Saturday, July 29, 2017

American Revolution Podcast

To anyone who has enjoyed my Unlearned History Project, I am pleased to announce the launch of my American Revolution Podcast.  Like the Unlearned History Project, my episodes will be available both as a recorded Podcast and in written format.

This new project will focus exclusively on the American Revolution, going into great detail.  I expect it to be a multi-year project with hundreds of episodes.  If you have any interest in the American Revolution, I hope you will give it a try.  So far, I have just posted a few introductory episodes.  For the next couple of months I will be discussing the French and Indian War, which introduces many of the people and issues involved in the Revolution itself.

Over the past year since I stopped adding new Unlearned History episodes, I have been working diligently to prepare the launch this new project.  The preparation time was well worth it, and should help keep me on schedule with regular weekly releases of new episodes.

I hope you will give it a look and please feel free to provide constructive feedback, positive or negative.

Read Written American Revolution Episodes

Listen to American Revolution Podcast


Sunday, September 18, 2016


To anyone who has been visiting my blog, thank you.  For the past few months, I have not had the time to post any new episodes.  I have also been recording podcasts of these blog posts with links added to each post.

The reason for both of these things is that I am planning to launch a new blog / podcast devoted to the American Revolution.  This new project will involve me producing a weekly article and podcast following the events of the American Revolution, large and small in chronological order. After a few background articles on the Britain and the colonies I will launch into a series beginning with the French and Indian War, through the pre-war political battles over taxation and colonial rights, into the war itself, and then into the formation of the new Government.

I expect this new project to involve hundreds of episodes, produced over several years.  I hope that anyone looking for an introduction to any Revolutionary war topic, large or small, will find it interesting and useful.

For the past few months I have been reading and researching the issues that will cover the first episodes of this new project.  That has been taking all of my extra time.  Perhaps at some point I will get back to posting random articles of historical interest here, but for the foreseeable future most of my time will be devoted to the American Revolution.

My decision to create recorded podcasts of these articles is mostly a way to help me figure out the technical, acoustic, and editing requirements for a new podcast.  As these recordings are mostly for testing purposes, please forgive me if they don't live up to the final standards I hope to have in my new project.

Thanks again for your interest in my blog.  Once I make the new American Revolution Project available online, I'll be sure to include a link to it here.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

History of the Empire State Building

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

The Empire State Building is one of the signature landmarks of New  York City.  Primarily admired for its height, the Building has a long and interesting history.

The original land on which the Empire State Building sits was used as farmland until 1859 when John Jacob Astor, Jr. built a mansion there.  His brother, William Backhouse Astor, Sr. also built a mansion on another part of the land a few years later.

William Backhouse Astor's grandson, William Waldorf Astor, tore down his mansion to build the Waldorf Hotel in 1893.  His  relatives in the mansion next door were not happy about this as they really didn't want to live next to a hotel.  A few years later in 1897, after William Backhouse Astor, Jr. died, the family tore down the other mansion and replaced it replaced with the Astoria Hotel,   Originally, the Astoria was mostly built to annoy the owner of the Waldorf by creating more competition.  Eventually, however, the two hotels were combined into a single complex known as the Waldorf Astoria.

By 1918, ownership was a mess. Astoria owner John Jacob Astor IV had died on the Titanic a few years earlier, and Waldorf owner William Waldorf Astor had moved to England to get away from family politics.  The family sold the hotel complex and land to Coleman DuPont, a rival hotel owner. Ten years later, DuPont decided to close the hotel and sold the land to the Bethlehem Engineering Group, to build an office building  A new Waldorf Astoria Hotel would be build a few years later at another location. It is possible that if Astor had not died on the Titanic, history might have been very different and the Empire State Building never built.

Original Waldorf and Astoria Hotels
The Bethlehem Engineering Group did not have any particularly exciting plans for  the new building. They planned to build a 25 story office building.  The Group ended up having money troubles and the bank took back the property.  It was then resold in 1929 to Empire State, Inc.  A group founded by former GM executive John Jakob Raskob, former Waldorf owner Coleman DuPont, and others.  Former NY Gov. Alfred Smith headed the corporation.

Despite lofty plans, the new team got to work on the new construction project with amazing speed. The architect William F. Lamb produced plans for the building in two weeks, basing their drawings on the Reynolds building on North Carolina.  They even had to deal with some not insignificant changes, such as increasing the building from 80 stories to 102.

Not even the Great Depression, which began in October 1929, slowed down progress.  The investors apparently had wisely sheltered their investment capital from the market crash.  In fact, the Depression actually reduced building costs as construction workers and others could be hired for much lower wages.  Total cost of the building was just under $41 million, and $24.7 million of that was for the building materials.  In inflation adjusted dollars that would be about $637 million.

