Tag: American history

The Greatest Presidential Speech Ever Delivered


abraham-lincoln-secondinauguration3Presidential speechwriters are a competitive bunch. I don’t know how many of us there have been since Warring Harding hired Judson Welliver as a “literary clerk” in the early ’20s, but I do know that the majority of those who’ve labored over a draft in the EEOB — or, if they were truly lucky, the West Wing — have a little bit of an inferiority complex.

Why? Because the first question you get when your vocation is mentioned to a stranger is “Did you write anything I know?” Put aside the banality of the question for a minute — how the hell am I supposed to have a vise-like grip on what you know? — and think about how this actually plays out. For the vast majority of us, the answer is ‘no.’ Most presidential speeches — especially in an age when they’ve become ubiquitous — are unremarkable affairs. No one reads your Rose Garden remarks congratulating science fair winners from around the country (yes, I actually got that assignment once. John Negroponte said he loved the speech. I’m still convinced he was mocking me). As a result, your average White House scribe lives in perpetual envy of Raymond Moley, who penned the 1933 FDR inaugural address that included “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (though Moley doesn’t seem to have been responsible for that line); of Ted Sorensen for working on JFK’s 1961 inaugural; and, yes, of Peter Robinson for writing Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech and etching the phrase “tear down this wall” into history. Only the lucky few get a signature song.

What’s sort of remarkable — beautiful, in a way — is that none of the members of this small fraternity, no matter how great their achievements, will ever plausibly be able to claim pride of place…because the greatest presidential speech ever delivered was written by the chief executive himself. And it was delivered 150 years ago today.

Which Political Greats Don’t Get the Upgrade?


shutterstock_191343719One of my guilty pleasures is listening to Bill Simmons’ “The B.S. Report” podcast, especially when he dials up his college buddy, John O’Connell. O’Connell, aka “Jacko”, is a devout New York Yankees fan. Simmons is a diehard Red Sox fan, so they know how to push each others’ buttons. Including the other day, when Simmons poked fun at the notion of past Yankees Andy Petitte, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams having their numbers retired this year.

All were very good players during the Yankees’ return to baseball royalty. But they’re borderline Hall of Famers at best. And hardly in same class as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, or Mantle. Figure it this way: if you filled an airplane with past great Yankees, who’d get the eight seats in first class? Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle? Absolutely. Toss in Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, both first-ballot Hall of Famers once they’re eligible. That leaves two seats. Feel free to debate who deserves them (Whitey Ford, one of the managers — Stengel, Torre, Huggins, Martin — The Boss or Colonel Ruppert, and so forth). Anyway, let’s take this concept of who boards the plane and gets to turn left and apply it to the GOP. Again, with eight first-class seats for everyone standing at the gate and praying for an upgrade.

Three are obvious: Lincoln. Reagan and T.R.

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From The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn: Routines are not just good theory. They work in practice. Order makes life more peaceful, more efficient, and more effective. In fact the more routines we develop, the more effective we become. Routines free us from the need to ponder small details over and over again; routines let […]

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History’s B-Listers


381px-James_WilkinsonBiography is probably the most popular — and certainly the most accessible — way of learning about history. For obvious reasons, most of them focus on the star figures of their day: hundreds of books have been written about Alexander of Macedon, Augustus, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill, and hundreds more will be written in the centuries to come.

But for every Great Man, there are always a number of ancillary and supporting characters whose lives are equally fascinating — and just as illuminating about their eras — as those of the superstars. I don’t simply mean the other well-known figures of the day — the Dariuses, Marc Antonies, Wellingtons, and Jefferson Davises — or the millions of common folk who are the subject of social history: I mean the genuine supporting characters who were important in their day, but whose names have understandably faded from memory. Think of them as “Best Supporting Historical Figures.”

One such character is Gen. James Wilkinson (1757-1825), who recently found a biographer in Andro Linklater. As the title of An Artist In Treason implies, Wilkinson was undoubtedly one of the slimiest, most perfidious characters of his day and widely suspected of being in the employ of the Spanish government, then one of America’s biggest rivals (the Spaniards confirmed Wilkinson’s well-compensated treachery decades after his death). That, however, did not prevent him from serving as America’s highest-ranking military officer under each of America’s first four presidents, and as the United States’ first governor of the Louisiana Territory. His military career began with the Siege of Boston in 1775 and ended — with a few gaps as a Kentucky politician/statesman/scoundrel — thirty-seven years later 1812. He died while serving as the American Envoy to Mexico.

