Saturday, December 30, 2006

More history blogs!

Ralph Luker has updated Cliopatria's History Blogroll, now featuring nearly four hundred* of the best history blogs around. Check it out! There's something for everyone.

*No, I didn't count. If anyone does bother to count them and I'm too far off, let me know.

One Muslim, plus two Buddhists!

For those who missed it: The new Congress will have not only its first Muslim, but also its first two Buddhists. One is a neighbor of mine (relatively speaking), Hank Johnson, elected from Georgia's 4th congressional district (Dekalb/Gwinnett; he beat Cynthia McKinney). The other is Mazie Hirono, from Hawaii.

With all the hullabaloo over Keith Ellison, these two almost slipped in unnoticed.

Nice analysis here, courtesy of Carolina News Watch.

With all this new diversity, maybe we'll see our first Pastafarian in Congress soon.

Friday, December 29, 2006

This day in history: December 29

On this day in 2005, Air Force Brigadier General C.D. Alston reported that "insurgents in Iraq are showing little capacity to keep up numerous and persistent attacks." The U.S. State Department, in its release of the general's assessment, noted that with this improvement in the situation, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had announced that "the United States would reduce the number of combat troops [in Iraq] by approximately 7,000 in 2006."

A year later, neither of those reports has proven true, and President George W. Bush is said to be considering an increase in the number of American troops in Iraq.

Former president Gerald Ford told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward a couple years ago that he disagreed with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. In the interview, which was not released until Ford's death earlier this week, Ford was also critical of Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who served three decades ago in his own administration, for their role in the current war.

At the end of his story on the interview, Woodward noted that "Ford was often labeled the only American president to lose a war," after Presidents Johnson and Nixon had kept the United States in Vietnam for almost a decade. "The label always rankled."

And now another president is facing that same label. As Gary Schmitt, of the American Enterprise Institute, said the other day, "No president wants to be remembered as the guy who lost a war," so we can't leave Iraq. And after the 2006 elections, we can't simply "stay the course." As Josh Marshall points out, "That leaves escalation as the only alternative."

Hence, a year after reports that the war was all but over, President Bush considers a "surge"--to avoid that rankled feeling.

Thanks to Chris Bray for the suggestion!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Presidential religions

Classes start in just over a week, so I'm starting to think about getting ready for them. One of my Spring classes is on the history of American religious life, and this semester I'm having my students read David L. Holmes's new book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.

The innovative thing about Holmes's book is that he looks not only at the words of the Founding Fathers, but at their actions as well. George Washington, for example, was an Anglican (Episcopalian), but after the American Revolution, when he no longer attended church with his mother, he "avoided the sacrament of Holy Communion." His habit was to leave after the regular service, then send the carriage back to pick up his wife, Martha. When the minister preached a sermon in which he lamented "the unhappy tendency of . . . those in elevated stations who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper," Washington simply quit going to church on "Sacrament Sundays."

Of the nine Founding Fathers that Holmes discusses, five--Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe--were also presidents. In class, we sometimes talk about presidential religions, in part using information from the website. Of the 42 presidents (George W. Bush is number 43, but Grover Cleveland gets counted twice), half were Episcopalian or Presbyterian, denominations that today count fewer than 5% of Americans among their members--a ratio of roughly 10 to 1. Methodists, the third largest presidential religion, are also over-represented, but not by nearly so large a margin: 12% of presidents compared to 8% of the population.

Here's an interesting question: Which presidential religions are most over-represented? Answer: Unitarians (four presidents, or 9.5%, compared to .2% of the population) and, the biggest surprise, Dutch Reformed (two, 4.8%, versus .1%). Today, the Reformed Church in America (formerly Dutch Reformed) has only about 300,000 members, but keep in mind that New York, before the English took over, was a Dutch colony, and the Dutch influence was still strong enough to account for Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt. (TR later attended Christ [Episcopal] Church in Oyster Bay with his wife).

Catholics are the most under-represented: a quarter of the American population, and just one president (John F. Kennedy).

John Adams was the first Unitarian president. According to one biographer, "Adams was raised a Congregationalist, but ultimately rejected many fundamental doctrines of conventional Christianity, such as the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, becoming a Unitarian." Could such a person be elected president today? I don't think so, despite the recent election of Muslim Keith Ellison to the House of Representatives--or, I should say because of the backlash to Ellison's election.

A look at these tables of presidents' religious affiliations shows why studies like Holmes's are so important. Jefferson is often listed as an Episcopalian, but his views on Christianity were far from mainstream. Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, among others, also pose certain problems of categorization.

One more interesting president: Dwight Eisenhower's parents were members of the River Brethren, a small Mennonite group, but they joined the WatchTower Society (Jehovah's Witness) when he was a boy. Ike, who took the presidental oath of office with his hand on a WatchTower bible, joined a Presbyterian congregation during his first term as president.

