Monday, August 31, 2009

Presidential Reading lists, do they matter? What do the presidents read?

On August 24th, Slate posted an article analyzing the list of books Obama would be bringing with him on his vacation. Read the article here:

As the article elucidates, the president’s reading list is at times used as a barometer of national feeling, or in the case of George W. as an attempt to prove intelligence, with mixed results (see Slate article). Obama’s list seems to be a nonstarter because it appears to be based solely on his reading interests at this point. Interestingly, his list includes David McCullough’s John Adams. I wonder if past presidents have read biographies of their predecessors. If so, what motivates these choices besides courting public opinion? Do they conceive of these biographies as historical road maps with warning signs imbedded in the text or more simply as a way to have a conversation through history with other members of the same ultra- exclusive club?

Since reading the Slate article, I’ve been thinking about what our presidents have chosen to read in their free time more broadly. Beyond just using books in our modern age as a public relations tool to connote everyman-ness or further some other agenda, what kinds of books have our presidents turned to in their personal lives away from public scrutiny? Have our presidents viewed their relationship with reading the same way that I have? As a vital relationship that can provide anything from comfort to education to just plain entertainment? With these questions in mind, I have tried to find out some of the books and authors our presidents have turned to while in office.

Abraham Lincoln was famous for being a self made man from America’s frontier. He was self- taught and spent little time if any in organized schools. Instead, Lincoln taught himself by reading whatever books he could get his hands on. He famously said of his love of reading, “My best friend is the man who’ll give me a book I ain’t read.” Of the many books he read in his lifetime, Lincoln’s favorites included Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, along with the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Robert Burns and Lord Byron. One can imagine Lincoln entertaining those who worked in the telegraph office with monologues from one of Shakespeare’s dramas while awaiting word from the front during the war. Stories about families forced to turn on one another due to circumstance might have seemed appropriate during a war which often required the same of many American families living in border states.

Teddy Roosevelt was also a voracious reader who was an author in his own right. He authored his own history of the War of 1812 along with several books relating to his love of nature. Teddy has lately been remembered through books and articles for his legacy in furthering the national park system, and this love of nature and the environment was reflected in his reading choices.

Finally, a book that seems to connect many presidents over a large span of years has been the bible. Thomas Jefferson wrote his own version of the New Testament gospels that was in keeping with his interpretation of Christianity. In addition, Millard Fillmore (president from 1850-1853) learned to read by reading the family bible. To him, and countless others, the bible served not only as a religious text, but as an essential educational tool for those not lucky enough to attend formal schools. More than a hundred and fifty years later, George W. Bush would also list the bible as an important book in his life as it represents the foundation of his religious beliefs.

That said, does any of this matter? I love this kind of trivial information, but does the reading list of any president really hold any significance? I guess if we view the experience of reading as something of a transformative experience, as something that molds us, then we might take into account one’s personal library as an indication of how a person’s worldview has been shaped.

The question of what the presidents read is a favorite of mine, and hopefully I will get a chance to return to it in the future in greater detail.

Friday, August 28, 2009

“I Have a Dream” – the 46th Anniversary of the March on Washington

On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 civil rights demonstrators marched on Washington, D.C in what was termed the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” At an assembly at the Lincoln Memorial, a sea of marchers called on President John F. Kennedy to provide equal rights to African Americans in various areas of American life that were plagued by racial disparity, including housing, education and employment opportunities. Probably the most famous speaker that day to add his voice to the call for change was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In the wake of our 24/7 media age in which our televisions, radios and computers are inundated with political bluster of innumerable persuasions and throwaway lines, it is truly awesome to take a moment and reflect on words that grow only more inspiring with each repetition. With his voice rising and falling from the palace of justice to the valley of despair, Dr. King made a speech that would cause even the most secular humanists to follow him to the mountaintop. Cloaked in biblical metaphors of hope and frank images of the injustices of African American life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of an idea almost as old as America itself, the idea of the American dream. Has King’s dream for America come to pass? Does America still have a long way to go in terms of its race relations? Surely this is something we might reflect on today.

