps and had engineering experience during his service. Lewis selected Clark, who had been his superior in previous military campaigns in the 1790s. Both men were capable and able to complete the journey, but to prepare Lewis further, Jefferson had him train with doctors for the purposes of medical research, train with astronomers to learn navigation, and improve his skills in geography in order to study maps and other writings from men who had explored parts of the territory – especially the Columbia River – years before.

To begin the selection of men who would accompany them during the journey, Lewis and Clark met in Louisville, Kentucky and what is now Clarksville, Indiana to evaluate volunteers who showed interest in participating in the journey. Men who were brave, unmarried, and healthy were prioritized, and skill sets such as wilderness survival were coveted. It was at these two locations that the “nine young men from Kentucky” were selected, representing the core of the group. After a rigorous selection process, a total of seven officers (five of whom were noncommissioned), thirty enlisted men, and fifteen civilians were selected to be part of the Corps of Discovery. Among this group was Lewis’s slave, York. Training was conducted at Camp Dubois in the Indiana Territory during the spring of 1804 with the group leaving by canoe to meet up with Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri.

Aside from training, massive preparations for food and equipment were made. The Corps was equipped with the most advanced weapons at the time to show military strength, including the .46 caliber Girandoni Air Rifle and repeating arms. In addition to advanced weaponry, the group was also issued flintlock rifles, knives, and tomahawks for close combat. Since the expedition would primarily be done via the Missouri and adjoining rivers, boats were acquired including a 55-foot-long keel boat, a iron-framed vessel to assemble during the journey, and assorted canoes for the party to use. Other supplies included food, medicine, gift packages, and silver friendship medals to help establish peaceful relationship with Indians. The Corps of Discovery departed on May 14th from Camp Dubios, met Louis in St. Charles, and left as full expedition via the Missouri river on May 21, 1804. They passed the last French outpost within a few weeks, and after that, there was only the unknown.

Adventure and Discovery

Over the next several weeks, the group continued west until on August 3rd, they held their first council with Indians in that region. In attendance were members of the Oto and Missouri tribes near what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa. Peace Medals were presented to Indian chiefs during these meetings, and any information that could be interpreted and used about the lands ahead was garnered. Each day, the group traveled farther and farther west, recording the different experiences and schedules in journals while collecting specimens to send back to what was considered the known world.

Throughout the journey upriver, strict discipline was implemented. This included lashes for what is now considered major offenses such as falling asleep on post and drunkenness. Sergeants were positioned on the bow, center, and stern to watch for any possible aggression from the shoreline. At night, boats and supplies were closely guarded. The need for constant security was reinforced early on in the expedition, as previous writings about Native Americans proved irregular, underestimating the military strength of several tribes.

The Great Plains tribe of Lakota (or Sioux) were especially powerful, being cited by Jefferson as “that nation we wish most particularly to make a friendly impression because of their immense power.” When contact was finally made with the chiefs of that nation, the ceremony was a great success both because of the respect showed to the nation and the demonstration of firepower from the state-of-the-art weaponry which brought respect from the tribes in attendance. Later in the voyage, the Corps would encounter another band of Lakota who were known among traders as menacing, but after a show of force the Indians were dissuaded from combat, and even befriended the Corps as a result of what was observed. Among the many attributes seen in the different tribes and Clark encountered, a show of strength had the ability to earn the respect and show the capability of force, both of which lead to no major conflicts during the expedition.

As the fall grew cold and the winter months approached, the Corps of Discovery constructed Fort Mandan to survive the winter. Boats and supplies were brought inside the fort, a new regime was instituted to adapt to the frigid months ahead. Hunting parties were commissioned throughout their stay at the fort, and regular trips were made to find and harvest downed trees for the purposes of firewood collection and repairs to the structure. Visitors from the Lakotas would regularly come to the Fort as well as fur traders who were used to working up and down the river. One of the many visitors was a French-Canadian Fur Trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, a Shoshone-born Indian named Sacagawea. Acting as the interpreter, Charbonneau was able to bridge many of the communication gaps between the Lakota and the Corps.

After a long winter, the expedition prepared to leave the Fort on April 7, 1805. At the same time, they dispatched their barge with members of the party back down river. Within the barge was a collection of writings, scientific specimens, and maps about journey thus far. The progress report which constituted most of the writings called, A Statistical View of the Indian Nations Inhabiting the Territory of Louisiana and detailed the various tribes, practices, and water routes the group had encountered thus far. This detailed report was prized by Jefferson, and later presented to Congress. With the barge underway and the party split between those leaving and the “thirty-one men and a woman” continuing, the Corps of Discovery departed Fort Mandan and continued west along the Missouri.

The Missouri began to branch as they traveled, and the Corps moved onto the Yellowstone River. As the party continued west, they passed the great herds of buffalo, elk, and other rich wildlife that up till that point, had never been recorded. According to Lewis, the great herds “were so gentle we pass near them without appearing to excite any alarm, and when we attract their attention they approach more nearly to see what we are." Not long after, the Corps approached the Great Falls of the Missouri and had to travel via land—boats, supplies, and equipment in tow—over hills and through the wilderness while battling exhaustion, heat, and mosquitos. Finally, on July 15 of 1805 they were water-bound again and some days later, Lewis recorded seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time.

Within the Rocky Mountains lay the Shoshone tribe, the native tribe of their interpreter, Sacagawea. It is recorded that during a forward expedition by Lewis the group encountered a single warrior of that tribe, and that the Chief reported to Lewis that word had spread about their expedition being a ruse by a hostile tribe to institute an ambush. Thankfully, the Chief didn’t believe what was said and began cautious discussions with Lewis. No sooner had the discussions begun than Clark arrived with the rear guard and produced Sacagawea, who was revealed to be the chief’s long-lost sister. Her arrival, testimony, and safe return to her people caused all tensions to subside. As a result, the Shoshone aided the expedition in their resupply, took the declaration of American sovereignty in good spirits, and provided whatever information they could about the journey that lay still in front of the group.

From August to September the Corps of Discovery encountered territory so terrible that one of the members said it was “the most terrible mountains I ever beheld." The Corps continued on through what is now modern-day Idaho and Washington throughout October, encountering rapids, rain, insects and other challenges wrought by the wild. During this time one of the guides informed the group that another tribe downriver were planning an ambush. It is recorded that the news did little to scare the Corps, with the journal entry stating, “Being at all times ready for any attempt of that sort, we were not under greater apprehensions than usual…we therefore only reexamined our arms, and increased the ammunition.”

Finally merging into the Colombia River, they continued west until at last seeing that which was counted as their primary objective, the Pacific Ocean. Using the notes of William Robert Broughton and maps that he had written, the Corps of Discovery oriented themselves with the landmarks provided and used these pieces to help in their navigation. Upon finally seeing the great ocean, it is recorded, “We enjoyed the delightful prospect of that ocean, the object of all our labors, the reward of all our anxieties.” Standing at the mouth of the Columbia River on the shores of a great ocean on November 7, 1805, the Corps of Discovery had traveled over 3,700 miles.

The Trip Home

Immediately after reaching the Pacific, winter quarters had to be established. The Corps voted on where the location would be, and both Sacagawea and York were allowed to participate, making it the first time a woman and African American were allowed to vote in America. They settled on the west side of the Netul River, constructing Fort Clatsop where they remained until March 23, 1806. After some minor skirmishes with the Bitterroot and Blackfeet Indians, the group separated and began to pull from caches they had buried on their journey out to the ocean. Lewis and Clark’s groups rejoined at the mouth of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers on August 11th, and with the help of the mighty river, were able to return home on September 23rd to St. Louis writing to President Jefferson, “the corps has penetrated the Continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean.”

Results of the Expedition

As it is with most our episodes, its very difficult to summarize this amazing event in history. The results of the expedition ranged from map-making of the unexplored lands to botany and a detailed account of the different Indian tribes encountered during the journey, all of which held immeasurable value. Lewis and Clark were the first Americans to discover the Continental Divide, experience Yellowstone, cross into Montana and Idaho, and provide maps and details for each place. Though they did not discover a desired “northwest passage”, their dealings with the Indians, negotiations, goodwill, and perceived establishment of American sovereignty secured and claimed title to the explored regions.

The journey of Lewis and Clark marked the beginnings of westward expansion, put on the paper the wild lands of the northwest, and established beneficial relations with Native Americans. The journals and accounts of the expedition have recently been combined and re-released, and I encourage all of you to take some time and read these accounts so that you can experience the moments of discovery with the explorers, first-hand. The Corps of Discovery will forever live on in American history as the ultimate story of adventure into the unknown, bringing the dreams of a fledgling America in its wake as it pushed future expansion, perceived sovereignty, and knowledge of the wild, untamed world.

First in the Hearts of His Countrymen | George Washington

Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are Freemen, fighting for the blessings of Liberty— that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men.

— George Washington, message to his soldiers, August 27, 1776—

Lists of America’s greatest presidents often include men like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, depending on the political biases of the authors and of those who have been polled. Greatness is difficult to measure when assessing leadership, and there is often a good deal of debate as to the merits of an American chief executive to be considered truly “great.” And yet, one man towers above all the rest in the pantheon of American presidents: George Washington. Called the “Father of His Country” even while he was still alive, George Washington is truly the one American leader without whom there could not have been an America.

Of course, no complete biography of George Washington, or any of the other figures covered in this season’s podcasts, can be presented in only fifteen minutes. By necessity, certain aspects must be left out even if they were a significant part of a subject’s life—such are the limits of time and attention. For this season’s biographical podcasts, we have chosen to examine specific character traits of great Americans which defined their leadership and their contributions to the history of their country. For George Washington, the first in this series, he was above all a soldier, a strategist, and a statesman.

Washington the Soldier

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, to Augustine and Mary Washington in the Colony of Virginia. By the time he reached the age of 21, he had endured the loss of his father and elder half-brother Lawrence and grown wealthy by surveying and purchasing land in Virginia and other colonies. In 1753, he was commissioned lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Regiment and sent to attack the French Fort Duquesne in the Ohio Valley the following year. The Virginians’ first assault failed, and Washington withdrew thirty miles southeast and constructed Fort Necessity as a garrison for his regiment. The French, together with their Indian allies, pursued and attacked the fort in March 1754, which was poorly-located in a valley surrounded by dense forests. The Battle of Fort Necessity was Washington’s first experience in combat, and also his only surrender in battle.

In 1755, Washington’s regiment joined a British force commanded by General Sir Edward Braddock in a second campaign to capture Fort Duquesne. The British marched into the Ohio Valley, using the Americans as skirmishers to scout for the enemy and also as laborers to build a road on which they could march in line-and-column. Washington fell severely ill and was left behind, though he recovered in time to join the army at the Monongahela River on July 8, 1755. The very next day, the French attacked Braddock’s army in a devastating ambush that killed or wounded two-thirds of the British troops. (Braddock himself was mortally wounded in the battle and died four days later.) Washington, still feverish, rallied his Virginians to form a rear-guard and protect the fleeing British soldiers. In a letter to his younger brother written nine days after the battle, Washington described the perils of combat: “By the All-Powerful Dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me!” This account was substantiated by a Native American warrior present at the battle. When Washington returned to the site of the battle in 1770, his party was met by a Native chief, who spoke to the Americans through an interpreter. Pointing to Washington, he said, “The Great Spirit protects that man and guides his destinies… he was never born to be killed by a bullet! I had seventeen fair fires at him with my rifle, and after all could not bring him to the ground!”

Washington petitioned for a commission in the British Army repeatedly throughout the war, but he was always refused this honor (a slight which many historians believe lay at the core of his distrust of the British). In the next year, the Virginia Regiment trained rigorously under Washington’s strict directions. They engaged the French and Indians in over twenty battles and lost nearly a third of their number. By 1758, the British were gaining ground in the Ohio Valley, and the regiment deployed for the last time as part of the Forbes expedition to once again capture Fort Duquesne. No battles were fought, as the French had already abandoned the fort.

Washington’s experience as a soldier during the French and Indian War was limited to his command of the Virginia Regiment, but he gained valuable insight into how the British Army fought battles and organized its logistical operations. He came to understand the importance of mobility and the use of geography in pursuit of victory. Soon enough, he would put these lessons to good use.

Washington the Strategist

The British victory in the Seven Years’ War led directly to the political crisis with the Thirteen Colonies that culminated in the American Revolution and the War of Independence. George Washington, now a civilian, was a vocal critic of British impositions on the American colonists, and especially of their taxation policies in the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and Tea Act. As the crisis grew toward its climax in 1775, Washington was elected to the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and the Suffolk Resolves, two documents which tried to force King George III and Parliament to see reason and loosen their grip on the colonies.

