Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Real Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre refers to the murder of five colonists by British soldiers on March 5, 1770. The Sons of Liberty, a group of colonists who resisted the Crown, dubbed the event a "Massacre" in order to incite anger towards the Crown. British officials, however, referred to the event as the Boston Riot. These names reveal more than just differing attitudes towards the same event. Indeed eyewitness accounts tell drastically different stories about what happened on the night of March 5, 1770.

The statement issued by members of the Sons of Liberty, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock, painted the event as a malicious and unprovoked slaughter. They attest that the Massacre was retribution for a quarrel three nights prior between soldiers and colonists. Captain Preston, the British commander on duty on the night of March 5, was reported to have ordered his men to fire upon the colonists on King Street, "without the least warning."

William Taint, a Bostonian who witnessed but was not directly involved in the events of March, provided testimony during the trial of the British soldiers. He maintains that a group of colonists was gathered outside of the British Customs House when a formation of British soldiers took position outside of the building. Colonists were yelling, "Fire, fire, and be damned," and throwing snowballs at the British soldiers. Taint heard a musket discharge and then the word, "Fire" yelled by an unknown speaker, after which several more shots were fired.

Taint's account differs from that provided by Adams and Hancock in several respects. Firstly, Taint clearly states that the colonists were taunting and throwing snowballs at the soldiers, while Adams and Hancock portray the colonists peacefully going about their business. Taint also brings an element of uncertainty to the question of who yelled, "Fire." The former account clearly states that Captain Preston issued a direct order to fire, while the latter implies that it may just as well have been a colonist who shouted, "Fire."

Captain Preston's testimony during the trial offers a third source of information regarding March 5. He states that his men were protecting the Customs House from theft by the colonists when they were physically and verbally assaulted. While Taint saw only snowballs being hurled at the British, Preston reported that his men were also beaten with clubs. His soldiers responded by firing upon the colonists, later claiming that they heard the command to fire and assumed it came from Preston. Preston blames members of the mob for yelling, "Fire," and (unsurprisingly) denies issuing any such order.

Illustrations of the Boston Massacre are just as disparate as eyewitness accounts. Paul Revere's engraving shows innocent Bostonians being shot at as they attempt to flee. Captain Preston is clearly issuing the order to fire. Revere even included a small dog near the colonists to accentuate their innocence and vulnerability. The color suggests that the Massacre occurred in broad daylight, making it all the more heinous. This painting clearly coincides with the account given by Adams and Hancock, which is no surprise considering that Revere was also devoted to resisting British authority.

Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre.

A depiction of the event by an unknown artist contradicts Revere's illustration in several aspects. Firstly, the colonists are brandishing weapons and surrounding the British soldiers. Secondly, it is dark and there is a lot of smoke, which creates a sense of confusion. Thirdly, there is no clear order being issued by Captain Preston. The firing that is occuring in the image is just as likely to be out of self-defense as out of aggression. Thus, this portrayal supports aspects of both Taint and Preston's accounts.

"The Boston Massacre" - Artist Unknown

Which account is factual? Which depiction is correct? Perhaps none are fully accurate - or wholly untrue. As Andre Gide once wrote, "The color of truth is gray."

Additional Resources

Primary Source Accounts (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

The Boston Massacre (Hiller B. Zobel)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity

Albert Einstein dedicated his life to the study of physics. In pop culture he is known for the theory of relativity, the equation E=mc2, and his involvement in the development of the atom bomb (as well as his hair and mustache). What is remarkable about Einstein is that he published many of his major theories between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-six. In his biography entitled Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson recounts the events leading up to Einstein's publication of five monumental papers in 1905.

Albert Einstein, age 26.

"I promise you four papers," the young patent examiner wrote his friend. The letter would turn out to bear some of the most significant tidings in the history of science, but its momentous nature was masked by an impish tone that was typical of its author. He had, after all, just addressed his friend as "you frozen whale" and apologized for writing a letter that was "inconsequential babble." Only when he got around to describing his papers, which he had produced during his spare time, did he give some indication that he sensed their significance" (p. 1).