Here in its entirety is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

[Image via Mentalfloss]

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Remember the Ladies – Anniversary of the Certification of the 19th Amendment

On August 26, 1920, after a hard fought struggle for women’s suffrage, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Congress proposed the nineteenth amendment on June 4, 1919, at which point it had to be ratified by a majority of the states. The amendment became a part of the U.S. Constitution on August 18, 1920 when the Tennessee state legislature became the thirty -sixth state to ratify the amendment by a close one -vote margin. The 19th amendment states:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Campaigning for the 19th Amendment was spearheaded primarily by the National Women’s Party (formerly the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage). Suffragettes Alice Paul and Lucy Burns led this group to campaign for a voting rights amendment. The NWP were a non-political group that did not support specific candidates for the presidency, but this did not stop them from picketing in front of the White House for women’s suffrage. President Wilson tolerated their public demonstrations until the United States entered World War I, at which point the picketers were arrested for “obstructing traffic.” The women were not deterred and some, including Alice Paul, even went on hunger strikes in support of their shared cause. Alice Paul had to be force-fed in prison which no doubt embarrassed President Wilson, who was simultaneously trying to depict himself as an international leader in human rights. This may explain his support and call for a 19th amendment in support of women’s suffrage soon after.

After the 19th amendment was passed in 1920, the NWP continued to lobby to end all gender discrimination. To this end, Alice Paul drafted and lobbied for an equal rights amendment. The time limit for the ERA’s passage ended in 1982 amid controversy, but on July 21, 2009 Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney of New York introduced the ERA in the House of Representatives.

Besides the fact that it is unfathomable that women did not have the right to vote less than a hundred years ago, revisiting the suffrage movement reaffirms the sense of the urgency and dedication shared by these women. These suffragettes had a voice and wanted to be heard; they were not content to resign themselves only to the cult of domesticity. To make this happen, they used grass roots initiatives and common sense reasoning to agitate until they achieved the right that all to many of us take for granted, the right to vote and actively participate in our democracy. I think the best way to pay tribute to these women is to take advantage of the right that they were too long denied, to participate in our democracy no matter what one’s gender, race, religion or political affiliation.

To find out more on how you can register to vote click here:

For any further information on registering to vote and voting click here:

[Image via Library of Congress, Fit 4 All, and Fading Ad Blog.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Just Play it Cool Boy, Real Cool - Leonard Bernstein’s Birthday (August 25, 1918- October 14, 1990)

[Images via Jazz, Britannica,]

Today would have been the 91st birthday of one of the greatest American composers, Leonard Bernstein. He is noted for being one of the first composers born and educated in the United States to receive worldwide acclaim. In his long and storied career, Bernstein wrote three symphonies, two operas, and five musicals. One of his most memorable contributions to American history and culture was the score to West Side Story, which he composed.

West Side Story is an amazing text in American culture. In a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it explores the conflicts between teenage groups (the Jets and the Sharks) from different cultures, love, and the realities of street life set against the backdrop of New York City, which emerges as another living and breathing character in the musical. Bernstein’s sophisticated score along with Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography combined to create one of the most memorable works in American musical history. Sondheim related the difficulty of making the musical in an interview in Rolling Stone in 1990:

…everybody told us that the show was an impossible project. Steve Sondheim [who wrote the lyrics] and I auditioned it like crazy, playing piano four-hands to convey a quintet or the twelve-tone “Cool” fugue. But no one, we were told, was going to be able to sing augmented fourths – as with “Ma-ri-a”. Also, they said the score was too “rangy” for pop music…Besides, who wanted to see a show in which the first-act curtain comes down on two dead bodies lying on stage? “That’s not a Broadway musical comedy.”

And then we had the really tough problem of casting it, because the characters had to be able not only to sing but to dance and act and be taken for teenagers…

Somehow it worked out.

The musical was a hit on Broadway when it debuted and was made into a film starring Natalie Wood in 1961. I once watched this film in a theater with other enthusiasts. At the end of the film, someone a few aisles up who had apparently not seen the film before said, “this film makes me want to join a New York street gang circa 1960.” I’m not sure that’s the reaction I had, especially considering the ending, but this is certainly one of the best musicals ever made and an important text in American history and culture. In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, here are a few songs from the 1961 film:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Burning Down the House

On this day in 1814, the British captured Washington, D.C. and burned down the Capital building and the White House during the War of 1812. Due to its brevity and the fact that so much of American History is often forced into a single year of High School education, the War of 1812 almost always gets skipped over or abbreviated in the pursuit of other conflicts such as the American Civil War or World Wars I and II, respectively. However, while the war was concluded in the form of an exhausted truce in which neither side suffered any major territorial losses…the war is memorable for many reasons. First, it left the country feeling a surge of nationalism and ushered in an “Era of Good Feeling.” Americans felt as if they won a second war of independence solidifying the effects of the first. In the wake of strong feelings of nationalism, new heroes emerged from the experience of the War. Andrew Jackson emerged as a military hero after the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. The battle was notable because it was fought after both countries signed a peace treaty effectively ending the war, at least on paper. A second hero in her own right to emerge from the narrative of the war of 1812 was Dolley Madison. Madison’s actions relate directly to today’s anniversary of the burning of the White House.