When war broke out in April 1775, Washington arrived at the Congress in Philadelphia dressed in his military uniform and ready to serve if called upon. On June 14, 1775, Congress appointed him commander-in-chief of the new Continental Army, and after accepting the commission but refusing a salary, he departed the colonial capital for Boston, the first front in the war. George Washington was never a brilliant tactician who could snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. His talents lay in the area of strategy, of maneuvering his armies to decisive points of attack; he relied on subordinates like Henry Knox, Nathanael Green, and the patriot-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold for battlefield command. When he arrived in Boston, Washington was horrified at the state of the Continental Army, then made up of undisciplined Massachusetts militiamen whose morale was hanging by a thread after the retreat at Bunker Hill. As he had done with the Virginia Regiment, Washington imposed strict, almost draconian, disciplinary measures to whip the army into shape. Fines, floggings, and imprisonment were common punishments for military crimes, and eventually the army became an effective fighting force. (This trend would continue throughout the war, with Washington—together with allies like Baron Friedrich von Steuben of Prussia—training the Americans in the arts of soldiering before sending them into battle.)

The Americans’ first task at Boston was to liberate the city from British occupation, but to do this they would need heavy artillery to threaten both the soldiers in the streets and the Royal Navy ships in the harbor. Washington had no such weapons in Massachusetts, but the Continentals had captured 59 cannons at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. In November 1775, Washington dispatched General Henry Knox (a 25-year-old book salesman who had learned the military arts by reading the works of Julius Caesar) to Ticonderoga with orders to bring the artillery to Boston. It took Knox and his men three months to drag the “noble train of artillery” across snow-covered hills, over frozen lakes and rivers, and through dense forests, and they arrived at Boston in March 1776. Washington set them up at Dorchester Heights, which commanded the city and the harbor beyond. When the British realized they had been outmaneuvered, they evacuated Boston without firing a shot.

Though few Americans realized it at the time, 1776 would be the decisive year of the War of Independence. George Washington recognized an uncomfortable truth about the colonies’ military situation: unless they could find allies in Europe who would draw British military strength away from North America, the colonists could not win the war. Accordingly, the Continental Army’s strategy had to be, quite simply, to survive long enough for American diplomatic overtures to France (Britain’s historic enemy) to succeed in bringing Louis XVI’s armies into the war. Washington’s achievements in 1776 would not be as grand as those of Sherman or Grant in the Civil War, or of Patton or Schwartzkopf in the 20th century, but they would ensure that the cause of liberty in America would not die. Knowing that the British would next attack New York City, Washington moved his army to Long Island, where he fought the largest battle of the War of Independence. The battle was lost, and the Americans retreated to Brooklyn Heights, where it appeared they would be captured or slaughtered. General William Howe’s combined force of British redcoats and German mercenaries had blocked their retreat by land, and the Royal Navy was in New York harbor penning them in. Only when fortune favored the bold and a fog rolled across the harbor was the American army able to escape across the East River to Manhattan. Washington risked it all and ordered the evacuation across the river under the guns of the Royal Navy, trusting to the weather and the strength of men rowing the boats to survive. And survive they did.

Washington then abandoned Manhattan Island, crossing the Hudson River as the British landed north of New York City at Kip’s Bay and overrunning a militia brigade in the process. Howe remained in the city, and command passed to General Charles Cornwallis, who had only one order—capture or destroy the American army no matter the cost. Washington’s strategic genius was more than a match for his British foes; for the next five months he retreated again and again as Cornwallis massed for attack, fighting only with a small portion of his army while the rest pulled away. By December, the Continental Army had reached the Delaware River in southern New Jersey. They crossed it, taking every boat they could find with them, and the campaign season closed with the army still intact.

However, Washington was facing a serious problem. The army’s strength had dwindled every day during the retreat as demoralized soldiers abandoned their comrades or else went home to tend their farms and protect their families. Most soldiers’ enlistments would expire at the end of the year, and there was little reason to believe they would sign up for another year’s fighting without a victory. At this point, Washington made a bold and crucial decision: the army would recross the Delaware River and attack the British and German garrisons at Trenton and Princeton. The attacks went off perfectly, and with these twin victories Washington had shown his men that the cause was not lost. The army remained intact, and the war went on.

For the rest of the war, George Washington earned the title of “Indispensable Man” for his leadership of the Continental Army. Defeats at Germantown and Philadelphia did not lead to the army’s collapse, and even as American soldiers suffered at Valley Forge in the coldest winter conditions imaginable, their faith in their great commander did not waver. While other men like Arnold, Greene, and Daniel Morgan won battles in New York and the Southern colonies, Washington held the main army together by sheer force of will. As the war turned against the British in South Carolina and Cornwallis’ army began to march north in 1780, Washington saw his chance. Now backed by the might of France (which had joined the war after America’s victory at Saratoga in 1777), his army left Pennsylvania and headed south to join Greene’s force pursuing Cornwallis through North Carolina and into Virginia. At the Yorktown peninsula, where Cornwallis hoped to escape by sea, Washington laid siege to the main British army in North America and forced its surrender in September 1781. Now, with British public support for the war waning by the day, Parliament agreed to a negotiated peace, and two years later the new United States of America secured its independence in the Treaty of Paris.

Washington the Statesman

After the war, George Washington hoped to return to Mount Vernon to enjoy his retirement. He was now 52 and had no desire to be involved in the politics of the nation he had helped to create. However, fate had other plans for the retired general. After Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts convinced the government that a new constitution was needed, Washington was asked by Virginia delegate James Madison to attend the Constitutional Convention and lend his voice to the effort. When he arrived in Philadelphia crowds cheered their hero, and he was unanimously chosen to serve as president of the convention. As the US Constitution was being drafted, Washington spoke only in neutral terms, hoping that this would be his last political action on behalf of his country, but again others had different plans. The Framers designed the presidency with Washington in mind, and when the election for the first President of the United States was called, George Washington agreed to stand.

Washington is the only President of the United States to be unanimously chosen by the Electoral College, and his greatest contributions to his country came during his two terms in office. His inauguration on April 30, 1789, at the age of 57 provided the model for all future inaugural ceremonies. Washington was so nervous as he stood on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City that, as he took the oath of office, his voice was little more than a whisper. (Chancellor of New York Robert Livingston had to shout the words of the oath so that the crowd would know what their president was saying.) As president, George Washington lay the foundations for the office with every step he took. He refused high titles of address, insisting on being called only, “Mister President.” He exercised his authority in domestic matters very sparingly, relying on his Cabinet and Congress to run the country. He did act decisively in matters of foreign and security policy when he crushed the Whiskey Rebellion, pursued neutrality between Britain and France as the French Revolution erupted in Europe, and signed a very unpopular treaty with the British government. All in all, George Washington was the model of restrained leadership, one which every American chief executive would be wise to follow.

The immortal words by Lord Acton that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” ring true in America today, but there are always exceptions which prove the rule. The crowning act of Washington’s presidency was also his last. As he watched partisan political fights break out in Congress and in his Cabinet as Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans vied for power in Congress and prestige with the American people, he grew disgusted with the state of national affairs. The president was also physically exhausted, having spent more than four decades in the service of his country; he worried that he might not survive another term even if he chose to stand for election. Politicians and citizens alike marveled at Washington’s incredible act of statesmanship. A man who, had he desired, could have been crowned King George the First had chosen to relinquish the power he had never sought and which he had wielded so judiciously. In March 1797, Washington watched as his vice president, John Adams, was sworn in as his successor. In a letter to his wife Abigail, Adams quoted President Washington as saying to him, “I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest!”

George Washington retired to Mount Vernon for the last time in the spring of 1797. He remained vocal in political matters, growing more pro-Federalist in his final years and agreeing to serve as commander-in-chief of the Army in the Quasi War with France. On December 12, 1799, Washington had spent much of the day outside in the snow inspecting his fields at Mount Vernon, and he refused to change out of his wet clothes for a dinner engagement with guests. The next morning, he awoke with a sore throat and had difficulty breathing. Doctors were summoned, and after five pints of blood were drained from his frail body, he dismissed the physicians. As one of them left, he commented quietly, “Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.” His wife Martha was at his bedside on the night of December 14, 1799, when George Washington passed away, as was his personal secretary who recorded his last words as, “’Tis well.” Washington’s funeral was held at Mount Vernon and closed to the public. He was buried there in the family vault, and when she died three years later Martha was laid to rest next to him. Congressman, and wartime general, Henry “Light-Horse” Lee (the father of Confederate general Robert E. Lee) delivered a eulogy before Congress. Speaking for the American people, who had lost their greatest leader, Lee spoke the immortal words that characterized the Father of His Country: “First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

War of the New World: The French and Indian War

“I must confess that in this country, we must comply and learn the art of war from enemy Indians or anything else who have seen the country and war carried on in it.”

—Brigadier General John Forbes, British Army, letter to William Pitt, May 19, 1758—

Its May 28, 1754. A young major is acting on orders to expel a group of French Canadians from small patch of land in what is now Farmington, PA. His party is small, comprised of American militia and members of the native Catawba tribe. The line advances toward a small outcropping of rock and soil and positions itself over the small group they were sent to dispatch. As the men level their flintlocks at the Canadians, one of the sleeping enemy group wakes and sounds the alarm with a pistol shot.

The major orders his men to open fire. The Indians in his party circle around the group and attack from the opposite side, and the line of militia advances as the Indians engage with tomahawks, knives, and other blunt weapons. Within fifteen minutes, it’s over. The major walks over to the corpse of the French commander. The head has been cleaved in half by the Native American leader who is still holding the bloody tomahawk, watching the man’s blood flow into the rich, dark earth. This is the beginning of the French and Indian War, a conflict that is rarely discussed or mentioned despite the fact that it was the prelude to the Revolutionary War, suffered more casualties and led to a war in Europe, and was the beginning of hostile relations between the British and the American colonists.

This American Life

Before we dive into this war, it is important to first describe the way of life in the American colonies during this time. North America of the 1740-1760s had been colonized by Great Britain and France, each arbitrarily claiming land as part of their empire. French territory stretched from western Nova Scotia all the way to Louisiana while the British occupied coastal lands from Newfoundland to Georgia. British America comprised the smaller of the two territories, even though its population outnumbered that of New France by at least twenty-to-one. Interlaced within all these territories were Native American tribes—the Iroquois Confederation, Delaware, Shawnee, Catawbas, Creeks, Choctaw, and Cherokee just to name a few. British interests focused on settling new lands and shipping exports from their colonies to the mother country, while the French, being substantially sparser in number, focused on fur trading, trapping, and fishing.

Depending on the tribe, Native Americans would either befriend and trade with the European settlers, or they would slaughter them. Though there were established settlements and towns all up and down the East Coast of what is now the United States, the wild, untamed wilderness was mere miles away. In those woods were unpredictable natural elements, predatory wildlife, and the ongoing unstable relations between some Native American tribes. The wilderness was hard, and the people that lived within its boundaries became hard.

To protect themselves, colonists used a rifle called the Brown Bess, a .79 caliber flintlock musket. For close combat, if and when they ran out of ammunition or didn’t have time to reload, colonists would use a variety of hand weapons like tomahawks, hatchets, axes, knives, and even swords. It is important to understand that wars at this time in history were not waged at a distance. I want to emphasize this, because I want you, our listener, to understand the nature of this war. When you killed another person, you could see them. You could see the flesh separate from the impact of the musket ball. You could see the brain matter from the skull that was cleaved by a tomahawk, or witness the effects of scalping from corpses that lined the road. If you were engaged in close combat, the last breath of your opponent would probably be in your face.

Whispers of War

The first whispers of conflict began in June 1747 when Governor-General Galissonière of New France ordered a military expedition lead by Pierre-Joseph Celoron to protect trade routes and settlements within the Ohio Country, an area of land which encompassed present-day Ohio, northwestern West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and eastern Indiana. British traders had begun to encroach on the territory due to the lack of a consistent French presence and the ease with which they could move in and out of these lands. Tensions between the two countries were generally high at this time, both from conflicts overseas and from ongoing political clashes in the New World.

At that time, there were no official French soldiers in America. Instead, French interests were defended and advanced by groups of colonial settlers called the Troupes de la Marine. These militiamen had advanced woodland combat and survival experience, but their lack of numbers made it difficult to police the territory. To combat this, Governor Galissonière focused his expedition on forming alliances with the different Indian tribes, emphasizing the British threat, and demonstrating France’s resolve. In doing this, the French created allies who knew the terrain, tactics, and practices that could deal damage to the much larger British presence in the region. In the early parts of the war, these alliances would prove invaluable.

