A “New Deal” | The Great Depression and the Transformation of American Politics

“All that progressives ask or desire is permission…to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”

— Woodrow Wilson, The New Freedom,“What is Progress?” —

The United States of America has, in many ways, always been a progressive nation. We progressed beyond the limits of colonial existence under British rule, beyond the shackles that held our fellow citizens of African descent in bondage, beyond the geographical limits of the Thirteen Colonies. And yet, America has also been a nation of conservatives, clinging to the principles of representative government promised in the English Bill of Rights, to the Constitution amidst the turmoil of civil war, to the way things have always been. For much of its history, progress was driven by individuals who invented new labor-saving devices; only once, during the Civil War, did the federal government impose what we would call “progress” on the nation when it abolished slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment. That began to change, however, during the late 19th century when the progressive movement began to urge social advancement using the power of government. The arch-progressive of the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, urged the American people to support his programs in his 1913 book The New Freedom, and his presidency saw waves of change sweep across the country in finance, political reform, and most importantly women’s suffrage with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, when the First World War ended, Americans elected Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, who returned to the conservative roots of American politics. Coolidge was famous for his desire to remain out of economic and social affairs. Progressives tried to regain their momentum, but only when the Great Depression struck did their cause find a receptive audience.

Here on 15-Minute History, we do our best to remain nonpartisan in how we teach American history, but political affairs have obviously shaped the course of America’s growth and development. In the next two podcasts, we will trace the rise of the modern conservative and liberal political ideologies back to their roots in American history. Our hope is that we can give our audience a clear and unbiased view of where Republicans and Democrats got their ideas and how the two parties came to believe what they now proclaim each night on cable news and in their election campaigns.

The United States had faced economic downturns since at least 1807 when President Thomas Jefferson imposed the Embargo Act on the country and collapsed the national economy. What happened in 1929 was, at least on paper, little different from the panics of 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1884, and 1907. Of course, its impact was felt far more dramatically by the American people because, during the 1920s, more Americans than ever had begun to invest their hardearned money in the stock market and various industrial ventures. As New Yorkers saw investors hurling themselves from buildings as their fortunes vanished, the American people realized that their way of life was on the brink of collapse. Soon, millions of Americans were out of work and unable to feed their families. The crisis deepened when dust bowl storms devastated the Great Plains and wiped out farms and livestock. In America and across the world, the people turned to their leaders and cried out for relief.

President Herbert Hoover’s efforts to stem the tide of economic distress had utterly failed as his tariff proposals drove prices up and destroyed more jobs than they created. By 1933, his presidency was in ruins, and while he still won the Republican nomination his defeat was almost certain. The Democratic Party, which had been out of power since the Civil War except during the administrations of Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, saw an opportunity to regain the White House. This was not merely political opportunism; the party had long wished to present itself to the people as agents of positive, progressive change. It just took an economic crisis of global proportions to bring the American people around to their side.

Over the course of sixteen primary contests in 1932, the Democratic Party had winnowed its field of eight candidates down to three. At their convention in Chicago at the end of June, two former governors of New York, Franklin Roosevelt and Al Smith, and Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas vied for the nomination. Roosevelt’s supporters represented Southern segregationists and western farmers (both traditional Democratic strongholds), as well as ethnic minorities and urban elites. Smith’s support came from the political machines of New York City and Chicago, but his base did not extend beyond these two cities. Garner had little backing from the political establishment but did earn favor with the powerful California newspaper editor William Randolph Hearst. In the end, the party chose Roosevelt, and in his acceptance speech on July 2nd he promised “a new deal for the American people.”

Roosevelt’s nomination represented a change in direction for the Democratic Party. Since its inception under Andrew Jackson in the late 1820s, the Democrats had always been a party of Southerners, Westerners, and Northern bankers. This last group had shifted to the Republicans during the Civil War and were the strongest backers for that party and a reason why the Republicans had dominated the political landscape since the 1860s—they had the money. By bringing ethnic minorities and urban elites into the Democratic fold, Roosevelt was able to recast the party as the one which spoke for the American underclass. His message of a “new deal” resonated far more effectively than even he had hoped, and his victory over Herbert Hoover was the largest in American history since that of George Washington.

A “New Deal” for the American People

Franklin Roosevelt’s plan for reviving the American economy centered around a single economic principle, first articulated by the British economist John Maynard Keynes. In his Treatise on Money, Keynes wrote that governments needed to increase their spending (if necessary by borrowing money and running deficits) during an economic downturn to maintain total national spending. Once the economy recovered, government spending would decrease as the nation’s private sector began to grow. To put this plan into action, Roosevelt began to create new programs, collectively known as the New Deal, to stabilize the economy and put the American people back to work. During his first one hundred days in office, the administration declared a “bank holiday” and reformed the banking system, printed vast sums of money and took the country off the gold standard, repealed the Eighteenth Amendment to increase revenue through the sales of alcohol, and, most critically, created massive public works programs to create jobs.

The Public Works Administration built airports, hospitals, roads, and dams; the Civilian Conservation Corps planted forests, drained swamps, and built national parks; and the Works Progress Administration constructed public buildings like docks, theaters, and observatories across the country. These one hundred days set a standard of federal government action on behalf of struggling Americans that still continues to this day.

The Roosevelt administration also raised taxes on wealthy Americans to help pay for the recovery and limit deficit spending. The 1935 Revenue Act imposed a top marginal rate of 79% (the highest since the end of the Great War) and redistributed the wealth of rich Americans to the poor. Many of Roosevelt’s supporters felt betrayed by this measure, as wealthy elites had been among his strongest backers during the 1932 campaign. A year later, the government raised taxes on companies which held their profits in reserve rather than spending them on new equipment or raising employees’ salaries. This angered many American business owners, and the act was repealed after only two years. However, it put the Democratic Party firmly in the progressive taxation camp, where it has remained ever since.