James Madison was president in 1814 when the British invaded Washington, D.C.. As troops approached the city, Madison retreated with the army while Dolley was supposed to remove to the safety of Virginia and stay with friends. Instead, Dolley stayed behind and oversaw the removal of priceless items from the White House for safekeeping, including a portrait of George Washington. Rumor has it that the British arrived at the White House to find a dinner served on the table that those inside had no time to eat. After sitting down to enjoy the meal meant for the Americans, the British set fire to the White House, Capital, Library of Congress and other government buildings. When Dolley returned to Washington after the British left the city, she was cheered in the streets by the people for her actions. She promised that the Capital and other buildings would be rebuilt, and they were….stocked in part with the precious items that Dolley managed to save.

While Dolley is often remembered for her trend setting fashion and societal graces, having served as White House hostess for Jefferson and Madison and unofficially for Van Buren, Polk and Tyler, I think it is also safe to say that Dolley appreciated the precious nature of American history in its early years. Dolley may have appreciated the fact that the citizens of such a young country would need relics from the time of its founding to help solidify its legitimacy. Americans who may not have understood the ideological underpinnings of our Declaration of Independence or Constitution may have relied on images of George Washington or other cultural objects to establish their agency to such lofty ideals. We all connect with history in different ways, whether through books, images or song (p.s. the “Star Spangled Banner” was composed by Francis Scott Key while witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry in 1814). Through an incredible act of heroism, Dolley Madison insured that the survival of key artifacts of the nation’s founding for generations of American citizens to come.

Learn more about Dolley Madison on the White House’s official website here.

This is the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that Dolley managed to save before the White House was torched:

[Images via allposters, famouspeople, solarnavigator]

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to the Garden – the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock

Today marks the end of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. Billed as “ An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” the three days festival was held from August 15 – August 18, 1969 at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York. (that’s right – Woodstock did not actually take place in Woodstock, but in a town roughly 43 miles southwest of Woodstock) Featuring some of the greatest acts in music, Jimi Hendrix closed down the festival on day three. Enjoy a video of his now legendary performance of the Star Spangled Banner.

The festival is remembered not only for its great music, but also because it featured a huge crowd with relatively little to no violence. The lack of violence is even more incredible in light of the rain, electrical issues and the food and water shortages. Some consider the concert an anomaly that marked the end of the “Summer of Love” era begun at Monterrey Pop in 1967. In the months following Woodstock, violence would erupt at a Rolling Stones concert staffed by the Hells Angels and John Lennon would tell his generation what they already knew….that the “dream” held dear by hippies from Haight Ashbury to Woodstock, NY was in effect over.

[Image via Sobrephotos]

Monday, August 17, 2009

“…You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” - Davy Crockett’s Birthday (1786-1836)

Today, Davy, or David as he preferred to be called, Crockett would have been 223 years old. Davy Crocket is a great example of classic American myth making. Known as the “King of the Wild Frontier,” Crockett fought under the leadership of Andrew Jackson in the Creek Wars, served in Congress, and eventually died at the Alamo. His prowess as a frontiersman was legendary in his own time, as was his ability to follow his own conscience in spite of public pressure to do the contrary. Examples of this commitment to following his own beliefs include his decision not to support Indian removal, even at the risk of publicly contradicting the policies of his former militia commander, President Andrew Jackson. This public refusal to support Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal prevented Crockett’s re-election to Congress in 1831. Crockett published his imaginatively titled autobiography A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett. Written by Himself in 1834. Some claim that his travels outside of his district to promote his book kept him from being re-elected to Congress in 1835. Crockett explained this time in his life saying “I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not…you may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” Go to Texas he did, where he died famously at the Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836.

Famous during his life for his frontiersman background and feats, the myth of Davy Crockett gained new life in 1955 when Walt Disney produced a television series about Crockett starring Fess Parker. The television series showed Crockett as a rugged frontiersman (he did wear a coonskin cap after all) who fought Indians, served in Congress, and eventually died heroically at the Alamo. While historians may spend years separating the reality of Crockett’s life from the myth, here is the theme song to Disney’s show celebrating the supposed feats of Davy Crockett “King of the Wild Frontier.”