Construction at about the 40th floor
Construction moved at an alarming pace, 4 1/2 stories per week.  Construction began in March 1930 and was complete by April 1931.  The construction crew of nearly 4000 workers assembled 57,000 tons of steel columns and beams, poured 62,000 cubic yards of concrete, and installed 6,400 windows, and 67 elevators in 7 miles of shafts.  Five were killed during construction.  On May 1, the Empire State Building officially opened for business.  By comparison it took four months longer to renovate the Building's lobby in 2008.

The Building was the tallest building in the world at the time.  Its builders thought it would contribute to a futuristic world.  The top of the building was designed to be a dock for dirigibles. People could fly into New York, dock at the top of the Building without worrying about a place to land, and simply take an elevator down to the center of the city. Sadly, this plan never worked.  Winds hitting the side of the building created updrafts that prevented dirigibles from docking safely.  Those plans had to be scrapped.

Although construction was a great success, the Building itself was a financial failure for many years. The Building itself was popular, but it was too far from the business district and nowhere near major transportation  hubs.  Often derided as the "Empty State Building" many of its floors went unoccupied.  In its first year, the Building made more money from tickets to its observatory than it collected in rent.  It was not until well after WWII that the building got close to full occupancy and became profitable.  The owners sold the Building at a loss for $34 million in 1951.

Fire following the 1945 plane crash.
The Building almost did not survive into the post war era.  In 1945, a B-25 bomber flying through fog crashed into the 79th floor.  Three people on the plane were killed as were 11 in the building.  Many more were injured.  The building was damaged terribly but survived.

The most notable feature of the building remains its height.  For 23 years, it was the tallest building in the world.  It remained the tallest building in New York until the World Trade Center surpassed it in 1972.  For a time, there was a plan to build several more stories on top of the Empire State Building in the 1970's in order to overtake the Word Trade Center. However, those plans never came to fruition.  Instead, the Building once again became the tallest in New York after the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.  It lost that title again with the completion of the new World Trade Center.

The iconic building has played a central role in numerous movies, beginning with King Kong in 1933.  In 1982 the Building was listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.  In 1986 it became the National Parks Service recognized it as a National Historic Landmark.

One open secret about the Empire State Building is that the 102 story building has a 103rd floor. There is an area above the observation area originally designed for dirigible passengers to enter and exit their airships.  However, it is only accessible by building personnel.  As with many things in New York, the only way you will see it is if you know somebody. Above that is a series of TV and radio antennae for most of the City's broadcast stations.

The Building's official height is 1,250 ft. to the roof / 1,454 ft. to the top of antenna spire.  It has  2,768,591 sq. ft. of floor space. It has so many addresses that in 1980 it received its own zip code (10118).

Throughout the years, ownership in the iconic building has changed ownership numerous times. Even Donald Trump attempted to acquire an interest in the building in the late 1990s.  Today the building is owned by the publicly traded Empire State Investment Trust.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The President who killed a political party and almost destroyed a nation.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

At one time in American history, there was a political party that suffered from deep internal divisions. Southerns conservatives and northern business interests agreed on very little.  The main thing that held them together was their mutual hatred of the Democrats.  They deplored many actions by the other party that they deemed both damaging to the nation and unconstitutional.  They eventually nominated an outsider who only spoke of policy in vague generalities, was deeply hated by Mexicans, and who did not seem terribly committed to party principles.  Sound familiar?

Of course it does.  We are all familiar with the Presidency of Zachary Taylor, right?  Taylor was a long time military officer.  He had taken pride in the fact that he remain apolitical.  He had not joined any political party and had never even voted in an election.

Zachary Taylor
In 1848, the Whig party was trying to pick its Presidential nominee.  The pro-slavery southerners and the northern capitalists ran the party in an uneasy alliance.  Both groups generally opposed to the Jacksonian politics that dominated the Democrats, but had little else in common.  The Whigs were never a particularly powerful party in the US.  They were the remnants of the old Federalist Party, which had been crushed by the far more popular Democrats who dominated the first half of the 19th Century.

The only successful Whig ticket had been William Henry Harrison in 1840. Harrison had been a popular military General who was not overly focused on politics.  After plenty of internal squabbling, the Whigs chose a similar path for 1848. Gen. Zachary Taylor was a military hero.  He was not terribly popular with the Mexicans, having just crushed them in the Mexican-American War.  But that garnered him enough support among others to make him a credible candidate. Leading Whig politicians of the day largely opposed this outsider with no political experience.  He was a crude speaking westerner with no real polish or manners.  He did not seem to have any strong opinions on the issues of they day, but was seen by the masses as a strong leader.

The voters seemed to see Taylor as the anti-politician.  As late as 1846, he said that the idea of running for President “never entered my head … nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.”  Despite a career in the Army, Taylor had inherited a great deal of land and was one of the wealthiest Americans of the period.  He was not beholden to anyone and refused to make deals even with other Whig leaders.

During this period, it was considered unseemly for candidates to campaign for office.  They had to be seen as being drawn by others into the job.  Any campaigning had to be done in a subtle way.  Taylor would write letters to friends and family opining on his political views and what the country should do.  The recipients would leak these letters to the press.  While not as direct as modern day Twitter, they had their effect.  Voters got to hear about President Taylor and his views on the issues of the day, at least in a vague way.