Einstein's first paper proposed that light could be considered not just a wave but also a stream of particles. The implications for this are that the universe has no "strict causality or certainty" (p.1).

The second paper attempted to determine the true size of atoms. This was a bold task indeed considering that "the very existence of atoms was still in dispute" (p. 1). Einstein decided that this paper would be the framework for his doctoral thesis. It is rather ironic that while in the process of changing the very nature of physics, Einstein's efforts to attain an academic position or get a PhD had to this point been met with failure.

The third paper used statistical analysis to explain the vibrations of microscopic particles in liquid, and in doing so proved the existence of atoms and molecules.

The fourth paper Einstein described in his letter contained the foundations of the Special Theory of Relativity. This theory, which makes up one half of what is commonly referred to as the Theory of Relativity, disproved "Newton's concepts of absolute space and time" (p. 2).

Had Einstein's accomplishments for the year ended with the forth paper, 1905 would have been considered a monumental year for physics. Yet, Einstein produced a fifth paper that year, in which he described the relationship between energy and mass which he would eventually articulate as E=mc2.

That Einstein produced five groundbreaking papers in a single year all while holding a full time job as a patent examiner is a testament to human productivity. Einstein would go on to publish a great many more papers and flesh out many of theories proposed in 1905. Yet, Einstein's biographers and successors in the realm of physics agree that 1905 was indeed annus mirabilis (wonderful year).

Additional Resources

Einstein: His Life and Universe (Walter Isaacson)


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Presidents and their White House Pets

Over 93% of U.S. Presidents had at least one pet during their administration. James Polk, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and Chester A. Arthur are the only Presidents who were not known to keep a pet while inhabiting the White House. (It is perhaps worth noting that none of these men were elected to a second term). In fact, there has continuously been one or more pets living at the White House since 1885. While horses were popular presidential pets early in the nation's history, they have since fallen out of favor along with cows and other livestock. Since Nixon's term began in 1969, the White House has been home only to humans, cats, and dogs. Apparently the modern crop of Presidents are not nearly as adventurous as some of their predecessors.

The below compendium of strange animals living at the White House was compiled from raw data found at Presidential Pet Museum:

John Quincy Adams, for example, was the proud owner of one crocodile and a group of silkworms.

Martin Van Buren briefly owned two tiger cubs given to him by the leader of Oman, until Congress forced him to donate them to the zoo.

William Henry Harrison might have enjoyed different varieties of milk, as he owned both a billy goat and a cow.

James Buchanan owned a herd of elephants as well as a pair of bald eagles, both of which must have made his dog Lara seem rather bland.

Abraham Lincoln owned a pig, a rabbit, a pair of goats, and a turkey alongside some comparatively conventional cats and dogs.

Theodore Roosevelt owned a plethora of traditional pets in addition to a snake, badger, and five guinea pigs.

Woodrow Wilson had a herd of sheep including one which enjoyed chewing tobacco. During WWI Wilson  cut down on labor costs at the White House by letting his sheep pasture on the White House lawn, thereby eliminating the need for professional lawn mowing services (see image below).

Wilson's sheep graze the south lawn of the White House.

William Howard Taft owned the last cow to call the White House home.

Calvin Coolidge, the most recent present to harbor unusual pets at the White House owned a goose, tiger, racoons, a donkey, and a bobcat. He also received lion cubs, a wallaby, and pigmy hippo and a bear as gifts from foreign officials! It is no wonder why the Presidential Pet Museum: declared that Coolidge "literally had a zoo at the White House."

First Lady Grace Coolidge with her pet raccoon Rebecca. 

In the years following Coolidge's office Presidents became considerably more conservative both in pet and name selection. Gone are the days of hounds named Drunkard wandering around the presidential property. Long passed is the time when Adams' dog Satan called the White House home. Surely no modern candidate with a crassly named pet would make it past the primary elections let alone into the White House.

Although exotic presidential pets and politically incorrect presidential pet names have been in decline, pet ownership among U.S. households has been steadily increasing since 1956. Presently, 62% of U.S. households own at least one pet according to the American Pet Products Association.