As word of the expedition reached London and Paris, the different sides began to reissue territorial claims, igniting new disputes along the trade routes. From 1749 to 1752 negotiations were conducted by several representatives from both sides in the colonies about who controlled specific territories. One of these concessions was permission given by the Iroquois to British colonist and negotiator Christopher Gist to build a strong house—a small fortress—at the mouth of the Monongahela River. This would eventually expand into a much larger complex, called Fort Pitt, the outline of which can still be seen in Pittsburgh today.

The French advanced using Celoron’s maps to protect the interests of New France from British expansion. They constructed forts at Lake Erie’s south shore, in what is now Waterford, PA. As they moved, French forces drove off British traders and settlers. When the Iroquois learned of the French expedition, they sent runners to organize a meeting with the Governor of New York to request assistance. When the conference was arranged, Chief Hendrick of the Mohawk tribe shared his concerns with the British about the French threat. Unfortunately, the chief did not receive the response he wanted, and as a result the alliance between the Iroquois and British was left in tatters.

Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia ordered an armed response to the French incursions. Here, we find the young major named George Washington given command of a small group of militia and Indians to advance and link up with additional forces at Fort Duquesne before it was captured by the French. Learning of the fort’s surrender and the withdrawal of the forces, Washington discovered a small French scouting party moving through the area. He joined with another small group of Native American warriors and attacked the party during the Battle of Jumonville Glen. It was here that Major Washington saw the blood soak into the soil from the cleaved skull of the French commander. At that moment, there was war in America.


On paper, the war would seem all but lost by the French. The British had been in-country longer and had better control of supplies, trade routes, and shipping lanes. Additionally, the British fleet regularly blockaded French ports, preventing supplies from reaching the colonial troops. Despite these advantages, the British war effort was hindered by two primary factors, both of which have been attributed to a sense of hubris. First, the British damaged relations with their Native American allies. The French recognized that many native tribes were favorably disposed to the British, but rather than cultivating strong ties with the locals, the British instead showed hesitancy and weakness in negotiations. Second, compared to their French counterparts, British soldiers lacked woodland combat experience and strategy. When red-coated British regulars finally arrived to combat the French, they used line infantry and volley fire, both of which were not effective in forest warfare. Additionally, the brightly-colored uniforms, loud commands, and complete disregard for the importance of covert operations made most British regulars easy targets. In contrast, most of the French settlers had fought as militiamen, were battle-hardened, experts in forest warfare, and had strong alliances with Indian tribes that controlled varying territories.

Major Washington’s victory at Jumonville Glen was short-lived. He was pushed back several miles and built Fort Necessity in Fayette County, PA, which he promptly surrendered shortly thereafter. When word of this defeat, and others elsewhere in the Thirteen Colonies, reached Great Britain, the government dispatched an expeditionary force to assist the colonists in fighting the French. Major General Edward Braddock was chosen to lead this force, even though he had not been in-country, nor did he have any experience in the chaos of warfare in the New World. This lack of experience doomed Braddock’s effort to retake Fort Duquesne when he engaged the enemy at the Battle of the Monongahela in July 1755. The French and Indians repelled British forces through direct fire from the fort and a crossfire from the surrounding woods. Braddock was mortally wounded early in the battle, and over nine hundred British soldiers were killed or wounded (many of the latter had to be left behind). George Washington, who was serving with Braddock, managed to rally the remaining troops to organize the retreat. As he rode back and forth through the lines, his horse was shot out from under him—twice. From the ground he continued to organize the retreat, eventually finding another horse, and despite the overwhelming evidence that the Lord of Creation wanted him to walk, he mounted again, and successfully pulled his men back to safety, saving over four hundred lives.

Washington recorded in his journal—and a letter to his mother—that later that night he had removed his coat and held it up to the light, which shone through four bullet holes, two of which were near center-mass. This experience was what prompted one of the Indian chiefs who fought against him at Monongahela to seek out his old rival many years later. The old man said, “Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for you, knew not how to miss...I am come to pay homage to the man…who can never die in battle."

After the loss at the Monongahela, Britain took several steps to increase the military’s strength and effectiveness in the colonies. Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts and General William Johnson of New York were tasked with securing forts along the Franco-British border. Though Shirley struggled to recruit new soldiers, Johnson was able to secure his assigned forts to the chagrin of the French. Because of this, the French sent troops to confront Johnson’s five thousand soldiers. The two forces met in the Battle of Lake George, where Johnson was wounded but won a major victory.

Later that year, French regulars arrived on American soil under the command of experienced veterans of the War of Austrian Succession. The English formally declared war on France and conflict would eventually spread to Europe, where it would be called the Seven Years War. The French then advanced on all fronts in North America, and Britain’s prospects began to dim. In 1757, Britain planned to attack New France’s capital of Quebec using forces from Fort William Henry in New York. However, French reinforcements reached the capital, and the British were forced to cancel this operation.

At the same time, Fort William Henry was slowly being besieged. Raids by French and Indian forces destroyed storehouses and cut supply lines as seven thousand French troops tightened their grip on the fort. English forces fought for days against the advancing French and Indian troops, but they eventually had to surrender and withdraw. Once the battle was over and safe passage was guaranteed for the British survivors, the Indians aligned with the French disregarded these terms and massacred men, women, and children in the retreat.

The Tide Turns

In 1758, British Prime Minister William Pitt devised a new strategy that he believed would win the war. While Britain’s continental allies would press the French in Europe, the Royal Navy would blockade the coast and seize French assets at sea and at the same time deliver new expeditionary forces of regulars to attack and capture French colonies all over the world.

Combined with a poor harvest in France and corruption and mismanagement in Paris, the French war effort began to lose steam. Pitt ordered British officers in North America to attack three vital forts that guarded the approaches into New France. While only two of these expeditions succeeded, it did strike a blow to French power in America. In addition to the losses experienced in North America, the French were experiencing global losses. As the Seven Years War rolled on, French ministers devised plans to invade the island of Great Britain, which failed on all fronts. Resources desperately needed for the American campaign were forever lost, and the English blockades prevented most of the French fleet from reaching North America. British victories continued with a major success won at Signal Hill, in which French forces captured the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland but were then driven back by the British. The last British victory came at Quebec in September 1759 after a three-month siege. Both commanding generals died during the battle, as did over two thousand soldiers.

The surrender was negotiated between the French governor in Montreal and a British general in September 1760. Under its terms, French soldiers were to return to France and never fight again on American soil, and French settlers were allowed to remain (if they so choose) and exercise the religious rights to which they were accustomed. French forts and territories were converted and transferred to the British, who instituted policies that angered several Native American tribes. As a result, raids on settlements and forts continued until 1766. Even though peace had been won in the American colonies, hostilities between the two nations continued until 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War.


The war changed the landscape of North America and the world. Britain became the world’s greatest power, now possessing the largest empire of any European nation and controlling global trade. They also imposed new taxes on the American colonies to compensate for the debt incurred during the war. These taxes were met with intense resistance, which eventually prompted Britain to send troops to the Thirteen Colonies to enforce taxation edicts. This influx of British troops and the ongoing taxation without representation would be the beginnings of the Revolutionary War.

France lost all its territories, while Spain gained control of the Louisiana Territory. Native Americans were confronted with new colonial settlements west of the Appalachian mountains, leading to new conflicts with the British. New regulations forced many tribes to resettle, causing even more problems given Spain’s acquisition of the lands west of the Mississippi River. For all the inhabitants of the New World, life would never be the same.

Given all this, why don’t we care more about this war? Quite simply, because it stands in the historical shadow of the Revolutionary War. British gains in the New World were already part of their colonial plans, making the outcome of the French and Indian War much less of a surprise and more of a confirmation. In contrast, the Revolutionary War ended in a way that no one expected with the utter defeat of the leading superpower on American soil. And yet, the French and Indian War was the first turning point of American history. Its horror and blood birthed the rise of single dominant superpower in North America, paving the way for Thirteen Colonies to declare independence from that superpower. For these reasons, the French and Indian War is an important part of American heritage, history, and way of life.

Those Savage Waves | Zheng He & the Ming Treasure Fleet

We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense waterscapes and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set our eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued in their course as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.

— Fifteenth-century inscription at Changle, China, attributed to Zheng He —

“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” This well-known rhyme is taught to most American children when they first read about the European voyages of discovery that brought Western culture to the New World. Names like Christopher Columbus, Juan Ponce de Leon, and Vasco da Gama are familiar to most Americans, for their journeys across the Atlantic paved the way for the European colonization of the New World and, subsequently, the founding of the United States of America. Since the 15th Century, historians have credited these men with discovering the continents of North and South America. But is this the truth?

In 2006, evidence surfaced in China that may revolutionize the historiography of Europe’s “Age of Discovery.” A map reproduction made in 1763 with an original date of 1415 showed the world as a globe and detailed the geography of every continent on Earth; it seemed to indicate that Chinese treasure expeditions dating to the Ming Dynasty may have sailed across the Pacific Ocean and explored the coastlines of both North and South America. A book by the British historian Gavin Menzies called 1421: The Year China Discovered America put forth the theory that a Chinese admiral named Zheng He had actually sailed around Cape Horn and reached the east coast of what is today the United States of America. The map, now in private hands, remains controversial but does seem to bolster the claims made by Mr. Menzies. Historians and anthropologists remain divided on the map’s authenticity, but there is strong evidence to suggest that Admiral Zheng may have reached the New World.

An Unlikely Admiral

Zheng He was born in 1371 in Yunnan in the Himalayan foothills to a Muslim family of Persian ancestry. His father served in the Mongol Empire’s government until Zheng was ten years old, when the Chinese invaded Yunnan and ousted the ruling Mongols. Zheng’s father was killed, and Zheng was castrated and made a servant of the fourth son of the Jianwen Emperor, Zhu Di. Zheng and his master grew close and spent a great deal of time together fighting the Mongols north of Beijing. In 1402, Zhu Di seized the Chinese throne and became the Yongle Emperor, and Zheng was made the director of palace servants (similar to a modern-day presidential chief of staff). When the Yongle Emperor ordered the construction of a fleet of 3,500 ships for his navy, Zheng was placed in command of the new fleet despite having no experience at sea.

From 1405 to 1433, the Ming Dynasty’s treasure fleets sailed seven voyages across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Some of these ships were massive by the standards of the day—Zheng He’s flagship was nearly four hundred feet long and 170 feet wide; they carried nine masts and a crew of five hundred sailors and soldiers. Historians initially scoffed at such records, deeming them wild exaggerations—after all, the best European vessels of the time (such as Christopher Columbus’ galleon Santa Maria measured only 85 feet in length). This changed in 1962, when a massive rudder was discovered in the mud of the Yangtzee River dockyards which was capable of steering a vessel at least six hundred feet long; it was dated to the early 15th Century, the time of the Ming treasure fleet’s expeditions.

Admiral Zheng’s ships brought treasures from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East back to Beijing and made the Yongle Emperor rich beyond his wildest dreams. The first voyage in 1405 took the fleet south through the Malacca Straits into the Indian Ocean, and they rounded India’s southern tip before returning home the following year. The voyages continued every few years until the Yongle Emperor’s death in 1424. The new ruler, the Hongxi Emperor’ continued to fund Zheng’s voyages for a further six years, and in all the admiral led seven treasure expeditions to lands far beyond the borders of China. The Chinese did not plant colonies in the lands they reached like the European explorers, and while their missions were peaceful they were prepared to use force to protect themselves. On several occasions, Zheng He’s ships engaged pirates in battle and were victorious in each encounter.

In 1430, the Hongxi Emperor ordered the treasure expeditions put to an end, largely due to their cost, and the seventh voyage would be the last. When the fleet returned home, the emperor ordered the ships to be demolished, as well as the dockyards where they had been constructed. According to official Chinese sources, Zheng He died in 1433 near the end of his last voyage and was buried at sea. Zheng He was honored by his people and in other countries across southern Asia. His tomb in Nanking lies empty, a monument to this great but controversial man.

Did Zheng He Discover the New World?

Zheng He’s voyages as far as the Red Sea and the Cape of Good Hope are part of the historical record, but Gavin Menzies and other historians believe that the Ming treasure fleets also reached the New World (perhaps even as far as the east coast of the United States and Canada). The man who discovered the map referenced at the beginning of this podcast detailed his findings in a letter to Mr. Menzies and addressed some criticisms of its authenticity by Sinologists and cultural anthropologists. Most academic historians reject Mr. Menzies’ assertion and insist that Zheng He never reached the New World. (One British expert on the Age of Discovery referred to Menzies as “either a charlatan or a cretin.”) In 2008, six years after his first book was published and the controversy began, Menzies published 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, doubling down on his beliefs in Chinese superiority to the Europeans. As the book’s title indicates, Mr. Menzies believes that a Chinese delegation arrived in Italy in 1434 with knowledge of the wider world, and that this information led to the European Renaissance that ended the medieval Dark Ages.