Incidentally, the River Brethren, a foot-washing church, split in the nineteenth century over an important theological question: Should the same person who washes the feet also dry them? Or should those responsibilities be handled by two different people? Hence was created the One-Mode River Brethren (one person handles both jobs) and the Two-Mode. I don't know to which group Eisenhower belonged as a boy.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Died on Christmas Day

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, the hardest-working man in show business, died yesterday, December 25.

I recently wrote about people who were born on Christmas Day. In honor of James Brown, here's a partial list of people who died on that day.

Linus Yale, Jr. (d. 1868) perfected the cylinder lock

Karel Čapek (d. 1938), Czech writer, popularized the word "robot" with his play R.U.R.Rossum's Universal Robots)

Charlie Chaplin (d. 1977), cinematic genius

Joan Blondell (d. 1979), actress

Billy Martin (d. 1989), frequent Yankees manager

Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu (d. 1989), Mr. and Mrs. Romanian dictator

Dean Martin (d. 1995), singer/actor

Denver Pyle (d. 1997), actor

Monday, December 25, 2006

More than y'all wanted to know about "y'all"

This morning I came across a posting on a site called Redneck's Revenge (don't ask--I have no recollection of how I got there) titled Merry Christmas, Ya'll. It consisted mainly of an illustration, a take-off of Norman Rockwell's famous "Freedom from Want" (click here for Rockwell's original), except the woman is smoking a cigarette, she's serving a bucket of KFC chicken rather than a turkey, and the man behind her is in a t-shirt instead of a suit. Oh, and there are cans of Budweiser on the table.

Now, I'm a sucker for Rockwell parodies, but the posting's title bothered me: Merry Christmas, Ya'll.

You all. Take out the "o" and the "u, put an apostrophe in their place, and then squish everything together: y'all. Not ya'll. Y'all.

Simple, but apparently hard for some people to understand. In 1996, when the Olympic games brought the world to Atlanta, there was a billboard on the interstate just before the South Carolina border: "Ya'll come back to see us." The message showed that we in Georgia can be mighty hospitable--and mighty ignorant of spelling rules.

The publicists on Atlanta's Olympic committee aren't the only ones who misspell the word. A Google search turns up 3,680,000 instances of "y'all" on the web and 2,180,000 of "ya'll," so the misspelling is widespread. Maybe people are thinking of "we'll," the contraction for "we will," which is quite a different thing.

Anyway, seeing that title this morning reminded me of a couple years ago, when I came across "ya'll" in a John Grisham novel. Grisham, who lives near Oxford, Mississippi (home of William Faulkner, another great southern writer), has an ear for dialogue and uses "y'all" well and frequently. But several times in The Brethren, "y'all" had become "ya'll" (a misspelling I attributed to an overzealous but ignorant copyeditor). This got me curious about that fine southern pronoun, and I started reading up on it.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is generally considered the definitive authority to English usage. It cites, for every sense of every word, at least one example taken from the literary record. In fact, the OED tries to offer the earliest use of the word, followed by other examples from later years.

According to the OED, the first appearance of "y'all" was in 1909, much later than I expected. I couldn't believe the word hadn't appeared in print long before that. A quick check of the New York Times, from its first publication in 1851 to the present (not nearly as big a deal as it sounds; the Times was recently digitized, creating a searchable database that allows a researcher to type any word and within seconds have a citation to every mention of that word in the newspaper's history), uncovered "y'all" in 1886, in a rather rude article titled "Odd Southernisms": "'You all,' or, as it should be abbreviated, 'y'all,' is one of the most ridiculous of all the Southernisms I can call to mind." There it was, over twenty years earlier than the OED's first citation.

But I wasn't satisfied. Another new resource, American Periodicals Series, is a searchable database of over a thousand American magazines published between 1740 and 1900. Again, with just a few seconds' work, I came across a citation to the Southern Literary Messenger from 1858. The piece was written by "Mozis Addums," penname of George William Bagby, one of the humorists of the mid-nineteenth century who thought spelling everything phonetically was funny. Mozis described the crowded conditions in the boarding house where he was living: "Packin uv pork in a meet house, which you should be keerful it don't git hot at the bone, and prizin uv tobakker, which y'all's Winstun nose how to do it, givs you a parshil idee, but only parshil."

Well, I'm not exactly sure what it means, either, but there it is, over half a century before the esteemed OED caught it--and not just "y'all" itself, but the possessive, "y'all's," with two glorious apostrophes!

Linguist Michael Montgomery claims that "y'all" goes back to the Scots-Irish phrase "ye aw," and he offers as evidence a letter written in 1737 by an Irish immigrant in New York to a friend back home: "Now I beg of ye aw to come over here." As I understand Montgomery's hypothesis, "ye aw" was Americanized into "y'all," which is indeed a contraction of "you all" but would not have come into being without the influence of the Scots-Irish phrase.

Whatever its origin, the word serves an important function in English. We have separate singular and plural first person pronouns ("I" and "we") and third person pronouns ("he"/"she" and "they"), but there is no distinction in the second person; "you" is both singular and plural. The distinction between the French "tu" (singular) and "vous" (plural) doesn't exist in English. It did until a few centuries ago: "thou" was singular, "you" plural. But by the time the American colonies won their independence, "thou" had practically disappeared and "you" was serving a double function. It's almost as if we're missing a pronoun now, and "y’all" admirably fills the second person plural position.