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Let’s talk about the Louisiana Purchase! No doubt, everyone else fed up with modern politics has taken up the same topic… perhaps around some good cognac or fried alligator, as the case may be.  The half of modern Americans who don’t hate themselves for living under the stars and stripes sometimes cite the Louisiana Purchase as an example […]

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The Truth About States’ Rights


As the 2016 presidential campaign gets underway, we can expect the usual savage critique of any conservative who dares to advocate states’ rights, as Rick Perry tried to do in the last cycle. The unspoken premise of such attacks is that “states’ rights” is a philosophy born in the antebellum South to defend slavery. Ergo, anyone who supports states’ rights today must be a closet racist.

A 2013 New York Times op-ed by Michael C. Dawson, for example, declared that “since the nation’s founding, ‘states’ rights’ has been a rallying cry for those who wished to systematically disenfranchise and exploit large segments of their population.”

A Warrior Nation: Thoughts on Veterans Day


Today is Veterans Day, a day to thank veterans for their service and sacrifice. It is also a good time to reflect on the fact that our military has not only kept us safe and free, but has made us who we are in important ways. We like to think of ourselves as isolated from the world’s violent conflicts and secure behind two giant oceanic moats. But the cold, unvarnished reality is that — like every other such nation in history — the United States became a great power by breaking a lot of heads. To a far greater degree than most Americans are willing to admit, we have been a martial people for most of our history.

One historically important function of war is nation-building, and so it has been with us. The United States was born of a long and bitter Revolutionary War that gave us our independence, our national iconography, as well as a great general who became our greatest President. The War of 1812 gave us Andrew Jackson and our national anthem. The Civil War ended slavery, settled basic constitutional questions left unsettled at the founding and forged our modern federal state. The low-intensity Indian wars and James Polk’s controversial Mexican War made us a continental power and gave us our national mythology of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. The equally controversial Spanish-American War and Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet made us a global power of the first rank.

The Clintons of 2016 Will Not Be The Clintons of 1992


In 1992, Bill Clinton ran as a “new kind of Democrat,” one who would “end welfare as we know it” and craft a society that would reward those who “work hard and play by the rules.” Clinton knew that he could not win as a traditional liberal, so he crafted the now-famous “Third Way” approach, and campaigned and governed under a Third Way banner.

Of course, the Third Way was reinforced by the disastrous (from the Democrats’ perspective) 1994 Midterm Elections. Clinton accepted a Republican welfare reform bill (after two vetoes), balanced the budget (after much Republican prodding) and expanded free trade. At the same time, he proposed a bevy of micro-reforms that won bipartisan approval, in part because they were cleverly crafted so that Republicans could not vote against them. Through a combination of circumstance, accident, and design, Clinton became the Third Way president he had promised.

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This is a shameless request: I’m looking for a solid biography of Thomas Jefferson, and I want suggestions. From my reading on other Founding Fathers, Jefferson often doesn’t come out looking too wonderful.  This is partly because of the man’s genuine flaws, and I know that I quite frankly disagree with him probably on more […]

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I have little respect for Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a judge, but occasionally she does have a point.  Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage or according women equal pay for substantially similar work? Preview Open

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How Do You Teach the Warts of American History?


trailoftears-432x330The United States has its fair share of skeletons in the closet. Racist, imperialist, sexist skeletons. While conservatives may be annoyed at how much liberals like to harp on (and occasionally exaggerate) those particular stories, they are still historical facts — and conservatives aren’t scared of facts.

Here’s my question: what is the right way to teach the “unsavory” parts of American history? There has to be a way to avoid the two extremes of stupidity: on one hand, the “God’s Chosen Nation” model, in which George Washington is practically canonized and no one who carries the stars and stripes can ever do wrong. And, on the other hand, the cesspool of self-loathing that liberals seem to prefer, in which we belabor every injustice ever perpetrated in this country and George Washington gets less coverage than Squanto.

How do you teach the whole picture and help students be proud of our country without closing their eyes to our warts?