True Leadership

sacrifice for a worthy cause

The irony that on the Ides of March… where the original western tyrant was dispatched, the world’s greatest republican (notice the small ‘r’) proved beyond any doubt his fidelity to that cause.  George Washington addressed the Newburgh conspirators on March 15, 1783.  At a pivotal moment, when our vulnerable government dangled by string following the unlikely victory in the Revolution, Washington shined brightest.


Gates had to yield the floor

Officers in the Continental army furious over not being paid… during years of fighting the Revolution were threatening mutiny and possibly a coup d’etat.  Officers loyal to Horatio Gates planned a meeting to formalize their mutinous intention of replacing Washington with the dastardly Gates.  Washington requested to attend the meeting, then surprised Gates (who had opened the meeting) by requesting to speak.  The tiny building was dimly lit, smoky, and crowded as Washington took the floor; the faces of his men were expressionless.  Washington fumbled with his prepared address, starting, stopping, tripping on his words in the dim candlelight.  After a few attempts at beginning, he paused, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

Not a dry eye in the house

The impassioned speech that followedwas really unnecessary.  Washington’s sincere request reminded every officer in that room how selfish they had all been.  No amount of money, treasure, or property could replace what they had won, together.  Eventually, Congress granted the officers some of the pay owed them, but the Revolution had been saved by a true leader that night in a tiny cabin in Newburgh, New York.

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Piled Higher, Deeper

What makes an historian?… A collection of advanced degrees? The ability to thoroughly explain research? Published writing in a peer reviewed journal? Teaching eager young minds about the past? Could any combination of these qualify a person as an “historian?”

Tell us Mr. McCullough, what do you specialize in?

Tell us Mr. McCullough, what do you specialize in?

The narrow parameters of academic discipline… create the appearance of rigid professionalism, but in effect, provide only  compartmentalized confusion.  The specialization that permeates the digital age seems to have influenced all reaches of academia.  People no long study history, but must focus on some minute period of it.  The requisite for title of ‘historian’ is now a Doctor of Philosophy degree in some purposely narrowed time period, often accompanied by an equally specific cultural scope.  (PhD in 19th Century Female Labor Patterns-with a focus on the American Northeastern Corridor.)  Shouldn’t “historians” be able to speak intelligently and passionately about a variety of historical issues, similarly, as we expect  auto mechanics to be able to repair all types of cars?

Lawyers can be historians too...if they write the appropriate books...

Lawyers can be historians too…if they write the appropriate books…

The academic job market is shrinking… yet PhD’s are being handed out at record levels.  There is legitimate doubt as to the true economic value of such an advanced degree.  If the requisite skills can be acquired without the crippling debt and limited prospects- shouldn’t there be a reevaluation of  professional guidelines?  The field of history is changing at rapid pace- the professionals taking it on need to adjust to the race.

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Jacksonian Misconceptions

Proponents of Andrew Jackson’s policies cite his… veto of the rechartering of the Second National Bank as a victory for the ‘little guy.’  Old Hickory was defending the interests of  States and the common man against the wicked monopoly held by the ‘monstrous’ bank.  A closer examination of his storied veto message reveals  inconsistencies in Jackson’s motive.

“these polices(of the Second US Bank) created of bond of union among the banking establishments of the nation erecting them into an interest separate from that of the people.” 

Trivializing the momentous

Trivializing the momentous

Was Jackson opposed to the Second National Bank… or banks in general? The veto message is not clear, and his advisers didn’t discriminate in their policy making.  It is difficult to imagine that educated politicians of any era could have such a rudimentary understanding of finance-  cash is good, credit is bad…. The political motivations for killing the Second National Bank far outweighed any economic or egalitarian rhetoric put forward by Jackson and his cronies.

Jackson's nemesis was a banker- Nicholas Biddle

Jackson’s nemesis was a banker- Nicholas Biddle

The antebellum economy was built upon credit… 80% of all transactions and transfer of goods involved extensions of credit- banks were vital to this financial system.  Jackson’s political gamble to win reelection was that the reduction of available credit would not have much effect on American commerce.  The Second National Bank was at the center of a complicated web of notes, loans, credit, and specie… Jackson’s policies were about to tear it apart.




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Dolley Madison’s Merry Party

Presidential History Blog

the-madisons James and Dolley Madison

The position of Secretary of State is the country’s premier diplomatic post.

James Madison and the Merrys

anthony-merry British Ambassador (modern term) Anthony Merry

Anthony Merry was the first British Minister Plenipotentiary (considered Ambassador) sent to the United States. He and his uber pretentious wife Elizabeth were pompous and snobbish, according to all who knew them, but in 1803, Great Britain was approaching the apogee of its Great Britain-ness, and the little backwater country across the pond was perceived as a punishment tour of duty.

thomas-jefferson President Thomas Jefferson

President Thomas Jefferson was rather obvious about his disdain for all things British, and the Merrys were no exception. They in turn, were enraged by what they perceived as deliberate slights from the President, who had invited them to a pathetically democratic (small ‘d’) dinner party.  No seating plan, a suspiciously offensive invitation to the French Minister (with whom…

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Review of “Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect” (Vol 1) by Stephen Ambrose

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

ikevol1saPublished in 1983, “Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952” is the first of two volumes in Stephen Ambrose’s famed series on the thirty-fourth president. Ambrose was a historian and the author of more than two-dozen books; he is one of the best-known biographers of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. But numerous, and often convincing, allegations of plagiarism and exaggeration have tarnished his reputation over the past fifteen years. Ambrose died in 2002 at the age of sixty-six.

With 572 pages of text, this first volume in Ambrose’s series has long been considered the most thorough (and, often, the “standard”) account of Eisenhower’s pre-presidency. Proceeding from Eisenhower’s ancestry to his election as president in 1952, it moves steadily – if sometimes slowly – in a strictly chronological fashion.

The first one-third of the book carries the reader up through Eisenhower’s first commanding roles in World War II…

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Revisited Myth # 112: “Mind Your Ps and Qs” meant watch out for Pints and Quarts.

History Myths Debunked


There are several myths associated with the phrase “Mind your Ps and Qs.”

One says it was a warning to watch out for cheating bartenders who would short you when you ordered a pint or a quart.

Another says it means to watch your “pieds” (feet) and “queus” (wigs), or watch your behavior from head to toe. Yet another says it comes from the master printer reminding his young typesetters to distinguish between the letter P and the letter Q, which are virtually indistinguishable in lower case.


The author of the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) notes that of the several explanations he had heard, none were “wholly satisfactory,” but he preferred the interpretation “Be very circumspect in your behaviour” from the French dancing master’s caution to mind your “pieds” and “queues.” I don’t agree.

Personally, I lean toward the printing shop origin. A typesetter in those days had…

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On Experimentation

Friends and rivals

Friends and rivals

The American experience has always been built on experimentation… Our very existence doubted by most of the world, the optimism of Thomas Jefferson became essential to the survival of our republican experiment.


As the election of 1796 loomed… the friendship between Jefferson and John Adams waned.  Jefferson reminded his friend of their experiment:


“I am aware of the objection to this, that the office becoming more important may bring on serious discord in elections. In our country I think it will be long first; not within our day; and we may safely trust to the wisdom of our successors the remedies of the evil to arise in theirs. Both experiments however are now fairly committed, and the result will be seen. Never was a finer canvas presented to work on than our countrymen…. This I hope will be the age of experiments in government, and that their basis will be founded on principles of honesty, not of mere force….If ever the morals of a people could be made the basis of their own government, it is our case.”   Jefferson to Adams, February 28 1796

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