And through most of the South, it is plural. Unless someone is intentionally misusing it for effect, "y'all" seldom refers to just one person. The problem is, lots of folks have intentionally misused it, from the makers of movies and television shows with exaggerated southern characters (often for purposes of ridicule) to the writers of those ubiquitous little books with titles like "Advice for Yankees Moving South": "Remember, 'y'all' is singular. 'All y'all' is plural. 'All y'all's' is plural possessive."

Here's how Lewis Grizzard handled the situation: "For some unknown reason, Northerners think Southerners use 'y'all' and 'you all' in the singular sense. Northerners will giggle and ask, 'So where are you all from?' I answer by saying, 'I all is from Atlanta.'"

Anyway, I wrote up a brief article about the two examples I had found that pre-dated the OED's earliest citation and got it published in American Speech, probably the biggest journal for American linguistics. (Hey, publish or perish, you know.) Not bad for a few minutes' work.

And now y'all know all you need to know about "y'all."

UPDATE: see Beat at my own game!


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me! (NPR's weekly news quiz show) was especially funny this morning. In one segment, contestants have to identify a quotation from the week's news. One of the quotations was "We're not winning, we're not losing," and the answer, of course, was President Bush speaking on the war in Iraq. To this, panelist Roy Blount, Jr., one of the funniest writers in America today, said, "So the war in Iraq is like kissing your sister."

You know, maybe this isn't as funny if you don't know the old adage about ties in football--they're like kissing your sister. Here's something I didn't know. According to Wikipedia (I wanted to be able to attribute this properly): "The earliest known use of the phrase was by Navy football coach Eddie Erdelatz after a scoreless tie against Duke in 1953."

And then (back to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me), a question about Time naming "You" the 2006 "Person of the Year." Panelist Charlie Pierce said something about people putting that on a job résumé--"Time Magazine's Person of the Year (2006)."

Well, why not? That'd be more honest that George Deutsch, the Bush-appointed editor in NASA's public affairs office, who lied on his résumé about having graduated from college, or Todd Shriber, staffer for Rep. Denny Rehberg (Montana), who hired a couple of hackers to break into the computer files at Texas Christian University and change his college grades.

I missed the rest of the show. I was listening to the radio in the car, on the way to get a hair cut, and I got there, darn it.

Today in history: Dunder and Blixem?

On December 23, 1823, the Troy Sentinel (a New York newspaper) published an anonymous poem titled "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," better known today as "The Night before Christmas."

Clement C. Moore is generally credited with the poem, but literary scholar Don Foster has pretty convincingly shown that the probable author was Henry Livingston, Jr., another New York poet.

Whoever wrote it, the poem shaped much of what we now "know" about Christmas and Santa Claus--he was a fat, jolly man, for example, and eight reindeer pulled his sleigh.

But the original 1823 poem is a little different from the way we know it:
Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem.
Read the above, paying close attention to the commas and exclamation points. The emphasis is all wrong. The more familiar pattern didn't appear for seven years:
Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer! now, Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Dunder and Blixem!
And look at the names of the last two reindeer! They didn't become Donder and Blixen until 1837. (Rudolph showed up in 1939.)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Today in history: America's most famous Christmas present

On December 22, 1864, General William T. Sherman completed his "March to the Sea" through Georgia and sent President Abraham Lincoln a telegram: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah."

Lincoln received the telegram on Christmas Eve. He was reportedly very pleased, having worried that he would get nothing but a t-shirt and a "Someone visited Savannah and all I got was this lousy mug" coffee cup.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rudolph the Parasitically-Infected Reindeer

Just in case you were wondering why Rudolph's nose is red....

an abstract from PubMed

Epidemiology of reindeer parasites. Halvorsen O. Parasitol Today. 1986 Dec;2(12):334-9.

Every Christmas we sing about Rudolph the red-nosed Reindeer, but do we give much thought to why his nose is red? The general consensus is that Rudolf has caught a cold, but as far as I know no proper diagnosis has been made of his abnormal condition. I think that, rather than having a cold, Rudolf is suffering from a parasitic infection of his respiratory system. To some this may seem a bit far-fetched as one would not expect an animal living with Santa Claus at the North Pole to be plagued by parasites, but I shall show otherwise.

(as posted on The World's Fair)

Robert Barnwell Rhett

Today is the birthday of Robert Barnwell Rhett, born December 21, 1800, in Beaufort, South Carolina. Rhett was one of the most extreme "fire-eaters," a term for pro-secessionist southerners. He was upset when South Carolinians accepted the Compromise of 1850, which defused sectional tensions for a decade--he was ready to leave the Union then--and he spent the rest of the 1850s pushing for southern separation. (He is sometimes called "the father of secession.")