Taylor generally refused to get specific on any issues.  He selected another moderate politician, Millard Fillmore as his Vice President.  Fillmore had been a New York Congressman, but had left office five years earlier and was now a private citizen. The Party even decided not to issue a platform of issues.  The campaign would be run on personality rather than policy.

The election was a difficult one.  The Democrats made things easier by nominating an unpopular candidate of their own.  Lewis Cass had been a senator and member of the Cabinet as Secretary of War.  He also had foreign policy experience as Ambassador to France. Four years earlier, he had been the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, but had lost after a dark horse candidate named James Polk came out of nowhere to win.  This time, Cass won the nomination.  Still he was not overwhelmingly popular, even in his own Party.  He tended to take calculated and moderate positions on issues when voters wanted a more decisive leader.

The major issue of the day was the expansion of slavery into the west.  Newly acquired territory from Mexico in the American southwest was ripe for settlement.  Southerners wanted to bring slaves into the territories while northerners wanted to keep them free.  Both candidates generally dodged the issue, saying that the people who settled in those territories should be able to vote on the issue and decide for themselves.

Voters were clearly unhappy with both major party choices.  A third party sprang up to field candidates. The Liberty Party, later morphing into the Free Soil Party, nominated its own candidate. Voter turnout was much lower than in previous elections despite the close outcome.  Both candidates won 15 States, though Taylor won a few of the larger ones, defeating Cass with about 47% to 42% with a third party winning just over 10%.

The big issue of Taylor's Presidency was what to do with the Mexican Session, the land from Texas to the Pacific coast that had been ceded during the Mexican War.  Taylor basically let the politicians in Congress work out a compromise.  The Compromise of 1850 turned out to be an utter disaster.  Under the terms of the Compromise:
  • The US admitted California as a Free State.
  • It set the western border of Texas, forcing it to give up claims to the New Mexico territory in exchange for the government taking over the State debt.
  • The settlers in the Utah and New Mexico territories would be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.
  • It place a ban on the sale of slaves (but not slave ownership) in the District of Columbia
  • The Fugitive Slave Act required people in free States to assist with the return of escaped slaves.
Both sides seemed unhappy with the result.  Southerners realized that slaves states were destined to become a minority within the Union and that at some point they would be unable to protect the institution unless they got more aggressive in protecting slave rights now.  The idea of "popular sovereignty," that is letting new States vote on slavery, led to brutal violence in new territories.  Both sides used intimidation and murder to keep the other side out of territories prior to any vote.  The DC slave ban caused Virginia to take back its portion of DC so that slave auctions could continue in Alexandria.  The Fugitive Slave Act galvanized the abolition movement in the north.  Northerners could not longer ignore slavery in far off States.  Men in the north could now actually be forced into posses to help capture slaves and return them to servitude.

Taylor did not actually live long enough to see all of this.  He died suddenly in 1850, after just over a year in office.  His Vice President, Millard Fillmore signed the Compromise into law.  But the damage was done. In 1852, the Whig Party refused even to nominate their incumbent President for another term. Instead they nominated Gen. Winfield Scott, who went on to lose to Franklin Pierce. The Party broke up completely a few years later and did not even field a candidate in 1856.  The Whig party in America was dead.

The result of the Compromise of 1850 was increased violence and sectional tension throughout the 1850's, eventually leading to the outbreak of the US Civil war in 1861.  This would become by far the bloodiest war in US history and the closest the US has even come to a break up of the Union.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The murder that started a World War and led to the creation of the United States

The murder that started a World War and led to the creation of the United States

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Few people can claim to have a major impact on world history.  Those who do are simply in the right place at the right time to do something that tips a world already on edge.  That is the case with Tanachrisson, an Iroquois leader living in the Ohio Valley in the 1740s.

He was born a member of the Catawba tribe, a relatively small group living in what is today western North Carolina.  As a child, he was captured in a raid.  There is some dispute as to whether the Iroquois raided the Catawba or whether another tribe did and he was eventually traded to the Iroquois.  In any event Tanachrisson grew up as a Seneca tribe member, a member of the Iroquois Confederacy, in what is today western New York.
Tanachrisson, the Half-King

The Iroquois had become quite important throughout all of the Great Lakes area by the early 1700's. They had traded with Dutch Settlers in the 1600's and were one of the first tribes to have large numbers of guns.  With this advantage, Iroquois influence took control of a wide number of other tribes, ranging from New England, as far west as Illinois, and as far south as Georgia.

To control this vast region and the many other tribes inhabiting these lands, many Iroquois served as regional leaders.  They ensured that Iroquois policies were implemented among the local tribes, and controlled all negotiations with the encroaching English and French colonies.  Tanachrisson assumed such a role in the Ohio Valley, controlling the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo tribes living in that area.  The English called him the "half-king" which was essentially the role of a viceroy, or regent. Essentially, he could make deals on behalf of local tribes, but was always subject to the main Iroquois council in New York.

