April 30, 2015

“Preserve, protect and defend…"


The oath an American president recites upon taking office includes the famous promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Interestingly, one of the first decisions a new president makes is which version of the presidential oath to take.

That’s because the paragraph in the Constitution that includes the presidential oath gives the president a simple, but potentially significant, choice of words.

That paragraph, in Article II, Section 1, says:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: — “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The option to either “swear” or “affirm” partly reflects the fact that some Founding Fathers were devout Christians and some weren’t. Thus, if the religious term “swear” didn’t fit a president's philosophy, he could say “affirm.”

On April 30, 1789, at his inauguration ceremony in New York City, George Washington became the first person to take the presidential oath.

Washington was a Christian. He chose to use the word “swear,” as every president except one has since then.

The exception was Franklin Pierce, who decided to say “affirm.”

Most presidents have also taken their oath while placing their hand on a Bible. However, nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires that.

It’s a tradition started by George Washington, who recited the oath with his hand on a Masonic Bible at his inauguration.

Although Masonic Bibles have since gone out of style, most presidents have sworn their oath with their hand on a Bible. I suspect this is partly to honor tradition and partly to avoid any controversy.

However, there have been some notable non-traditionalists.

John Quincy Adams took the oath with his hand on a book of law.

Theodore Roosevelt decided not to use a Bible or any other book when he recited the oath at his inauguration.

There has long been a debate about whether George Washington also started the tradition of saying “So help me God” after reciting the presidential oath.

Prof. Peter R. Henriques, author of the book Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, wrote an interesting article about this debate that’s posted on the History News Network.

He concluded there’s no proof Washington actually said “So help me God.” 

Apparently, the first American president to do so was Chester A. Arthur, at his inauguration in 1881.

That’s essentially the only thing Arthur ever said that might be considered a famous quotation. Unfortunately for him, Washington is the one who usually (and probably wrongly) gets credit for it.

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Related reading…

April 22, 2015

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”


The animal characters Walt Kelly created for his classic newspaper comic strip Pogo were known for their seemingly simplistic, but slyly perceptive comments about the state of the world and politics.

None is more remembered than Pogo the ‘possum’s quote in the poster Kelly designed to help promote environmental awareness and publicize the first annual observance of Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970:

       “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US.”

In the poster, under the quote, Pogo is seen holding a litter pick-up stick and a burlap bag.

He appears to be getting ready to start cleaning up the garbage humans have strewn over Okefenokee Swamp, the part of the planet where he lives.

Kelly used the line again in the Pogo strip published on the second Earth Day in 1971.

The words poignantly highlight a key concept of environmental stewardship: we all share part of the responsibility for the trashing of planet Earth, so we should all do our share to help clean it up.

Pogo’s quip was a pun based on the famous quotation “We have met the enemy and they are ours” — one of two famous quotes made by American Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry on September 10, 1813, after defeating a British naval squadron on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. (Perry’s other famous quote that day was “Don’t give up the ship.” )

Kelly had used a version of the quote in the foreword to his 1953 book The Pogo Papers, but it was not as pithy or memorable as the line he coined for Earth Day.

Today, the environmental issues we face today are clearly daunting.

However, since the first Earth Day in 1970 many environmental battles have been won and there has been notable progress in addressing problems that seemed quite daunting in the past.

Back then, for example, it was perfectly legal to dump untreated sewage and industrial waste into local waterways or turn irreplaceable natural areas like Okefenokee Swamp into toxic waste dumps.

Indeed, the types and levels of pollutants and environmental damage allowed in 1970 now seem shocking in retrospect.

Current environmental laws are much stronger. And, with some notable exceptions (like worldwide carbon dioxide emissions), most types of water and air pollution have been significantly reduced during the past four decades.

That is due in part to the grassroots environmental movement which was symbolically launched and celebrated by the first Earth Day.

Walt Kelly died in 1973, just three years after his Earth Day poster was published.

The quote used as the poster’s headline is still famous today — and the concept embodied in the poster still holds true.

We can’t just blame the big bad corporations for the environmental problems we face. Most of the time, they are just giving us what we “demand” as consumers at a cost we are willing to pay, and abiding by laws created by politicians we elect.

We all need to our own small part, as consumers and voters. If we do, we can collectively have a significant impact on addressing the environmental problems that threaten our local communities, our country and “Spaceship Earth.”

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Further reading and viewing…

April 15, 2015

“Now he belongs to the ages” – or maybe to the angels…


Three famous quotations are linked to the assassination and death of President Abraham Lincoln.

Many history and quotation books say that after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!”

That Latin phrase — which means “Thus always to tyrants!” — was and still is the official state motto of Virginia, one of the Confederate states during the Civil War.

According to many accounts, Booth also shouted “The South is avenged!” after he shot Lincoln.

Many history and quotation books also say that when Lincoln died the next morning, on April 15, 1865, his friend and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said to the small gathering of people at Lincoln’s bedside: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

However, it’s not actually clear whether these traditionally-cited quotes by Booth and Stanton are accurate. There are different “earwitness” accounts of what they said.

In his painstakingly-researched book We Saw Lincoln Shot, author Timothy Good determined that most witnesses recalled hearing Booth shout “Sic semper tyrannis!” But others — including Booth himself — claimed that he only yelled “Sic semper!” Some didn’t recall hearing Booth shout anything in Latin.