When others in S.C. caught up with his sentiments and voted to secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln, Rhett wrote the "Address of the People of South Carolina to the Southern States," inviting them to join S.C. in a confederacy of the slaveholding states. In this document, Rhett compared the northern states to Great Britain a century earlier, exercising a growing despotism over the American colonies. He concluded with the following:
We rejoice, that other nations should be satisfied with their institutions. Contentment, is a great element of happiness, with nations as with individuals. We, are satisfied with ours. If they prefer a system of industry, in which capital and labor are in perpetual conflict--and chronic starvation keeps dow, the natural increase of population--and a man is worked out in eight years--and the law ordains, that children shall be worked only ten hours a day--and the sabre and bayonet are the instruments of order--be it so. It is their affair, not ours.

We prefer, however, our system of industry, by which labor and capital are identified in interest, and capital, therefore, protects labor--by which our population doubles every twenty years--by which starvation is unknown, and abundance crowns the land--by which order is preserved by an unpaid police, and many fertile regions of the earth, where the white man cannot labor, are brought into usefulness, by the labor of the African, and the whole world is blessed by our own productions. All we demand of other peoples is, to be let alone to work out our own high destinies. United together, and we must be the most independent, as we are among the most important, of the nations of the world. United together, and we require no other instrument to conquer peace, than our beneficent productions. United together, and we must be a great, free and prosperous people, whose renown must spread throughout the civilized world, and pass down, we trust, to the remotest ages.

(from A Fire-Eater Remembers: The Confederate Memoir of Robert Barnwell Rhett, ed. by William C. Davis)
Rhett died in Louisiana in 1876 and was returned to South Carolina for burial in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

new office!

I'm in our new building in my new office! Woohoo!

with a window and a huge desk! Woohoo!

and about 2/3 of the bookshelves I need! Boohoo!

But that's all right. It's all good.

One thing, though....

My first office here was a tiny room in the library. No drawers, a few shelves-- and I ended up with a box of stuff I could never unpack, so I slipped it under the desk. But that was OK, because I then moved to a bigger office with the rest of the department, except when I started unpacking my boxes, there was one that never got unpacked, so I slid it under the desk. And then we moved to another building about five years ago, I got a larger office, but there was still one box that ended up under the desk. I was determined this time, and so over the last few weeks I emptied that box, getting ready for this move. And yesterday and today, I unloaded all my boxes into my new office, and.... sigh.

Yep, there's one under the desk.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

So Help Me God--update

A couple of days ago, I wrote on Judge Roy Moore's comments about Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. I pointed out that there is no contemporary evidence to support Moore's assertion that George Washington added "So help me God" to his oath of office, and in fact there's no evidence that any president did so until 1881 (Chester A. Arthur).

Little did I know that Michael Newdow, America's most famous atheist, had already written and performed a song about exactly that fact. Ray Soller sent me a link to Newdow's website, which has a short and wonderful video of Newdow singing "So Help Me God (He Didn't Say It)."

Thanks, Ray!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Time's Person of the Year

Time Magazine has just named you its "Person of the Year" for 2006. That's right, you.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Friday, December 15, 2006

Roy Moore on Keith Ellison

A number of people, most prominently Dennis Prager, have assailed Keith Ellison, Dem.-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. None of that has bothered me as much as the recent babble from Roy Moore, Alabama's "Ten Commandments judge." Where Prager simply disagreeed with Ellison's decision to be sworn in on a copy of the Qur'an, Moore goes a step further in a piece on WorldNetDaily: "Muslim Ellison should not sit in Congress."

Judge Moore's knowledge of history is as bad as his understanding of the First Amendment's separation of church and state. "In 1789," he writes, "George Washington, our first president under the Constitution, took his oath to 'preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.'" A number of people who have actually studied this (such as J. L. Bell) say that there's no evidence that Washington added "So help me God" to the end of the Constitutionally-prescribed oath. Like the myth of young George chopping down the cherry tree, the story of Washington saying "So help me God" first appeared long after his death (in this case, in the 1850s). In fact, there's no evidence that any president said "So help me God" until Chester A. Arthur did so in 1881.

But it's Moore's next sentence that I find most infuriating: "Placing his hand on the Holy Scriptures, Washington recognized the God who had led our Pilgrim fathers on their journey across the Atlantic in 1620...." Our Pilgrim fathers? Who is he talking about? As far as I know, there are no Pilgrims among my ancestors. The one ancestor I know who goes back even nearly that far was Joseph Surratt, my eight-times great grandfather, who was born in France in 1659 and died in Maryland, founded by the Catholic Calvert family, in 1715. Judge Moore's ancestors, those Pilgrims, weren't very big on Catholics.

Joseph Surratt is just one of the 1,024 ancestors from my family tree at the ten-generations-back level. Except for that line, I know none of them beyond the great-grandparent stage. I wonder who those other 1,023 were. Maybe some were from Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams.

Does Judge Moore remember Roger Williams? Williams was expelled from the colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1636 because he refused to toe the Puritan line. His problem was not that he wasn’t religious enough (the historian Perry Miller called Williams “the most passionately religious of men”) or that his beliefs were unorthodox (he was as strict a Calvinist as any of the Puritan leaders); what got Williams into trouble was that he didn’t like others telling him what to believe, how to worship, and so on, and he told the colony’s leaders that his religion was his business, not theirs.