The Iroquois had a bad habit of selling out the lands of other tribes for profit and forcing the other tribes to accept the deal and move out. They remained most closely allied with the English. Tanachrisson personally profited from such treaties.  He also was no fan of the French.  He told people that the French had boiled and eaten his father.  It's not clear whether that was true or not, but cannibalism among warring tribes in that era did happen.

In 1753, the French began building a series of forts in the Ohio Valley, linking Lake Erie with the Ohio River, asserting control of the entire Ohio Valley.  The English, particularly Virginia, opposed this move and sent a force of about 150 militia to oppose this French incursion.  The Virginia militia leader was a 21 year old kid with no military or political experience.  His main credential was that he came from a relatively wealthy and well connected family and was very eager to prove himself as a soldier.  This kid got the Governor of Virginia to name him a Lt. Col. of militia, with authority to raise a force and lead it into the wilderness to challenge the French.

The new leader, whose name was George Washington, assembled his militia, and negotiated several guides and allies to assist him with his mission.  Washington convinced Tanachrisson and a few of his warriors to join the force.

The invasion was largely a failure.  Washington's troops lacked the necessary food and supplies to operate at full efficiency. They could not move very quickly as they had to cut their way through the forest.  Despite Tanachrisson's assurances, most of the local tribes did not join the English.  Rather, they tended to side with the French, who seemed less likely to move in and populate their land.

The French force at Fort Duquesne (modern day Pittsburgh) was alerted to the slowly approaching English force.  Since France and England were at peace, the French commander deemed it appropriate to send out a small force of men to reconnoiter the enemy, determine if they were a threat, and to deliver a message that they were trespassing on French territory.

Tannachrisson became aware of the French soldiers who made camp just a few miles from the Virginians, and alerted Washington.  Washington had just sent half his force in the other direction looking for the French.  So now with his force divided, he decided to sneak up on the French at night and make contact with them at dawn.

The French had not been on the lookout for anyone.  When English militia formed up in attack lines approached their camp at dawn, they all ran for their weapons and started shooting.  There is a dispute over which side shot first.  The English clearly had the upper hand.  A few people were wounded before the French commander called a halt to the shooting and announced that they were simply there to deliver a message.  Washington and his officers parlayed with the French to hear what they had to say.

At this point, the crisis probably could still have been averted.  The French could have delivered their message and returned to the Fort.  However, as the French commander read his warning to the English, Tanachrisson split open the commander's skull with a tomahawk and bathed his hands in the dead man's brains.  His warriors also killed most of the French wounded before the stunned Virginians could stop them.

Tanachrisson's motives for his attack on the wounded French prisoners is unclear.  According to some witnesses, he indicated that it was revenge for the French killing his father.  A more practical motive was that his authority came from Iroquois control of the Ohio Valley, and the Iroquois were solidly allied with the British.  Tanachrisson was picking a fight in order to keep the local tribes from drifting into French influence and away from his own.  A war would compel the local tribes to back the Iroquois against the French, thus strengthening Tanachrisson's authority and power.

Tanachrisson would not live to see the long term result of his action.  After the attack where Tanachrisson killed the French commander, Washington had proposed that they lead their smaller and poorly provisioned force forward to attack the much larger French force at Fort Duquesne. The half-king attempted to motivate the local tribes to joint them, but they refused.  Without their help, there was no chance of success.  Nevertheless, young Washington wanted to go forward and fight the enemy despite the odds.  The older and more experienced Tanachrisson saw this was folly.  He abandoned Washington, and took his warriors back into central Pennsylvania where they could live safely. Tanachrisson, later commented that Washington was "a good-natured man, but had no experience" was hurdling head-long into a no-win situation.

Tanachrisson was right that Washington's plan of attack was folly which resulted in many of his men being killed and the remainder captured.  Washington, however, survived the campaign and went on to other things.  Tanachrisson, who fled to safety, died the following year from pneumonia.

The result of the massacre of French troops by Washington and Tanachrisson caused the French to send a much larger force to capture the Virginians.  Washington's small attack force retreated and were eventually forced to take a desperate stand.  Many were killed in a battle a few days later. Washington and his remaining force had to ask for terms.  They were permitted to return to Virginia, but only after signing a document taking responsibility for the murder of the French commander whom Tanachrisson had killed.  The French used that document to declare war on Britain, starting the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in America.

That war put Britain into so much debt, that Parliament decided to impose a range of taxes on the colonies.  The resulting dispute over those taxes eventually led to the American Revolution.  That, in turn led to the creation of the United States.  All of this may have unfolded very differently if one Indian had chosen not to kill a few captured Frenchmen one day in 1754.

The day of this posting, May 28, 2016, is the 262nd Anniversary of that attack that changed the world forever.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Blowing up the US Capitol

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Terrorism is a sad fact of life today, but it is nothing new.  There have always been radicalized people willing to wreak destruction to make some political point.  The US Capitol alone has been a target on several occasions..

