Category Archives: History News and Events

First Ladies Exhibit

Once upon a time, if you wanted to see a real piece of history, you might go to a museum. If you lived somewhere with access to good museums, you’d be able to do that, and if you didn’t – you were out of luck. I was fortunate to grow up in a big city, with a family that loved to travel across the U.S., and my childhood memories are full of first-hand exposure to fascinating Americana.

(My father’s pride was palpable when we visited yet another historical home and saw a unique table; when the guide said “Only two others exist,” I exclaimed “We saw one in Monticello!”)

I just read about an exhibit I would have loved to see first-hand – America’s First Ladies. This exhibit is hosted in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum in West Branch, Iowa, and if you live in the area I highly recommend you head out there.

But for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to live in Iowa, the Internet gives us a fantastic look at what we’re missing! The Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s contributions to this exhibit reveal the anguish of Jane Pierce over the death of her sole surviving son, the wonderful joy of Grover Cleveland over his upcoming marriage, and his loving wife’s (justified) concern over his health.

I believe that such personal touches are what make history come alive, and spark interest in people exposed to them – ideally in reality, but if not possible, then at least virtually.


Memorial Day

Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, was established as a day of remembrance – to give honor to the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. The President of the United States traditionally visits Arlington National Cemetery, and participates in a symbolic wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The precise origins of Memorial Day are in dispute; it is generally agreed that the day originated in a day of mourning following the Civil War, when an unprecedented number of soldiers were killed in battle. It is hard to fathom the scale of loss during the Civil War – over 600,000 dead, when the nations’ population was 30 million – 2% of the population killed in battle…

From the Revolutionary War to today, 1.3 million American soldiers have died while serving their nation. It is safe to assume that just as many Americans today oppose their nation’s international policies, so too at all times. But our nation’s freedoms have been hard-earned, and all who enjoy them – all over the world – owe a deep debt to those Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice.

On August 18, 1918, just a month after his youngest son was killed at the front, President Theodore Roosevelt proudly mentions that his other two sons have been wounded – and that “there has been nothing finer in our history than the way our young men have eagerly and gladly gone to France to fight for a high ideal.”

Their light shines ever bright – a beacon of democracy and freedom.


Click to view full-size images


Israel Independence Day: JFK, Truman, & the Partition Plan

Immediately after the United States voted in the U.N. for the partition of Palestine into two states – Arab and Jewish, the State Department convinced President Truman to halt all military shipments to the Middle East. At the time Britain was arming the Arabs, and no one was arming the Jews…

What of even-handedness?

The very day after Truman reassured Chaim Weizmann – the international face of Zionism – of his commitment to partition, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. announced that the U.S. recommended abandoning the partition plan, and called for U.N. rule in Palestine.

What of commitment? Consistency of policy?

Here we can see the notes from a memorable speech given by a first-term Congressman from Boston on April 4, 1948. The speaker denounced the “unfortunate reversal… of our policy towards Palestine” as “one of the most discouraging aspects of recent American foreign policy.” He reminded his audience that “since the end of the first World War successive Presidents and Congress have ‘reaffirmed’ the solemn promise of the Balfour declaration” and demanded “explanation from the Administration” as to the “sudden reversal of our position in relation to the partition of Palestine.”

The speaker was the young John F. Kennedy, who had traveled as a student to Jerusalem in 1939, and written at length to his (virulently anti-Semitic) father about the historical intractability of the political situation.

I believe that to this day the United States is torn between an attitude of fraternity with Israel – a nation that shares its deepest values, surrounded by so many nations at fundamental odds with the U.S.A. – and an attitude of realpolitik, where loyalty and common ground mean so little…

The Titanic – A 3rd Class Passenger’s Hopes and a President’s Bereavement

On April 14, 1912, the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic sank two and a half miles to the ocean floor; of 2,223 people aboard, only 703 survived. In commemoration of this date, let’s take a look at two fascinating artifacts related to this tragedy.

On board the Titanic was a 22-year-old valet named Charlie Shorney, who had paid eight pounds one shilling for Third Class passage. His fiancée awaited him in New York, where he hoped to start a taxicab business upon his arrival. Here is a postcard Shorney sent to his father as the Titanic left Queenstown for New York. Charlie went down with the Titanic, together with 75% of the Third Class passengers.

Rare Titanic Postcard Sent at Beginning of Voyage; Ship “a Peach”, in “N.Y. Next Tuesday.”
Rare Titanic Postcard Sent at Beginning of Voyage; Ship “a Peach”, in “N.Y. Next Tuesday.”

The Titanic brought men from vastly different worlds to a shared end.

Major Archibald Butt, a popular military aide to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, perished as well. Roosevelt spoke of his shock and grief; Taft was devastated.

In eulogizing his aide, President Taft wrote that he regarded Archie Butt like a younger brother – a member of his family. In his memorial, Taft lauds him as a Christian gentleman and perfect soldier:

I knew that he would certainly remain on the ship’s deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made that properly fell on one charged, as he would feel himself charged, with responsibility for the rescue of others.

There are widely conflicting accounts of Butt’s actions before his death; he was last seen standing on the sinking deck with John Jacob Astor.

International Children’s Book Day and Mark Twain Remembrance Day

One of the ubiquitous features of online searching and shopping is the “Recommended for You” list; every major site has algorithms to identify items you will probably like based on what you’ve already read or purchased. A significant side effect is what has been termed Filter Bubbles – since we are increasingly exposed to ideas similar to our own, we are less and less exposed to alternative viewpoints, with obvious costs to society.

When I buy a book from Amazon I rarely get a recommendation that surprises me. In honor of International Children’s Book Day (April 2) and Mark Twain Remembrance Day (April 21), I suggest you look at Mark Twain’s wonderful recommended reading list for children from 1887. But first, take a moment to think about which authors might be mentioned there… Any successful predictions? For an interesting discussion of Twain’s list, see this article in

I was in the bookstore yesterday and overheard a father trying to get his son excited about “The Wind in the Willows.” If the kid had enough sense to listen, I suspect he’ll try to convince his own son or daughter to read the same book one day – or maybe download it directly to their neural interface.

In any case, some books last the test of time – and should be recommended reading to all. Feel free to suggest some personal favorites in the Comments section!

St. Patrick’s Day: A Proud Irish American Heritage

Saint Patrick’s Day, the death date of the patron saint of Ireland, is celebrated this month. The holiday originally commemorated the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, but has now taken on a role of celebrating Irish culture worldwide.

Did you know that Irish Americans constitute more than 10% of all U.S. citizens? In fact, there are 7 times more Americans of Irish origin than there are native residents of Ireland today!

Irish Americans have played a pivotal role throughout American history. Irish immigrants participated in significant numbers in the American Revolution, leading one British major general to testify at the House of Commons that “half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland.”

During the Civil War, a great number of Irish Americans volunteered for the Union Army – nearly 150,000 Union soldiers were born in Ireland, and a similar number were of Irish descent. However, conscription was resisted by many, resulting in draft riots. Furthermore, recent immigrants viewed freed slaves as competition for scarce jobs, and African Americans were beaten or killed by mobs.

From 1820 to 1860, 2 million people migrated from Ireland to the United States; the majority settled in large cities near ports, railways, or mill towns, where they created supportive communities.

Irish Americans suffered from stereotyping and discrimination, but generally took great pride in their heritage. Their pride reached unimagined heights when John F. Kennedy was elected President – an Irish-Catholic president at long last.

Kennedy’s visit as sitting president to Ireland brought him tremendous personal joy – no one had ever seen him happier. Here you can read his words regarding that historic visit.