He left Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island, based on the idea “that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with a full liberty in religious concernments.” In other words, the new colony would exercise complete religious liberty; freedom of conscience would exist for everyone, including nonbelievers.

Since religion is a personal decision, Williams said, government should stay out. “All civil states,” he wrote, “are essentially civil, and therefore they are not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.” Or, as Williams said in his most memorable statement on the topic, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

In 1639, Williams established the first Baptist church in America, based on the Baptist principle of “soul liberty,” the idea that God instilled within each person the freedom to make his own decisions in religious matters. No one has the right, Williams said, to impose his faith on another. (This is why Baptists reject infant baptism: everyone must make his own decision about God, so baptism has to wait until the child is old enough to make religious decisions for himself.)

Maybe some of my forefathers and -mothers were from Pennsylvania, established by William Penn, a Quaker, as a colony that would welcome religious dissenters, among others. Judge Moore's Pilgrim fathers, along with their Puritan neighbors in New England, didn't care much for Quakers. Who can blame them? After all, Quakers have held some awfully radical ideas, such as the notion that we all possess an "inner light," a bit of God within us, and therefore all of us--male and female, black and white, rich and poor--are equal. Being a Quaker became a capital offense in New England, and in 1660, Mary Dyer and two others were hanged because they refused to "repent" for that crime.

Maybe some of my 1,024 10th-generation ancestors were Pilgrims. Who knows? and Who cares? This isn't an anti-Pilgrim piece; rather, it's a reminder of the religious diversity that has existed here for a long time, and a reminder that Judge Moore's suggestion about Keith Ellison violates not only the Constitutional ban on religious tests for officeholders, but our history as well.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

absent-minded professor strikes again

We have a new social science building, just completed, with wonderful new offices and classrooms. The big move begins next week. As folks pack up their offices, they've put books they don't want to move on a large table in a conference room, so students and colleagues can pick them up if they wish. I've put several stacks there myself.

Well, yesterday I walked in with a small armload of books, and as I was there, I looked through what others had left. Ahh, here's one that looks good! So I picked it up, opened it, and saw--you're ahead of me, aren't you?--my name. It was a book I'd put there earlier.

Dr. B on Michael Bérubé

Bitch Ph.D. has a nice review of Michael Bérubé's What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts?

As one reader remarked in the comments, "Michael is a truly rare thing, . . . an academo-star who is not full of himself, who listens to undergrads, who thoughtfully engages conservative students and spends a lot of time on teaching even as he cranks out acclaimed books." Dr. B.'s posting is a thoughtful appreciation of his latest.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Thoughts on grading

I got those bluebook blues,
Lord, it's bluebooks all day long.
Said I got those bluebook blues,
Blue, blue, bluebooks all day long.
Sometimes it seems like
Nothin' but bluebooks from now on.

[insert appropriate blues riff]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

in the news

"Christmas trees are going back up at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport," announces the New York Times. Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky had asked that the airport install an eight-foot tall menorah to accompany the dozen or so plastic Christmas trees. Fearing a lawsuit, the airport removed the trees; when the rabbi said that he had no plans to sue, airport officials announced that the trees would go back up.

Christmas trees? Give me a break. Creches, no. Banners proclaiming "Jesus is the reason for the season," no. Santa kneeling before the manger, NO! (That one always gave me the heebie jeebies.) But Christmas trees, despite their name, have about as much religious content as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Saint Nick himself.

In the war on Christmas, let's pick our battles more carefully, people.

In other news, Elizabeth Bolden, of Memphis, died yesterday. Born August 15, 1890, she was acknowledged as the world's oldest person.

Our required (general education) American History course here at Kennesaw is "The United States since 1890." (There's a reason, though not a very good one, for that date.) I assume Elizabeth Bolden was the last person in the world whose life spanned that course. Sort of thought-provoking. In an hour, I will give my first final exam, in the American history course that ends in 1890. In the future, perhaps I'll call that class "America pre-Elizabeth Bolden."

Monday, December 11, 2006

Today in boll weevil history

On Dec. 11, 1919, the town of Enterprise, Alabama, dedicated a monument--to the boll weevil. A USDA photo is here, along with the following explanation: "After the boll weevil destroyed (1910-15) the area's cotton, diversified farming was begun. In gratitude for the resulting prosperity, the city erected a monument to the boll weevil in 1919."

Fuller article, with a newer picture, here.

Lyrics to "Ballad of the Boll Weevil" ("Just a-lookin' for a home") here.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Finally, the truth is revealed

PZ Myers, over at Pharyngula, has linked to a website that will change our understanding of--well, of darned near everything: Welcome to the Reformation Online: The Information Superhighway to Heaven!! Despite its title, it's not strictly a religious website. Rather, it contains, in mind-numbing detail, the TRUE history of America, from earliest times to the present. Those of us who teach this subject must take notice.