The 1814 Attack:

The first attack on the US Capitol came, not from terrorists acting in secret, but from an invading Army.  The British Army invaded Washington DC during the War of 1812, damaging much of hte new city.  During their raid on August 24, 1814, they destroyed the White House and many other government buildings.  They also set fire to the Capitol.  British soldiers, piled up furniture in the Capitol, mixed in rocket powder (yes, they had rockets back then) and set a fire, destroying much of the Library of Congress, then located in the Capitol, the Supreme Court, also in the Capitol, as well as the two Congressional chambers.  At that time, the Capitol was not even completely finished.  The only thing that saved the Capitol from complete destruction was a strong rain which put out the fire..

British sack of Washington DC 1814
Still the damage was quite serious.  Congress had to meet in a hotel for a time.  The following year Congress held its sessions in a brick building where the US Supreme Court now stands, until the Capitol could be occupied again in 1819.

For the next century, the Capitol itself was relatively free from attack.  There were a few shootings and brawls inside the building but no attempts to destroy the building itself.  There were also a few fires and small explosions due to accidents, but nothing deliberate. During the Civil War, Confederate forces never attempted to fire on Washington.  The Capitol remained safe during the war, and even got a new dome.

The 1915 Bomb:

In 1915, the Capitol once again became a target.  Former Harvard Professor Erich Muenter had lost his job a decade earlier.  He had to flee an arrest warrant for suspicion of killing his wife.  Despite the outstanding warrant, Muenter, using name Frank Holt, avoided arrest and continued living his life as a free man.  He had even received a PhD from Cornell University and began teaching there, with no one aware of his true identity nor the murder charges still pending in Massachusetts.

The German born Muenter became upset that the neutral US was selling arms and ammunition to Great Britain in its war with Germany.  The government and private New York financiers like J.P. Morgan were actively engaged in supporting the war against his homeland.

On July 2, 1915, Muenter began his mission.  He entered the Capitol.  Security was far more lax than today, especially when Congress was out of session, as it had been for months. Although the Senate chamber was locked, Muenter was able to access the Senate's reception room where he hid a package of dynamite under a telephone switchboard.  He set the dynamite to a timing mechanism, so that it would explode shortly before midnight.

Muenter then headed over to nearby Union Station where he watched the explosion, then boarded a train to New York City.

Because the explosion took place on a holiday weekend at night, there were no serious injuries.  Capitol Hill police were on duty and one had been in the room only a few minutes before the explosion. Fortunately, he left in time to prevent casualties. Damage was mostly limited to the Reception Room itself.

Reception Room of US Senate 1915
Sadly, the attack on the Capitol was only the beginning of a rampage.  The following day, Muenter went to the Long Island weekend home of  banking financier J.P. Morgan, knocked on the front door.  Morgan answered the door himself and received two bullets from Muenter's pistol.  Morgan survived the attack, however, without any serious long term effects.

Muenter was also suspected of attempting to blow up a New York Police Station and a transport vessel carrying supplies to Britain, although evidence indicates he may not have been involved in those two attacks.  After the attack on Morgan, Muenter was imprisoned and his outstanding warrants exposed.  He committed suicide in prison a few days later.

The day after the explosion at the Capitol, the building was again open to tourists, some of whom even saw the damaged room.  Repairs were affected rather quickly and Congress continued its work.  The US went on to declare war against Germany two years later, killing tens of thousans of Muenter's fellow countrymen.

The 1971 Bomb:

Men's bathroom, site of the 1971 explosion.
On Monday March 1, 1971, in the early morning hours, Capitol Hill Police received a phone call that there would be an explosion in a few minutes, in protest of the US invasion of Laos.  A few minutes later, a bomb went off in bathroom underneath the Senate Chamber.  The explosion took place when the Capitol was largely empty and there were no injuries, nor much damage beyond the bathroom.

A letter purportedly from a radical group known as the Weather Underground claimed responsibility for the explosion.  However, no individual was ever arrested for the crime.  Some have accused Bill Ayers the "terrorist" whom the Republicans accused President Obama of "paling around with" might have been involved.  Ayers alluded to the bombing in some of his later writings, but no actual proof of his involvement is known.  There are a few people who have accused the Yippies of involvement, although given other events, such an attack seems much more like something the Weather Underground would do.

Authorities repaired the damage relatively quickly and continued the war in Laos, killing many thousands of Laotians.

The 1983 bomb:

The 1983 bombing had a number of similarities to the 1971 bombing.  Minutes before the explosion, an anonymous phone call warned of the explosion.  The timed explosion went off around 11 PM with no injuries.  Once again, it was the Senate side that was attacked.  The bomb was hidden under a bench just outside the Senate Chambers.  It did mostly cosmetic damage to the immediate area that was repaired relatively easily.