Additional Resources

Presidential Pets: The Weird, Wacky, Little, Big, Scary, Strange Animals That Have Lived In The White House (Julia Moberg)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Martin Van Buren's Many Nicknames

Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States, was known by many nicknames. Perhaps the most well known was "Little Magician." "Little" is believed to have referred to both Van Buren's weight as well as his height. Although Van Buren was considered a slender man, there was speculation during his day that he might have utilized a corset or two to achieve his slim appearance. Congressman Davy Crockett went so far as to bring Van Buren's gender into question when he leveled, "[Van Buren] is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say, from his personal appearance, whether he was a man or woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers."

Naturally slim or corset-wearer? You decide.

Like Van Buren's figure, his relative height is also up for debate. Van Buren stood 5'6, which undoubtedly is short by today's standards. Van Buren would also be considered short compared to his predecessors in the office of President - whose average height was 5'10. Yet, Van Buren was only between one and two inches shorter than the average American male born during his era.

Van Buren may very well have deserved the second half of his moniker - "magician." Throughout his service as Congressman, Vice President, and President, Van Buren always seemed to be involved in the machinations of party politics across the country.

Despite his omnipresence, Van Buren was given a second and more unfortunate nickname of "Martin Van Ruin," by his political opponents. Van Buren took office 5 weeks prior to the Panic of 1837 and was criticized for his laissez faire attitude towards the financial crisis. His detractors claim that the depression would neither have dragged on for five long years or been as severe had Van Buren supported government intervention in the economy. Funny how government intervention in the financial markets was a hot topic for debate some 170 years prior to the 2008 financial crisis.

Van Buren's final nickname, "The Red Fox of Kinderhook," is similar to "Little Magician" in that it addresses Van Buren's physical appearance as well as political acumen. As Davy Crockett pointed out in his aforementioned attack on the eighth president's waistline and gender, Van Buren was indeed red-haired. Although both "silver fox" and "red fox" refer to hair color, the similarities end there. While "fox" in the former context refers an attractive middle-aged male, in the Van Buren's case it designates political prowess. Lastly, "Kinderhook" refers to his place of birth: Kinderhook, New York. Perhaps this was included to emphasize that Van Buren was the first President to be born an American citizen. Or maybe "Kinderhook" just sounds cool.

Additional Resources

Presidential Trivia (Ernie Couch)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Constantine's Conversion to Christianity

The Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity shortly before the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. is quite controversial. Constantine's decision could have been motivated by any number of factors. The first and most straightforward explanation for his conversion is that he genuinely believed the dogma of Christianity and therefore decided to abandon paganism. Constantine's legitimate interest in Christianity is not inconceivable considering that his mother was Christian.

Yet, one must also consider ulterior motives for Constantine's conversion. He chose to embrace Christianity shortly before a large battle against another Roman ruler for total control over the Western Roman Empire. With the stakes so high it is conceivable that Constantine converted in hopes that the Christian God would aid him in battle. This explanation is supported by the contemporary account of the Battle of Milvian Bridge written by a Christian named Eusebius. Eusebius recounts that Constantine had a vision of a cross above the sun with the words "Conquer by this" engraved across it. Eusebius claims that Constantine instructed his men to represent this symbol on their shields and banners by superimposing the letters "Chi" and "Rho" on top of each other:

Chi Rho

Thus, Eusebius clearly saw Constantine's conversion as a means of achieving military victory.

Alternatively, Constantine may have hoped to gain political capital by converting to Christianity. Two years prior to Constantine's conversion Galerius, another ruler in the triumvirate of the Western Roman Empire, ended the Great Persecution of Christians in the Empire by making it legal to practice Christianity. Constantine may have sensed the fragility of the balance between Christianity and paganism. He also might have realized that he stood to gain the support of an increasing number of Christians within the Empire by declaring it the official religion of the Empire.