Again, professional historians denounced these claims as pseudohistory, but Menzies continues to defend his work. Without taking sides in this historiographical debate, let us briefly examine the evidence presented by both parties. Citing the letter previously referenced about the 1763 map, Mr. Menzies redefines a number of Chinese terms used to describe geographical features. For example, the terms “Western Oceans” and “Eastern Oceans,” which originated during the Song Dynasty of 960-1127 AD, referred to the Indian and Pacific oceans, respectively. However, by examining the descriptions of both geography and peoples encountered by Zheng He during his voyages, Menzies and others believe that the descriptive terms “Western” and “Eastern” were inconsistently applied to various bodies of water. At different points in Chinese history, both the Indian Ocean (which lies to the west of China) and the North Atlantic Ocean (which lies to the east of China) are called “Western Seas.” Zheng He’s own recorded notes during his voyage also refer to the Pacific as a “Western Sea.” Accounts of the voyages also reference the discovery of a race whose skin was “black-red, and the feathers are wrapped around their heads and waists,” (perhaps describing Native Americans), and they speak of cities “built with huge stones” and whose inhabitants practice human sacrifice (possibly a reference to the Inca Empire of Peru). These are just a few of the many pieces of evidence Menzies points at to boost his theory that Zheng He discovered the New World.

The most academic (and objective) criticism of Gavin Menzies comes from the historian Robert Finlay, Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, in an article published in the Journal of World History entitled “How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America.” Dr. Finlay’s argument against Mr. Menzies is that the book 1421 fails to provide any proof that, first, the voyages to the New World ever took place and, second, that the Yongle Emperor had a “grand plan” to create a worldwide Chinese empire.

These are accurate criticisms, as Menzies simply asserts that the evidence he has found is merely a reinterpretation of traditionally-accepted views rather than new evidence being brought to light through rigorous academic study. Findlay further insists that Menzies’ setting up a website where his followers can send him more evidence they find points to the fact that the British historian’s “reckless manner of dealing with evidence” proved he was making it all up “without a shred of proof.”

Whether or not Admiral Zheng He actually reached the New World is probably not a question which can ever be answered definitively for either side. Like most historical debates, one must examine the weight of evidence and then draw their own conclusions. But before we close out this discussion, let us briefly look at what might have happened had Zheng He’s voyage actually led to the founding of Chinese colonies in the New World, or even sustained cultural contact and exchange with its peoples.

A Chinese North America

If, as Gavin Menzies claims, Zheng He had reached the New World in 1421, he would have done so 71 years earlier than Christopher Columbus. This head start would have led to a transformation of the North American cultural and political landscape by the time of the Italian explorer’s voyage and the beginnings of Spanish imperialism in Latin America. If Chinese colonies had been established, it is possible that Columbus would have believed (incorrectly) that he had indeed reached the lands of the “Great Khan,” which was his original goal. If the Chinese had merely engaged in cultural and technological exchanges with the Native Americans —as they did with the peoples of India, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa—the natives might have been better prepared to repel the Spanish invasions of conquistadores like Francisco Pizarro and Hernando Cortez. Moving forward in time, the English settlers at Roanoke, Jamestown and Plymouth might have dealt with a mature Chinese civilization on the east coast of the United States rather than the fragmented tribal societies of the Native Americans.

Colonization and expansion would have been far more difficult, and it is certainly plausible to conclude that the culture of early America would have been a blend of Chinese and Native American, rather than European and native. Drifting more deeply into a “what-if” scenario, consider what might have happened had the Europeans tried to force their way onto the continents of North and South America, where the Chinese had established either cultural or political foundations. The Europeans would have still brought their modern firepower and diseases, but China had discovered gunpowder centuries earlier. Might this have led to a realization in Beijing that this blend of saltpeter and sulphur was more useful as a weapon than for fireworks? Is it possible that China would have begun to evolve along a path similar to that of the Europeans had their culture clashed with the West in the New World? If that had been the case, the history of the 19th Century would have been wildly different. History records that when the Europeans began their imperial conquests of the East after the Napoleonic Wars, their opponents lacked even the most basic weaponry to fight them off. Had there been prolonged cultural contact between the lands of Europe and East Asia, it is possible that China and its neighbors like Japan and India might have risen in might alongside the European imperial powers of Great Britain and France. This would totally rewrite the entire history of the last two centuries, and even the best historians likely could not predict where our world would be today.

Of course, counterfactual history is just that—contrary to facts. It is an amusing exercise for students of history, but it is hardly an academic pursuit. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider how the course of human history would have shifted had just a single event been changed. Popular and academic historians have often questioned what might have happened had Adolf Hitler been assassinated, or if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War.

Entire books have been written on these counterfactual subjects, and they are often both insightful and interesting reads. In the world of academic history, “what-if” scenarios are usually derided as useless wastes of time, but they do provide some insight into the events of the past, and especially the importance of the men and women who shape these events.

The story of Zheng He is one of great trials and triumphs, a man who rose from humble beginnings to serve his emperor and his people. His exploits are not well-known outside China and the circles of academic historians. Nevertheless, his story is a fascinating one, and had his voyage taken place (which is questionable) and his people followed up on his discoveries (which they did not), the history of the United States of America and the world would have shifted dramatically and, perhaps, permanently.

How Far We Have Come: A Survey of American History

Oh posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom. I hope that you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.

— John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, April 26, 1777 —

Welcome to the second season of Fifteen-Minute History! I’m Jon Streeter, and I am thrilled that you have joined us here today. This season, Fifteen Minute-History is going to delve into a number of topics in American history, from the colonial period to the modern day. Our goal, as always, here at Fifteen-Minute History is to present exciting topics to our listeners and to bring you the facts of history in a clear and understandable way. Of course, there’s no way we can give you a complete history of the United States in a single season, so we are focusing in on some topics that are less familiar to casual students of the past while at the same time covering others that you’ve probably learned about before.

The United States is a unique country in many ways. Born in revolution against the mother country of Great Britain, America is above all a nation of ideas. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are enshrined in our founding documents, and while we have often fallen short of these ideals, the country has always sought to uphold its principles even in the darkest of days. When you examine the history of the United States, there emerge a number of themes which transcend the years and whose threads are woven into the fabric of our society. That is the subject of today’s podcast.

“A Nation of Equals”

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers declared the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” This idea of equality—the belief that no matter your race or creed, your gender or occupation, you have an equal shot at success—is the “American Dream,” and it lies at the core of what it means to be a citizen of this country. Tragically, the idea of equality among men was held back for millions of Americans for much of its history. From the earliest years of the colonial period, black people were brought to the Thirteen Colonies in chains from Africa and sold into slavery to white Americans to work in their homes or on their farms and plantations. From the early 1600s until 1865, what Southerners once called their “peculiar institution” was a sad part of American society. Slaves toiled in the most brutal of conditions—they were beaten and sold like cattle, and they saw their children grow up in a world that promised them nothing more than the lash. Even when our independence was declared and our Constitution proclaimed, blacks were counted as only threefifths of a person and, in areas where slavery was eventually abolished, still treated as secondclass citizens. As the fires of the Civil War burned across this land and the armies of the Union and the Confederacy clashed over ideas like tariffs and states’ rights, the cause of freedom eventual emerged as the central evil which had to be cleansed from the American soul.

Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” declared to his countrymen in his second inaugural address that, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so it still must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ With malice toward none, with charity for all, with the firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” These words stirred the hearts of the American people, and when the war ended a few months later they looked with hope at the president’s plan to peacefully and amicably restore the Union and lay slavery upon the ash heap of history. Sadly, with Lincoln’s assassination came the end of any desire among Northern leaders to restore a “just and lasting peace” with the rebels, and the decade of Reconstruction drove white and black Americans further apart in the Southern states. Jim Crow laws segregated the populations while the Ku Klux Klan terrorized freed African-Americans. Southern governors refused to permit former slaves to vote even after the passage of the 15th Amendment. In the end, the quarter-millennia of slavery in this country was followed by another century of racial division and rising tensions.

Once the Second World War had ended, the nation looked inward once again. Having seen the evils of the Holocaust and the institutional racism of Nazi Germany, progressive leaders in both political parties began to work to put an end to America’s sad history of legal separation between the races. In 1954, the Supreme Court desegregated public schools in its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, sparking a civil rights movement that would transform the country in just under a decade. With the help of African-American leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his dream of a nation who judged its citizens by the “content of their character,” in 1964 the Civil Rights Act swept away all federal and state laws which segregated the races, and it and proclaimed complete legal equality for all Americans. Of course, the work is not yet done, and America still grapples with racial issues stemming from our sad history.

African-Americans are not the only group in the United States which faced legal barriers to equality. Until just over a century ago, women were not permitted to vote in federal elections. Thanks to leaders of the suffrage and feminist movements like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sarah and Angela Grimké, Claire Booth Luce, and Susan B. Anthony, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed legal equality to women in the voting booth. Other minorities have likewise languished under discriminatory laws and actions by governments in this country, and America is still working to right these wrongs. The promise of equality is nearer at hand, but there is still much work to be done.

“Honest Friendship with all Nations”

Since its founding, the United States has enjoyed a unique position among the nations of the world. Its ocean frontiers have protected the country from foreign invaders and provided a sense of security unknown to much of the world. America has often found itself at odds with other nations, and our foreign policy has evolved with the course of world events. Soon after our independence was won, the nations of Europe were plunged into the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the United States found itself caught between our former British enemies (who were our largest trading partner) and our old ally France (whose revolutionary zeal and the bloodshed that followed shocked many Americans). For much of the Founding Era, America carefully navigated the treacherous waters of European politics, proclaiming its neutrality and signing non-aggression treaties with both combatants. In 1812, however, nationalists convinced President James Madison to declare war on Great Britain, leading to a three-year conflict with our old colonial masters. Much of the Midwest was conquered by the British and their Indian allies, the capital city of Washington was burned by an invading army, and only after a stunning victory at New Orleans in 1815 did peace return to the country.

Eight years after the war’s end, President James Monroe proclaimed a doctrine for American foreign policy which now bears his name. He announced to the world that the United States would not become involved in European affairs, and that in turn it would not permit European interference in the nations of the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine set the stage for American expansion across North America. The country waged war against Mexico and the Native American tribes of the Great Plains, was torn apart by the Civil War, and intervened in the nations of Latin America to ensure friendly (but often unpopular and undemocratic) rulers governed their peoples. For nearly a hundred years, America was isolated behind its ocean barriers, emerging only at the turn of the 20th century in a war with Spain that brought the country its first overseas imperial possessions and then when President Theodore Roosevelt announced America’s resurgent might with his “Great White Fleet.”

All this changed in April 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into the Great War, which had raged across Europe for three years. The unimaginable and heretofore-untapped economic and military might of the American people was unleashed against the German Empire and brought it to its knees. America then retreated once again, believing that the Europeans could contain future German aggression, and in any case, American lives were not worth the dynastic squabbles of another European war. Of course, our oceans did not protect us, and when Adolf Hitler plunged Europe into a second war twenty years later, America assisted the British for a year until being drawn into the conflict by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The four years of the Second World War transformed the United States into the world’s mightiest superpower, and when the dust settled, the former Great Powers of Europe and the imperial nation of Japan lay in ruins (the latter having surrendered only after the use of two atomic bombs). Perhaps this time, American soldiers would have finally secured peace for the world.

Just a few short years later, it became clear that new threats lay across the ocean, and the technologies of the mid-20th century meant that America could no longer rely on distance to protect herself. The Soviet Union, an erstwhile wartime ally, had grown aggressive in its spread of the deadly idea of communism, and as one country after another fell under the iron grip of Moscow, America had to act. With the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s, the United States began to act as “world policeman,” intervening across the globe to ensure that freedom and democracy were protected. This led to the two great conflicts of the Cold War—Korea and Vietnam—as well as dozens of smaller military interventions and countless billions of dollars poured into nations around the world. Communism had to be contained “over there,” or else it would soon spread over here.

As the world celebrated the end of the Cold War in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, America once again hoped that a more peaceful time was at hand. For twelve years, the nation enjoyed its “peace dividend” until a bright Tuesday morning in September 2001. When death came for three thousand Americans in the skies above Manhattan, at the Pentagon in Washington, and in a field in Shanksville, PA, the United States realized that her time on the world stage was not yet done. The War on Terror has now raged for nearly two decades, and American blood has been shed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and many other nations in the battle against radical Islamic terrorists. The United States again finds itself involved in overseas military operations, and its role in the wider world remains a starring one.