Most of the New Deal programs created during the Depression were ended either during or after the Second World War. One which has stood the test of time is Social Security, which guarantees a pension to older Americans once they retire. Social Security was probably the most controversial action of the Roosevelt administration during the Depression—one Republican opponent called it “the lash of the dictator”—but it has become one of the most popular entitlement programs in American history. The program has been reformed several times but never departed from its basic structure: Americans pay a portion of their income out of each paycheck to fund current retirees with the promise that future workers with pay for their retirement in return. Again, the Democratic Party took a position in favor of a welfare state and ensuring the well-being of the American people.

Unfortunately, while the New Deal helped some Americans, it did not end the Great Depression. A recovery of sorts began in 1936, but a year later a second recession struck the country and drove unemployment numbers back up. President Roosevelt’s efforts at new programs were opposed by a conservative backlash, especially on the Supreme Court, and he sought unsuccessfully to add justices to the court in order to get his programs through. This also backfired, but as justices retired, Roosevelt was able to put New Dealers on the Supreme Court who ruled his programs as constitutional. What ultimately ended the Great Depression was the outbreak of the Second World War. By 1941, as the United States began to ship arms to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, unemployed Americans found work in factories, and when Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor and America entered the war, the country reached full employment in the first weeks of 1942. Fears of a return to depression peaked as the war drew to a close, but the skies soon cleared as America celebrated its victory. There have been economic downturns since the Great Depression (most recently in 2008), but America has not again suffered the woes of a national depression.

The Political Legacy of the New Deal

The 1936 presidential election would be the first test of Roosevelt’s “New Deal coalition.” The great question was whether or not it would hold together and, more broadly, if the American people would support their president’s radical transformation of the American economy. The Republicans chose Governor Alf Landon of Kansas to run against Roosevelt, and most observers predicted the campaign would be close. However, Landon was an ineffective candidate who agreed with Roosevelt on most issues; he supported the entirety of the New Deal but then criticized it as “anti-business” and insisted he could do a better job of managing the economy. On election day, the American people returned Roosevelt to the White House in the largest popular vote margin of any campaign since 1820 to that point. Roosevelt won every state in the Union except Maine and Vermont and eleven million more votes than Governor Landon.

Roosevelt would go on to win reelection twice more (breaking the precedent set by George Washington of serving only two terms) and would die only one month into his fourth term in 1945. Alf Landon’s campaign of supporting the New Deal’s new welfare state and interventionist attitude in the economy would become a model for the Republican Party for more than three decades. Except in 1948, in every presidential election from 1936 to 1972 the Republican candidate would express support for welfare to help poor Americans but insist that he was better able to run these programs. The shift in the Democratic Party during the New Deal was thus mirrored in the Republican Party in the decades after the Depression—rather than critique the idea of progressive intervention in the economy, the Republicans accepted it as necessary but promised a “me-too-only-better” vision for the country. For Dwight Eisenhower and Richard

Nixon, this campaign model proved successful (though in each case there were likely other mitigating factors). By 1972, the Republicans had wholeheartedly embraced both the New Deal and its successor, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and President Nixon went even further than either Roosevelt or Johnson could have dreamed when it came to government action in the economy. He imposed wage and price controls, created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, and become the first president since Roosevelt to support a universal healthcare system. All this came out of his campaign promise to clean up the “welfare mess.”

So what became of conservatism within the American political system? For much of the middle portion of the 20th century, critics of conservatism linked the ideology to the economic policies which had created the Great Depression (though this critique is debatable). When conservatives tried to stand up against the ever-increasing spate of government regulation, the cry went up that these politicians wished to return America to the “Roaring Twenties”—implying that a second Depression would be around the corner if their ideas were implemented. 1936 to 1972 was the summit of progressivism, not just in the United States but around the world. The federal government protected workers, paid benefits to the unemployed and the elderly, provided medical care to the disabled, and regulated the business cycle to prevent a depression. Only time would tell if this progressive wave could be sustained.

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Legends of the Old West | The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp

"Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything. In a gun fight... You need to take your time in a hurry."

— Wyatt Earp —

It’s Wednesday October 26, 1881. The sun has begun its descent into the western sky, its light reflecting off the heat waves coming from the hot desert soil. Four men walk through the entrance to a corral. They have come to disarm five gunslingers who have openly broken the law and made threats against them. When they finally stop walking, the group of four stand six to ten feet away from the men they are there to apprehend. Few words are exchanged. The leader, Virgil Earp, gives the command to the group of criminals to throw down their arms. Of the five, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne flee the scene. The remaining three draw their weapons. The four marshals draw theirs. Within thirty seconds, it’s over. As the smell of burnt powder and dust clears in the arid air, three outlaws are dead, three lawmen are wounded, and one stands coolly in the wake of the violent exchange. His demeanor, temperament, and lack of anxiety is quoted by a close friend later in life as, “a person whom I regarded as absolutely destitute of physical fear. His daring and apparent recklessness in time of danger is wholly characteristic.” This man was Wyatt Earp.

Life in the Old West

Life in the Old West, from 1865 to 1895, was unlike anything you, our audience, can imagine, as even films and television fail to capture its true nature. Although the West was already owned by the United States, expansion into these territories was limited because it was still untamed and lacked order. However, after the Civil War, veterans seeking adventure and landowners who had lost everything began to migrate west at great peril to themselves and their families.

Many Americans believed they had a “manifest destiny” to claim the untouched lands of the West for themselves and their nation. As more and more people settled across the Mississippi and beyond the Rocky Mountains, some brought law and civilization while others brought crime and suffering. Within the untamed lands of the west, those that were disposed to lawlessness became more so, and makeshift courts and law enforcement agencies were created to bring order to this chaos. Judges, US marshals, sheriffs and their deputies would reign in the wild side of each town and territory, often with little or no training. Judges like Roy Bean knew so little about the law that he once threatened a lawyer with hanging for using profane words like “habeas corpus.” Weaponry, guile, personal experience, and both good and bad intentions were their only tools.