Now, a warning before you begin: This is a large website, as it would have to be to explain darned near everything. So put on a pot of coffee, then sit down and prepare to be enlightened.

John Cabot, sailing for England, was the real discoverer of America, not that Columbus fellow (who discovered only a few islands). But "by coincidence it just so happened that a Spanish Pope ... was head of the 'church' or Rome at that time," and he awarded the New World to Spain. "America" comes from Richard Amerike, Cabot's paymaster; the fraud Amerigo Vespucci saw Amerike's name written on an early map and saw an opportunity. But America should really be called Cabotia, and we are Cabotians. ("The last syllable of Cabotia is pronounced as the last syllable in Georgia.")

By the way, the Earth doesn't move, and the site has diagrams to prove it.

The site traces things all the way to the present, from the Great Flood to the Russian Revolution and the U.N., with special emphasis on the Rome-Rockefeller-Standard Oil cartel. (If you read carefully, you might detect a subtle anti-Catholic bias in the site.) Here's something I bet you didn't know: "Wal-Mart was fathered by Winthrop Rockefeller, the father of ex-President Clinton." See, "Wal-Mart began in the poor state of Arkansas in 1962. The Rockefellers BOUGHT that state and Winthrop moved there in 1954," etc.

There's a lot more, but I need to get to work. I have a lot of lectures to revise.

Oh, by the way--the site also contains your password to Heaven, but I'm not going to tell you where it is. You'll have to find it on your own.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

apostrophes and semicolons

I'm going to add this to my syllabus next term: "If you don't know how to use 'em, don't."

(Guess what I'm doing this afternoon.)

Some of my students punctuate the way Bob Ross painted. "Let's put a friendly little semicolon in that sentence." "Maybe there's a happy little apostrophe that lives here!"

They get commas right almost half the time. Periods, even more. Dashes are a problem for many, as they don't understand that hyphens and dashes are not the same thing. But a 1-en hyphen for a 1-m dash doesn't bother me, not much at all.

Misused apostrophes and semicolons, however, bug me.

OK, I feel better now. Back to the paper's.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Born on Christmas Day

The semester's almost over, and thoughts turn to the day that marks the birth of the man who brought truth and enlightenment to the world. I refer, of course, to Isaac Newton, born on December 25, 1642.

According to an old superstition, "The child born on Christmas Day will have a special fortune" (perhaps to make up for getting cheated on birthday presents). This was certainly true of Newton. His father, a prosperous but illiterate farmer, died three months before Newton's birth, and Isaac was raised by a largely uncaring grandmother and various members of his step-father's family. Nothing in his childhood indicated the greatness that lay ahead.

Isaac Newton has been called the greatest scientist in history. He didn't discover gravity--others had noticed it long before him--but he was the first to understand and explain it in mathematical terms. His three laws of motion remain the basis for classical mechanics. He invented calculus, the bane of high school and college students. His work on light became one of the two pillars of modern quantum physics.

Alexander Pope wrote of Newton's accomplishments: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night; God said, 'Let Newton be!' and there was light."

Isaac Newton wasn't the only Christmas Day baby. Clara Barton (born December 25, 1821) earned the nickname "Angel of the Battlefield" for her selfless nursing of the wounded during the Civil War. Later, she organized and led the American Red Cross.

Conrad Hilton (1887) was Paris Hilton's great grandfather. I believe he also had something to do with hotels.

Believe it or not, Robert L. Ripley was born on Christmas Day of 1893.

I wonder if Joseph McCarthy, born on December 25, 1908, was somehow traumatized by red bows, red lights, red poinsettias, etc.?

The list of famous people born on Christmas Day includes bandleader Cab Calloway (1907); Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (1918); The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (1924); singers Jimmy Buffett (1946) and Barbara Mandrell (1948); and actors Sissy Spacek (1949) and Humphrey Bogart (1899).

One person who was probably not born on December 25: Jesus. Many scholars place that event in the Spring. So instead of "God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, Remember, Christ, our Saviour, was born on Christmas day," perhaps we should sing "… was born sometime in May." (Try it.)

Christmas was moved to December 25 to allow retailers a chance to expand their after-Thanksgiving sales. No, really what happened was this: Early church leaders paid less attention to Jesus' birth than they did his death (Easter), and so at first no one really worried much about when to celebrate Christmas. But in the middle of the fourth century, Pope Julius I declared that Jesus' birth should be celebrated on December 25. He chose that date because there was already a major holiday at that time: Saturnalia, a lengthy pagan festival tied to the Winter solstice. By placing Christmas at that point on the calendar, Julius hoped to preempt Saturnalia and gain instant support for his new holiday.

And that's how Isaac Newton became a Christmas baby.


Thursday, December 7, 2006

Remembering Pearl Harbor--and FDR

One of my favorite blogs, and the first that I ever read regularly, is Orac's Respectful Insolence. Orac is a surgical oncologist who writes "on medicine, quackery, science, pseudoscience, history, and pseudohistory (and anything else that interests him)." Today Orac has a short piece on Pearl Harbor in which he reminds us to remember those who served in World War II.