[Image via hartransom]

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The King is Dead…. Long Live the King – the 32nd Anniversary of Elvis’ Death

On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley passed away at the young age of 42. Elvis is largely credited with bringing rock n roll to the masses and helping the genre crossover to white audiences. Because Elvis is sometimes remembered only for the drama and idiosyncrasies of his later years, it is easy to forget how unique he was in American music when he first broke on the scene. He wasn’t just a white boy trying to sing black music for the masses; he was a singer with originality and talent from his lip curl to his onstage swagger. As a point of comparison, I have posted two videos of white artists singing a song made famous by a black musician. Watch and listen as both Elvis and Pat Boone sing “Tutti Frutti,” a song by another legendary American musician, Little Richard. When both videos are viewed in concert, it is hard to imagine that anyone could prefer Pat Boone to the King. (I have also included a video of Little Richard’s performance of the song)

Elvis Presley's Version of "Tutti Frutti"

Pat Boone's Version:

Little Richard Video (Showing Original Lyrics):

It’s interesting to note that Pat Boone’s version was released around the same time that Little Richard originally released the song in 1955. Boone’s producers convinced him to record his own version of the song with sanitized lyrics to play on its popularity among white audiences. Boone’s version of the song reached #12 on the charts while Richard’s lagged behind at #17. Elvis Presley released his own version of the song on his debut album in 1956.

[Image via how stuff works]

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Les Paul (1915-2009)

On August 12th, guitar pioneer Les Paul passed away at the age of 94. Paul was known for pioneering the invention and evolution of electric body guitars, along with recording equipment. He developed electronic echo effects and multi-track recording devices in addition to his signature invention, the electric body guitar. Prior to Paul’s development of the electric body guitar, guitars were mostly hollow or semi-hollow. Paul’s genius was in stringing guitar strings on a piece of solid wood and amplifying the sound electronically, paving the way for further electric body guitar production and development. Not just an innovator of guitar structure, Paul was famous for his guitar playing as well.

Click here to watch Les Paul play one of my favorite songs “How High the Moon” with his former wife and musical partner Mary Ford. The video also shows Les Paul showing off his developments in multi-track recording as he incorporates 24 pre-recorded tracks into their performance.

Click here to read Rolling Stone’s obituary for Les Paul:

[Image via fromthevault]

Thursday, August 13, 2009

John Quincy Adams = the Coolest Cat on Twitter

For my inaugural post I thought I would discuss one of the strangest/ most clever ways I have witnessed American history link up with modern social networking. On August 5th the Massachusetts Historical Society started posting short diary entries of President John Quincy Adams online. This might not be anything of great note as the Massachusetts Historical Society is a well- known archive of many Adams’ family documents and manuscripts, including diaries. What is remarkable is that the society posted John Quincy Adams’ diary from 1809 under the auspices of a twitter account, with each day’s brief entry constituting a daily “tweet”.

By becoming a “follower” of John Quincy Adams, history lovers and nerds everywhere can follow Adams as he journeys across the Atlantic to serve as Minister to Russia during James Madison’s administration. While limited to 150 characters per entry, the diary entries are brief but telling. Adams frequently notes the navigational coordinates of the ship and what he is reading during the journey (Massillon’s Careme Sermons 2 & 3 anyone?) There are scant references to his wife who accompanied him on the trip. An article providing background for the diary gives insight into his wife’s perspective of the trip. Apparently, she was not overly thrilled to be leaving two of her children behind to accompany her husband on a tumultuous six thousand mile journey to Russia. The background information includes an excerpt from her memoir written many years later.

Follow John Quincy Adams on Twitter here:

See his wife’s memories of the trip here:

While the blog is an interesting intersection of history and social networking, it makes me wonder how historians will write our history in the years to come. How many people keep such detailed diaries and journals anymore? John Quincy Adams’ diaries total fifty -one volumes over a period of sixty-nine years. Does anyone keep such a detailed account of his or her life these days? If the number of diaries and letters being written has dwindled, will historians look to recorded emails and blogs (not this one) to write our history? I wonder how it will change the way our stories are written…

[Image via DrMyers]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Welcome to my first adventure into blogging. I am a recent college graduate with a lifelong love of American history and culture. I have often thought about starting a blog, but have previously found every excuse not to do it. With that in mind, I take to heart the words of Eleanor Roosevelt who exhorted the world to "do one thing everyday that scares you." While I may not blog everyday, I will try to be fairly consistent. Hopefully blogging will not be as scary as Eleanor Roosevelt makes it sound. That said, this is a blog where I hope to write about a wide range of topics in American history, from presidential history to the history of rock n roll. Whether its events from "this day in history" or just things that happen to be on my mind, you'll find it all here. Thanks for visiting my site!