Progress, Positive and Negative

In 1789, the average American lived in a small home, often with only a single room. It was heated by a Franklin stove, and all the necessities of life had to be made or bought in a town many miles away. Today, Americans enjoy a quality of life that was beyond even the wildest dreams of our forefathers—our homes are safe and secure, technology permits leisure above that of any other nation, and the sum knowledge of the human species is available at our fingertips. Though not the sole driving force behind innovation and progress, America’s role in bringing humanity “from the swamp to the stars” is one of the nation’s defining characteristics. Innovators like Benjamin Franklin, George Winthrop, Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg have found in this land the freedom to pursue their dreams of developing new technologies and new ideas.

Of course, all progress comes with a cost. This is true not just with inventions and technological development. Our quest for equality was paid for with the blood of over half a million Americans on the fields of battle in the Civil War. The freedom American soldiers have brought to many parts of the world cost thousands of lives in Europe and Asia. As Americans have seen their lives transformed by technology, many of them have become more isolated. Technology brings the world to our hands, but it can also deprive us of the tools of human interaction. Today’s children are able to communicate with people on the other side of the planet, but they sometimes struggle to have a conversation with their friends face-to-face. Revolutions in robotics and automated vehicles threaten to put millions of Americans out of work. The United States, like the rest of the world, must face the reality that progress often comes with a price, and the American people must decide for themselves how far is too far.

A Bright Future

Each of the themes in American history seen here today are drawn from our past, and yet they directly impact our future. The promise of equality must be fulfilled for us all, and the American people are rising to that challenge. The blessings of security must be paid for, and our soldiers and first responders have never shirked from that responsibility. The inventions and ideas of the future coming from Silicon Valley and a thousand basements and college dormitories will take this country and the world into a future none of us can even fathom. The greatest question of all is this: will we, citizens of this great nation, learn from our mistakes and embrace the promise of America, and will we take our fellow Americans along for the ride? The American people must understand the past if they are to be secure in their future. The lessons of history are there, on the page, and they’re in this podcast, for any and all to see and hear. We at AET and at Fifteen-Minute History hope that this season will help to illuminate these lessons of the past, and that as you listen to us on your way to work, at the gym, or while cooking dinner, you will take a moment to appreciate your country and its blessings, and that you will work to preserve her for your posterity.

Their Safety and Happiness: The Declaration of Independence in the 21st Century

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

— The Declaration of Independence —

At any time of great political or social controversy in American history, one side or the other will inevitably rush to the Constitution of the United States to support their position. Sometimes both sides will claim the Founding Fathers’ mandates, whether the issue is civil rights, privacy, marriage or the role of government. Yet for all its deep and complex content, the Constitution is actually a quite sparse document, especially when it comes to the many social issues which have arisen since the 18th century. Conservatives will claim that this was part of the Founders’ plan, that the states should be “laboratories of experimentation” on social policy; liberals will counter that this was because the Founders wished the Constitution to be a “living document” which evolves with the passage of time. Today, I would like to take a broader view of constitutional interpretation that embraces elements of both sides and present to the audience a philosophy of government which is both traditional and progressive.

In order to truly understand the Constitution of the United States, one must first understand the Declaration of Independence. This masterful document is the philosophical foundation for American society, while the Constitution is its roadmap for political discourse and governing the nation. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he opened first with a justification for why the Thirteen Colonies were breaking away from the British Empire. Drawing on the writings of the English political philosopher John Locke, he declared a number of self-evident truths which are the five governing principles of American society:

  1. That all men are created equal before God

  2. That God has given all men a number of rights which cannot be taken away by any government

  3. That these included the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

  4. That government existed to protect these rights

  5. And that if any government began to infringe upon these rights, the people had the right to change or remove it and then to create a new government which would protect their rights

This last governing principle is what justified the American rebellion against the British Crown and the creation of a new government in the Thirteen Colonies. The first government was organized under the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, but it failed to protect the natural rights of the American people. It was thus abolished in 1788 when the US Constitution was ratified—a textbook example of Jefferson’s five principles in action. This new government still reigns in America today and is the most successful democratic system of government in world history.

Before going any further, it is important to make a number of distinctions. As with any argument or discussion, both sides must agree to the same definitions of terms, or else no progress can be made. We must distinguish between three types of rights: natural, civil, and political. Natural rights are those possessed by all human beings and given to them, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, by “nature and nature’s god.” Civil rights are granted to the citizens of a specific country by its government, whether by the democratic process or by edict of a monarch or dictator. Political rights—specifically voting rights—also come from government but only to those citizens who have reached adulthood and who can fully exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Just as important, one must understand the difference between a liberty and a freedom. The Founders wrote in the Declaration that all men possess the natural right to liberty, defined as the ability to live according to one’s wishes consistent with good order and public safety. Thus, all humans have the right to live and to work as they wish, but not to harm or take anything from another person. A freedom is the exercise of a civil or a political right—this is born out in the Bill of Rights which grants the freedoms of speech, the press, religion, etc.

These distinctions are important because we are dealing with the nature of revolution and the overthrow of governments. If the source of natural rights is nature, only nature can remove those rights; the same is true of civil and political rights—since they flow from government, only government can remove them. This principle also applies to freedoms and liberties; government can remove freedoms (by the same legislative or executive manner in which they were first granted), but only nature can impinge upon our liberties.

The Roots of the Declaration of Independence

To more fully understand the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it is helpful to examine the historical and philosophical roots of both documents. From the rise of the Roman Empire to the Age of the Enlightenment, rule by the people had almost completely died out in the West. There were some small free cities in central Europe during the Middle Ages and localized rule in Italy at the time of the Renaissance, but no large nation had ever been democratically governed in Western Europe or the New World. The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, brought about numerous changes in political and religious thought. Three Enlightenment philosophers gave the Western world what has been the foundation of modern political science: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke of England and Charles de Montesquieu of France.

Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 while Queen Elizabeth I was on England’s throne. He lived through some of the most tumultuous times in English history, culminating in the civil war which saw King Charles I murdered by Parliament and the Puritan dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell in which thousands of his countrymen perished. In 1651, Hobbes published Leviathan, one of the first modern works of political theory, in which he argued that to escape a life which was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” men came together to form a government and surrendered certain liberties (most importantly property rights) in exchange for protection from outside threats. He also wrote that this “leviathan” of an absolute monarchy must control and restrain the powers and passions of the mob; if it failed in this basic task of governance, anarchy and terror would be the result. Hobbes’ experiences watching his country tear itself apart over religious and political questions soured his view of human nature, and Leviathan is a very pessimistic work.

As England emerged from the chaos of the civil war and saw the creation of a constitutional monarchy, the writer John Locke penned his seminal political work, Two Treatises of Government, in 1689. Building upon the foundation laid by Hobbes, he wrote that mankind possesses three natural rights: life, liberty and property. (This last right, which Locke defined as the right to own all which they had gained through work or gift, was altered by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence at the insistence of slaveowners, but the definitions of “property” and “pursuit of happiness” are the same.) No government could ever trample these natural rights, which came to men from nature and nature’s God. Locke used Hobbes’ idea of the social contract to explain the relationship between governments and citizens, stating that natural rights could only be voluntarily surrendered. (In a democratic system this is done by the ballot and choosing elected leaders.) He then went further to declare that citizens possessed a “right to revolution,” the right to throw off any government which infringed on their natural rights—an idea seen almost word-for-word in the Declaration.

Locke’s ideas were embraced by King William III of Great Britain in his English Bill of Rights, and other thinkers soon began to build upon them, as he had not given much thought to how to avoid a bloody revolution. The most important of this new generation of political theorists was Charles de Montesquieu, a French philosopher. In The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, Montesquieu wrote of two systems which could prevent government from becoming tyrannical. The first was to divide the powers of government among three equal branches—the executive, legislative and judicial—and the second was to institute various “checks” by one branch on the other two. Montesquieu believed (and history has shown) that governments inevitably desire more power, and their branches will compete with each other to assume more power over the others. Having both separation of powers and checks and balances allowed the people to live in peace while the politicians grappled with each other for power.

Students of the American political system will immediately recognize the influence of each of these writers, and a full explanation of how they were implemented in the Constitution would take far more time than we have today. It is sufficient to say that the Founding Fathers integrated the principles of Locke, Hobbes and Montesquieu into our system of government, and this is inarguably one of the reasons why it has been so successful.

The Declaration and Society

We now come to the heart of the matter and our central question: what do we do if the Constitution is silent on a political or social question facing the country? Throughout American history we have grappled with issues from slavery and civil rights to privacy and the powers of government. We have a Congress which passes laws under the Constitution and a Supreme Court that interprets these laws and strikes down those which violate its precepts. Some laws have been passed and upheld which exceed the limits placed on government by the Constitution and others which have been struck down despite being clearly within those boundaries. If our leaders look to the Declaration of Independence for guidance, I believe that they will create a society which both respects the traditions of American law and custom while also allowing our nation to progress beyond the limits of eighteenth-century life.

Of course, applying the relatively-abstract principles found in the Declaration to constitutional law and acts of Congress requires a great deal of scholarship, and a discussion of these ideas is not possible in just fifteen minutes. Briefly, though, it is important to remember three key points which, if ignored, could undermine or even threaten the republic created by our Founders.

First, the Constitution sets out the mechanism for change in the amendment process, which has been used 27 times in our history. Amendments have been used to grant civil freedoms and political rights, to clarify the intentions of the Founding Fathers, and to adapt the structure of American politics to an ever-changing world. Whenever the Constitution is amended, it must be within the framework of the Declaration of Independence—it must not destroy or trample upon natural rights, as these are not granted by government and thus may not be infringed upon by the Constitution. Just as important, if the Constitution is modified by unelected judges or bureaucrats, these measures could threaten the safety and happiness guaranteed by the Declaration, which would have dangerous consequences for the American people.

Second, we must understand that our country has always faced enormous challenges in ensuring the prosperity and general welfare of our citizens. Some of these challenges have been dealt with historically at the national level—like slavery and civil rights—but we must remember that the Constitution also provides a second remedy for issues which cannot be solved by the country as a whole. The Tenth Amendment permits states to set down their own laws which, though they cannot contradict the Constitution or remove federally-guaranteed freedoms, can lead to solutions on issues—for example education and housing—that a national program might not be suitable to fix. Again, this is in complete agreement with the foundations in the Declaration of Independence, and to assume that every national problem has a national solution, and to implement them in violation of the Constitution, could create more problems than it solves.

Finally, we must return to where we began: with the Declaration of Independence. The principle of natural rights enshrined in that document are the very core of what it means to be an American. No law, be it national, state or local, and no act of any judge or justice, can threaten or eliminate a natural right from an individual or class of American citizen. If we remove the idea of natural rights from our society, the Constitution cannot provide safety and happiness to the American people. The system falls apart, and revolution could be the result. Before we close today, if this podcast has sparked interest in these ideas and you wish to discuss them with your friends and colleagues, allow me to offer you some guidance. In any argument, both sides must first lay out the “ground rules.” A discussion like this rests on four basic rules:

First, that two people can disagree on policy but agree on principles, in this case that the founding documents should be the standard by which all laws are judged. If your audience believes in a different standard for judging laws, that’s a whole different argument.

Second, that a right is defined as “that which may be obtained legally and without force exerted upon another.” If your audience believes that a service provided without compensation (like education, or healthcare, or a marriage ceremony) is a right, this discussion will break down.

Third, as I mentioned before, that not every problem has a national solution. If your audience believes that the federal government is the source of every remedy to every issue facing our country, a different conversation will need to take place.

Finally, both sides should be guided by reason and science rather than emotion and reaction. If your audience dismisses you as a fascist or a communist, if they throw changing principles of morality at you and insist that you follow them or else face divine or civil punishment, it will be difficult for you to proceed further.

I hope that you enjoyed and learned from this podcast, and from all the podcasts in this first season of Fifteen Minute History. If you are interested in contacting me directly with questions or comments, you can find me or Joe on Twitter at @jondstreeter and @josephpkr. I look forward to chatting with you and to returning to this microphone soon and to walking with you in history’s footsteps.

The Glories of France | The History of the Palace of Versailles

When a Frenchman reads of the Garden of Eden, I do not doubt but he concludes it was something approaching to that of Versailles.