The day after the attack on Pearl Habor, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered one of his most memorable lines: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of American was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

In the first draft of that war message to Congress, Roosevelt wrote "a day which will live in world history." He knew that wasn't right, and he changed it to "a day which will live in infamy," a much more dramatic phrase. (We will forgive him the ungrammatical "which," which he used frequently; it should be "a day that will live in infamy.")

That was far from FDR's best speech, though. He delivered a better one the next evening during one his fireside chats. Roosevelt was an early political master of the radio, using the new medium (it was a dozen years old when he was first elected president in 1932) to wonderful effect. His fireside chats weren't the presidential addresses people were used to. Rather than making a formal speech, the kind given to a captive audience in a crowded auditorium, Roosevelt spoke informally, personally, like he was right there having a friendly chat in the parlor.

Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, said the president thought of his audience during these chats. “His face would smile and light up as though he were actually sitting on the front porch or in the parlor with them,” she said. “People felt this, and it bound them to him in affection.”

And so on the evening of December 9, 1941, Roosevelt went on the radio to talk to the American people about the Japanese attack and our entry into World War II. "The sudden criminal attacks perpetrated by the Japanese in the Pacific provide the climax of a decade of international immorality," he began. He listed some of those "immoral" acts, in both Asia and Europe, and then, in the same direct but firm voice that had brought Americans through the Depression, he said: "We are now in this war. We are all in it--all the way. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history."

Roosevelt realized the enormity of the task confronting the American people as we entered the war. "On the road ahead there lies hard work," he said, "grueling work, day and night, every hour and every minute. I was about to add that ahead there lies sacrifice for all of us. But it is not correct to use that word. The United States does not consider it a sacrifice to do all one can, to give one's best to our nation, when the nation is fighting for its existence and its future life."

Tom Brokaw called those Americans "the Greatest Generation." It does them no disservice to suggest that it was the nation's greatest challenge that created its greatest generation--and, many would argue, one of our greatest presidents.

The above was originally published, in slightly different form, in the Cartersville Daily Tribune News.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

the good ship Cauliflower

The 96th Carnival of Education is up at History Is Elementary, with over three dozen of the blogosphere's best postings on education from the past week--including one on the Cauliflower that will make you smile and one from yours truly.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Please, Mister Custer

Tomorrow is the birthday of George Armstrong Custer, born on December 5, 1839.

Custer's notable career in the U.S. Army during the Civil War--he made brigadier general at the age of 23--was largely forgotten after an unfortunate leadership decision in May 1876.

The Battle of Little Bighorn was-- ummm, memorialized in a novelty song by Larry Verne that inexplicably reached number one in 1960. A nervous soldier whines, "Please, Mister Custer, I don't want to go." Lyrics here. You can hear the song here, courtesy of the archives of WFMU, the world's best radio station. (Click on "listen to this show"; the song starts at 33:00.)


another annoying "Top 100" list

The Atlantic Online is out with a list of the 100 "most influential figures in American history."

Pretty much the usual suspects in the top five: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, and Hamilton. But the farther down the list you go, the more questionable (or at least debatable) the choices become.

Sam Walton (Mr. Wal-Mart) is number 72. Have 71 people shaped modern American life more than Walton?

Frank Lloyd Wright, at number 76, isn't far behind Walton. Visionary architect? Sure. But I can go hours at a time without feeling Wright's influence. I probably travel in the wrong circles.

And Betty Friedan is number 77, one spot less influential than Wright. She should be higher, I think.

It's easy to pick holes in lists such as this. But they can serve an important function. It's the end of the semester. We still have so much to cover in our classes. We're losing interest as quickly as are the students. So what to do? Take this list into class and discuss.

Thanks to History and Education: Past and Present for the tip.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Beauty in the Classroom

In a recent post, Andrew Leigh wrote about Rate My Prof and the general issue of student evaluations. In the comments, he referred to an article by Daniel Hamermesh and Amy Parker in Economics of Education Review. (Hamermesh is a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin; Parker was one of his undergraduate students.)

In "Beauty in the Classroom: Instructors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity" (love that alliteration!), Hamermesh and Parker had students rate photographs of professors on their physical attractiveness. They then correlated that measure with the responses of other students on end-of-the-term evaluations of the course and the instructor (very unsatisfactory, unsatisfactory, satisfactory, very good, or excellent).

The result of their study, once you get past the standard deviations, psychometric measures of concordance, and the like, is simple: the better looking the instructor, the higher the scores on student evaluations. The differences were significant: from the bottom to the top of the "beauty" scale, student evaluations increased one whole point out of five. And since few students give their instructors the lowest mark, the difference between least and most beautiful would appear even greater.

The authors noted that the implications of this go beyond just numbers on student evaluations. Since colleges and universities consider such input from students when making decisions on raises and promotions, there could be a correlation between how well professors are paid and how good they look.