Travel was dangerous in those days. The average wagon traveled at a speed of two miles an hour, averaging between ten to fifteen miles per day. For families going from Missouri to Oregon or California, this meant a five-month journey. A single person on horseback was a different matter, with mounted companies being able to travel between upwards of fifty miles per day, and single soldiers often went even further. Lone travel was discouraged. A single rider in an empty landscape was a tempting target, but both men and beast would be discouraged by a large group.

As the migrations continued, boom towns emerged around silver and gold deposits throughout the west. As word spread back east, those looking for adventure and riches soon found themselves on the same trails as families and others seeking to start anew. As the boom towns grew, so did every possible establishment bent on making a quick buck. Generally, this revolved around whiskey, gambling, and brothels, some of which took in more than $4 million in today’s money. Lawlessness thrived in these environments, as it sometimes does today. The lawman and the courts did their best to maintain the “thin blue line” between civilization and barbarism.

Tragedy and Purpose

Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848. The fourth of seven children, he spent his early life in Illinois. At the age of one his father organized a group of a hundred settlers to travel to San Bernardino, CA, where he was planning to buy some land. Unfortunately, Wyatt’s sister became ill and the family had to stop just 150 miles into their journey west, and they settled in Iowa. When Wyatt was thirteen, several of his brothers joined the Union Army while his father worked with local companies. This left Wyatt and his remaining brothers to care the eighty-acre farm alone.

In May 1864, Wyatt’s father once again organized a group to head to San Bernardino, arriving in December of that year. Wyatt got his first job at the age of sixteen with his brother Virgil hauling cargo for two companies to Las Vegas, the Utah Territory, and Nevada. During this time, he learned how to referee boxing matches and to gamble, both of which he found very lucrative.

At the age of twenty his family moved back east to Lamar, MO, where he got his first law enforcement job as a constable. It was there that he met, courted, and married his first wife in 1870. He began to build a house while running a hotel with his in-laws. During this time Wyatt was said to have begun the process of settling down, working nights and weekends on their new home while spending days at the hotel. Unfortunately, tragedy soon struck. A few months before his wife was about to give birth, she and their child died of typhoid fever, sending Wyatt into a downward spiral for the next four years. He was arrested several times for being fond of and visiting a “house of ill repute,” running several brothels and saloons, and for being intoxicated (which was illegal at the time).

By 1875, Dodge City, KS, had become a main thoroughfare for cattle drives due to its proximity to the Chisholm Trail. Wyatt briefly served as an assistant marshal, and after a brief but failed attempt to make money in the Dakota Territory mines, he rejoined the police force in Dodge City in 1877. Wyatt was involved with several disputes in Dodge. The town was a rest stop for cowboys (a derogatory name at the time) exhausted from the cattle drives and ready to sow their wild oats. The normal process was for herds to come through, be put to pasture, and a selection of the team responsible for herding them would descend on the town and drink, smoke, gamble, and populate the “houses of ill-repute”. This provided ample opportunities for the law to be enforced.

One such occasion occurred after an outlaw robbed a railroad construction camp and fled the city. Wyatt was made a US marshal and ordered to pursue him until he lost the trail in Texas. At his last stop in Texas, he was trying to get additional information about the outlaw when another patron informed him that his target had gone back to Kansas. Very little is recorded of this and other conversations between the two men, but whatever was said sparked something in the patron that would save Wyatt’s life a year later.

That incident started when some cowboys ransacked one of the many saloons in Dodge City and harassed or assaulted customers while firing their guns wildly. Wyatt confronted the men, bursting through the saloon door to put a stop to the madness. He soon found himself confronted by anywhere from three to nine guns (depending on the account), all pointed at him.

It was at this moment that the patron from the Texas bar rose from a back table and put a pistol to the cowboy leader’s head, ordering him to stand down. He did, and the men were taken into custody. At that moment, Wyatt Earp and John Henry “Doc” Holliday became close friends. During his entire time in Dodge City, Wyatt Earp was only involved in one major gunfight and though a man did die as a result, differing reports make it unclear whether the cause of death was gangrene a few weeks later or if the man died from the gunshot that night. Regardless, the incident was something Wyatt would never forget.

Tombstone and the OK Corral

In 1879 Virgil Earp, who was a lawman in Prescott, AZ, wrote to Wyatt about a growing mining town called Tombstone. It was good timing, as Dodge City had begun to settle down, or as Wyatt described it, "Dodge was beginning to lose much of the snap which had given it a charm to men of reckless blood, and I decided to move to Tombstone, which was just building up a reputation." The Earps (Wyatt, his second wife Mattie, his brother Jim and his wife), Doc Holliday and his common-law wife “Big Nosed” Kate left for Prescott not long after to meet up with Virgil. The group then departed for Tombstone and were joined by another Earp brother, Morgan, who had left his wife in California to strike it rich in the new silver town.

Virgil had already been hired as the US marshal for the territory of Tombstone, and as he settled into his new post Wyatt and his party began the process of getting acclimated to the new town. Wyatt got a job as a “shotgun” messenger for Wells Fargo while Jim became a bartender. Doc Holliday immersed himself–quite successfully–in the gambling trenches of the boom town and began to accumulate a small fortune.