— Horace Walpole, 1736 —

When traveling through of the bustling metropolis of Paris, one passes the great monuments of the City of Lights: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Bois de Boulogne, and many more. As one leaves the city and journeys west, crossing over the Seine River and passing through the villages and towns which surround the French capital, one arrives in the city of Versailles. Once a small, insignificant mark on a map, Versailles became the centerpiece of French political and cultural life in the 1660s when the “Sun King” Louis XIV enlarged his father’s small hunting chateau into one of the largest royal residences in the world. Standing at the Palace of Versailles’ front entrance, surrounded by tourists as the sun set behind the magnificent building on a summer’s evening in 2010 with my tour group, I was struck by the beauty of this place and the history contained in its many halls.

The Creation of the Palace

Since the Middle Ages, France had struggled to maintain a balance between royal authority and the rights of both nobles and peasants (represented by local parlements). The kings of France, believing they had been chosen by God to rule with absolute authority, increasingly violated the liberties of their subjects, and by 1648 the situation had grown desperate. In that year, a revolution broke out called the Fronde, named after the slings used by the Parisian mob to smash the windows of noble homes. The king of France, Louis XIV, was only ten years old and had been on the throne for half his life. His chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, convinced the royal family to depart Paris for their own safety while he crushed the rebellion. This he did, and by 1653 the king was back in his capital and celebrating his victory. Louis XIV’s reign was forever changed by the chaos of the Fronde—for the rest of his life, he would remain wary of the common people and, especially, the nobles who had risen up against him. For that reason, he chose to remove his court from the city of Paris in 1682 to his father’s old hunting lodge at Versailles, where it would remain for the rest of his long rule.

Of course, a hunting lodge was not suitable for the great “Sun King” of France, and so before he could take up residence the chateau had to be rebuilt—a process which took almost fifty years to complete. Once all building activities had ceased in 1710 (only five years before Louis XIV’s death), the palace measured over seven hundred thousand square feet, and its front facade stretched for 1,319 feet in length, making it the largest building in the world at that time. The vast gardens take up over three square miles of land west of Versailles and are the largest royal gardens in the world. Construction and maintenance of the court bankrupted the French government, absorbing one-tenth of all tax revenue by 1700. To compare these statistics for an American audience, the Palace of Versailles is nearly eight times as long and thirteen times as vast as the White House; its grounds are 109 times larger; and its operating budget would today cost the US government $342 billion—more than double what we spend on the military.

Life at Versailles

The palace included apartments for nearly ten thousand French nobles, whom Louis XIV wished to keep close so he could watch over them and maintain their loyalty. To accomplish this goal, he created a complex system of ceremonies which replaced material wealth as a measurement of one’s stature in the court. For example, the beautiful and historic Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was the king’s dressing room—he began at one end of the chamber wearing very little, and nobles lined the mirrored wall to hand him the various articles of clothing in his elaborate garb. The piece of clothing a noble was assigned to hand the king each morning signified his status with the monarch; if it was a stocking, that noble needed to step up his sycophancy, but if it was the king’s hat, the noble stood at the summit of royal esteem. This system worked, and the rest of Louis’ reign was peaceful at home, though he waged many wars against his English and Dutch neighbors.

In addition to the main palace, the grounds at Versailles included numerous “smaller” buildings (many of which were larger than the primary residences of other European monarchs).

Louis’ interest in zoology led him to build a menagerie in the grounds, where he kept numerous exotic animals—most famously an elephant given to him by the King of Portugal—as well as salons and viewing rooms on three floors. Sadly, the menagerie was torn down in 1801 after the land on which it sat was sold off by the government of Napoleon Bonaparte. A hunting lodge for the king’s prime ministers, the Pavillon de la Lanterne, was built near the menagerie and continues to serve as the French prime minister’s country house. The most opulent of these buildings are the two Trianon palaces—the Grand and the Petit. The Grand Trianon was Louis’ home for his family, and they lived there for much of his reign. It has also played host to many famous world leaders, including Peter the Great of Russia, Charles de Gaulle, and Donald Trump. The Petit Trianon, built by King Louis XV, is a much smaller (hence the name) chateau near the Grand Trianon. It is most famous as the home of Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI, and its beautiful architecture has been copied in buildings across Europe and the world.

From Palace to Museum

The Palace of Versailles underwent few changes during the reigns of Louis XV and XVI, both of whom lived there for most of their lives. But when revolution swept across France in 1789, the palace soon became the focus of national attention. The commoners of the Third Estate met at a nearby tennis court to form the National Assembly and swear they would not disband until a constitutional government had been formed during that fateful summer. Later in the fall, King Louis XVI and his family were forced to leave Versailles. When the royal family was arrested two years later after trying to flee the country, the palace was stripped of its furnishings to pay the nation’s debts, and revolutionaries destroyed many of the fine appointments to signify the new day which had come to France. (Many of these items have been lost to history, but some were later returned.) Versailles remained largely empty as Napoleon Bonaparte sat on the French imperial throne; he resided at the Grand Trianon, though his second wife Marie-Louise had a series of apartments in the larger palace. When the Bourbon family returned to power after Napoleon’s downfall, Versailles remained neglected, and only when a new royal family came to power in 1848 did life return to the palace.

In 1833, King Louis-Philippe of the House of Orléans designated the Palace of Versailles to be a museum dedicated “to all the glories of France.” The southern wing became the Galerie des Batailles, or “Hall of Battles,” and commemorated the various military triumphs of France from the early Middle Ages to Napoleon’s last victory at Wagram in 1809. The northern wing was transformed into the Salle des Croisades, or “Hall of Crusades,” and was filled with paintings and busts of famous French knights of the Middle Ages. Fifty years later, additional exhibits were created to showcase the royal pageantry of life at Versailles under Louis XIV. The royal apartments and chapel were restored to their former glory, and the Hall of Mirrors was rebuilt to its original specifications. The museum continues to be a centerpiece of French culture and tourism and is today visited by more than three million people each year.

“Hall of History”

By far the most famous room in the Palace of Versailles is the Hall of Mirrors. Once the dressing room of King Louis XIV, the hall is lined with seventeen arches which mirror (pardon the pun) the same number of windows overlooking the gardens. Within each arch are 21 mirrors which fill the hall with sunlight—and provided Louis XIV with a view of his court’s backs and guarded against assassination attempts. The hall is 239 feet long (71 feet longer than the White House) and served as the center of court functions, the celebrations of new births in the royal family, and numerous receptions for new ambassadors to the court. In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III hosted Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in a spectacle of grandeur which symbolized a new era of Franco-British friendship.

The Hall of Mirrors became the focus of world attention on January 18, 1871. Four months earlier, the combined armies of the German nations led by the Kingdom of Prussia had destroyed those of the French Second Empire and brought down Napoleon III (who surrendered his sword to King Wilhelm I after the battle). Days later, the Prussians had laid siege to Paris, which was in turmoil and whose garrison battled both their nation’s enemies and an uprising by the Paris Communards. As a symbol of Prussia’s victory and France’s humiliation, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck chose the Hall of Mirrors as the site for a ceremony in which Wilhelm I would be proclaimed Deutsches Kaiser, German emperor. Kings and princes from across Germany filled the hall in a scene brilliantly captured in a painting by Anton von Werner, and as one they swore their loyalty to the new German Empire. French officials from the newly-formed Third Republic were required to attend as well, and they were mocked and humiliated by the Germans for their defeat. This event (combined with Germany’s annexation of two French provinces on the Rhine border) cemented the desire for revenge in the French national psyche. Only weeks after the German Empire’s creation, the French national parliament took refuge at Versailles during the Communard rebellion. Paris had become too dangerous for the nation’s leaders, and so once again they looked to Versailles for safety. Once the uprising had been crushed at Montmartre, the government returned to the capital, and life at the palace/museum returned to normal.

Almost half a century later, the world again looked to Versailles and to the Hall of Mirrors. In 1919, after four years of bloodshed across Europe, representatives from 32 nations had come to Paris to forge a lasting peace that would ensure the Great War would be “the war to end all wars.” The conference opened on January 18, 1919—48 years to the day since the German Empire had been proclaimed in the hall—and for the next six months the delegates crafted five peace treaties between the victorious Allied and the defeated Central Powers. The most famous of these agreements was the Treaty of Versailles with Germany, and its vast and complex scope is much too detailed to be discussed here. It is necessary merely to note that the treaty blamed the Great War entirely on the German people and government, who were made to pay the full cost of the war, surrender territory and resources to the victors, and accept major reductions in armaments. Designed to form a lasting peace on the Continent of Europe, the Treaty of Versailles instead made a second and more devastating war likely, if not inevitable (as Marshal Ferdinand Foch predicted when he read the treaty and commented it was an “armistice for twenty years.” For many Europeans, the word “Versailles” soon became synonymous with a failed peace that threatened the security of their nations and the world.

Versailles Today

Today, the Palace of Versailles is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France. The city is nestled amidst the rolling hills west of Paris, and its people are friendly and eager to interact with visitors. AET has taken students to Versailles on a number of occasions, where we have walked in history’s footsteps and learned of both the glories and follies of the men and women who shaped the course of events inside its beautiful gates. The gardens of Versailles (which are open to the public free of charge) are some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of France, and both tourists and natives are often seen strolling along its manicured paths, basking in the summer sun, or playing football—soccer to Americans—or throwing a frisbee with their friends.

Inside the palace, visitors enter near the Royal Chapel and begin their tour on the first floor along the western facade of the main building. A series of rooms showcase art and artifacts from the life of Louis XIV, including his early childhood portraits and toys, busts of his court members, maps of his many military campaigns, and models of the Sun King’s other residences across France. The next series of rooms approaching the Hall of Mirrors are dedicated to French history in general, from the Middle Ages to the Paris Commune. One then turns a corner and enters the Hall of Mirrors, best seen in the afternoon when the sunlight streams in through the windows and reflects off the gold, brass and glass of the mirrors. The hall is typically filled with visitors, but this can add to the ambiance of a tour since it was often the centerpiece of world events. The king’s bedchamber is accessed through a door at the center of the hall, and the queen’s chambers are at the hall’s south end. The tour then proceeds to the Gallery of Battles and concludes with a journey down the grand staircase to the exit (and the gift shop).

The beauty of the Palace of Versailles is almost overwhelming to first-time visitors, and you will be tempted to run from one room to the next to take it all in. When you come to the Hall of Mirrors, pause and step to one side—doing your best given how crowded the hall usually is—and just take in the historic air which fills the room. The clamor of voices seems to echo the gala celebrations, royal receptions, and treaty discussions of the past.

Close your eyes.

Image the great Sun King of France’s morning rituals, the embassy receptions with the magnificent Queen Victoria coming to France and meeting with Napoleon III, the harsh tones and clicking heels of Prussian soldiers celebrating their victory over the Second Empire, and the multi-language shouts and cheers as the Allies drove Germany into the ground in 1919.

For students of history, Versailles is a place of both wonder and sober reflection on the past. It is a perfect place to encapsulate centuries of human stories and for each of its visitors to walk in the footsteps of history.

Time and Attention | The History of Social Media

“Distracted from distraction by distraction.” – T.S. Elliot


The first attempt at what would later be defined as “social media” took place in the fall of 1969. The United States military was conducting tests using the first proto-internet, called ARPANET, which was used to create connections between computer stations. As Charles Herzfeld, ARPA Director (1965–1967) described it:

“The ARPANET came out of our frustration that there were only a limited number of large, powerful research computers in the country, and that many research investigators, who should have access to them, were geographically separated from them.”

This pre-internet attempt spawned the famous communication – or lack of communication – which occurred in October of 1969 from the campus of UCLA. An attempt was made to send the word Login between two computers on campus, but a computer crash resulted in the letters LO being received. This first miscommunication did not stop the developers from continuing their work and successfully sending the message a month later. This achievement, both the failed communication and the successful one, would have a lasting effect on social media, whether those developers intended it or not.    

The Emergence of Social Sites

Though the ARPANET project closed in 1990, internet use skyrocketed. Its expansion through the 1990’s reopened the desire for better connectivity between users, and though this desire was satisfied in the forms of chatrooms and direct messaging, the push for a social media network never lost its momentum. 

In 1997, a service called Six Degrees began. This, the first of modern social media, peaked at one million members in its heyday. Users could create profiles and friend one another in order to stay connected with old friends or make new ones. Livejournal, a social platform that allowed users to create short blogs to keep friends and family updated about their lives, started in 1999 as a competitor to Six Degrees. These two networks would rein within the social realm until 2002 when Friendster would emerge and like the two previous competitors, would gain a substantial following.

Building upon these successful concepts of social networking, LinkedIn was created in 2003 for professionals, connecting over 1 million users within the first year. MySpace broke the mold in personal sharing in parallel to the emergence of Facebook, Twitter, and other social network sites, with over 100 million accounts by 2006. As time went on however, usability and simplicity gained prominence over features. And as the MySpace bubble deflated, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube exploded. More competitors entered the market as the opportunity for engagement increased.

