Tag Archives: History

This Day in History 5/30 – The 1806 Duel between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickenson

Jackson DuelSome epithets seem custom-made for their people they describe.

Father of his country, Great emancipator, Great Soul…hell, any permutation of “the Great”, or “the Terrible”, or “The Magnificent” and so on.  These monikers may, or may not suit their real-life examples perfectly.

Yet for some reason, the term “ornery son of a bitch” just fits Andrew Jackson like a glove.

Jackson, hero of the War of 1812, killer of Seminoles in Florida, and seventh President of the United States, had what we today would call an anger issue.  Andy was pissed, at just about anything.

He was pissed at his parents for not settling in Philadelphia, where they landed from Ireland, and opting for a lawless wilderness called the Waxhaws between North and South Carolina.

He was pissed at the British for killing his Mom, his brothers and for slashing him with a sword during the American Revolution.

He was pissed at Native Americans for supporting the British, for supporting their independence and way of life, heck for even existing.

Most of all, he was pissed at anyone who slandered his wife’s good name.

Andrew Jackson met Rachel Donelson Robards when he first moved to Nashville in 1788.  Robards was in the process of divorcing her difficult husband, and Jackson couldn’t wait to marry her.  When they did wed, in 1790, he thought the divorce was finalized.  It so happened that the divorce was never finalized, making Jackson’s marriage bigamous and invalid.  In fact, some records show Rachel living with Andy AS MRS. JACKSON before the ink was dry on the paperwork.  Even though they remarried legally in 1794, it made Rachel look like a two-timing hussy, and Andrew would be the first to fight for his wife’s honor.

In 1805, a fellow horse trader and plantation owner named Charles Dickinson started to get under Jackson’s skin about his business dealings.  Specifically, Dickinson had issue with a horse race between Jackson and Dickinson’s father-in-law.  The war of words would escalate from a simple bet on a horse race to a full-fledged public attack on Rachel Jackson’s character.

At first, the original dispute was settled.  Then, Jackson started telling his own twist on the affair, and Dickinson sent a friend to smooth things over.  Jackson then beat the shit out of the friend with his cane, since he was already pissed at dealing with a meddler and an interloper.  Both Dickinson and his friend sent letters calling Jackson a coward.  Jackson responded in a newspaper that the friend was a “lying valet for a worthless, drunken, blackguard.”

This last insult sent Dickinson over the edge.  Since his Facebook page wasn’t available, he publishes an attack in a newspaper calling Jackson a “poltroon and a coward.”Now a casual look at Webster’s would show that Dickinson is being redundant: “poltroon” means a spiritless coward.  However, looking closer, “poltroon” was also meant to describe Jackson as not only cowardly, but evil as well.  This was a sly reference to Jackson’s relations with his wife, which many still saw as somewhat sinful.

Jackson, as ornery SOBs tend to do, demands satisfaction, challenging Dickinson to a duel in nearby Kentucky (Tennessee outlawed dueling).  On May 30, 1806, both combatants met in the Adairville area near the border between the two states.  Dickinson was confident: he was an expert shot and never stopped showing off his skills along the way.  Jackson, knowing his opponent’s skill, thought Dickinson should fire first, as he might be too excited to aim accurately.  If he missed, then Jackson could calmly aim and fire.  Of course, there was the little problem of Jackson dying from his wound, but that was another matter.

As the two men took their places on the ground, they stood slightly angled to each other, so as to give the smallest target possible.  Dickinson, as planned, fired first.  He hit Jackson square in the chest, within an inch of his heart.  Somehow, it could be through adrenaline, stubbornness, or just plain backcountry hate, Jackson manages to stand still, level his pistol, and fire.  The first shot was faulty, as the cock of the pistol only went halfway, so under the rules of dueling Jackson was allowed to recock his pistol and try again.

This time, he hit Dickinson in the chest.  He wasn’t so lucky.

People of the time were shocked, and criticized Jackson for not simply wounding Dickinson and thus settling the affair without loss of life.  Jackson lived through a lifetime of hate; there was no way he was not going to shoot to kill.  Besides, he rationalized that Dickinson was clearly aiming to kill him, so it was only proper to repay the favor.

Jackson was a social outcast after the duel.  It didn’t last long—pretty soon, a few Indian wars and scuffle with the Redcoats in New Orleans would make him a national hero. He would become President, and survive an assassination attempt—even beating the shit out of his would-be assassin with his cane. Yet the rumors about his wife never let up, even after Jackson killed a man for slandering her.

It’s amazing what a life force hate can be.  Can anyone ever be that pissed nowadays?

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Videos for the Classroom: A Day in the Life…from BBC History

As we here at the Neighborhood sit patiently while Governor Cuomo calls us for an interview, I found this cool series of videos.