During this time, a group of outlaws known as the Cowboys were present in Tombstone. Wyatt and his brothers had several early run-ins with this gang. One such incident included being present at the death of the town sheriff, Fred White at the hands of Curly Bill, one of the cowboys. Wyatt was one of the first on the scene as Fred dropped to the ground after an apparent discharge from Curly Bill’s gun into his groin. Earp pistol-whipped Bill to the ground and held him there until backup arrived a few minutes later. During those minutes, other cowboys took shots at Earp from the darkness. When help arrived, one of Wyatt’s friends, Fred Dodge, reported his demeanor as rounds sailed past them. “Wyatt's coolness and nerve never showed to better advantage than they did that night. When Morg and I reached him, Wyatt was squatted on his heels beside Curly Bill and Fred White. Curly Bill's friends were pot-shooting at him in the dark. The shooting was lively and slugs were hitting the chimney and cabin…. in all of that racket, Wyatt's voice was even and quiet as usual.”

Wyatt and his brothers had continual run-ins with the cowboys until Morgan was finally threatened with death if the he or his brothers arrested any of them again. The threats continued for several weeks until October 26, 1881 when the four men—Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Doc— walked through the entrance of the OK Corral in an attempt to disarm the outlaws.

Here, we find Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne fleeing the scene. Tom and Frank McLowery and Billy Clanton are holding their ground as the two parties draw their weapons and open fire. Two of the Cowboys are hit at once, with Virgil and Morgan being shot not long after. Doc Holliday lays down continuous fire at all three, first with a coach gun and then with his nickelplated revolvers. Only Wyatt remains in place, methodically firing at the targets that still pose a threat. As the thirty seconds pass and the shooting stops, two men are left standing and two are on the ground, wounded. Witnesses to the fight cited both Wyatt and Doc at the pivotal gunmen while the shooting lasted. Once it was over, Wyatt would credit Doc again with saving his life, adding that his friend was the deadliest gunman he had ever seen.

The gunfight is the quintessential scene of the American West, immortalized forever as the way we see this time period. This is true for several reasons. First, the gunfight was uncommon. Despite popular belief, these gunfights were not a staple of life in the Old West and when they did happen, there were rarely witnesses. Second, and this shouldn’t surprise you, there were a lot of people watching the fight at the OK Corral. Tall tales were plentiful in the West, and had it not been for the many eyewitnesses to the events of October 26, 1881, historians might not have known of the cool behavior of Wyatt Earp and the deadly accuracy of Doc Holiday. The showdown was chronicled in newspapers that circulated throughout the boom towns and even reached readers back east, adding to the legends of what lay beyond the Mississippi River.

During his waning years Wyatt was interviewed by a biographer who wrote a very flattering version of the incident in a book which was published a few years after Wyatt’s death. The book hit the shelves in time for the cowboy craze of Hollywood that spanned several decades, and the gunfight at the OK Corral became part of the iconic American view of the cowboy, the outlaw, the lawman, and the West as a whole.

After the OK Corral

Wyatt, his brothers, and Doc were put on trial for murder of the Cowboys in the corral, of which they were acquitted. The Cowboys swore revenge on the Earps, and later that year they wounded Virgil and murdered Morgan while he was playing pool at a saloon in Tombstone. Devastated, Wyatt, Doc, and several of their close friends killed all of the Cowboys responsible for the attack, as well as those who helped the murderers or even knew of their plans. During this time, reports of some of the gunfights between the cowboys and Wyatt’s posse grew from facts into legends. After his quest for vengeance ended, Wyatt abandoned his wife and pursued Josephine Marcus in San Francisco, whom he stayed with for the next forty years until his death. During this time, they traveled from one boom town to another, with Josephine developing a gambling habit that plagued Earp for the rest of his life. Their travels included–but were not limited to–Alaska, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, the Utah Territory, and many other locations that showed signs of silver, gold, or any other way to make a profit. No matter what he did, law enforcement always seemed to follow him, even to the age of sixty when he was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department to track down fugitives who fled to Mexico.

Wyatt Earp died in 1929. He had no children. Two years before his death, he was asked again about the events of the OK Corral. He said: “For my handling of the situation at Tombstone, I have no regrets. Were it to be done over again, I would do exactly as I did at that time. If the outlaws and their friends and allies imagined that they could intimidate or exterminate the Earps by a process of murder, and then hide behind alibis and the technicalities of the law, they simply missed their guess. I want to call your particular attention again to one fact, which writers of Tombstone incidents and history apparently have overlooked: with the deaths of the McLowerys, the Clantons, Stillwell, Florentino Cruz, Curly Bill, and the rest, organized, politically protected crime and depredations in Cochise County ceased completely.”

The mythical figure of Wyatt Earp has been portrayed in books, magazines, movies, and radio throughout a variety of dramas and action stories. In the modern American mind, he represents the stoic in the otherwise lawless land, the pillar of absolute that seems to stand against the chaos—this despite his many disreputable actions he took throughout his life. The life and times of Wyatt Earp are a testament to the power of story and legend. Whatever view you may have of him, no can argue this place in American history and his life during an age of legends.

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What to Watch | The Best and Worst in Historical Movies

More Americans get their history from movies than from any other source, academic or popular (to the consternation of many history teachers). Speaking personally, I have on occasion been forced to correct inaccurate pictures of history with my students, and I am often met with looks of shock that Hollywood would present the past in anything but a factually-correct manner.

Movie studios change history for a variety of reasons: dramatic storytelling, the need to condense events, or even corporate or personal agendas. This week, Joe and I hope to inspire you to find some solid historical films in a variety of categories (and also warn you about some films that are less than accurate, or even downright lies). Each of us chose a movie in the various categories. Jon took the good ones, and I got stuck with the bad ones. So enjoy!

Military History

War is the most interesting and catastrophic of human endeavors, and it is often the center of popular films. Until the emergence of superhero films a decade ago, seven of the top ten worldwide box office spots were held by war movies (and even Marvel and DC superhero flicks showcase war, albeit of a different kind). War brings out the best and the worst in mankind, and these films showcase the best and the worst in movie making.

