Most Influential Americans

Smithsonian Magazine’s latest edition compilesa list of the 100 most influential Americans in history.  Lists like this are entirely subjective, and designed to stir healthy debate.  There are surprising mentions and curious omissions…the Smithsonian succeeds in starting the discourse.

Smith

Givens- Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, TR, FDR, MLK

 

Curious additions- Tecumseh, Malcolm X, Amerigo Vespucci, Al Capone, Lee Harvey Oswald, Boss Tweed, Hulk Hogan, Woodrow Wilson

 

Omissions-  Barack Obama, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Stephen Decatur, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Jefferson Davis, Lewis&Clark, Henry Clay, William Faulkner

 

Are you kidding?… Charles Manson, L. Ron Hubbard, Secretariat, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, Giovanni de Verranzo

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Facts in Five

Thanksgiving Edition

  • The “original” Thanksgiving in Plymouth would not have happened the last week in November- the dead of Winter in Massachusetts 
  • Lincoln declared a national day of thanks in 1863- the last Thursday in November
  • Congress did not declare Thanksgiving a national holiday until 1941
  • 88% of Americans will consume  turkey on Thursday
  • Macy’s sponsors the Thanksgiving parade to kick off the Christmas shopping season
Can we not talk about exploitation and just enjoy the feast?

Can we not talk about exploitation and just enjoy the feast?

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A Change of Heart?

An absurd new book about Thomas Jefferson… by Henry Wiencek called “The Master of the Mountain” wants to change American history.  Wiencek hates Jefferson and wants you to as well.  He bends and twists evidence to suit his needs, even to the point of upsetting Annette Gordon-Reed.    Gordon-Reed, no fan of our third President, provides a telling review of Wiencek’s nasty little screed:

“Suffice it to say that the problems with Master of the Mountain are too numerous to allow it to be taken seriously as a book that tells us anything new about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, and what it does say is too often wrong. It is, instead, a book about Henry Wiencek—with Jefferson, enslaved people, and the mountain thrown in for scenery. As he seeks to destroy Jefferson, Wiencek seeks to put himself in the place of the “Master of the Mountain” and become the true protector of the enslaved people of Monticello.”

Oh really…..do tell.

Perhaps it is a stretch to see this as a change of heart… A better explanation is the extreme nature of this poorly written book.  Weak Jefferson scholarship continues to proliferate because popular culture embraces the degradation of our most enigmatic Founder.   It does say something when scholars with similar axes to grind turn on one another in print….somewhere, Dumas Malone is smiling.

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Conspiracy Eats Itself

Conspiracies rely upon the unknown… where there is no paper trail, recorded voices, or first hand accounts, conspiracies thrive.  Nothing brings out distrust more than secrecy, regardless of its motivation.  To say that every conspiracy is unfounded is either dangerously naive, or the weakest defense of a person with something to hide.  Where you find enough secrecy, there will always be conspiracy theories- because the historical record is not definitive…secrecy prevents it. 

Patsy no longer

Patsy no longer

Mafia, Cubans, Russians, Alien contact… there has been enough secrecy surrounding John Kennedy’s assassination, and the subsequent investigation, to fill volumes- enough to even prompt another government inquiry.  There is so much secrecy, so many unanswered questions surrounding Kennedy’s death that multiple conspiracies competed for the public’s attention.  Every avenue unsatisfactorily explored by official investigation is open to scrutiny, followed by conjecture.  Competing conspiracy theories have grown more outrageous through the years- many bordering on the absurd.  

Mystery in a riddle...

Mystery in a riddle…

The ebbs and flows of the historical record… now show  lone gunman theories back in favor.  Every major study of the assassination in the last decade has fingered Lee Harvey Oswald as the shooter.  The Grassy Knoll is now a punchline, rather than an epicenter.  The new authoritative narrative on the assassination dismisses long sought after eyewitnesses accounts as unreliable, confused, or fraudulent.      Tactics utilized by conspiracy theorist for decades have been turned around with chilling effect-  on the 50th anniversary of the assassination- believe Oswald acted alone or else. 

Never Forget Edward Lansdale- the key man.

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Not a Fair Fight

Barack Obama’s decision not to attend ceremonies… commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address was controversial.  The Obama administration, already under severe scrutiny for the botched health insurance roll-out, was in no mood for more criticism regarding the President’s decision making.  

Really not that close?  Obama was sworn in on the Lincoln bible....twice

Really not that close? Obama was sworn in on the Lincoln bible….twice

The decision not to attend ANY sesquicentennial Gettysburg…celebrations struck many observers as an odd one.  President Obama has gone out of his way establishing historic ties to our 16th President, a fellow Illinoisan.   He announced his candidacy in 2007 near the doors of Lincoln’s law office in Springfield, was sworn in on the Lincoln bible in 2009 and 2013, and followed Lincoln’s train route to Washington in 2009.  The country sees the connection- Lincoln must mean a lot to this President… why the snub?

Only a photo op ?

Only a photo op ?

Presidents have gone to Gettysburg before… but have avoided the November anniversary- the Gettysburg Address remembrance.  Speaking at Gettysburg draws comparisons to Lincoln’s greatest speech- not a fair fight by any measure.  Wilson’s speech at the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1913 is generally considered lackluster.  Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all visited Gettysburg during ceremonies honoring the battle- their words were forgettable.  Lyndon Johnson is often praised for his words there in 1963, but those were delivered on Memorial Day.

Can we still call upon our better angels?

Can we still call upon our better angels?

No President wants to be compared to Lincoln,… especially during times of political difficulty.  Despite the dangers of historical context, Presidents in the 20th century made the journey to Gettysburg- for appearance if nothing else.  The current President allowed present difficulty to cloud his judgement- an army of spin doctors and acolytes are trying to repair the damage in cyber space, but a legitimate opportunity at historical remembrance was missed.  It is entirely reasonable that the people question his alleged fidelity with Lincoln.

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Credit Where it is Due

Finest two minutes

Lincoln thought he failed November 19, 1863…  obligatory applause from a damp crowd in Gettysburg offered him little consolation.  Lincoln had just followed a masterful two-hour speech from America’s greatest orator, Edward Everett.  The President sat down in his seat and commented to his friend, Ward Lamon, that the speech wouldn’t “scour” (would fail to clear away.)  He left Gettysburg believing the bad press that followed the ceremony.  The Chicago Times recorded, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

Greatness acknowledged

Edward Everett put the ceremony in the proper perspective:

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.

 

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Too Easily Forgotten

Congressman Leo Ryan was gunned down during the Jonestown…tragedy on November 18, 1978.  Amidst the horror of 909 suicides- 190 under the age of 12- it is easy to forget key details in  a tragedy of this magnitude.

 

Leo Ryan was an outspoken critic of cults… in California, especially prevalent in his district in and around San Francisco.  He held hearings to expose of the influence of Scientology in California and pushed for tougher age-of-consent laws to prevent the recruitment of minors.  Ryan publicly denounced the teachings of Sun Myung Moon and was often critical of Jim Jones.  When a group of concerned relatives approached Ryan about Jones’ activities in Guyana, the Congressman wasted little time setting up a fact finding mission- one he would lead personally.

Date with destiny

Date with destiny

Cult members shot Ryan 26 times… and killed five members of his party- nine were wounded (including his aide, current Congresswoman Jackie Speier.)  Ryan was attempting to evacuate a group of cult members held against their will by Jones and his “Red Guard.”  These thugs opened fire as Ryan’s party was boarding the planes.  The murder of a US Congressman was the catalyst for Jones to put his “revolutionary suicide” plan into motion.

Aftermath

Aftermath

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