In my year teaching ancient history, the BBC has been a veritable lifeline, along with National Geographic, Discovery Channel and PBS.  BBC’s History site is particularly instructive, in that it includes games, projects, lessons and dense (REALLY dense) readings on many important aspects of history–mostly from a British perspective, obviously, but it works.

“A Day in the Life…” is a series of short videos about a kid’s point of view through British history.  Since Ancient Rome is on the menu to end the year, I’ve included the life of Roman kid in Roman Britain.  It isn’t entirely accurate, but it is fun, and cool to share with kids for a laugh.

You can go to BBC History for this and other videos.

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Mad Men and the King Assassination

Some of the cast of AMC’s Mad Men.

Yesterday was that rare instance when television illuminates.

Even so, the light shone by the tube can often reflect on our own mirrors—and the image is rarely beautiful.

Mad Men has been one of my favorite programs for a long time—mostly for superficial reasons.  Sure, the series gets deep once in a while, exploring emotions or lack thereof (the latter in the case of main character Don Draper), but I just love the entire ambiance.  The clothes, the furniture, the hair, the constant booze, cigarettes and womanizing; the show does a great job romanticizing a time and place that, if you had an ounce of humanity in you, shouldn’t be celebrated at all.

Yet yesterday’s episode, which focused on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, gave an interesting window into how this predominantly white establishment dealt with crisis.

Let’s face it; for most of America, the 1960s was still a time of rigid social mores, gender roles, and class divisions that gave more leeway to those males who climbed higher up the food chain (a time we’re unfortunately cycling back to today).  The counter culture image of the Sixties was what America saw on TV, but not necessarily what dictated their everyday lives.

To paraphrase a famous saying, by the time the Sixties really reached middle America, it was the Seventies, and nobody cared.

It certainly seemed that way for the characters of Mad Men, as the episode opened with an advertising awards ceremony in New York.  As the advertising honchos got in their tuxedos and mink stoles, the keynote speech (given by the late Paul Newman as an endorsement to 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy) was interrupted by a shout that King was killed in Memphis.

As the episode wore on, the emotions of the principal characters ran the gamut.  Megan Draper and Peggy Olsen cried at the news.  Don and Roger Sterling stood as stoic as possible—with Roger cracking wise that he thought King’s famous eloquence would save him.  Old-money scion Pete Campbell lashes out at Harry Crane for thinking of profits on what he calls a “shameful, shameful day!”  Buxom office matron Joan Harris hugs Don’s Black secretary Dawn.  Even Don’s son Bobby starts ripping the wallpaper in frustration.

If there was one common theme in their reactions to the King assassination, it isn’t rage, regret, or even sadness—it is awkwardness.

It’s an awkwardness that captures beautifully the confused mindset of most of white America (at least north of the Mason Dixon) at the time.

The King assassination was one of the defining moments of the decade, and opened a groundswell of emotions.  The survivors of King’s movement tried to keep his legacy and activism alive as best they could.  Stokely Carmichael and others in the Black Power movement called for an end to nonviolent resistance.  Riots sprang up in overt 100 urban areas, including Washington, DC, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New York.

Again, if you didn’t live in these riot zones, all of this was seen through television.  Most of America, to be honest, really didn’t know how to react.  David Halberstam, the famous journalist, reported callous, even vicious reactions by whites, particularly in the South.  Yet most of America was too stunned…too bewildered…and definitely not sure of what the right reaction should be, especially since the wrong reaction (riots, violence) was sprawled all over the six-o’clock news.

Mad Men was not about to cover the rage and discontent in the Black community, and rightfully so.  Mad Men never has been, and never will be a show about people of color in the 1960s.  It’s about white America, the elite of white America, and how that elite changes with the rise of mass culture and mass communications.  Old-money nabobs like Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper evolve into the self-made media elites like Don Draper.

As such, it would be extremely stilted, and rather phony, to shift focus from Madison Avenue to the streets of Harlem.  The awkward silences, the phony hugs, the confusion about what to do—all of that reflected perfectly the era and the people of the ruling class of 1960s New York, and nothing else.

Yet even with a clear view, the vista is not always pleasant.  In hindsight, we should’ve known better.

The assassination did not serve as a galvanizing force in America.   On the contrary, it showed how while the activists, intellectuals and politicians moved closer together, the rest of America was still far apart.  Not only were the differences vast, but growing every year as awareness through the media didn’t always lead to acceptance or even sympathy.  Many whites in 1968 still saw civil rights as a threat to their way of life, and not just in the South.

The awkwardness, therefore, reflected a reinforcement of social niceties that mask true intentions.  It’s difficult to know how anyone on Mad Men truly felt about civil rights: even the most liberal of characters, like Peggy Olsen, hasn’t had her worldview tested by a Black family moving next door.