Vietnam War Movies

Pretty much every movie about Vietnam. Here are two examples.

Apocalypse Now (1979): When Francis Ford Coppola created this film, he did it give a modernday interpretation of Joseph’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to show how Americans perceived the war. Note the word, perceived. In no way was it intended to be factual, to represent the American solider and their motivations, or to illustrate how the war was conducted.

Unfortunately, I’ve had people cite this film as source of American atrocities and ineptitude. From the Air Cav attack on a village to the scene of Do Lung Bridge, where there was no CO, total chaos, and endless hell. Folks, this stuff just didn’t happen. Sorry, no one destroyed villages to surf and there was no Do Lung bridge. The bridge scene was meant to illustrate the perceived futility of the war, and the air attack was to show the Americanization of it. Again, both false. Good story, bad history.

Platoon (1986): No platoon experienced all these things. Yes, I know it was Oliver Stone’s way including all the atrocities that occurred in the war and showcasing them while withholding all the good things done by American soldiers, but unfortunately—like all films about Vietnam—the fake scenes with the fake battles with the fake soldiers and fake guns are cited as real and factual. Again, my apologies, but things just didn’t happen this way. While there are a few exceptions, movies about Vietnam are made protestors who care less about historical accuracy and more about their political motivations. Steer clear or proceed with caution.

Gettysburg (1993)

It’s difficult to make an exciting movie about soldiers lining up and firing at each other with single-shot weapons. And Gettysburg is not a particularly exciting movie. However, if you want exciting entertainment I would recommend the latest Marvel film (I hear it’s gonna be the best one yet!). Gettysburg portrays real history, not the fake drama on display for the masses thirsty for gore. Based on Michael Shaara’s incredible book The Killer Angels, Gettysburg is not a war movie in the traditional sense. Rather than invent characters and place them in historic events, Gettysburg recreates the largest battle of the American Civil War in near-perfect detail. You won’t find yourself thrilled by incredible CGI displays of bloodshed, but you might just walk away from Gettysburg with a better understanding and appreciation of the most devastating conflict our nation has ever witnessed.

Political History

According to the great German theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” The same is true of political films—they are similar to war movies in that they are often adapted and changed to suit the times and to tell exciting stories. While political films do not appeal to everyone, and they often anger one side of the political aisle or the other, they are usually entertaining—sometimes in a tragic sort of way.

JFK (1991)

Many of you will disagree with this selection given the cinematography for this film was superb, but we are going for historical accuracy, right? Oliver Stone isn’t known for his ability to portray American events in both politics and war, and this film is no different. The wild theories pared with long-run time make for a snooze-fest for all of us unbelievers. Additionally, part of the frustration with the film is since the entire premise is based on varying degrees of speculation those that may believe get more questions than answers. I don’t know about you, but I like movies that have endings, good or bad. So, what really happened that day? Let's just for a moment speculate, shall we? Just don’t look to this movie for help. Thumbs down.

Lincoln (2012)

Abraham Lincoln is a larger-than-life figure in American history, but in this film (the second, and I promise last about the Civil War era) humanizes the 16th president in a way not seen before on film. Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of President Lincoln captures his popular image while also revealing his character in very personal ways that were once confined to long and windy biographies. From his unique sense of humor and use of stories to explain his thinking, Lincoln comes alive on the screen. The film is set amidst the controversy of passing the Thirteenth Amendment, and viewers are treated not just to the high-and-mighty statesmen like Lincoln and Seward but to unscrupulous tricksters who bribed and threatened members of Congress to do the president’s bidding. Lincoln shows the audience that the abolition of slavery was not as easy as history class usually says. It was a difficult, and often shady, business of backroom dealings with questionable characters, and the film demonstrates the unshakeable strength of President Lincoln as he sought to end the saddest chapter in American history.

Social History

Americans are fascinated by how people lived in ages past, perhaps more than people in any other country. We imagine ourselves living in a world without the technology and convenience of modern life, and we wonder if we’d make it in those days. Social history is not technically a genre of film, but rather the term describes a movie set in the past which reveal the best and the worst of those who came before us. Some use the details of everyday life in the past to tell amazing stories, while others seek to shine a light on historic injustices as a way to inspire us to continue to progress as a society.

Australia (2008)

The name alone sends chills down the adventurer’s spine. The cast, score, and setting make you think that nothing could go wrong, but in the end, this film has one good scene. The rest of the scenes seem to be a hodgepodge of different plots mixed together with a love story that by the end, is a bit watered down. The infamous good scene is the effective halt of stampeding cattle which, because of past personal experience, I was happy to see. As said, everything was so fluid that viewers can barely grasp what life was like in the reformed prison colony of Australia, despite its overly-long runtime. Hugh Jackman is awesome. Nicole Kidman is awesome. The continent and history of Australia is awesome. With these facts, you’d think it would be a winner. You’d be wrong.

Apocalypto (2006)

Like many of his other films, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto sparked some controversy when it was released. The movie presents the audience with a picture of the Mayan civilization of Central America just before its first contact with Europeans. While wildly inaccurate in some places—the Mayans were never as barbaric as to conduct widespread human sacrifice like their Aztec neighbors to the north—the film presents the most accurate picture of pre-Colombian Native American civilization ever seen on screen. Gibson’s message of a civilization’s downfall resonated with discerning audiences and caused them to examine their own cultures and look for evidence of rot and ruin which might lead to an eventual decline and fall.

Cultural History

Like social history, cultural history examines how a group of people in the past lived their lives. The distinction is while social history gives a broad picture of an entire society, cultural history focuses in on a specific group of people at a distinct time period. Once again, this excites the imagination of people who can not imagine life outside their own time and brings new understanding to the past and reflection on the present.