"It was God who made me so beautiful," supermodel Linda Evangelista once said. "If I weren't, then I'd be a teacher." Maybe Ms Evangelista shouldn't have been so hasty. According to this study, if she had gone into higher education, she would be almost assured of high numbers on her teaching evaluations, and this in turn would help her receive regular raises and promotions. On second thought, maybe not. "I don't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day," she once remarked, and even those of us with the best student evaluation numbers have yet to crack the five-digit-per-day mark.

Student evaluations can be a touchy point in higher education. I taught for a few years at a state university in the Midwest. Where other schools use student evaluations as just a part of the review process, this school used student evaluations exclusively. In other words, whatever number came out when they ran the student evaluations (filled in with number 2 pencils, of course) through the machine, that was our teaching score for that year.

This process gave results that suggested a wonderful precision in the review process (3.783! 2.311!), but some of the faculty complained that if they demanded a lot of work or gave the low grades that they felt students sometimes deserved, their evaluations would be lower because of their higher standards. (Actually, empirical evidence on this is mixed.) These faculty therefore proposed that the student evaluations be weighted according to grade distribution, reading and writing requirements for the course, and so forth. In other words, faculty who assigned more books in their courses and gave lower grades would not be penalized for lower student evaluations.

Several of us pointed out that we would have a riot on our hands if students discovered that our raises and promotions were based in part on how many papers we assigned and how many students we flunked.

Until recently, the school where I currently teach required numerical student evaluations for all courses. A couple of colleagues, since retired, showed that results could be manipulated. For example, the questionnaire we used asked students to rate their professors on the following statement: "I believe the teacher cares about students," or words to that effect. Several years ago, these colleagues made a point of telling their classes three times each semester "I care about how you do in the course." Their evaluation scores on those questions increased significantly, even though they did nothing else different in the course. (We still uses student evaluations, but the forms no longer ask for numerical ratings.)

I don't know what to think about all this, but it's one reason I haven't posted a photo of myself above. I'm afraid folks will see it and think, "Oh, I bet students just HATE him."

The above was originally published, in slightly different form, in the Cartersville Daily Tribune News.

George Brown Tindall, 1921-2006

I didn’t know George Tindall when I started graduate school at the University of North Carolina in 1980. As an undergraduate down the road at Duke, I had learned the names of some UNC historians, and in the years I was at Chapel Hill (I finally got the Ph.D. in 1988), I never got over my initial sense of awe for some of them. But when I met George Tindall, he was just a nice little man with white hair, a bow tie, and a friendly voice.

By the time I learned about The Emergence of the New South, The Persistent Tradition in New South Politics, and The Ethnic Southerners--books that guided a couple of generations of historians as they researched and wrote about the post-Reconstruction South--I had come to know Professor Tindall as more than merely one of the biggest names in southern historiography. His essays on southern mythology and “the benighted South” were masterpieces and a huge influence on the way historians viewed the region. His dissertation, published as South Carolina Negroes, 1877-1900, along with Vernon Wharton’s similar study of Mississippi, provided the necessary background for C. Vann Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow, one of the most important books in American history published in the 20th century. (I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Tindall, rather than Woodward, had been invited to give the Richards Lectures at the University of Virginia in 1954.) But I didn’t know any of that until later. As a result, my respect for George Tindall as a scholar never surpassed my love for him as a person.

It was because of George Tindall that I decided to study the history of the South. (My undergraduate degree had been in the history of science.) And it was through Tindall that I came to appreciate the importance not only of thorough research, but also of good writing. I think Tindall stressed this more than anyone else at Chapel Hill, and it shows in the students he produced. Check out his “Clio's Decalogue: The Commandments of the Muse,” posted by Tindall student Ralph Luker of Cliopatria. (First Commandment: “Thou shalt smite the Philistines hip and thigh with thy first sentence.” Yes!)

About a dozen years ago, the Georgia Historical Quarterly published an article I had written on Sam Jones, the famous late nineteenth-century evangelist. When I noticed in the page proofs that the phrase “Sam Jones’s Theology” had been changed to “Sam Jones’ Theology” in the subtitle, I wrote to John Inscoe, editor at the Quarterly, asking him to change it back. I reminded him of Strunk and White’s first rule: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s.” John replied that he had received one similar request before: from George Tindall! (Tindall did love his Strunk and White.) I don’t think I ever told him about that.

I can’t imagine that I’ve had even a fraction of that influence over my own (undergraduate) students.

George Tindall died yesterday, December 2, 2006, at the age of 85. More than anyone else, he shaped my professional life. Other Tindall students will say the same thing. Although it breaks Clio’s Second Commandment (“Thou shalt love the active verb with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thou shalt have no passive verbs before me”), I must say: he will be missed.

welcome to another history blog

An unimaginative title, I know. But there are so many history blogs (see the several hundred listed at Cliopatria's Blogroll, where you'll find one--or five or six--for every taste), and all the good names (like Millard Fillmore's Bathtub) were already taken.

But that's all right. After all, by claiming this name, I can say that this isn't just another history blog; it's the another history blog.