So, in its own way, Mad Men was a lot more realistic about the attitudes of the 1960s than any other show.  The strange silences, stilted apologies and affected shows of affection demonstrate an establishment ( indeed, an entire population) with not only an extreme disconnect to the world around them, but a complete breakdown as the chaos enters the front door.

As our society suffered further catastrophes in the decades since, one must wonder if we ever learned how to react.

What do we do when the world comes crashing down?

Do we make the painful observations that are necessary to make our world better…or just wrap ourselves in the comfort of awkward silence?

 

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Videos for the Classroom: Crash Course!

I cringe at the word “kid-friendly” — sounds like a bad Law and Order: SVU episode.

One of the constant missions of the Neighborhood is to find resources that tap into the caffeine-addled brains of young people.   In the quest to find “kid-friendly” material, most of what I find is directed at…okay, I’ll say it…good little white children.  Good little pasty white kids that sit still and believe anything told to them because a happy smiling face in a toga (or bonnet or Abe Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat) tells them so.

Today, even the good little white kids aren’t really that good nor that white–you can thank TMZ, MTV and YouTube for that.

So to connect with today’s kids, we need something a little edgier.  Crash Course! is a series of films about history and science, told in an irreverent, snarky way by brothers John and Hank Green.  The World History series I saw was pretty entertaining, although the producers do make clear that historical people have sex (they get around it with a folksy word that I forgot).  They are, however, loaded with data, facts and historical debate, when necessary–these guys don’t hide their biases, and it’s important for kids to see someone unashamed of their opinions.

If it weren’t for the occasional sex references, I’d recommend Crash Course! to middle schoolers on up.  It’s perfectly fine for high school, but you may need some discretion with younger viewers.  I’ve attached the episode on Alexander the Great to get an idea.  Enjoy.

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How “Philosophy Bro” Helped me Corrupt the Youth, Socrates-style

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing excites me more than a student proving the ignorance of the powers that be.

On Monday, my room was visited for the great beauty pageant of education, the quality review.  It wasn’t to observe me, though: the technology teacher had the class that period and it was mostly to observe her.  I was sitting in the front of the room, doing some paperwork as if nothing was happening.

The reviewers entered the room, along with the four assistant principals, packed at four corners of my room.  They observed, gawked, took notes, asked questions of some of the students.  The technology lesson was supposed to be the focus.

My students, of course, stole the show.

As the teacher asked the students about the student surveys they would be taking online, one of my students rose his hand and explained, quite calmly, how the results can be manipulated to show students doing worse than they really are, so that it looks like they’re making progress.  My supervisor laughed nervously.  The other reviewers gasped.

I couldn’t be prouder.  There was my kid thinking critically—with NO coaching—and noting the glaring flaws in the system.

Furthermore, it looked like the review team was looking less at the lesson and more at my room.  Charts of Athenian democracy and Alexander the Great’s empire.  Student-produced definitions of “civilization.”  Projects about energy, including a provocative poster stating that nuclear energy “will blow your mind.”  Quotes by Plato and Aristotle above the blackboard.

My supervisor darted to me as I was working at my desk.  Usually very calm, she had a look of abject horror: “They want to know about what’s written on the whiteboard.”  I had done an introductory class on Greek philosophy the periods before, and we came up with a list of philosophical questions, “big” questions that have no right answer.  At the very top right was the ominous “Is God real?”

“It was a philosophy lesson, “ I explained.  “Those are examples of philosophical questions they came up with.”

There was no reason to panic.  A cursory look at the board would have given that clue: questions like “Where did the universe come from?”, “What happens when we die?”, “What is reality?”, etc.  Yet questioning like this makes administrators panic—even as such thinking is critical to becoming a successful adult.

This is why I love philosophy.  It makes kids smarter and scares the shit out of adults who think they know everything.

I’ve wanted to teach intro philosophy for a while, but I never found the right avenue: too many “kid-friendly” sites on ancient history are just that: too kid-friendly and not challenging enough.  I wanted to use real texts, Plato’s dialogues and whatnot, but the translations were simply too inaccessible for my young kids.

In a weird way, my problem was solved through a rather profane little blog I came across by accident.

Philosophy Bro seems, at least on the surface, to be simply a Cliffs Notes of the great philosophical texts of Western civilization.  It includes ancients, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Russell, Marx, Hegel…you name it.  If it were simply that, it would be a great place to get a snapshot of the works that shape Western thought.

Yet for classrooms, especially those in middle and high school, Philosophy Bro is much more.