What Booth shouted in English is also muddied by varying recollections. Some witnesses said he shouted “The South is avenged!” Others thought they heard him say “Revenge for the South!” or “The South shall be free!” Two said Booth yelled “I have done it!”


Similarly, there are differing accounts of the words Edwin Stanton spoke when Lincoln died.

The traditional version of Edwin M. Stanton’s quote —  “Now he belongs to the ages.” — were the words remembered by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, who was near Lincoln’s deathbed on April 15, 1865.

That quote was included in a book Hay wrote about Lincoln with John G. Nicolay in 1890 and popularized by Ida M. Tarbell’s widely-read biography of Lincoln, published in 1900. 

Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, one of Lincoln’s attending physicians, wrote his own account of the President’s death for Century Magazine in 1883. According to Taft, Stanton said “He now belongs to the Ages.”

The Hay and Taft versions vary only in the order of Stanton’s words.

However, as explained in a fascinating article by Adam Gopnik in the May 28, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, there’s another account that uses the word “angels” instead of “ages,” giving the quote a significantly different meaning.

On the night Lincoln was shot, he was taken to a room in Peterson’s boarding house (sometimes spelled Petersen’s). That evening, Edwin Stanton had witnesses to the shooting brought there to report what they had seen.

A Civil War veteran named James Tanner, who lived nearby and could write shorthand, was brought in to record what the witnesses said.

Tanner was also present on the morning of April 15, 1865, when Lincoln died. He didn’t write down Stanton’s words that morning. But he did later. And, according to Tanner, what Stanton said was: “Now he belongs to the angels.”

This has created a debate among historians. Most believe the traditional “ages” version is probably correct. But some, such as James L. Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, side with “the angels.” 

In his New Yorker article, Adam Gopnik concluded:
“The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.”
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Further reading about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln…

April 02, 2015

April 2, 1865 – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”


On September 22, 1969, The Band released the great self-titled album that includes what became one of their most famous songs, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

Like many of The Band’s songs, it was primarily written by lead guitarist Robbie Robertson., with creative contributions from the other Band members: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel.

The haunting lyrics tell a tale about the end of the American Civil War, as recalled by a common Confederate soldier and farmer.

It opens with the plaintive voice of Helm, singing the now well-known words of the first verse.

Other Band members added harmonies on the chorus, which begins with the line that gave the name its title.

       “Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
       ‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again. 
       In the winter of ‘65, we were hungry, just barely alive. 
       By May the 10th, Richmond had fell,
it’s a time I remember oh so well. 
       The night they drove Old Dixie down...”

On The Band’s website, there’s an interesting in-depth article about the song’s lyrics, compiled by teacher, author and music historian Peter Viney.

As it notes, Richmond had indeed already fallen by “May the 10th.” But that’s not the date when Richmond fell.

Richmond, Virginia — the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War — actually fell to Union troops on the night of April 2, 1865.

That night was, in many ways, the death knell for the Confederacy and the metaphorical “night they drove Old Dixie down.”

The fall of Richmond came after a long siege that started in 1864. During those months, Union Army troops led by Gen. George Stoneman repeatedly tore up the Danville tracks and other railroad lines into the city to keep supplies from reaching Confederate soldiers and civilians.

Meanwhile, as ordered by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the top Union commander, Gen. Phil Sheridan laid waste to the farmland surrounding Richmond. 

In The Penguin Book of The American Civil War, historian Bruce Catton wrote:

“A Federal army trying to take Richmond could never be entirely secure until the Confederates were deprived of all use of the (fertile and productive) Shenandoah Valley, and it was up to Sheridan to deprive them of it. Grant’s instructions were grimly specific. He wanted the rich farmlands so thoroughly despoiled that the place could no longer support a Confederate army; he told Sheridan to devastate the whole area so thoroughly that a crow flying across the Valley would have to carry its own rations. This Sheridan set out to do…Few campaigns in the war aroused more bitterness than this one.”

By late March of 1865, Confederate troops and citizens in Richmond were literally starving. It was clear the city would soon fall.

So, on April 2, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, his Cabinet, and most of the remaining Confederate troops and civilians abandoned Richmond and fled south.

At the time, people called it “Evacuation Sunday.”

Robbie Robertson gave it the more poignant name, “the night they drove Old Dixie down.” 

That day, Confederate soldiers were ordered to set fire to the armories and warehouses they left behind.

The fires spread, setting Richmond ablaze and devastating large areas of the city.

The “Fall of Richmond” led to a rapidly unfolding downward spiral for the South.

By April 9, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

On May 5, the Confederate Government was dissolved. The Civil War was officially over.

However, two final war-related events did occur on the May 10th date noted in The Band’s song.

On May 10, 1865, Union troops captured Jefferson Davis in Georgia. By then, most Confederate troops had laid down their arms and accepted the amnesty terms offered by President Abraham Lincoln.

But there were a few die-hards, like the notorious “Bushwhacker” William Quantrill, who kept up a guerrilla-style fight.

On May 10, 1865, Quantrill was ambushed by Union troops in Kentucky and fatally wounded. He lingered for almost a month before he finally died on June 6. 

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Related reading…

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