Today, Facebook has over 2.4 billion users, YouTube 1.5 billion, Instagram 700 million, and LinkedIn over 450 million. As more users engage with these and other social platforms, these numbers will only increase.

The history of modern social media is fairly short, and as a result, you may be wondering why we would cover such a recent event in cultural history. The reason is not necessarily to report numbers or detail history you may already be familiar with, but rather to explain the reason why the concept and use of social media has become so prevalent in such a short period of time and what effects it may have on our culture as a whole.


Facebook was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerburg. A Harvard student at the time, Zuckerburg’s stated intention for creating what was then called, thefacebook, was to build out the student directory at Harvard and connect students from across the campus. At its onset, membership was limited to Harvard students only, but in March of 2004, membership expanded to Stanford, Columbia, and Yale. Later that year, Sean Parker invested in Zuckerburg’s idea, incorporated the company, and dropped the “the”, coining the name that we all now know as Facebook.

In 2005, Facebook expanded to include more universities, eventually expanding into high schools and being offered – and accepted – by many colleges and universities overseas, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. In 2006, Facebook expanded beyond the realm of educational organizations, and opened up to anyone who was 13 years of age or older. By 2008, Facebook had over 100 million members.

Surprisingly, monetization was not on the radar for the founders in Facebook at its initial stages. Investments fueled the growth of the company, with investors being spurred by the belief that profitability was inevitable with such a large audience willing to make themselves captive on one venue. It was only after Facebook hired Cheryl Sandberg in 2008 did advertising become the primary revenue generator for the company. After all, what else would you do with that kind of captive audience?

Eventually, Facebook would file for an IPO, going public in an effort to raise more capital for continued acquisitions, investments, and expansion.

Unlike twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram, Facebook was developed to provide an opportunity to do a “deep dive” into the relationships that are digitally acquired. While some use it to stay in touch, others use to connect and collaborate, while others just use it to argue and complain. However users intend to employ it, Facebook offers the most in opportunity to engage with others. The longer status allows for more content which inherently provides more context, and with the ever-expanding options on how to dress up a status, these pieces of content have defined the digital experience on Facebook as a whole, which stands in contrast to the second most popular social media channel, twitter.


The word twitter, is ironically defined as a ‘short burst of inconsequential information’ or ‘a chirp from birds’. While its easy to make many parallels – and jokes – about the validity of this definition and how it reflects current twitter use, the overall concept - and challenge – to communicate an idea in a specific number of characters fundamentally defined the user experience on Twitter, and how the channel evolved.

While it was initially conceived in 2004 by Jack Dorsey to link up small groups of people and keep them connected, Twitter was not actually founded until 2007. Its popularity surged during the SXSWi conference that year, where the founders put up two massive plasma screens of constant tweets running all hours of the day. The perception generated interest, as attendees wanted to join in on the ongoing digital conversation.

Growth accelerated over the next few years as the service continued to expand, with over 65 million tweets posted each day, and 750 tweets posted per second by 2010. The ever-present 140-character status requirement organically created a new way of communication on the channel. With such a requirement, users had to choose their words carefully so that readers, in turn, could assimilate the information with equal consideration and speed. This rapid-fire approach to communication came to the define Twitter, and influenced that habits – both good and bad – that we see today.

Though the character limit has expanded options for the user, the fundamental way communication is conducted on Twitter remains the same. Short bursts. Quick assimilation. Whether the information is consequential is up to the user.


Differences between social channels can be summed up by the type of status they allow. Imagine yourself in a conversation with a person. If you have the opportunity to give longer explanations about specific ideas and topics, there is a better chance for a continued conversation or bond to develop? In contrast, quick bursts of communication in a conversation generate specific types of responses, and the message is the only consideration, rather than the relationship itself. What if the conversation included you sharing a piece of information with the person such as a book, a link or an image? How would the interaction change then? While exceptions certainly exist, the type or length of the message being shared will drive a response which is inherently based on that length. Quick comments get quick comments in return. Longer comments get longer answers.

For Facebook, status length is up to the user, as are attachments and whatever images or links that are included. Longer status means more can be communicated, thus allowing the possibility for deeper conversation and connection. In contrast, Twitter has a restricted status length, and though many updates have been made to provide more options, the “get to the point” mentality of Twitter – governed by the restricted status length – allows for more opportunities to connect with more people, thus deemphasizing the depth of said connections. LinkedIn is a social network for professionals, with few limits on status’s but less options than that on Facebook, while Instagram – which is owned by Facebook – provides an image-based status option, which can accomplish the deeper context, while providing a visual that encapsulates the intended experience.

Social media channels are conversation facilitators. Its important to remember that, especially if you are a business, who tend to look at social – and everything – as conversion tools. Social gives users the opportunity to connect with others in the specific way that each social channel affords.

Drivers for Social Media Use

Reason #1 Technology

The first and most obvious reason for social media adoption is technology. When Sixdegrees and Livejournal launched, the internet was still in its infancy. Bandwidth was limited, and the computers were not nearly as powerful as they were today. More importantly, mobile technology had stalled to the point where focus was being placed on phone size and convenience over that of functionality. Applications were limited to simple games, such as Blockade (or Snake) which showed up on the Nokia 6110 in December of 1997. It wasn’t until the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and the Apple Store in 2008 that the modern-day application was realized, with over 100 million apps being downloaded in the first sixty days. That same year, Android launched its own version of the App Store, called Android Market. In 2011, Facebook launched its own application, soon to be followed by Twitter in 2012. As the technology developed, so did the user’s ability to connect to these networks, and in the end, to one another.

Reason #2 Psychology

The convenience wrought by modern technology, both desktop and mobile, played a significant role in the surge of social media use. But the second and more important reason for its adoption has been considered much more complex and as some have said, much more sinister.

The question of social media use was tackled by Harvard in 2012. Through two test groups, researchers monitored the parts of the brain that were utilized. The first group of participants was asked to share about themselves. The second group was asked to share about someone else and exclude themselves.

In the first test group, the frontal lobe was activated, and the dopamine pathway engaged. The frontal lobe is called the reward center, and is utilized when we received gifts, have sex, or eat something that we really enjoy. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter and plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior.

For the second test group, you know, the ones who were sharing about others, none of these functions were activated. The action was seen more as a task, and the users were bored.

As a result, researchers determined that those sharing about themselves felt intrinsically rewarded to do so, even if what they were doing served no practical purpose. This “intrinsic reward”, has been confirmed recently by ex-Facebook President and co-founder, Sean Parker.

 "The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them ... was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and attention as possible?' And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that's going to get you to contribute more content, and that's going to get you ... more likes and comments. It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors understood this consciously," he said. "And we did it anyway."

Using Your Information

Today, people are sharing everything about the lives. Every 60 seconds on Facebook: 510,000 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated, and 136,000 photos are uploaded. Over 300 million photo uploads occur per day on the various social channels. And these numbers are always increasing.

Due to the psychological drive to share, and the technological capability to do so, people are sharing everything about themselves, from new jobs and births to the daily struggles they face. Brands have capitalized on these types of shares, employing brand ambassadors to use products or talk about services to their millions of followers. A great example of this is Dwayne the Rock Johnson, who loves to utilize Instagram to speak directly to his 110 million followers about his movies, his motives, and his Under Armor products (which are kind of awesome).

There are many downsides to this, now growing, psychological need to share about our lives. Once something is posted, its there forever. Employers, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, and family have access to your posts and while those that know you may be able to put questionable posts into context, while those that don’t know may not. Additionally, social media users do not have the ability to control how the information they’ve shared can be used. Much like the ability of a police officer to search a see-through bag, social media considers nothing you share to be private, because, after all, you shared it on a public space.

In 2018, Facebook came under fire for allowing a data firm called Cambridge Analytica to harvest data from millions of Facebook profiles for the purposes of promoting then candidate, Donald Trump. The permission to scrap these profiles called into the question the rights of the user and how Facebook utilizes the voluntary submission of personal information, likes, interests, and other data.

Interestingly enough, Facebook did not come under fire for doing the very same thing with the Obama Administration in 2011, with officials from that campaign even publicly bragging about working with Facebook, and the different tools/systems employed to target prospective voters.

 “We ingested the entire U.S. social graph,” Carol Davidsen, director of data integration and media analytics for Obama for America told the Washington Post. “We would ask permission to basically scrape your profile, and also scrape your friends, basically anything that was available to scrape. We scraped it all. Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing. They came to the office in the days following election recruiting, & were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because, after all, they were on our side.”

Should publicly-shared information, be considered private? If users share personal information on a public forum, does this information still belong to the user, or does it belong to the place where it was shared? These questions, and many more, continue to be asked as the ethics of social media are debated. 

The history and use of social media is short, and very complex. One can’t help but find parallels to the first miscommunicated message in 1969, to the millions of miscommunications found in social today, from fake news to false perceptions (whether intentional or not). Though the concept of inter-connectivity is a noble one, the question of its effect and the way by which we are connected, who owns the information we share, and how that information should be used, are questions that are still being answered. The history of social media is still being written. Only time will tell if the its use and application find itself on the good side of history, or the bad.

No Peace Till Victory | Part 2 - History of World War I

We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.

— John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields” —

On paper, the Central and Allied Powers were evenly-matched in the summer of 1914. Yet the Germans held the advantage in the first year of the war, as they were most prepared for its coming. The General Staff had been conducting war games since the founding of Germany in 1871 with a variety of scenarios for two-front conflicts with multiple participants. For the situation in 1914, the General Staff chose to execute the “Schlieffen Plan,” named for Count Alfred von Schlieffen who had commanded the General Staff from 1891-1906. The German war plan called for a massive invasion of France and the Low Countries with seven of the eight field armies. The right wing would sweep down through Belgium toward Paris while the left wing held the Franco-German border region along the Rhine River. The single army in the east would hold the line against Russia (which would take at least six weeks to mobilize, according to Schlieffen’s calculations). France’s armies would be enveloped and destroyed in a battle south or east of the capital. Then the rest of the army would be transferred to the Eastern Front on Germany’s first-class rail system to invade and destroy the Russian Empire. Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff in 1914, made two minor alterations to Schlieffen’s plan: he refused to invade the Netherlands and instead forced the army’s right wing through Germany’s relatively-small border region with Belgium, and he transferred two corps from the left wing to bolster the Eighth Army’s strength in the east. He did not consider these changes to be significant, but in reality it may have cost Germany the war. By slowing the right wing’s advance in the Low Countries, France and Britain gained time to move up their forces to the border regions and prepare defenses, and moving troops from the left wing allowed the French to launch small raids into Germany. This violation of sovereign German soil led Kaiser Wilhelm II to order the left wing to advance as well, turning the single-envelopment operation into a double-envelopment. From a military standpoint, this is the most difficult type of field operation to execute, as it requires coordination between units that was simply impossible with the technology and infrastructure available at the time.

Despite some early stumbles around the Belgian fortress-city of Liege, the Germans were able to break through and begin their sweep across northern France by the second week of August. The French were hurled back all along the front, and the small British Expeditionary Force was nearly destroyed at the Battle of Mons on August 23rd. By the 24th the Allied armies were in retreat in the face of Germany’s onslaught, and Moltke reported to the Kaiser that victory was at hand. Paris was preparing to endure a siege, and the French Chief of the General Staff Joseph Joffre was planning a last stand in the capital. Then, on September 2nd, Moltke saw what he believed was the opportunity of a lifetime. The French armies were stretched out east- to-west on a line from Paris to the Franco-German border, but few troops were actually defending the city itself. Moltke chose to make a third change to Schlieffen’s plan. Rather than capture the French capital and hand the enemy a political defeat, he chose to have his forces bypass Paris to the east and continue the advance; he would destroy the Allied armies and then return to take Paris. As a result, on September 3rd, the First and Second armies drew level with Paris on the map and then continued to move south, exposing their flanks to the city.

Moltke had made a fatal mistake. Unbeknownst to the Germans, Joffre and the Paris garrison commander Joseph Gallieni had cobbled together enough soldiers to form another field army to the west of Paris, beyond the enemy’s field of vision. With Moltke’s flank now open, Gallieni began to move his forces through the city (using several hundred Parisian taxi cabs to deploy troops to the field) and position them to attack the German right. By the end of September 3rd, the French and German armies were parallel to each other along the east-west Aisne River, with Gallieni’s reserve force in Paris and detached from the main French army. The next morning, Moltke learned of Gallieni’s moves and ordered the First and Second armies to turn ninety degrees; they would now draw up on a line running north-to-south facing Paris and Gallieni’s small army. As the two German armies moved away from the remaining five (still moving south from the Aisne to the Marne River pursuing the retreating French), a gap opened up in the German line. The chance of bypassing Paris was gone, but he was still confident of victory.