The Scarlet Letter (1995)

No one is king of the world in this movie. This loose interpretation of Hawthorne’s historically inaccurate tale represents the worst of revisionist history. Puritans are portrayed in film in one of two ways, as legalists or Satanists (one could argue that this is one in the same). This is a lie, and I’m tired of it. Most first, second, and third generation Puritans made their way in the wilderness with nothing but guile and deep-rooted faith in the sovereign will of their Creator.

Instead of providing a view into what this life was like, this film joins the countless false portrayals of Puritan life while including a forbidden love story which urges everyone watching to let go. Missing the mark on all counts, The Scarlett Letter illustrates that a woman’s heart is indeed a deep ocean of secrets but based on this movie, no should care.

Titanic (1997)

I can already hear you shouting at me. “OK, Jon, I’ve let you wonder about a Chinese America, question America’s foreign policy and wars for oil, and yammer on about the madman Sherman. But Titanic?! That’s a bridge too far.” (Which, incidentally, is another great movie.) Please hear me out. Titanic was the top-grossing film in history for twelve years, and it appealed to every demographic in society: rich and poor, young and old, male and female. Of course, watching Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslett fumble around together inside an old car is almost as painful as hearing Leo bloviate about global warming from his private jet, but Titanic is more than just a love story between two adults trying to pretend they’re teenagers. For students of history, Titanic showcased the twilight of the Victorian Age, of class distinctions, of the fantastically rich looking down upon the desperately poor. Characters in First Class ignore or disparage those in steerage even as the ship slips beneath the ocean. The world presented in Titanic is one which now offends all supporters of social progress. Sadly, it took the chaos and slaughter of the Great War, which began only two years after the sinking, to put an end to the Victorian Age and bring about a more egalitarian and democratic society in Europe.

Films that Shaped Filmmaking

Our final category references films that shifted the course of movie history, both in positive and negative ways. Like every other human activity, moviemaking follows trends which historians can observe and critique. By examining the world of movies before and after the films listed below, we can discern which movies are following these trends, and which blazed new trails which other directors would follow.

Blade Runner (1983)

Yeah so there are so many bad films out there. Where would I even start? Also, since I’ve been responsible for naming a slew of them for this episode, I decided to rebel a bit and cover a good one. Jon can curse me later with the One Ring. Blade Runner opened to divided audiences who either saw it as a flop or a cinematic masterpiece. Thankfully, history sided with the former, and the movie is widely regarded as one of the best sci-fi films ever made. Ridley Scott takes you to a world of shadow and light. In this film, you never quite see anything, and that’s the point. A 1940’s detective story made in the 1980’s set in the distant future of next year (2019), Blade Runner follows a cop named Deckard who is responsible for “retiring” replicants, which are humanoid creations akin to androids. The film follows Deckard through the moral implications of his job, questions the definition of life, and ends with one of the greatest adlibbed speeches of all time. Lines like, “Its too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” are paired with settings that are somehow vast and claustrophobic at the same time. Many film makers cite this movie as their inspiration, especially in the way it uses light. I agree with them. And while we’re on the topic, Blade Runner 2049 is amazing as well.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

My personal favorite film—I regard all three as a single, ridiculously-long movie—is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is a masterpiece on screen, filled with all the violence and bloodshed to appeal to this teenager who first watched it in the theater in December 2001, as well as the deep and meaningful themes which still resonate with me each Christmas when I sit down and watch them again. On a technical level, The Lord of the Rings revolutionized the movie industry even more than my runner-up, Star Wars. CGI battle scenes, motion-capture performances, and broad and sweeping cinematography existed before these three films, but it was The Lord of the Rings which brought these new techniques into the Hollywood mainstream. If you have never seen this trilogy, go and stream it right now—that’s your homework assignment for this week.

Conclusion

A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Modern cinema has enabled viewers to take a literal front-row-seat in watching history unfold. Through movies we can watch the drama of events through the many historical figures who witnessed them first-hand. The list represented here is but a preview of some movies that we recommend and others we encourage you to ignore.

Unfortunately, modern movies have a tendency to fall prey to the cancer that is revisionist history, with directors, actors, and writers injecting their political, socio, and economical beliefs into historical storylines. Regardless of which side of the isle is responsible, the effect is devastating to viewers who often take what’s given to them as fact. So, if you feel so inclined, please listen to our words of warning when it comes to historical movies. Don’t take them at face value. If you’ve learned anything from us it’s that in this, the information age, you have the ability to research topics for yourself. And as we continue to teach you about history, we hope to help.

Honorable Mention

Here, Joe and I picked a personal favorite film which did not necessarily fit into the categories we had assigned for ourselves. While they may not be the most accurate depictions of history, they use events of the past to teach lessons which may be applied to the present.

Braveheart (1997)

Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the Scotsman William Wallace showed the horrors of medieval combat for the first time. The breathtaking terrain of the highlands mixed with the scale and score of the film brought that world to life. Its message of conviction, leadership, and freedom resounded with me and audiences all over the world.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Really, Jon? A Star Trek movie in a history podcast? First of all, Joe talked about Blade Runner, so I don’t want to hear anything about science fiction not being history. Star Trek: First Contact is not a historical movie (at least not yet), but it has an interesting sub-plot about a famous character revered in the 24th century. When the crew of the Enterprise meet him after time-traveling to a point about fifty years from our present day, they learn he is not the hero seen in the pages of history—he is a drunk, foul-mouthed buffoon. The film reminds us that historical figures are not larger-than-life; they are men and women as flawed as each of us, and it tells us that when called to high purposes, even the least of us can rise to the occasion.