Which of these three explanations is most plausible? Perhaps a second account of the Battle of Milvian Bridge, authored by Lactantius, offers the most telling information. Five years after the battle he wrote:
Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top (P), being the cipher of CHRISTOS. Having this sign, his troops stood to arms.
Lactantius' account is decidedly more observational and less explanatory than that of Eusebius. He offers no clear rationale for Constantine's decision to follow the instructions given to him by God. Perhaps Constantine experienced a genuine conversion after seeing God in his dream. Or maybe he  followed God's instructions not out of faith but out of desperation for a winning edge during the battle. Lactantius leaves the decision to the reader.

Additional Resources

Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (A.H.M. Jones)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Taft: Fattest President of the United States

President William Howard Taft held many titles - President of the United States, Chief Justice of the United States, Secretary of War, Solicitor General, Governor of Cuba, and Governor of the Philippines, among others. Yet there is only one title which he still holds some 80 years after his death - fattest President.

Many anecdotes have been passed down regarding Taft's tremendous weight. One of the most famous concerns him getting stuck in the Presidential bathtub and thus ordering a replacement - large enough to fit four average-sized men! Taft even had a new bed constructed at his friend Todd Lincoln's (son of Abraham) house because the springs in the original mattress broke under his weight.

Yet, Taft was not always obese. He was a collegiate wrestler at 225 lbs. and by all accounts quite athletic. He steadily gained weight after graduating college, eventually ballooning to 320 lbs. in 1905, at which point he began his first diet. Before the era of diet books (let alone DVDs) and personal trainers, physicians often constructed and oversaw their patients' weight loss regimens.

It is no surprise then that Taft enlisted the services of Dr. Nathaniel Yorke-Davies, a London physician, who created a personalized "reducing" diet for the War Minister. The diet consisted primarily of meat and vegetables and outlawed fruits, grains (except gluten-free biscuits), and sugar. In short, it was a low-carbohydrate diet. Taft presumably followed the diet because 6 months later he was a relatively svelte 255 lbs. Once at his target weight Taft adhered to Yorke-Davies' "stationary" or maintenance diet (the reducing diet plus some grains) least for a few months.

It seems that in addition to dieting, yo-yo dieting also existed in the early 20th century. According to an account by White House mailman of over 50 years Ira Smith, Taft's appetite during his diet became so voracious that he once ordered that a train he was riding on be rerouted so that a dining car could be attached to it- at 10:00 p.m.! (read the full account of the incident here).

Taft reached his all time high of 340 lbs. in 1913 and embarked on a second "reducing diet" shortly after leaving the office of President. After dropping to about 270 lbs., he managed to control his weight for the remainder of his life.

President Taft in 1907, about one year after his first diet.

Unfortunately for Taft, his characterization as a perpetually obese man was mostly a result of bad timing. Although Taft was one-half inch shy of 6 feet and close to 250 lbs for most of his life, his twin peaks of 320 and 340 lbs. occurred as War Minister and President, respectively (see chart below). And that is why he is remembered as the fattest U.S. President (among other things, of course).

Note: Need a mnemonic device to remember the fattest President? Just rearrange the letters in "Taft" and you get "Fatt."

Additional Resources

Presidential Trivia (Ernie Couch)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunni and Shia: The Story

The terms "Sunni" and "Shia" (also spelled "Shi'a" or "Shi'ah") have flooded American media outlets since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Pundits describe the Sunni and Shia as being two branches of Islam who are at odds with one another in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. In order to properly understand Sunni and Shia relations, one must first learn how Islam splintered into two sects.

During the prophet Muhammad's lifetime, Islam was a largely unified faith. When Muhammad died in 632 A.D., he left no sons and thus there was some question over who would succeed him. A council was held and the Muslim community elected Abu Bakr as caliph or leader. Those who believe that Abu Bakr's election as caliph was legitimate are known as Sunnis.

Muslims who maintain that Muhammad named his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor are known as Shia (literally "party of Ali"). The Shia believe that Ali, not Abu Bakr, deserved to be the first caliph. Eventually Ali became the fourth caliph, almost 25 years following the death of Muhammad.

Muhammad's supposed appointment of Ali as his successor.