The 1983 Capitol Bombing
The day following the explosion, National Public Radio received an anonymous letter which had been mailed prior to the explosion.  It was entitled "Communique from the Armed Resistance Unit."  The letter claimed the purpose of the attack: "We attacked the U.S. government to retaliate against imperialist aggression that has sent the Marines, the CIA, and the Army to invade sovereign nations, to trample and lay waste the lives and rights of the peoples of Grenada, Lebanon, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, to carry out imperialism's need to dominate, oppress, and exploit."  The letter also expressed for "FMLN/FDR" a leftist guerrilla group in El Salvador, as well as the PLO in the Palestinian territory.

After a five year investigation, six people were eventually arrested for the Capitol bombing as well as attacks on several other government buildings.  In 1990, Marilyn Buck, Laura Whitehorn and Linda Sue Evans were convicted of  conspiracy and malicious destruction of government property.  The Court dropped charges against three other defendants, who were already serving prison sentences for related crimes.

Following the 1983 bombings, Capitol Hill Police closed off more of the Capitol to the public and implemented use of ID cards for Congressional staff.  They also installed metal detectors for the first time for everyone entering the Capitol and attached buildings.

Other Actions:

In addition to these, there have been multiple failed attempts to set of bombs at the Capitol.  There are also  numerous shooting events, including the time in 1954 when Puerto Rican nationals opened fire on the House Chamber from the Visitors Gallery.  Five members were injured.  Of course, the most potentially damaging failed attack was the Sept. 11 airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania.  It is suspected that the terrorists were headed for the US Capitol.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Further Reading:

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Indians Aiding the Irish

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

While working on my last post about Irish history, I cam across an interesting story.  In the midst of the Irish Potato Famine, the Choctaw Indian Tribe donated $174 to the Irish people.

The amount given was not significant.  It would be about $4000 in today's dollars.  What was truly amazing was that the Choctaw had, only a few years earlier, been forced off their land in Mississippi and forced to walk the "trail of tears" to what is today Oklahoma, a bleak and barren land where little would grow.  They had been forced into abject poverty by the European descendants who had taken their property.  Despite, this, they felt compelled to help people on the other side of the world who were at the moment suffering more than they were.

Potatoes in Ireland

Potato infected by the blight
The Potato Famine itself is a terrible natural disaster combined with such human indifference. It has become a landmark historic event.  Europeans introduced potatoes to Ireland from South America around 1600. Because the plant allowed the growth of so much food on very little land, the crop soon became a popular staple to the land starved hungry Irish.  For decades the new crop flourished.  But when blight began to hit the crop, it had no natural ability to resist, as many native crops would, and was utterly destroyed.

Massive crop damage is nothing new to farmers. Disease can wipe out a crop. Potatoes, however had become so critical to the common diet in Ireland that the complete loss of a crop left millions without any food at all.  What made the Potato Famine so different was that it covered the entire Island and hit successively for several years in a row.  Some Irish farmers grew other crops, but these were cash crops for export. Starving Irish had to watch this food leave for England while they had nothing to eat.

Irish Government

In a democracy, politicians looking to curry favor with voters would stumble over themselves rushing to bring aid and assistance to the victims of this sort of tragedy.  Most Irish, however, could not vote in 1845.  Voting was limited to land owners.  Ownership of all land fell to a relatively small number of Protestant nobles.  These were the descendants of those who benefitted from the British confiscation of land from Catholic leaders centuries earlier. Catholics could not own land, and as a result also could not vote.  Many of these land owners did not even live in Ireland but simply owned the land while living in London. These few nobles, were the only "voters" that were of any concern.   The Act of Union in 1800 had made Ireland part of the United Kingdom and included Irish representation in Parliament.  But again, these members of Parliament were chosen by the Protestant aristocracy, not the Irish Catholic people. Just to be sure, Catholics were barred from serving in Parliament.

Ireland, before the famine
For the Irish commoner, potato farming was difficult even in good years.  Most had farms that were extremely small, often 1-10 acres, to grow all the family's food for the year. Farmers planted potatoes in March and harvested in September or October.  July and August were often known as the "starving months" when the previous year's crop was gone and the new one not quite ready.  Since farmers ate most of their crops, there was no money to buy any extra food.  What little money they could raise paid for the rent on their land.  They stored harvested potatoes in covered underground holes to get them through the next year.

In case the Irish Catholics wanted to better themselves, English Penal laws prevented them from doing so.  As already mentioned, Catholics could not own land or vote.  They could not serve as an officer in the army or navy.  They could not hold any government office, practice law, attend school, or serve an apprenticeship.  They also could not own weapons.  Irish could not export goods to countries other than England and policies effectively prevented any industry or manufacturing on the island.  So, Irish Catholics were stuck in subsistence farming on land owned by their Protestant masters, with no options to do anything else.
Starving Irish

While there were some attempts at reform, little had changed for centuries.  In 1835, Gustave de Beaumont, a French sociologist, visited Ireland: "I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland...In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland."  This was the condition of the Irish people before the Potato Famine struck.