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War is Hell: William Tecumseh Sherman

The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

— William T. Sherman to Professor David Boyd, December 24, 1860 —

William Tecumseh Sherman predicted the course of the American Civil War in a conversation with a colleague in December 1860, days after South Carolina had seceded from the Union. His words showed a keen understanding of the relative strengths of North and South, and he forecast with eery accuracy the course the war would take. Sherman had always been an ardent Unionist, believing that the United States should remain one nation, and this motivated his service to the North during the Civil War. His views on slavery were typical of a Northerner for most of his life—that slavery was economically necessary and that Freedmen should not be permitted to settle near whites. He did, however, oppose breaking up slave families and urged Southerners within his social circle to teach their slaves to read and write. Only when the war broke out and Sherman saw with his own eyes what was happening to enslaved Africans did his heart and mind turn to abolition.

Sherman was born in 1820 in central Ohio, and after his father’s death nine years later he was raised by a family friend, as William’s mother lacked the resources to care for all eleven of her children. His foster father, Senator Thomas Ewing, recommended him for admission to West Point in 1836, and William completed his military education with excellent grades but a dreadful disciplinary record. (In his memoirs, written after the Civil War, Sherman wrote that he averaged one hundred fifty demerits each year because he refused to conform to the “neatness in dress and form” required of the cadets.) After graduating, Sherman served in the Second Seminole War in Florida and then in California during the Mexican War. He saw no combat in California but was recognized for his “meritorious service” as an administrator. Two years after the war ended, Sherman returned to Washington, DC, and married his foster sister, Ellen Boyle Ewing; Ellen’s father Thomas, now Secretary of the Interior, and President Zachary Taylor, the hero of the Mexican War, were in attendance with much of official Washington.

In 1853, Sherman resigned his Army commission and turned his attention to business. He opened a bank in San Francisco which earned him a good living but suffered from stress-related asthma because of his work. Ultimately, Sherman’s business venture in California failed, and he moved to New York to open a new branch, which also closed its doors after only a few months. By 1858 he was living in Kansas and practicing law, but his success was minimal. The next year, he was able to secure a post at the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy, where he finally found his niche. His time at the school earned him a solid reputation within the military establishment, but the tumult of sectional crisis would soon sweep him up.

Sherman’s Personality

Sherman has always been an enigma to historians, whether they approve of his actions during the Civil War or not. For much of his life he struggled with depression, and he considered taking his own life in early 1861. His fiery temper and erratic behavior worried his wife Ellen, who wrote to her brother-in-law John, complaining that her husband suffered of “that melancholy insanity to which your family is subject.” Reports of Sherman’s instability reached a Cincinnati newspaper, which labeled him as “insane” in an article published in December 1861.

While serving in Kentucky early in the Civil War, Sherman began to experience bouts of paranoia. He imagined spies lay in wait behind every tree ready to sabotage the Army’s efforts (which later turned out to be true, as Kentucky was riddled with secessionist supporters of the Confederacy), and his colleagues began to whisper behind his back that he was losing his mind. In public, he remained a model of order and duty, but in private he was a lonely figure within the Army, content only in the company of a few close friends. Among these was Ulysses S. Grant, about whom he later wrote, “He stood by me when I was crazy.” His letters to his wife reveal a deep love for her and for their eight children but also a terrible sense of inadequacy and rejection by the world.

Historians and psychologists have diagnosed Sherman with a number of maladies. Writing in a Northern newspaper shortly after the war ended, one doctor commented, “Sherman’s abilities in command do not fully mask his inadequacies in matters of human interaction. He is cold, withdrawn, and even hostile toward those whom he does not know well.” The article went on to claim he possessed two distinct personalities, exhibiting one in public and another in private—what is today termed “schizophrenia.” More recently, scholars have begun to reexamine Sherman in the light of modern medicine. In 2001, amidst renewed interest in Sherman’s exploits after the publication of The Soul of Battle by Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, psychologists at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences read all of Sherman’s surviving letters and published works in an effort to determine whether or not he truly suffered from mental illness or was simply what we would now call an introvert. Their findings were not conclusive, but in their report they stated, “General Sherman may have suffered from a form of autism, perhaps Asperger syndrome, that was undiagnosed during his lifetime.” Whatever his mental state, General Sherman was immensely popular with his soldiers, who referred to him fondly as “Uncle Billy,” and he was one of the most effective military commanders in American history.

Sherman’s Passion

As the sectional crisis smoldered through the “Secession Winter” of 1860-61, Sherman readied himself for war. He returned to Washington and met with President Abraham Lincoln shortly after he was inaugurated. Sherman hoped to regain his commission, but Lincoln, perhaps wary of the soldier’s reputation, was not interested. He then moved to St. Louis to run a streetcar company (which failed). After the attack on Fort Sumter in April, Sherman again contacted the War Department and offered his services, and he was summoned to Washington once again in June 1861, where he was commissioned colonel of the 13th US Infantry Regiment. He saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run in July, where he was wounded, and then transferred to the Western Theater, where he would remain for the rest of the war.

Sherman believed firmly that war was hell but that it was necessary only to prevent worse atrocities like the breakup of the American union. His passionate belief in the Union cause led to the aforementioned mental breakdown and contemplation of suicide as he saw his country’s armies weather personnel and supply shortages while the Confederacy seemed to be invulnerable to attack—at least on paper. His commander, General Henry Halleck, placed him on leave so he could recover mentally and physically (he had refused to eat and lost nearly forty pounds), and only when Halleck was promoted and command of the Department of the Missouri passed to his friend General Grant did Sherman return to action. On March 1, 1862, Grant gave Sherman command of the Army of the Tennessee’s 5th Division, and the army moved south from Kentucky into Tennessee.

Like Sherman’s, General Grant’s reputation within the Army was mixed at best. Grant’s business ventures in Illinois between the Mexican and Civil wars had been a catalogue of failures, and he was reputed to be an alcoholic and unfit to lead even a company of soldiers. (This may have been a slur by his career and political opponents.) And yet, because both men were proven leaders and effective strategists, President Lincoln gave them his support no matter the charge against them. Later in the war, when a delegation of politicians were at the White House demanding Grant’s removal because they thought he was hesitating at Vicksburg, the president refused their request. A New York Times article reported that, “When one charged General Grant, in the President’s hearing, with drinking too much liquor, Mr. Lincoln, recalling General Grant’s successes, said that if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.”