Great Britain had not fought a major Continental war in a century, and its army had been reformed to combat small colonial enemies in Africa and India. When the Great War broke out, Britain could only deploy six infantry divisions and one cavalry division (France had 67 infantry divisions and ten calvary divisions while Germany had 78 infantry divisions and four cavalry divisions). The British Expeditionary Force, commanded by General Sir John French, was badly mauled at Mons in late August and had retreated beyond the Marne River to refit and repair. Its contribution to the war had thus far been negligible, and both French and German officers regularly mocked the British for their inability to fight a modern war. However, in the fateful days of early September 1914, what Kaiser Wilhelm II called “that contemptible little army” played the decisive role in saving the Allied cause.

By midday on September 4th, Gallieni’s forces were under fierce artillery attack from the German First and Second armies, and to the east the main body of the French army was retreating across the Marne River. Moltke had met with the Kaiser that morning at army headquarters in occupied Luxembourg and again assured his supreme warlord that the situation at the front was under control. In Paris, Joffre and the other officers at French command at Chantilly were lamenting their fate. Then, the report of the gap between the German Second and Third armies arrived, and Joffre dispatched a message to Sir John French at BEF headquarters asking him to attack. French hesitated but then agreed; the BEF would move up into the gap and engage the enemy. Joffre then issued orders to his own forces—on September 5th, the retreat would stop and all forces currently retreating along the Marne would turn and fight. It would be a battle to save European civilization.

The Battle of the Marne, fought between September 5th and 10th, was one of the largest battles in history in both numbers engaged and the size of the battlefield. Along a front of almost two hundred miles, 1.1 million French and British soldiers battled 1.5 million Germans for five days. Troops on both sides still marched in line-and-column and were devastated by machine gun and artillery fire. In the east, the French were able to stop the Germans cold along the river by setting up interlocking fields of fire and digging shallow trenches to protect themselves. To the west, near Paris, the armies maneuvered for position, but the Germans were caught in the open by the BEF and by Gallieni’s troops attacking out of Paris. On the 10th, General Alexander von Kluck of the German First Army reported to Moltke’s adjutant that his army was in jeopardy and had to pull back. When Moltke heard the news, he ordered all seven field armies to disengage from the enemy and retreat to the north. They would form a defensive line along the Aisne River and await reinforcements from home. In the field, British and French soldiers celebrated with cheers and bottles of wine as they watched the Germans pull away. At German headquarters in Luxembourg, Moltke was forced to report to the Kaiser on September 13th, “Your Majesty, we have lost the war.”

The Allied victory at the Marne was not the end of the story in 1914, nor certainly the end of the war. (Some civilians in London and Paris celebrated the news as if the war was over; they expected a quick victory in this “exciting little war.”) Over the next two months, both armies tried to outflank each other in northern France, stretching the lines out from the Aisne to the Channel Coast in what became the dreaded Western Front. New technology like the machine gun shifted the advantage to the defensive, and both sides began to entrench to hold their lines. By December, the war in the west had degenerated into a trench-bound stalemate, where it would remain for the next three-and-a-half long years. In the east, Russia’s rapid mobilization caught the Germans off guard, but quick and decisive action by Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (who would soon rise in rank to command all German armies) destroyed the first Russian invasion of East Prussia at the Battle of Tannenberg. 1914 closed with no end to the war in sight as Allied and German soldiers on the Western Front celebrated Christmas by crossing “No Man’s Land” to give each other gifts in the last chivalrous military action of the still-new 20th century.

Crisis of Civilization

The war in the West is one of bloodletting on an industrial scale. In the century which had passed since the Napoleonic Wars, warfare had changed forever as factories and mass mobilization brought millions of armed men to the front with the most devastating of weapons.

Poison gas was first used at the Battle of Artois in 1915 and would soon send thousands of gasping, choking men to their graves. Tanks and armed aircraft made their debuts in 1916 at the Somme and heralded a new type of warfare. At sea, submarines sank military and civilian ships alike, blockaded coastlines and starved tens of thousands of innocent civilians in both Britain and Germany. Major offensives at Ypres and Artois in 1915, Verdun and the Somme in 1916, and Nivelle and Passchendaele in 1917 cost millions of lives while gaining little ground. Soldiers were surrounded by death as they chewed barbed wire in Flanders, and an entire generation of Europeans perished. In the East, the czar’s armies hurled themselves on the Germans in brutal massed charges while the Austrians blundered from one offensive to another. The Ottoman Empire entered the war in late 1914, opening up a new theater in the Middle East that ultimately cost the ruling Turks their empire. (It also cost Winston Churchill his reputation, as his planned offensive at Gallipoli led to the deaths of 25,000 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers.) And in southern Europe, the Italians and Greeks tried to aid the Allied cause but only managed to send their own brave men to their deaths. By 1917, both sides were nearing exhaustion, yet no end was in sight—victory was the goal, but the question was how to achieve it?

The Germans struck upon a plan to win the war in early 1917. They reasoned that, if they could shut down the Eastern Front and transfer their armies to the West, they could overwhelm the reeling French and British with sheer numbers. The situation in Russia was growing dire, as the people were fed up with the czar’s indifference to their suffering and crying out for reform and peace. In February 1917, a revolution broke out, deposed Nicholas II, and brought the socialist Alexander Kerensky to power—he promised democracy and victory in the war. (His second promise ultimately cost him his position.) At the same time, members of the German Social Democratic Party reached out to Russian revolutionaries in exile in Switzerland with an offer: they would guarantee these outlaws safe passage across Germany and into Russia in return for an end to the war. Of the many anti-czarist groups in Switzerland, the first to agree was the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin. After a long journey, Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg in October 1917, and with the promise of peace bringing him mass public support, his Bolsheviks overthrew Kerensky. He then signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, withdrawing Russia from the war. The Germans exacted a heavy price from Lenin, but the Bolshevik leader was unconcerned—he had bigger plans for his country.

Had this been Germany’s only major political move of 1917, their victory in the Great War would have been possible. However, the General Staff also made a second decision that threw away whatever gains they would make in the East. In 1915, hoping to starve Britain into surrender (and believing, correctly, that France would not fight on alone), they began sinking any ship on the high seas bound for Great Britain no matter its nation of origin. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania and the deaths of 128 Americans on board, the Germans had backed away from this policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare.” Now, two years later, they returned to it once more. Hindenburg understood that this might bring America into the war, but he had little regard for (or understanding of) for America’s military potential. But just in case America proved more dangerous than expected, the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram to Mexico requesting their assistance in a war with the United States. Mexico immediately refused, but the British intercepted and published the telegram worldwide. Americans were outraged, and the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Germany’s final offensive in 1918 very nearly won them the war, but America had already begun to exercise its massive industrial and military power in Europe. Ten thousand Americans were arriving in France every month by January, and these troops were thrown into the line when the Germans attacked in March. By June, the German offensive had failed, and the Allies attacked. In the north, the British struck at Amiens and Cambrai with armored assaults that broke the enemy lines, while in the south a combined Franco-American attack at Meuse- Argonne hurled the Germans back to their prewar borders. In just one hundred days, the Germans were defeated—though their armies still stood on foreign soil. At the same time, Britain won decisive victories in Greece and the Middle East, and the Italians (with American help) broke through the enemy lines at the Isonzo River. The Central Powers had been defeated, and an armistice was finally agreed to at 11:00 AM on November 11, 1918. After four years and three months of the most devastating war in human history to that point, Europe was again at peace.

The “War to End All Wars"

The world’s representatives gathered in Paris for the peace conference on January 18, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles (the same calendar date in which the German Empire had been proclaimed in that very room). Over the next six months, five treaties were drafted and forced upon the defeated Central Powers: Germany, Austria and Hungary (now two independent states), Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. As had happened in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, the victors redrew the map of Europe, creating new nations and claiming territory from their defeated enemies. Of these five treaties, the most consequential was the Treaty of Versailles with Germany.

Within the “Big Four” Allied Powers—Britain, France, the United States and Italy—two major attitudes toward Germany emerged during the peace conference. On one side were the three European powers, led by French Premier Georges Clemenceau, who wanted to punish the German aggressors for the war which they had started (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a Serb having been forgotten). On the other was President Wilson, who sought a just peace to create a “world made safe for democracy.” Wilson’s idealism sounded good on paper, but it came up agains the realities of a shattered Continent whose people wanted revenge, and few of the American president’s proposals carried the day. His one victory was the creation of the League of Nations, an international organization which would provide a forum for discussion of problems between countries without resort to war. The League would be headquartered in Geneva and did its best to confront international crises during its twenty-year existence.

The Treaty of Versailles imposed three major conditions for peace upon the Germans (whose country was now in a state of revolution after Wilhelm II’s abdication on November 9th). The new Weimar Republic would be disarmed, its army limited to one hundred thousand men and forbidden an air force and deep-water navy. German territory would be appropriated by Belgium, Denmark, France (who recovered Alsace-Lorraine), and the newly-created nation of Poland. This last was particularly galling, as Poland was given the city of Danzig and the “Polish Corridor” for access to the sea, cutting off East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Lastly, Germany was blamed for starting the war and would thus pay reparations to the Allied Powers of $32 billion in gold and deliveries in kind. The Germans protested that they had not started the war, but the Allies cited the General Staff’s decision to declare war prematurely and their invasion of Belgium to justify the treaty’s war guilt clause. The German delegation was  presented with the completed treaty on May 7th and ordered to sign. Because of political disruptions in Berlin, the representatives requested time to consult with the government, which was granted. The German people were shocked and outraged when they learned of the treaty’s contents—they had not started the war, nor had they fought it any more ruthlessly than the Allies had done. (This was entirely true, and some historians have noted that Britain’s continuation of the blockade of Germany’s ports until June 1919 killed more German civilians than died during the war itself.) The Allies insisted that the treaty would not be altered and threatened a resumption of the war if it was not agreed to. This would have been a disaster for the German nation, and so the delegation returned to Versailles and signed the treaty on June 28, 1919.

Over sixteen million people died during the Great War and another 21 million were wounded. French infrastructure was devastated by four years of trench warfare, and the population only recovered in 1940 (just in time for a second catastrophe to befall the Third Republic). In many ways, the Treaty of Versailles was as great a catastrophe for the cause of world peace as the war had been. It both disarmed and enraged the German people, who grew more willing to support radical leaders promising a return to power for the Reich, but it also left the basic infrastructure of the General Staff and wartime military intact. It worried the American people, who wished to return to their prewar isolation and distance themselves from European affairs, while simultaneously inflating the sense of power of both Britain and France. It allowed Russia to descend into the terror of communism under Vladimir Lenin while failing to empower the newly-created Eastern European nations of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia to resist its spread. Each one of these mistakes made at Versailles would soon return to haunt the victors. As the war receded into memory, the people of Britain and France went back to their normal lives. Reminders of the war persisted, of course: the monuments in every town and village to the honored dead, the empty cafes and pubs where a generation who had fallen in Flanders once drank and smoked, the wounded veterans parading through the streets of London and Paris on Armistice Day. Whenever a new crisis involving Germany arose during the 1920s and 1930s, a cry went up in the Halls of Parliament or the streets of Paris: “Never again!” Never again would the young men of the West bleed and die in trenches. Never again would nations sacrifice their greatest assets for the cause of political power or changing maps. Never again. As ruthless dictators seized power in Germany, Italy and the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the free peoples of Western Europe and the United States recoiled in horror but failed to act decisively. Men like Winston Churchill who warned that appeasement would bring about a new war were mocked as out of touch or as warmongers, while men of peace like Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier were heralded as statesmen of the future. When confronted by evil, the free world failed to act. The Great War had sapped them of their resolve; it had bled them dry of all resolution to fight for the freedoms they enjoyed.

But of course, hindsight is easy and the view back through the lens of history is clear. In the hour of victory, few thought of another war. No one could imagine that a blinded German corporal lying in a hospital in Pomerania had thoughts of revenge against his enemies or an Italian socialist newspaper editor and veteran might seek to reestablish his country’s dominion of the Mediterranean Sea. People celebrated, dancing in the streets and thanking the Almighty that they had survived the world crisis. They mourned their dead, of course, but the war to end all wars was finally over. And yet, from the halls of Versailles came a warning. On the day the treaty was signed, General Ferdinand Foch, who had led the Allied armies in the final offensive against Germany, read the treaty and then commented, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” Only time would tell how right he was.