P-Bro, for lack of a better pseudonym, could’ve easily just given a summary of the main points  of each piece in a factual yet dry manner ala Cliffs or SparkNotes or any other study guide on the market.  Yet he goes one step further.  In a saucy, irreverent, often obsene manner, P-Bro gets at the essence of the text AS A TEXT, not simply as a repository of philosophical thought.  He gets the cadences, rhythms, moods and style of each author—which makes his blog special.

Take Plato, for example…an example I used in class, after all.  I could’ve easily gotten some thrown-together kid-happy reading piece about how Socrates made people think, and said things that weren’t popular and made people sad and forced him to die.  Bullshit.  I wanted to find an accessible text of Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense at his trial in 399 BCE.  Mostly direct transcripts at first (which would make any middle schooler pass out after page 2), but then I stumbled on Philosophy Bro.

Now, to understand my enthusiasm: my intro to philosophy class at Georgetown was basically a boot camp in Plato and Aristotle.  We read almost every dialogue, wrote a report on each one, tore it apart line by line.  P-Bro nailed it.  What’s even better, I got a two-fer: he also summarized the Crito, where Socrates talks his friend out of getting him sprung from jail.  In both, Socrates’ zest and venom roll pure, even if the language can be puerile at times.

(Apparently, according to P-Bro, philosophy is naked without F-bombs.)

So I took his summaries, cleaned up the language a bit (quite a task) and presented to my students.  They got it immediately.  It was amazing how Socrates’ method, his ideals and his worldview rang true in a funny, bawdy way that kept the kids rolling.

The quicker you get students to think for themselves and to question the world around them, the better you’ll feel as an educator.  Philosophy Bro was a great tool in allowing my kids to enter the world of Plato, Aristotle and the other thinkers of our civilization.

…and nothing feels better than scaring the shit out of pencil-pushing administrators.

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Videos for the Classroom: The Western Tradition

As regular followers of the Neighborhood can tell you, I was a pretty dorky kid.

It wasn’t enough that I sat and read the encyclopedia cover to cover.  Nor was it enough as a precocious 8 year old explaining human reproduction to my mother–on a crowded city bus.

I actually got up early for school…to watch school on TV.

Especially during middle and high school, I would get up at a ridiculously early hour.  Most of the time, it was simply to unwind and have some time to myself before I go off to the drudgery of classes.  Usually I could watch a movie on the VHS, or an old show I taped the night before.

Eventually, I was hooked on the most surprising of programs–a college lecture.

Produced by the Annenberg Foundation and broadcast on PBS, The Western Tradition was a 1989 series of 52 televised lectures given by UCLA history professor Eugen Weber.  It covered the development of Western civilization from the dawn of agriculture to the technological age, and wove many common themes together into a unified theory: trends in technology, social movements, government, economics, religion and art.

For me, it was an early entry into the world of higher education, and I was hooked.

Not only were the lectures rich, informative and compelling, they were delivered by a professor whose cadence even today is the benchmark for a great college history professor.  Dr. Weber was born in Romania and educated at Cambridge, so his Eastern European Oxbridge lilt was both comforting and erudite.  His pronunciation of names was impeccable–I thought all professors should sound like that.

Its not really for kids younger than high school age, but these lectures give a great overview of the main topics of Western civilization.  They also give kids a heads-up on what is expected of college students–it sure isn’t “accountable talk” and Common Core, is it?

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This Day in History 3/11: The Great Blizzard of 1888

Now that spring is coming soon, it might serve as a reminder that the end of winter can be just as turbulent as the rest of the season.

March 11, 1888, was shaping up to be another unseasonably warm day.  It had been remarkably mild for the previous week.  Yet as the rain fell, the temperatures dropped.

By midnight of March 12, the Great Blizzard of 1888 was in full fury.  It would snow nonstop for 36 hours, finally leaving the East Coast on the 14th.  When all was said and done, parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts received 50 inches of snow, while parts of New York and New Jersey had up to 40 inches, with drifts as high as 50 feet.  48 inches dropped on Albany, 45 inches in New Haven, and 22 inches in New York, which recorded a temperature of between 6 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the storm, thanks to wind gusts that reached almost 80 miles per hour.

The blizzard had an enormous impact, even before the age of electricity.  The telegraph and telephone lines were in tatters from Montreal and the Maritime provinces of Canada to Maryland and northern Virginia.  200 ships were grounded or wrecked.  Roads and rail lines were impassible for days.  It even froze the East River in New York so solid for a time that locals walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn across it, bypassing the 5-year-old Brooklyn Bridge which was deemed impassible due to ice.

Attached is a firsthand account of the Blizzard of 1888 by Albert Hunt of Winsted, Connecticut.  Recorded in 1949, he recalls the day the storm first hit as if it were yesterday.  It’s an amazing piece of oral history-and I wish there were more from that time period.

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