The Confederates attacked Grant’s army at Shiloh Church on the morning of April 6, 1862. The furious assault drove the Union troops back, but Sherman rallied his division and was able to hold it together as it retreated toward the Tennessee River. Grant had been away from the army during the attack but returned that night; when the two men met under a tree (Grant was smoking one of his customary cigars), they planned a counterattack for the following day. On April 7th, Sherman was in the front lines of his division as the Union army advanced. His division turned the enemy flank and drove them back, and he was wounded in the hand and shoulder and had three horses shot out from under him. The victory at Shiloh, followed up by those at Corinth, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, won Sherman great fame with the American people and, for the most part, restored his reputation among his colleagues.

In March 1864, Grant’s army had captured Chattanooga and was poised to invade Georgia. The Confederacy had been sundered in half with the fall of Vicksburg eight months earlier, and the Union now had to destroy the enemy’s remaining sources of food. Grant was summoned to Washington and given command of all Union armies, and he promoted his friend Sherman to command the Western Theater. Sherman had one order: march on Atlanta, the last remaining east-west railroad junction, and then on to the Atlantic Coast and split the Confederacy again. He regularly outmaneuvered his opponents as he approached Atlanta, fighting only one pitched battle at Kennesaw Mountain, and the Georgia capital fell on September 2nd. (The fall of Atlanta was more than a military victory—it secured Lincoln’s reelection in the 1864 campaign, and historians have commented that this may have been Sherman’s greatest contribution to the Union cause.)

With the armies in the Eastern Theater locked in mortal combat in Virginia around Richmond and Petersburg, Sherman turned his thoughts to how he could finally break the Confederates’ will to fight. Through three long years of bloodshed, the rebels’ spirits had never wavered, and Sherman believed it was because the people of the South had not felt the true horrors of war. In a telegram to General Grant on October 9th, Sherman laid out his plan to march “to the sea” from Atlanta to Savannah and destroy or capture anything that sustained the rebels’ war effort. In characteristic fashion, Sherman ended his telegram with the words, “I can make this march, and I will make Georgia howl.”

As Washington, DC, prepared for the Christmas holiday, President Lincoln received a telegram from General Sherman on December 22, 1864. “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” Sherman’s “Army of the West” had burned its way across Georgia over the preceding two months, costing the South nearly $100 million in property damage and freeing nearly ten thousand slaves along the way. Roads, telegraph poles, and railroad lines were ripped up; bales of wheat, hay and cotton were burned; and the homes of any Confederates who resisted were destroyed. (Contrary to popular belief in the South, Sherman’s army did not murder rebel civilians in cold blood and only fired upon those who had first fired on them.) Sherman’s “March to the Sea” inaugurated a new era in warfare—he had waged “total war” by targeting not merely the soldiers of enemy armies but anything which sustained their war effort. Sherman understood that wars are waged by nations whose people believe in the cause, at least to some extent; only by breaking that will to fight could an enemy be truly beaten. This lesson, taught by General Sherman, would be learned well by future generations of American military leaders.

Sherman was not a cruel man. Temperamental, yes, but never cruel. His diaries during the March to the Sea are filled with sadness as he saw homeless children reaping the consequences of their parents’ defiance of the Union. He did what he could to ease their suffering, but this did not prevent him from fulfilling his duty. As he saw the horrors of slavery firsthand in Georgia, he grew more abolitionist by the day, and his Special Field Order No. 15 appropriated land for forty thousand freed slaves in Georgia from their former masters (an order later revoked by President Andrew Johnson). Many slaves saw Sherman as a man of God, a “Moses” come to free them from bondage. The March to the Sea burned the heart out of the Confederacy, and when the rebels surrendered in April 1865, it was due in equal measure to Grant’s ruthlessness in battle and Sherman’s willingness to inflict cruelty upon the Southern people. It also demonstrated Sherman’s opinion on the nature of war: “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

Sherman’s Politics

After parading with his victorious Army of the West through Washington in the Grand Review of May 24, 1865, Sherman was given command of the Military Division of the Missouri, encompassing all US territory from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Four years later, when Ulysses S. Grant was elected president, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army, where he waged political battles with Washington bureaucrats and his troops fought actual battles against Native Americans. He organized new training schools for Army officers and did his best to help his friend stem the growing violence of the Democrat-backed Ku Klux Klan in the South during Reconstruction. By 1883, Sherman had grown tired of politics, and he resigned his command of the Army and then left the military on February 8, 1884.

Sherman’s final years were spent in New York City, where he pursued his interests in art and the theater—he was a devoted fan of Shakespeare. In 1884, the Republican Party approached him to run for president as General Grant had done. Sherman had watched politics destroy his friend’s reputation and health, and before the party could even offer him guidance on a platform or campaign strategy, he issued a public statement in the newspapers that has become famous: “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”

Ellen Sherman died in 1888, which devastated the old general, and in grief he turned his attention to conservation efforts with fellow Republican Theodore Roosevelt (who had also used the outdoors to comfort himself after the death of his wife Alice four years earlier). The two men worked together to form the Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization named for two famous American outdoorsmen. In January 1891, General Sherman fell ill with pneumonia, and he died on February 14th. President Benjamin Harrison issued a statement to Congress on Sherman’s death, saying, “He was an ideal soldier, and shared to the fullest the esprit du corps of the army, but he cherished the civil institutions organized under the Constitution, and was only a soldier that these might be perpetuated in undiminished usefulness and honor.”

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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.

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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.

Preparations

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.

War

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.

Effects

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.