The English at this time viewed the Irish as simply lazy and ignorant.  Farming left long periods of time with relatively little work to do outside of the planting and harvest period.  Many Irish could not afford to rent land at all. Without other opportunities for employment, they survived by begging. The English ignored the lack of opportunities and simply saw a lazy unproductive population worthy of scorn.

Potato Famine Strikes

Those were the good times.  In 1845, things became much worse as the potato blight swept across the island.   An airborne fungus (phytophthora infestans) floated across waiting fields of potatoes in the fall of 1845, incubating and growing inside the millions of potatoes.  Farmers, finishing the "starving months" eagerly anticipated the harvest.  Harvested potatoes quickly turned black and shriveled within days of exposure to air.  The crop was completely inedible.

An Irish funeral during the Famine.
There were, of course, many reasonable political options that could have relieved the suffering.  Food was plentiful in many other areas of the world, and trade was ready and willing to ship tons of food to paying customers.  If the British Government had acted quickly and in the best interests of the Irish people, the famine could have been a minor agricultural blip in history that meant almost nothing.  In fact, significant compassionate aid might have improved the outlook of the Irish people toward their British rulers and led to better relations in the future. Of course, none of that happened.

Rather than recognize the impossible position of the Irish people, English tended to blame their laziness and lack of work ethic.  They ignored a political system that had drawn virtually all excess wealth of the island for generations, creating no room for such a downturn. Some English even saw the blight as a just punishment from God. There were a few efforts.  Britain provided about £100,000 worth of American corn meal to be sold at cost to the Irish population.  It was a cheap import that could provide food.  There were many problems though.  The corn meal had to be ground in a country that had almost no mills.  The Irish found the corn hard to cook and digest.  It led to diarrhea and also lacked vitamin C, leading to scurvy in those who survived on it.  Beyond this, it was simply insufficient to replace the roughly £3 million loss of the potato crop.  It was also assistance based on the assumption that the following year's crop would be fine.  When the 1846 harvest was even worse, there was no attempt to continue the program.

Irish Family During the Famine
To make things even worse, British corn laws heavily taxed the import of any food from abroad. This was designed to keep food prices high and protect English farmers from foreign competition. Failure to repeal or even temporarily wave such laws in 1845 prevented cheap food from entering Ireland. Although it was proposed, English land owning farmers opposed any change to the tariffs. They could vote, while the starving masses in Ireland could not.  Nothing changed.

The Famine Continues

Many Irish had survived 1845 by selling what few possessions they owned, even their clothes, in order to buy food or pay rent on their farms.   Essentially they bet everything on a good harvest the following year.  When the crop failed a second year, they had no resources to use.  While the English government did finally repeal the tariffs on food imports, food prices world wide had grown due to crop shortages in Europe.  Some imported food prices tripled for people who had no more money anyway.   Britain refused to provide any food assistance.  Its primary involvement was to provide soldiers to shoot desperate and starving people who tried to prevent other crops from being exported to England.  There were a few public works projects designed to provide very low paying jobs.  This terrible low paying work was highly desired, even though a few workers literally dropped dead at work from the hard work and malnutrition.

By 1847, the works projects ended and soup kitchens began to provide direct assistance.  But this was too little, too late.  There simply was not enough food to feed the starving masses.  After a year, even the soup kitchens closed, leaving nothing

Landlords, unable to collect rents, had tenant farmers sent to jail for non-payment.  Their families were thrown in the streets to die.  The government continued to demand property taxes, so landlords even if inclined to provide some mercy, would have to take huge financial losses if they did not do something to put the land to profitable work.

More than 1 million people, on an island of 8 million, died from starvation or disease related to the malnutrition.  An estimated 1.5 million more fled the island.

Final Solution: Go Away

The English, tired of providing any assistance to Ireland, began to encourage emigration.  Ships to British North America (Canada) dumped thousands of starving disease ridden emigrants in small towns throughout Canada.  Most of these people died from the harsh conditions and lack of support. Many had even died before arrival on the "coffin ships" that carried them across the Atlantic.

Irish Refugees escaping the Famine
Some Irish traveled to England and Wales, where jobs and assistance was better.  The British reaction to this was to ship most of them back to Ireland, forcibly, where most died.

Many Irish traveled to the United States.  Because travel to America was more expensive, those suffering the most often could not make the trip. Even in America, they faced difficult conditions and anti-Catholic hostility from the Protestant population.  Many settled in Boston, where the laws a few centuries earlier permitted the execution of any Catholic Priest found in the Colony.  This fiercely Protestant town eventually received thousands of Irish immigrants.   Today there are more people of Irish descent living in the greater Boston area than there are in all of Ireland.  Other large cities, including New York and Philadelphia became homes to Irish refugees.  Life was hard and grueling 12 hour work days were common.  Local lynchings of Irish immigrants were not unusual.  But the benefit of being able to feed their families made the new life far more preferable to life in Ireland.

Private Assistance

The British government provided far too little assistance to help Ireland cope with this disaster.  However, as this disaster began to unfold, private groups began to contribute what they could. No private group was large enough or wealthy enough to provide the necessary assistance for systemic relief.  But basic compassion from many, resulted in efforts to provide what assistance they could.

