August 29, 1854 The Resolute Desk

Once hopelessly caught in arctic ice the British vessel HMS Resolute was returned to her majesty Queen Victoria’s government and now serves as a desk for virtually every US President from Rutherford B. Hayes, to Joseph R. Biden.

Since the time of Columbus, European explorers have searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.   The “Corps of Discovery“ better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, the intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

Forty years later, Captain sir John Franklin departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to discover the mythical Northwest Passage.

The two vessels became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

Ship

Prodded by Lady Jane Franklin, the hunt for her husband’s expedition would continue for years, at one time involving as any as eleven British and two American ships.  Clues were found including notes and isolated graves, telling the story of a long and fruitless effort to stay alive in a hostile climate.  The wreck of HMS Erebus would not be discovered until 2014, her sister ship, two years later.

In 1848, the British Admiralty possessed few hulls suitable for arctic service. Two civilian steamships were purchased and converted to exploration vessels: HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid, along with four seagoing sailing vessels, Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise and Investigator.

HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased in 1850 as the Ptarmigan and refitted for Arctic exploration. Renamed Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition.

Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 officers and men would ever return alive.  What HMS Resolute Did find was the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where, three years earlier, she too had been searching for the lost expedition.

resoluteice2

Three of the Resolute expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853 including Resolute, herself. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships. Most of them made it despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between May and August, of the following year.

The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return. Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1½ nautical miles per day.

download (2)

The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.

The so-called ‘Pig and Potato War” of 1859 was resolved between the British and American governments with the loss of no more than a single hog, yet a number of border disputes made the late 1850s a difficult time, for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute and give her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government, as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit. Resolute sailed for England later that year. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented the vessel to Queen Victoria on December 13. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from the English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards.

In 1880, the British government presented President Rutherford B. Hayes the gift, of a large partner’s desk. A token of gratitude for the return of the HMS Resolute, 24 years earlier.

The desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by nearly every American President from that day, to this. Every president from Hayes through Hoover used the desk either in the White House Green Room, the president’s study or working office. FDR moved the desk into the oval office where he had a panel installed in the opening, as he was self conscious about his leg braces.

There was a brief period of climate controlled storage during the Truman era as the White House went through major renovation. It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk back, into the Oval Office. There are pictures of JFK working at the desk while a young JFK, Jr., played underneath.

Stanley Tretick’s October 2, 1963 photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. playing in the kneehole of the Resolute desk

Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House following the Kennedy assassination.

The Resolute Desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only other time the desk has been out of the White House.

Resolute, Reagan

Jimmy Carter returned the desk to the Oval Office where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump and, as of this article, Joe Biden.

May 22, 1807 Aaron Burr

Vice President John Nance Garner served in office between 1931, and ’41. With precisely zero influence over President Roosevelt’s policies, Garner once described the position as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”. Since that time, the sentiment is often cleaned up and retold as, “warm spit”. Be that as it may, such a prize was a distant second-best to a man like Aaron Burr.

What would it be like to turn on the evening news, and learn that former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin lay near death, following an “affair of honor”. A duel. Worse yet, the man who shot him wasn’t a man at all but a woman, Kamala Harris, the sitting vice president of the United States.

The year was 1804.  President Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President Aaron Burr, had a long standing grudge against Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington.

GettyImages-515414860-E
Aaron Burr

The animosity between the two went back to the Senate election of 1791, when Burr won a United States Senate election over Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler. Animosity between the two men escalated during the presidential race of 1800, one of the ugliest elections in American history.  It’s been called the “Revolution of 1800”, an election pitting Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson, against one-term incumbent John Adams, of the Federalist party.

Both sides were convinced beyond a doubt, that the other side would destroy the young nation. Federalists attacked Jefferson as an un-Christian deist, a populist whose sympathies with the French Revolution would bring about a similar cataclysm in the young American republic. Democratic-Republicans criticized the alien and sedition acts, and the deficit spending of the Adams administration.

At the time, electors cast two votes, the first and second vote-getters becoming president and vice president.

“The father of modern political campaigning”, Aaron Burr had long since enlisted help from New York’s Tammany Hall, transforming what was then a social club into a political machine.  The election was a decisive victory for the Democratic-Republicans.  Not so much for the candidates themselves.

The electoral vote tied at 73 between Jefferson and Burr, moving the selection to the House of Representatives. Hamilton was no fan of Thomas Jefferson but detested Burr and threw his support behind the former. Jefferson was elected on the 36th ballot, Aaron Burr, relegated to the second spot.

Vice President John “Cactus Jack” Nance Garner was the 32nd vice president of the United States, serving under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

With precisely zero influence over Roosevelt’s policies, Garner described the position as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”. 

The sentiment is often cleaned up and retold as, “warm spit”. Be that as it may, such a prize was a distant second-best to a man like Aaron Burr.

Vice President Aaron Burr, 1802

As part of the new administration, the vice president was anything but a “team player”. Behind the scenes, Burr corresponded with British and Spanish ministers to the United States, offering in the first case to detach Louisiana from the Union and, in the second, to orchestrate an overthrow of Mexico.  Either way, he himself would do nicely to found the new dynasty.  Thank you very much for asking.

Today we’re accustomed to the idea of “Judicial Review”, the idea that Supreme Court decisions are final and inviolate, but that wasn’t always the case. The landmark Marbury v Madison decision established the principle in 1803, a usurpation of power so egregious to Democratic-Republicans, as to bring about the impeachment of Associate Justice Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

chase2
Justice Samuel Chase

Relations were toxic between Jefferson and Burr.  The VP knew he wouldn’t be around for the 1804 re-election campaign so he ran for Governor of New York, losing in a landslide to a virtual unknown, Morgan Lewis.

“Nothing has given me so much chagrin as the Intelligence that the Federal party were thinking seriously of supporting Mr. Burr for president. I should consider the execution of the plan as devoting the country and signing their own death warrant. Mr. Burr will probably make stipulations, but he will laugh in his sleeve while he makes them and will break them the first moment it may serve his purpose.”

Alexander Hamilton

It was a humiliating defeat.  Burr blamed Hamilton, a tireless supporter of his victorious opponent, and challenged him to a duel.  Dueling was illegal at this time but enforcement was lax in New Jersey. So it was, the pair rowed across the Hudson River with their “seconds”, meeting at the waterfront town of Weehawken. It was July 11, 1804. Hamilton “threw away” his shot, firing into the air. Aaron Burr shot to kill.

missedinhistory-podcasts-wp-content-uploads-sites-99-2015-07-hamilton-burr-660x357Murder charges were filed in both New York and New Jersey, but neither went to trial.

As vice president, Aaron Burr went on to preside over Justice Chase’s impeachment, It was the high point of a career otherwise ended, the day he met Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken.

Burr headed for New Orleans where he got mixed up with one General James Wilkinson, one of the sleazier characters of the founding generation. At that time, Wilkinson was a paid agent for Spanish King Charles IV. 100 years later Theodore Roosevelt would say of the man, “In all our history, there is no more despicable character.”

Wilkinson took his payments in silver dollars, hidden in rum, sugar and coffee casks. All those clinking coins nearly undid him, when a messenger was caught and killed with 3,000 of them. The messenger’s five murderers were themselves Spaniards, who testified at trial the money belonged to the spy, James Wilkinson. Payment for services rendered to their King. Wilkinson’s luck held, as the killers spoke no English. Thomas Power, interpreter for the Magistrate, was another Spanish spy. He threw those guys so far under the bus, they’d never get out: ‘They just say they’re wicked murderers motivated by greed.’

Imagine a person who would say such a thing, in high public office.

The nature of Burr’s discussions with Wilkinson is unclear but, in 1806, Burr led a group of armed colonists toward New Orleans, with the apparent intention of snatching the territory and turning the place into an independent Republic. It’s safe to assume that Aaron Burr saw himself at the head of such a Republic.

Seeing no future in it and wanting to save his own skin, Wilkinson turned on his former ally, sending dispatches to Washington accusing the former vice president of treason. Burr was tracked down in Alabama on February 19, 1807, arrested for treason and sent to Richmond, Virginia, for trial.

Classics-Burr-conspiracy-p-cropped

The size and shape of the “Burr Conspiracy” remain unclear, to this day.  Historians claim the vice president intended to take parts of Texas and the Louisiana Purchase, forming his own independent Republic. Others claim he intended to conquer Mexico,  That Aaron Burr had a following among prominent politicians and soldiers is beyond question, but estimates of their numbers range from forty, to over seven-thousand.

Burr himself claims only to have wanted the 40,000 acres in the Texas Territory, deeded him by the Spanish crown.  On this there is no uncertainty.  The lease still exists.

The one-time vice president who killed the man on our ten dollar bill went to trial for treason on May 22, 1807. Burr was acquitted in the end, on grounds he had not committed an “overt act” as specified in the Constitution. Not guilty in the eyes of the law. The court of public opinion, was another matter. Aaron Burr would ever be held in contempt, as a traitor.

150320191637-ten-dollar-bill-780x439

He spent the next several years in Europe before returning to New York, and resuming his law practice. At the age of 77, Burr married Eliza Jumel, a wealthy widow 19 years his junior. After four months of watching her fortune squandered, she filed for separation. For her divorce attorney, Eliza hired Alexander Hamilton, Jr. The divorce was final on September 14, 1836. Aaron Burr, now relegated to a New York boarding house, died the very same day, at the age of 80.

“Aaron Burr was like a new refrigerator. He was bright, cold and empty.”

American journalist, biographer and historian, Richard Brookhiser

May 19, 1828 Tariff of Abominations

Protective tariffs worked to the advantage of the north as they tended to strengthen, the industrial economies. To the south, agricultural economies were more dependent on imported goods whether those came from the north, or from overseas.

Following the industrial revolution, Britain emerged as the economic powerhouse of Europe. As Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to throttle the British economy by shutting down exports to Europe, manufacturers across the UK sought out new trade partners. Among those were their own former colonies, in America.

In the United States, the low prices of British goods had a damaging affect on American manufacturing. Goods were flooding into the market at prices American companies, were unable to match. The tide increased after the war of 1812. Congress passed a tariff on British made goods in 1816 and upped the tax, eight years later.

Protective tariffs worked to the advantage of the north as they tended to strengthen, the industrial economies. To the south, agricultural economies were more dependent on imported goods whether those came from the north, or from overseas. The cotton states doubly resented protective tariffs as they made it more difficult, for their British trade partners to pay for exported cotton.

Today, the divide between Democrats and Republicans is a fact of life. In the 1820s, the first recognizable pieces of that system, were just falling into place. John Quincy Adams was elected in 1824 in what many described, as a “corrupt bargain”. The mid-terms of 1826 marked the first time Congress was in firm control of the President’s political opponents.

In 1828, southern and mid-Atlantic lawmakers agreed to concoct a tariff so egregious, the bill would never pass. The “Tariff of Abominations” weighed heavily on manufactured goods and therefore southern states but also on raw materials like iron, hemp (for rope) and flax, a direct shot at New England manufacturing. In so doing, future President Martin van Buren, then-Vice President John C. Calhoun and others expected to pull southern support in the final moments and thus to embarrass the President and his more conservative allies like Adams’ Secretary of State, Henry Clay.

Fun fact: Martin van Buren was born in Kinderhook New York where most of the residents, spoke Dutch. Van Buren was no exception, making the 8th President of the United States the only President to speak English, as a second language.

The plan worked nicely in the southern states, where the bill went down to defeat, 64-4. To their horror and astonishment, the thing received overwhelming support in the middle and western states. Even in New England where textile mills teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, lawmakers were swayed by the argument that, what was good for one region, was good for the nation. The tariff of abominations received 41% support, even in New England.

Political cartoon depicts the north getting fat on tariffs, at the expense of the south

President Adams was well aware the measure would damage him politically but he signed it into law regardless, on this day in 1828.

The President was right. His own vice president jumped ship to join Andrew Jackson’s ticket to destroy Adams for re-election in an electoral vote, of 178 to 83.  The “Era of Good Feelings” was ended. The age of the two-party system, had begun.

John C. Calhoun, (left) the only vice President to serve under two different Presidents, detested the law he had helped to create.

In December 1828, the outgoing/incoming vice President penned an anonymous pamphlet, urging nullification in his home state of South Carolina.

The South Carolina legislature printed 5,000 copies of Calhoun’s pamphlet but took none of the legislative measures, it argued for. Calhoun was out in the open in 1829, claiming the measure was unconstitutional and urging the law be declared null and void, in the sovereign state of South Carolina.

The issue created a split between Jackson and his vice President leading Calhoun to resign the vice Presidency.

Fun fact: While John C. Calhoun and Spiro T. Agnew are the only vice Presidents ever to resign, seven others have died in office, leaving the vice Presidency vacant for a total of 37 years and 290 days, about a fifth of the time, we’ve had a President.

President Jackson signed a reduced tariff into law in 1832 but, for South Carolina, it was too little, too late. The state called a convention that November and, by a vote of 136-26, voted that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were both unconstitutional and thereby null and void, in South Carolina.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was not a man to be trifled with. At 13, Jackson received serious saber wounds at the hands of a British soldier, infuriated that the boy refused to shine his boots. In 1806, the man killed a Nashville lawyer in a duel while himself being shot, in the chest. He would carry that bullet in his body until 1831 when a navy doctor cut it out right there in the White House…without anesthesia. Another dueling opponent shot Jackson in 1813, this time, shattering his shoulder. He would carry that bullet in his body, until the day he died. As a General in the War of 1812, Jackson famously crushed an advancing British army, in the Battle of New Orleans.

As President, Jackson wasn’t about to tolerate a nullification crisis under his watch and threatened to make war, on South Carolina. Congress passed the Force Act, granting Jackson the authority to take any measure, he deemed necessary. South Carolina began military preparations for war, with the federal government.

Bloodshed was averted when Calhoun and Clay stepped in, with a compromise. Under their plan, the tariff of 1833 would begin to reduce rates over 20% by one tenth every two years until they were all back to 20%, in 1842.

South Carolina reconvened and repealed the ordnance of nullification. Lest anyone doubt their true intentions or deny the state’s right to do so, the convention then went on to nullify Congress’ Force Act.

It didn’t much matter. The “Black Tariff” of 1842 reinstated the old duties and increased dutiable imports, to 85%.

By the 1850s, westward expansion brought back the issue of “State’s Rights”, this time over the expansion, of slavery.

The next crisis was not to be averted, but by rivers of blood.

May 18, 1904 The Perdicaris Incident

Once deemed an international city by foreign colonial powers, Tangier has long been a favorite of spies, artists and an assortment of thieves, international bankers and business types. But perhaps I repeat myself.

On the northern coast of Africa lies the westernmost part of the Arab world, a region extending from Egypt in the east to the Atlantic Ocean and encompassing the modern nations of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.

Historically, the English speaking world referred to this region, the Maghreb (Arabic: المغرب‎ al-Maghrib – “The West”) as the Barbary Coast, a term deriving from the Berber peoples of the region.

Cape Spartel forms the high point of northwestern Africa and the southern boundary, of the Strait of Gibraltar. The Moroccan city of Tangier may be found there, an ancient metropolis once given as part of a dowry for a Portuguese Princess. Tangier was home to the first American property outside the continental United States, a two-story masonry building presented in 1821 by Sultan Moulay Suliman and used today, as the museum of the American Legacy, in Tangier.

Fun fact: Believing strongly in the benefits of international trade, Moroccan Sultan Muhammad III threw his ports open to a number of foreign nations in December 1777, including the United States. So it is that Morocco became the first nation whose head of state, publicly recognized the fledgling nation. The Moroccan–American Treaty of Friendship signed by the Sultan along with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1786 remains the longest unbroken treaty, in US history.

Once deemed an international city by foreign colonial powers, Tangier has long been a favorite of spies, artists and an assortment of thieves, international bankers and business types. But perhaps I repeat myself.

Tangier, today

The rock group Def Leppard once played the nearby Caves of Hercules, the first of three concerts played on as many continents in a single day and intended to get them, into the Guinness Book of World Records. The novel Naked Lunch penned by William Burroughs, that oddest of oddball stories with no beginning, no end and no story to tell, was written in Tangier.

The Greek-American tycoon Ion “Jon” Perdicaris once owned a summer home in the hills above Tangier, a vine covered villa he called “Place of Nightingales”, complete with a tame demoiselle crane and a pair of pet monkeys, who ate orange blossoms. On May 18, 1904, Mr. Perdicaris sat down to dine with Ellen, Mrs. Perdicaris, Ellen’s son by a previous marriage Cromwell Oliver Varley (don’t ask), and Mrs. Varley.

A pandemonium of screams and barking dogs broke out in the servant’s quarters and Perdicaris thought it was yet another fight between his German housekeeper and French-Zouave chef. Not a chance. Two terrified servants came pelting into the room pursued by armed Moors who beat the pair with rifle butts and knocked Mrs. Perdicaris, to the ground. One put a knife to the Varley’s throat when a great, bearded sheik strode into the room. With a great sweep of his arm and a theatricality worthy of Sir Patrick Stewart playing King Lear, the newcomer proclaimed “I am the Raisuli!”

Mr. Perdicaris and his step-son were about to be kidnapped by the notorious Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, leader of several hill tribes and the last, of the Barbary pirates.

Raisuli (Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, 1871 – 1925) and Rosita Forbes (1890 – 1967), English travel writer, in Morocco. Published in December 1923. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

In 1901, two American missionaries were kidnapped in southwestern Bulgaria, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. After six months’ negotiations, the “Miss Stone Affair” culminated in the payment of 14,000 gold Turkish liras, a sum equivalent to over thee million, today. The episode is considered the first American hostage crisis of the modern era. At the time the kidnapping received widespread coverage, as did the ransom.

Small wonder it is then that “The Raisuli” would have a hand, at kidnapping a wealthy American.

Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, the son of a prominent tribal leader, was devoted to a life of womanizing, and stealing cattle and sheep. As a younger man, Raisuli was once invited to dinner by his cousin and foster brother Abd-el-Rahman Abd el-Saduk, Pasha of Tangier, only to be set upon and beaten and chained to a wall, in a dungeon.

Raisulli lived four years chained to that wall, surviving only by the food brought, by friends. Thoroughly hardened and filled with hate by such an experience, Raisulli was released four years later in a general amnesty, by Mulai Abd al-Aziz IV, the incoming Sultan of Morocco.

One day, Hollywood would produce a forgettable film based on the Perdicaris incident, save for the starring role of Sean Connery, as Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli

Despite his release, Raisulli grew to distrust the Sultan, a feckless politician with a weakness for European luxuries and far to0 deferential to the foreign powers, jockeying for control in Morocco. He returned to a life of crime but now he was more ambitious. Raisulli ‘s first kidnapping victim was the English Times correspondent Walter Burton Harris, a man kidnapped not for money but to secure the release from prison, of some of the kidnapper’s allies.

To his captives, Raisulli was capable of extravagant courtesies, worthy of the age of chivalry. He was also a man of extraordinary cruelty, known for putting out the eyes of opponents, with red-hot copper coins. He once sent the head of an opponent back where it came from, in a basket of melons.

Back at the Place of Nightingales, Ellen Perdicaris notified Consul General Samuel Gummere, of the kidnapping.

Theodore Roosevelt lived in the White House at this time, President only by virtue of the assassination of President William McKinley. With 1904 being an election year, “Teddy” was eager to be elected, in his own right.

Roosevelt jumped into action on receiving Gummere’s telegram, sending four warships from the southern fleet, to Tangier.

Raisulli demanded a ransom of $55,000, the release of several “political prisoners”, the imprisonment of his cousin the hated Pasha & several other government officials and personal control over two of the wealthiest districts, in Morocco. As negotiations dragged on, he raised the stakes to $70,000 and six districts.

Forty years earlier, John Hay stepped onto the pages of history as personal secretary, to President Abraham Lincoln. It is John Hay who gives his name to one of five known copies, of the Gettysburg Address.

In June 1904, Secretary of State John Hay wrote to the Republican National Convention: “This government wants “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead!”. The phrase would help boost Roosevelt to re-election but turned out to be embarrassing. More on that, later.

Spain, Great Britain and France sent warships of their own and prevailed upon the Sultan, to accede to the kidnapper’s demands. Raisulli would receive his money and his six districts however, graft and cruelty toward his poor “subjects” would lead to his ouster, two years later.

Now for Roosevelt. Gregory Perdicaris, Ion’s father, came to the United States at the age of 26, as a student. The elder Perdicaris was naturalized an American citizen, later marrying the daughter of a wealthy family and settling in her home state, of South Carolina. Ion Perdicaris was born in Athens where his father was working, as the American Ambassador.

Born as he was to American parents, Ion Perdicaris was himself an American citizen. Until the Civil War arrived and he renounced it, to avoid being conscripted to fight for the Confederacy.

Forty years later, the President of the United States sent the US southern fleet to rescue…a Greek.

November 26, 1941, Franksgiving

Popular comedians of the day got a laugh out of the Franksgiving ruckus including Burns & Allen, and Jack Benny. One 1940 Warner Brothers cartoon shows two Thanksgivings, one “for Democrats” and one a week later “for Republicans.”

The first Autumn feast of Thanksgiving dates well before the European settlement of North America.

OldCrowafriendly

Historian Michael Gannon writes that the “real first Thanksgiving” in America took place in 1565, when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed in modern-day Florida, and “had the Indians fed and then dined himself.”

Likely, it was salt-pork stew with garbanzo beans. Yum.

According to the Library of Congress, the English colony of Popham in present-day Maine held a “harvest feast and prayer meeting” with the Abenaki people in 1607, twenty-four years before that “first Thanksgiving” at Plymouth.

George Washington proclaimed the first Presidential National day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1783, “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness“.

So much for the “separation of Church and state”.

President Abraham Lincoln followed suit in 1863, declaring a general day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November.  The date seemed to work out OK and the tradition stuck, until 1939.

Roughly two in every seven Novembers, contain an extra Thursday.  November 1939, was one of them.

franksgiving2

In those days, it was considered poor form for retailers to put up Christmas displays or run Christmas sales, before Thanksgiving.  Lew Hahn, General Manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, was afraid that extra week was going to cut into Christmas sales.

Ten years into the Great Depression with no end in sight, the Federal government was afraid of the same thing. By late August, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to deviate from the customary last Thursday and declared the fourth Thursday, November 23, to be a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.

Opposition to the plan was quick to form.  Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican challenger in the earlier election, complained of Roosevelt’s impulsiveness and resulting confusion.  “More time should have been taken working it out” Landon said, “instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

252_84_738_450

In Plymouth Massachusetts, self-described home of the “first Thanksgiving”, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen James Frasier, “heartily disapproved”.

The short-notice change in schedule disrupted vacation plans for millions of Americans. Traditional Thanksgiving day football rivalries between school teams across the nation, were turned upside down.

Unsurprisingly, support for Roosevelt’s plan broke along ideological lines.  A late 1939 Gallup poll reported Democrats favoring the move by a 52% to 48% majority, with Republicans opposing the move, 79% to 21%.

Such proclamations represent little more than the “’moral authority” of the Presidency. States are free to do as they please.  Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia observed Thanksgiving day on the non-traditional date, and twenty-two kept Thanksgiving on the 30th.  Colorado, Mississippi and Texas, did both.

The next two years, thirty-two states and the District of Columbia celebrated what came to be called “Franksgiving” on the third Thursday of the month, while the remainder observed a more traditional “Republican Thanksgiving” on the last.

Franksgiving calendar

In 1941, a Commerce Department survey demonstrated little difference in Christmas sales between those states observing Franksgiving, and those observing the more traditional date. A joint resolution of Congress declared the fourth Thursday beginning the following year to be a national day of Thanksgiving. President Roosevelt signed the measure into law on November 26.

Interestingly, the phrase “Thanksgiving Day” appeared only once in the 20th century prior to the 1941 resolution, that in President Calvin Coolidge’s first of six such proclamations.

Most state legislatures followed suit with the Federal fourth-Thursday approach, but not all.  In 1945, the next year with five November Thursdays, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia reverted to the last Thursday.  Texas held out the longest, celebrating its fifth-Thursday Thanksgiving for the last time in 1956.

To this day, the years 1939, ’40 and ’41 remain the only outliers, outside the fourth-Thursday tradition.

Popular comedians of the day got a laugh out of the Franksgiving ruckus including Burns & Allen, and Jack Benny.  One 1940 Warner Brothers cartoon shows two Thanksgivings, one “for Democrats” and one a week later “for Republicans.”

The Three Stooges short film of the same year has Moe questioning Curly, why he put the fourth of July in October.  “You never can tell”, he replies.  “Look what they did to Thanksgiving!”

Joe Toye, the “Easy Company” character in the 2001 HBO miniseries “A Band of Brothers”, may have had the last word on Franksgiving.  Explaining his plan to get the war over quickly, the paratrooper quips “Hitler gets one of these [knives] right across the windpipe, Roosevelt changes Thanksgiving to Joe Toye Day, [and] pays me ten grand a year for the rest of my f*****g life.

Sounds like a plan.

November 18, 1863 The Gettysburg Address

Oddly, we don’t know the precise form in which the President delivered his address. Lincoln wrote his own speeches, lining out words and writing into margins as he developed his thought process. That working copy is lost.

Have you ever crossed that field at Gettysburg? The site of the final assault on the third day? You can feel the sense of history, stepping off Seminary Ridge. Only a mile to go. You are awe struck at the mental image of thousands of blue clad soldiers, awaiting your advance. Halfway across and just coming into small arms range, you enter a low spot on what seemed like a flat plain. It’s almost imperceptible but the “copse of trees”, drops out of sight. You can’t help a sense of relief as you cross the draw. If you can’t see them they can’t shoot you. Right?

Then you look to your right and realize. Cannon would have been firing down the length of your lines that day, from Little Round Top. From your left, the guns of Cemetery Hill tear into your lines. Rising out of the draw you are now in full sight of Union infantry. You quicken your pace as your lines are torn apart from the front and sides. Fences hold in some spots along the Emmitsburg Road. Hundreds of your comrades are shot down in the attempt to climb over.

Finally you are over and now it’s a dead run. There’s a savage struggle to possess an angle in a stone wall, but it is not enough. The Bloody Angle. You have reached the “high water mark of the Confederacy”. The shattered remains of that splendid Multitude you joined only moments before, retreat. It is over.

The hill from which the Union center repulsed Longstreet’s assault of the third day was selected for a national cemetery, within the four months following the battle of Gettysburg. Work began to re-inter the dead from the carnage of July, on October 27.

Three weeks later, Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in Washington.  He’d been asked to make “a few dedicatory remarks” on the following day, consecrating the new National Cemetery at Gettysburg where, even now on this day in 1863, workmen yet labored.

Lincoln was the President of a country torn by Civil War, a war so terrible that, before it was over, would kill more Americans than all the wars from the Declaration of Independence to the Global War on Terror, combined.

November 18, 1863. President Lincoln takes a break at the Hanover junction Station (PA), waiting to be joined by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin. Curtin’s train was late and the President moved on, without him. The Governor would have to find find another route to join the President, the following day.

Lincoln had been feeling poorly the day of the train ride, telling his secretary John Hay, he was feeling weak.  He would feel worse before that day was over. Hay noted that Lincoln’s face was ‘a ghastly color’, the day of the address.  No one knew it at the time. The President had entered the first stages, of smallpox.

His was not the keynote address.  That would be a 13,607 word, two-hour oration delivered by Boston politician Edward Everett.

gtsburgaddress2
“A rare photo of the ceremonies. A group of boys stand at the fringe of a crowd. In the distance, several men wearing sashes can be seen standing on the speakers’ platform. Analysis of an enlargement of this photo reveals the image of Lincoln sitting to the left of these men”. Tip of the hat to http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com, for this image

After Everett’s speech, photographers began the careful preparation and setting, of glass plates. Each an thought he had all the time in the world. He did not.

There is no photograph of President Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address.

The 16th President of the United States stepped to the rostrum and delivered 271 words, in ten sentences.  In just over two minutes, Lincoln captured an entire vision of where the country was at that moment in time, where it had been, and where it was going.

Lincoln himself thought his speech a flop, but Everett later wrote to him, saying “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

Then as now there were haters, a peanut gallery firing spitballs, from secure positions on the sidelines.  The Chicago Times described Lincoln’s remarks as “silly, flat and dish-watery utterances”. It all came out in the end.  Lincoln’s address is remembered as one of the finest English language orations since Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, at Agincourt.  The names of those croaking tree frogs at the Chicago Times, are all but forgotten.

Oddly, we don’t know the precise form in which the President delivered his address.  Lincoln wrote his own speeches, lining out words and writing into margins as he developed his thought process.  That working copy is lost.

objectathand_dec08_631
“The only known image of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg was uncovered in 1952 at the National Archives. It was taken by photographer Mathew Brady. (Library of Congress)” H/T Smithsonian.com, for this image

There are five known copies of the Gettysburg address, written in Lincoln’s own hand. Each varies slightly in wording and punctuation.  He wrote two after the address, giving them to his two personal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay.  He sent one to Edward Everett early in 1864 and another to George Bancroft, the former Secretary of the Navy turned historian.  Lincoln wrote a fifth copy in February known as the Bliss copy, for Colonel Alexander Bliss, upon learning the Bancroft version was unsuitable for publication. Preproduction technologies were unsuitable at that time, for documents written on both sides of the same page.

images (11)

Lincoln signed, dated and titled the Bliss copy.  This is the version inscribed on the South wall of the Lincoln Memorial.

One of my stranger childhood notions, was the idea that sounds never disappeared. They only diminished as they spread outward, like ripples on a pond.  If that was true (thought my nine-year-old self), could we not somehow capture and listen to the Gettysburg address, as it was actually delivered?

It’s a funny thing how some ideas, even the goofy ones, never completely die away.

November 14, 1902 Silly Old Bear

The piece went on to describe the medical afflictions, common to Brunus Edwardii. Clearly satire, the Veterinary Association’s article was overwhelmingly popular, save for the usual curmudgeonly contingent who seem to experience life as one never-ending complaint, in search of a target.

Theodore Roosevelt was in Mississippi in November 1902, helping local authorities settle a border dispute with Louisiana. There was some downtime on the 14th, and Governor Andrew Longino invited the President and a few dignitaries on a bear hunt.

holtcollier
Holt Collier

The hunt was a high profile affair, attended by a number of reporters and led by a former slave and Confederate Cavalryman, the famous bear tracker Holt Collier:  a man who had killed more bears than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, combined.

Real history is so much more interesting than the political and pop culture varieties, isn’t it?.

Late that afternoon, Collier and his tracking dogs cornered a large female black bear. Roosevelt hadn’t “bagged” one yet, and Collier bugled for the President to join him. He would have ordinarily shot the bear when it killed one of his dogs, but Collier wanted the president to get this one. He busted the bear over the head with his rifle, hard enough to bend the barrel, and tied the poor beast to a willow tree.

TR-teddy_ear

Roosevelt declined to shoot the beast. He said it was “unsportsmanlike” to shoot a bound and wounded animal. Instead, he ordered the bear put down, putting an end to its pain.

The Washington Post ran an editorial cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman. “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” depicted both the state line dispute and the hunting incident. Berryman first drew the animal as a large, fierce killer, but later redrew the bear, turning the creature into a cute, cuddly little cub bear.

Morris Michtom owned a small novelty and candy store in Brooklyn, New York at that time. Michtom’s wife Rose had been making toy bears for sale in their store, when Morris sent one of them to Roosevelt, asking permission to call it “Teddy’s Bear”. Roosevelt detested that nickname, but he said yes. Michtom’s bear became so popular that he went on to start what would become the Ideal Toy Company.

In 1972, the weekly journal of the British veterinary profession, the Veterinary Record, ran an article in their April 1st edition. The piece described the diseases common to “Brunus Edwardii”, a species “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America”. The article reported that “Pet ownership surveys have shown that 63.8% of households are inhabited by one or more of these animals, and there is a statistically significant relationship between their population and the number of children in a household”.

Brunus Edwardii

The piece went on to describe the medical afflictions, common to Brunus Edwardii.  Clearly satire, the Veterinary Association’s article was overwhelmingly popular, save for the usual curmudgeonly contingent who seem to experience life as one never-ending complaint, in search of a target.

Did I mention, the thing was published on April Fool’s Day?

One such curmudgeon was the humorless A. Noel Smith, a zany funster if there ever was one to be sure, who sniffed, “I have been practising veterinary medicine for the past 12 years or more “across the pond” and my Veterinary Records arrive a month or more late. However, I still open them with interest and read what is going on “at home”. April 1st’s edition thoroughly soured my interest. How three members holding sets of impressive degrees can waste their time writing such garbage in a journal that is the official publication of the B.V.A. is beyond my comprehension, as is your effrontery to publish it under “Clinical Papers”.

I bet that guy would be a hoot to have a beer with.

November 14, 1902 Teddy Bear

For the record,”Brunus Edwardii”, is latin for Edward Brown. The internet dictionary etymologyonline.com explains the origins of “Brown” as, among other things, Dutch, for  “Bruin”.

Edward Bruin. Hmmm. Edward Bear.  Author A.A. Milne’s proper name, for Winnie-the-Pooh. That silly old bear.

July 28, 1866 The President’s Sculptor

Every year, millions of visitors to the Rotunda of the Capitol stop to admire the work. Few possess so much as the foggiest notion that the artist, was an 18-year-old girl.

She was about 5-feet tall when her parents moved to Washington, a mere wraith of a girl of 14 summers, as yet unable to tip the scales at 90 pounds.    Her father Robert was a surveyor, come to the capital for a job in the cartography office.

Her brother Robert headed south to Arkansas, to join with Woodruff’s Battery in service to the Confederate Army.  The year was 1861.  The District of Columbia was the capital in name only, of a nation at war with itself.

The elder Robert took ill and times got tough for the Ream family.  Despite her diminutive stature, Lavinia Ellen, “Vinnie“ to friends and family, took a job to help with family finances.  She was working in the dead letter office at the post office, one of the first women ever hired by the federal government.

Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced Vinnie to sculptor Clark Mills in 1863, the artist who produced that statue of President Andrew Jackson, the one we’ve heard so much about recently, there in Lafayette square.

Washington, DC - June 02, 2018: Andrew Jackson's statue in Lafay
Washington, DC – June 02, 2018: Andrew Jackson’s statue in Lafayette Square and the White House.

The artist was amused when the young girl remarked “I can do that myself” and handed her a pail of clay with an invitation to try.  He was delighted when she returned a month later, this time with a surprisingly good likeness of an Indian Chieftain.  It wasn’t long before she became Mills’ apprentice.

Stories spread concerning the remarkable abilities of this young artist.  Vinnie’s talents blossomed and she left the post office to pursue her art, full time.  Senators and Members of Congress were her subjects.  Her faithful likeness of the glowering visage of that fierce opponent of slavery Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania Republican Congressman who would one day lead the impeachment effort against President Andrew Johnson, earned her an important and powerful ally.

It must have been an exciting time for a young girl in Washington DC, the horse-drawn ambulances, the ever-present blue-clad soldiers and more than anything, the raw-boned figure of the President of the United States, his carriage invariably accompanied by a squadron of brightly caparisoned, mounted Army officers.  Vinnie was interested in the figure of Abraham Lincoln.  The desire to sculpt the man’s likeness blossomed to an obsession as the titanic weight of office and crushing grief following the death of Lincoln’s 12-year-old son Willy, seemingly etched themselves across the President’s face.

Raised as she was on the western prairies of Wisconsin, Kansas, and Missouri, Vinnie was unacquainted with the “way things were done” in the nation’s capital.   Petite, quick with a smile and not a little ambitious, she could often get to “yes” where others hadn’t so much as a chance.

So it was in 1864, Vinnie was granted permission which would have been denied, to an older artist.  She herself explained “Lincoln had been painted and modeled before, and when friends of mine first asked him to sit for me he dismissed them wearily until he was told that I was but an ambitious girl, poor and obscure. … Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am sure that I would have been refused.”

Every day for five months, Vinnie Ream had a private half-hour with the President of the United States, the two speaking but infrequently as she set her hands about the work.  She was performing the final touches on the bust you see below, the morning of April 14, 1865.  General Robert. E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses Grant only five days earlier.  The most catastrophic war in American history was winding to a close.  That night, the President planned a welcome break from the cares of office, at a place called Ford’s theater.

Vinnie_Ream_with_her_bust_of_Abraham_Lincoln

A nation was stunned following the Lincoln assassination.  Vinnie herself, prostrate at the death of her friend and hero.

There arose a movement in Congress, to honor the Great Man with a full-length statue, to be placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol.  A competition would be held, to determine the artist.  Washington was then as it is now, but Vinnie had learned a political lesson or two since those naive days of five years earlier.  The petition attesting to her talents and worthiness for the project was signed by Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, 31 Senators and 110 members of the House of Representatives.

SAAM-1917.11.1_1Then as now, Washington was a “Swamp” and a cesspit for the venal and self-interested. Now grown to an attractive young woman, Vinnie Ream was not without critics.  Kansas Senator Edmund Gibson Ross boarded with the Ream family during Johnson’s impeachment trial and cast the one vote absolving the President of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”.

Imagine how THAT must’ve sounded.

There were sleazy insinuations that she was a “lobbyist” or even a “Public Woman” (prostitute).

Newspaper columnist Mrs. Jane Grey Swisshelm sniffed about how Vinnie “carries the day” with members of Congress: “Miss .… Ream … is a young girl of about twenty who has been studying her art for a few months, never made a statue, has some plaster busts on exhibition, including her own, minus clothing to the waist, has a pretty face, long dark curls and plenty of them. … [She] sees members at their lodgings or in the reception room at the Capitol, urges her claims fluently and confidently, sits in the galleries in a conspicuous position and in her most bewitching dress, while those claims are being discussed on the floor, and nods and smiles as a member rises…

e05a173b8e8f1c1360a5e523c3ec3604One editor had the last word, however, printing Swisshelm’s column under the headline “A Homely Woman’s Opinion of a Pretty One.”

Ouch.

On this day in 1866, Vinnie Ream was awarded by vote of Congress, the commission to create a full-size statue of Abraham Lincoln. She was 18 years old, the first woman to receive a such a commission as an artist and the youngest of either sex, to create a statue for the United States government.

Even then, Vinnie was not without detractors.  Michigan Senator Jacob Merritt Howard remarked, “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work.”

Miss Lavinia Ream survived an effort to have her removed from her own studio by a vindictive House of Representatives, to enjoy the last word.  Her depiction of the Great Emancipator sculpted from a flawless block of Carrara marble stands in the Rotunda of the Capitol where it is seen by millions of visitors, from that day to this.

Ream-Lincoln

 

 

March 14, 1964 Skyline Lounge

Five musicians were shocked to realize the shooter was the man they had worked for in those earlier months at that burned out dive bar.  The Skyline Lounge.

Jacob Leon Rubenstein was a problem child, growing up on the west side of Chicago. Marked a juvenile delinquent in his adolescence, Rubenstein was arrested for truancy at age 11, eventually skipping enough school to spend time at the Institute of Juvenile Research.

As with Peanuts cartoonist Charles M Shulz, those who knew Jacob Rubenstein called him “Sparky”. Some say the nickname came from a resemblance to “Sparkplug”, the old nag with the patchwork blanket from the Snuffy Smith cartoon strip.4924951094_21a71fd652_bRubenstein hated the nickname and was quick to fight anyone who called him that. It may have been that hot temper, that made the name stick.

Rubinstein spent the early 1940s at racetracks in Chicago and California, until being drafted into the Army Air Forces, in 1943. Honorably discharged in 1946, he returned to Chicago before moving to Dallas, the following year.

Rubenstein managed a seedy collection of Dallas nightclubs and strip joints, featuring such fine ladies as “Candy Barr” and “Chris Colt and her ’45’s”.  Somewhere along the line, Rubinstein shortened his name to “Ruby”.g2011m11_26Ruby was a low-rent gangster, involved in typical underworld activities like gambling, narcotics and prostitution. There were rumored associations with Mafia boss Santo Trafficante.

Not-so-honest members of the Dallas police force knew that Ruby was always good for free booze, free prostitutes, and other favors.

This was not a good guy.7fdd7be055bca87dc57f10f527755c4eToday, you may know Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson as musicians who played with Bob Dylan in 1965, later going on the road as “The Band” and performing such rock & roll standards as “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Weight”.

In the early days, these guys were playing with a Canadian/American rocker named Ronnie Hawkins.  The joints these guys played were so rough they performed with blackjacks, hidden in special pockets sewn into their coats.   Robertson writes in a new memoir:  “We bought small derringer pistols, switchblades, black-jacks, brass knuckles, even tear-gas pens – whatever could be easily concealed and quickly accessed”.

In 1963, the group played a week in one “burnt out, blown up” dump in Fort Worth.  It was an enormous venue with no one there that first night, save for two couples, a pair of drunk waiters and a one-armed go-go dancer.  The band had yet to finish the first set when a fight broke out.  Some sort of weapon came out and a man was tear-gassed at point blank range.   Coughing and choking the band played on for no one, with teargas wafting across the stage and faces wet with tears.r1274_fea_robbie_b-6159b441-955d-4f3a-bcef-1a4d8f090b35Part of the roof had blown off this joint.  Either that or it burned off, depending on which version you believed.  Jack, the club owner, tore off the rest of it and kept the insurance money, calling this fine establishment, the “Skyline Lounge”.

Jack felt no need to pay for security, not even with the roof gone.  Jaws grinding from a seemingly endless appetite for “uppers”, Jack said “Boys, this building ain’t exactly secure enough for you to leave your musical equipment unattended.” Band members were told they’d best stay overnight, with guns, lest anyone come over the wall to steal their equipment.

Problem solved.

That November, John Fitzgerald Kennedy came to Dallas.  The Presidential motorcade departing Love Field the morning of November 22.  The open car  with the President in the back with First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.  Texas Governor and First Lady John and Idanell “Nellie” Connally, in the jump seats.   At 12:29, the Presidential limousine executed a right turn from Main Street onto Houston Street and entered Dealey Plaza. Kennedy Assassination: Kennedy in CarA minute later, shots rang out.

The President of the United States was shot, the first bullet striking the upper back and exiting his throat.  With mouth open in anguish and clenched fists rising to his face and neck, the stricken man turned to his wife as his head exploded, the second shot tearing into the right side of his skull.  The First Lady, splattered with the blood and brains of her husband and now screaming, crawled onto the trunk as Secret Service Agent Clint Hill scrambled on board the car, now speeding away.  Somewhere along the line, Governor Connally was also shot.  A spectator was wounded by flying debris.

The nation was stunned.  It was the first Presidential assassination in over a half-century. I was 5 at the time and remember that day, like it was just last week.

Abraham Zapruder Film, European/French Copy, HD, stabilized and slow Motioned

An hour after the shooting, a former marine and a rare defector to the Soviet Union named Lee Harvey Oswald killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who had stopped him for questioning. Thirty minutes later, Oswald was arrested in a movie theater.

By Sunday, November 24, Oswald was formally charged with the murders of President John F. Kennedy and Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit.  He was taken to the basement of Dallas police headquarters, where an armored car waited to transport the prisoner to a more secure county jail. The scene was crowded with press and police.

Half the country watched on live television as a figure came out of the crowd, firing a single bullet from a .38 revolver into the belly of Lee Harvey Oswald. Lee-Harvey-Oswald-Is-Shot-By-Jack-Ruby-November-24-1963Five musicians were shocked to realize the shooter was the man they had worked for in those earlier months at that burned out dive bar.  The Skyline Lounge.

Lee Harvey Oswald was taken unconscious to Parkland Memorial Hospital.  The same hospital in which the president had died, two days earlier.  Within two hours he too, was dead.

On March 14, 1964, Jack Ruby was sentenced to death in the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Ruby’s conviction in October 1966, on the grounds that the trial should have taken place in a different county than that in which his high profile crime, had taken place.  Ruby died of lung cancer the following January, while awaiting retrial.ea92d9a35a5e2889c5114510117ed161The Warren Commission found no evidence linking Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, to any broader conspiracy to assassinate the President.  What became of Jacob Leon “Sparky” Rubenstein’s Skyline Lounge, is unknown to this writer.

May 2, 1958 The Boy who Made the Stars

The Lancaster Ohio High School junior’s project got a “B Minus”.  He was offended.  A buddy had taped five leaves to a white sheet of paper. His project received an “A”.

The first distinctly American flag featured the Red Ensign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, emblazoned with the words “Liberty and Union”, a solemn declaration that the colonies would stick together, and colonist’s rights as British citizens, would not be abridged. First raised above the town square of Taunton Massachusetts on October 19, 1774, the Taunton Flag flies above the “Silver City”, to this day.

The first national flag of the fledgling nation was designed by Philadelphia milliner Margaret Manny, featuring the Union Jack and alternating red and white stripes, symbolizing the thirteen original colonies.  The “Continental Colors” were first raised on December 3, 1775 above the United States Navy’s first flagship USS Alfred along with the “Don’t Tread on Me” of the Gadsden flag, the personal ensign of the Navy’s first Commodore, Esek Hopkins.

Boston loyalists had just received copies of a conciliatory speech delivered by King George III when Manny’s “Grand Union” was raised above the siege of Boston on January 2, 1776.  British observers took the display to be a sign of surrender, leading many to think of a more uniquely American banner.

Grand Union Flag

History fades into mythology during the confusion of early 1776, when the Continental Congress authorized the Commander-in-Chief $50,000 to acquire “sundry articles for use in the continental army,” including “colours.” According to legend, Washington traveled with English born merchant and founding father Robert Morris to the Philadelphia upholstery shop of George and Elizabeth Ross, with a design for thirteen red and white stripes and as many six-pointed stars, on a field of blue.

“Betsy” Ross showed the group how, by folding in a certain way, a five-point star could be fashioned with a single cut of her shears.  The first “Star Spangled banner”, was born.

RossBetsy

Surprisingly, there exists no “official” symbolism behind the Red, White and Blue.  In 1782, the Congress of the Confederation chose those same colors for the Great Seal of the United States describing the meaning of each, as follows:

  • Red: signifying Valor and hardiness,
  • White: Purity and innocence
  • Blue: Vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

According to legend, Washington himself interpreted the stars as coming from the sky, the red from the British colors with the white stripes signifying secession from the home country.

Since that day in 1776, flag makers have simply added stars, with every new state. Or so it would seem, but it’s not that simple. Each new flag is its own careful design, the arrangement of each star, precise and symmetrical.

Since 1818, the admission of new states were followed by the adoption of a new star, on the following Fourth of July.  Five stars were added in 1890, following the admission of as many states, in a single year. The exact pattern for the stars were not specified until 1912.  The exact colors remained unspecified until 1934.

800px-US_historical_flags-United_States_of_America

The sun that rose on this day in 1958, shone down on a flag containing 48 stars. Alaska and Hawaii would not be admitted, until the following year.

Robert G. Heft was a high school junior at that time, and a Boy Scout with Troop 113 in Lancaster, Ohio. Alaska and Hawaii were in the news at that time.  Heft thought it was just a matter of time, and they would become #49 and 50. When the History teacher assigned a school project, the boy knew what he wanted to do. “I had never sewn in my life,” Heft told StoryCorps in 2009. “I watched my mom sew, but I had never sewn. And since making the flag of our country, I’ve never sewn again.” He went home and he found a pair of scissors. It could not have thrilled his parents to find him in the kitchen, cutting up their flag.

“The teacher said, ‘What’s this thing on my desk?’” Heft later explained, “And so I got up and I approached the desk and my knees were knocking.  He said, ‘Why you got too many stars? You don’t even know how many states we have.’”

Heft was bent out of shape.  His project had gotten a “B Minus”.   A buddy had labeled and taped five leaves to a white sheet of paper. His project received an “A”.

“If you don’t like the grade, get it accepted in Washington,” the teacher said “Then come back and see me. I might consider changing the grade.”

Two years came and went, along with twenty-one letters to the White House, and eighteen phone calls.

And then came the phone call, at work. The operator. The President of the United States wants to talk to you.

Robert-Heft-American-flag

The voice that came over  the line, was that of Dwight David Eisenhower.

“Is this Robert G. Heft?”  
“Yes, sir, but you can just call me Bob.”
“I want to know the possibility of you coming to Washington, D.C., on July Fourth for the official adoption of the new flag.”

Heft put the President of the United States on hold and worried to his boss. “Dwight” wants me to come to Washington.  I don’t have any time off.

a2ac2ec0ad0d2a88ab8dd4f6d79e3d68--american-flag-history-us-flags

Needless to say, the Boss figured a way.  Heft’s design had been chosen, over 1,500 others.  So it is that a Boy Scout and a High School Junior, designed the flag we all know, as the Star spangled banner.   Bob Heft passed away in 2009.  It is his flag we salute, to this day.

Oh.  And the teacher?  He proved a man of his word.  He did what he said and changed the grade, to an “A”.

Robert-Heft-memorial
Hat tip, ScoutingMagazine.org

 

A Trivial Matter
35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote the words for the “Star-Spangled Banner”on September 14, 1814, on the back on an envelope. The words were later set to the music of an 18th century English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.”