Thus, the debate over the succession of Muhammad can be seen as the impetus for the division of Islam into Sunni and Shia. Since that time, differences in religious practice have further distinguished the two sects. Below are two key differences between Sunni and Shia:
  • Imams
    • Sunni: community and spiritual leaders
    • Shia: infallible and divine
  • Hiding one's religion (taqiyya) under threat of persecution
    • Sunni: permissible under limited circumstances
    • Shia: emphasized
Relations between Sunni and Shia have oscillated over time between amicability and hostility, peace and war. Sunni have always been a majority of the Muslim population and currently represent approximately 90% of Muslims globally. It is no surprise that the Shia have come to stress taqiyya as a result of periods of persecution. Currently the 10% of the Muslim population who identifies as Shia is concentrated heavily in Iran (approximately 90% Shia), Iraq, and Yemen.

While many Muslims identify themselves as either Sunni or Shia (or sub-sects of each), a sizable number of the Islamic faith identify themselves first and foremost as "Muslim." One might argue that the fundamental beliefs shared by the two sects are more significant than the differences.

So the next time you are watching CNN and Anderson Cooper says "Sunni and Shia" and your Uncle Butch blurts out, "What the hell's the difference anyway?" you can drop some knowledge on him; or just smile coyly and shrug.

Additional Resources

After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam (Lesley Hazleton)

Churchill and Hitler: Two of a Kind

Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler are often thought of as polar opposites. In the public consciousness Churchill represents peace, bravery, and equality, while Hitler stands for war, cowardice, and persecution. Churchill is good and Hitler is evil. These characterizations have been implicitly and explicitly propogated through educational institutions, popular media, and historical scholarship. But little consideration has been given to the strong similarities between the two leaders.

Churchill (left) and Hitler (right) delivering speeches. Both men were tremendous orators.

In his book Churchill and Hitler: In Victory and DefeatJohn Strawson predominately presents Churchill and Hitler as opposites. Yet, he does concede that the two leaders shared a significant number of common attributes and interests. According to Strawson, both men:
  • Were accomplished military strategists
  • Loved to dabble in and commanded remarkable grasp of military detail
  • Loved dressing up in military uniforms
  • Were prodigious orators (see Resources section below)
  • Possessed strong historical imaginations
  • Painted (see Resources section below)
  • Were forever fighting
  • Never gave up
  • Had a strong desire to succeed
Both men shared fundamental talents and proclivities which made them powerful leaders. It was the competing purposes behind their leadership that differentiated Churchill and Hitler.

Additional Resources

Mental Floss quiz to see if you can tell Churchill's paintings from Hitler's. I scored a 50% (no better than guessing!) How did you fare?

Churchill and Hitler: In Victory and Defeat (John Strawson)

John Quincy Adams: Skinny Dipping & Other Firsts

John Quincy Adams was a skinny dipper. Before pools and jacuzzis, having a river in your backyard was as good as it got. The sixth President of the United States took full advantage of the White House's proximity to the Potomac River by wading through the river nude almost daily at 5:00 a.m.

In addition to being the first President known to skinny dip in the Potomac, Adams was also the first president to be photographed; luckily not nude (see picture below).

John Quincy Adams was the first President to be photographed. 
Perhaps he is daydreaming about his morning dip.

One morning while skinny dipping, Adams was coerced into becoming the first President to grant an interview to a female reporter. Having been refused an interview in the past, a certain Ann Royall took matters into her own hands by acting on knowledge of the President's morning routine. One morning when Adams was skinny dipping, Royall sat on his clothes and refused to leave until granted an interview. History tells us that the President valued his physical decency above his scorn for Ms. Royall, as she became the first female reporter to interview a President of the United States (naked or otherwise).

Skinny dipping in the Potomac seemingly fell out of favor among Adams' successors until Theodore Roosevelt took office some 75 years later. The president known for serving in 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry and later for his doctrine of "Speak softly and carry a big stick" also enjoyed nude baths in the White House backyard. In the current age of the White House Press Secretary and Secret Service, who is to say that presidents since Roosevelt have not continued the tradition? Let us only hope that they have learned from Adams' failure to follow the golden rule of skinny dipping: keep an eye on your clothes.

Additional Resources

John Quincy Adams (Harlow Giles Unger)