The British Relief Association was formed 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker in London. This private association solicited donations worldwide, raising relief funds in Venezuela, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Russia and Italy. It coordinated the receipt of over 15,000 individual contributions raising about £400,000, which was used to establish schools for Irish children, and provided free lunches at school.  While this was one of the most well funded organizations, it started late and existed for only a little more than one year.

Quaker Soup Kitchen
Ireland contained a small Quaker population of a few thousand. This group was relatively well off, but more importantly had associations with Quaker groups in American and England. Through these connections Quakers raised probably the largest amount of any private group, distributing close to £200,000 in the first two years of famine.

One of the largest outside groups was a group of British subjects in Calcutta India, who provided around £14,000 worth of aid.  The money was donated not by a few wealthy leaders, but through a massive fundraising campaign. Many British soldiers in India were Irish.  They contributed generously.  Many Hindu princes also gave donations, as did many Indian workers who worked closely with the soldiers.

Pope Pius IX made a large personal donation to famine relief in 1847.  More importantly, he issued a papal encyclical to Catholics worldwide, appealing for both prayers and financial assistance.

Small groups of people in US cities who were either Irish immigrants or sympathetic to the Irish plight also raised hundreds of dollars in small contributions from poor working people.  Vice President George Dallas held an appeal to raise relief funds.  President James Polk kicked in a mere $50.  However, he also made two US naval vessels available to ship private food donations to Ireland, despite the fact that the US was at war with Mexico at the time.

Not only was the British government cheap in providing government assistance, it also went out of its way to discourage some private aid as well. When the Sultan of Turkey (who was looking to ingratiate himself with the British Government) offered £10,000 in assistance, the British Consul advised him to lower his assistance.  It might offend royal protocol if he sent more money than the British Queen had donated (£2000). The Sultan dutifully reduced his donation to £1,000.

Private fundraising efforts reached around the world.  Many people contributed.  What fascinates me most are the very small contributions made by those who could least afford it.  Former slaves in British colonies in the Caribbean made donations from Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Kitts. Britain had only ended slavery less than a decade earlier.  While these people still lived in terrible poverty, they were moved to contribute something to the suffering Irish.  Perhaps part of this was in thanks to Daniel O’Connell, an Irishman who played a leading role in ending slavery in the British colonies.

Not only former slaves, but current slaves in America also made donations.  A number of contributions in the American South came from collections in slave churches.  Even children in a pauper orphanage in New York, as well as prison inmates in Sing Sing were moved to join the call for donations.

Ending Famine Assistance

The worldwide assistance generally came to an end when the English declared the Famine over in 1848. They did this, despite the fact that more Irish died in 1849 than any other year.  The Famine is now generally considered to have lasted until 1852. The British were simply embarrassed by the foreign outcry for assistance and no longer wanted the attention is was garnering.

Exact numbers of casualties of the Famine are unknown as the British did not keep written records. But the population of Ireland in 1840 was estimated at over 8 million.  By 1850, it was less than 6 million.  Further suffering and hardship caused continuing depopulation.  Even today, after many decades of recovery, the total Irish population is only around 4.5 million.

The Choctaw Donation

Amidst the wave of international fundraising, one of the most fascinating contributions comes from the Choctaw Indian Tribe.

The Choctaw Indians originally inhabited much of what is today the States of Mississippi and Alabama.  They were one of the "civilized tribes." They lived in stable farming communities with permanent homes and had adopted many of the white customs.  Many spoke English and had converted to Christianity  Some even owned rather large plantations and black slaves.  Despite all this, white southerners coveted their land.

The "Trail of Tears"
After the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, essentially requiring all Tribes to move west of the Mississippi River.  The Choctaw received miserable desert lands in what is today Oklahoma and removed from their native homelands.  At gunpoint soldiers forced men, women and children to walk to their new home in what has become known as the "Trail of Tears"

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, saw first hand the Choctaw removals while he was visiting in Memphis, Tennessee in 1831 "In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. "To be free," he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples."

To say the travel to Oklahoma was difficult is a understatement.  Of the roughly 17,000 Choctaw who began the trip, about one-third died along the way.  Forced to abandon most of their possessions, the surviving tribal members lived in poverty on inhospitable land.  Despite these hardships, they remained on relatively good terms with the US and continued to interact with the rest of the country.

When the call came to support Irish Famine relief, many Choctaw willingly contributed what little they could.  They had known suffering and starvation themselves on the Trail of Tears and thereafter. The fact that the suffering Irish were Europeans, much like those oppressing the Choctaw did not dissuade them.

Years later, the Choctaw contribution to the Irish Famine has received more attention.  In the 1990's there were Irish delegations to the Choctaw nation in Oklahoma and Choctaw delegations to Ireland commemorating the act of generosity.  A plaque on Dublin's Mansion House remembers the Choctaw contribution: "Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger-related illness in a world of plenty."

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Further Reading: