Monthly Archives: August 2011

How it all began: My love affair with history

When I was a graduate of the first grade, in the summer between primary school at St. Mary’s parish and second grade at St. John’s in Saint Francis de Sales Catholic School, my parents planned a summer vacation in the American Southwest to visit my grandparents, geological wonders and vestiges of ancient cultures.  Before it was over, while visiting my mom’s parents in Albuquerque, my brother left us and flew to Colorado Springs, where he would begin his Air Force career, showing up for duty and his freshman year of college at the United States Air Force Academy.  My brother’s subsequent absence in the following years influenced my life’s initial path, but perhaps no more so than the trip itself did to my long-term trajectory.

Tony, my brother, and me sitting on Grandma and Grandpa's couch the night before he reported for duty at the Air Force Academy

Growing up with my big brother in the Air Force, I was enamored with planes.  My favorite movie after the Star Wars trilogy was Top Gun—I forgave them for being naval aviators.  I wrote a short history of aviation for my first social studies fair in junior high—I ran well over the five minute-allotment for my oral presentation to the judges.  In eighth grade, I joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the official civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, to increase my potential with the Academy.  In ninth grade, my social studies fair project was the history of CAP (which is actually older than the Air Force, having been founded during World War II).  My sophomore year at Morgantown High School, I wrote a project on the future plans of aeronautic and aerospace developments.  For years, a certain emulation was my career goal.  I logged more hours flying than driving until my mid-twenties.  But, slowly, something began to change.

Civil Air Patrol was founded in WWII to assist in plane spotting on the coastlines and borders--they even sunk some U-boats!

In the ninth grade I took Mr. Ingle’s world history class—not more social studies for the first time.  We began with the city of Ur, a name that delighted me and my friends as we pictured roving cavemen deciding to settle down and build a city, “What else would they call it?”  The enigmatic Harrapan culture tantalized me with its undeciphered script and sophisticated engineering.  I wrote two projects that I still remember, today.  One was about the origin of Chinese Taoism and the other about the Mongols.  Perhaps more interesting than the subjects, was the process, what I called “doing the detective work”.  I realized I had adapted the irritating, time-consuming, note-card process we’d been taught in English class, into a streamlined, equally effective system that allowed me to combine notes with my outline efficiently.

One could argue my committed relationship with history began there, but, truthfully, I think it was only the first flirtations with my love for the process—the active learning I engineered through research projects.  Still, my goal remained the Academy for years; the back-up plan from eighth through tenth grades was to join Air Force ROTC and learn how to design jets at Embry-Riddle.  But, I showed little natural aptitude for math and science, despite my interest, and balked at the necessary work to achieve genuine, long-term understanding.  Indeed, even during my infatuation with the Air Force and flight, I tended to look backwards at the stories that brought us to our modern capabilities.  Finally, in my senior year of high school, while taking AP American and European history classes (and jamming in two AP English courses because I was absent the year before), it clicked.  I loved the past!  I was going to study the past.

The year before, I lived with two host families in Germany as an exchange student.  As a result, I missed much of the junior year courtship with colleges and universities.  It was not until spring of my senior year that I visited the only school to which I applied, The Catholic University of America, where I would meet with the head of the history department in a basement office of a dormitory, down the hall from the laundry, in one of the oldest buildings on campus.  I was candid with Dr. Poos: I was considering the anthropology department, as well, and its archaeology concentration; in fact, I was already scheduled to work for one of the archaeology professors that June.  Dr. Poos assured me it was unnecessary; I would find everything I was looking for in history.

Dr. Poos (Dean by the time I graduated) giving me my diploma: a B.A. in History

So, if that fall after my high school graduation my love with history was officially consummated, when was its genesis?  It could have begun with my upbringing.  My dad, born in the former Yugoslavia, remembers World War II.  My mother remembers growing up in post-war Germany as an Army brat.  Both had a respect for history which they shared with us.  But, that’s pretty ethereal for a point of origin.

Because both of my parents were professors (at WVU), their schedules in concert with their natural curiosity often permitted lengthy summer vacations, which, with careful planning and budgeting, resulted in some great adventures.  One of the first recorded in my memory, was the trip out west, during which my brother departed.  In the late eighties, the opportunities to explore the ruins of the (politically ill-named) Anasazi were greater than they are today; and, I was enthralled.  I played in them with a red bandana around my neck and a straw cowboy hat on my head, puzzled by mother’s answers about where their builders went hundreds—hundreds!—of years before, when the dwellings were abandoned.  I crawled around the ruins of Mesa Verde and ogled those in Chaco Canyon.  With equal vim, I gaped at the eerie abandoned ghost towns and U.S. cavalry bases.  I was utterly captivated by the Navajo and Pueblo Indians we encountered and still have the painted pottery turtle and lizard my parents bought for me when I wasn’t looking in the cold, gritty wind up in the table-top town of Acoma.  In one set of ruins, I was exploring with a plastic six-shooter holstered at my side when a stinging maroon sandstorm flew up driving me for shelter and forcing me to wrap my bandana around my face like an Old West bandit with sand between my teeth.

Exploring the American Southwest with my cowboy boots on!

On later vacations, we visited my dad’s family in Germany, exploring castles and monasteries along the Rhine and in Bavaria.  We visited Salzburg, Austria and Mozart’s house, with whom I was well-acquainted, as the only radio stations or tapes my parents played carried classical music.  One year, we visited the Cherokee reservation in the Carolinas and explored the Smoky Mountains.  Closer to home, we visited Fort Necessity, the doomed, thrown-together fort of a hapless, young George Washington.  Another trip took us to New Orleans, where I saw the old Mississippi paddle-wheel, the Natchez and the French Quarter, under the close supervision of my parents.  In short, we explored.  It was not only the “old stuff.”  It was the food, culture and geography, too—additionally, I also saw alligators in Louisiana’s swamps, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Dinosaur National Park, a Bavarian salt mine and so on; and, though not very risky then when it came to food, I was nonetheless exposed to a great variety of it (which I finally learned to appreciate the summer I graduated from college).  But, history was always tied up with that “other stuff.”

My father holding me up so I can peer into a slit of the castle in Heidelberg, Germany

That first trip to the Southwest, planted a seed that grew steadily in the fertile, imaginative top-soil my parents had nurtured between my ears.  Imagine the sturdy tree that has grown for the last twenty-five years.  That is history for me: many branches, all reaching to different areas of interest and curiosity, all providing a variety of insights and creating varying priorities and relevancies in my contemporary world.  Today, I am still fascinated by the fate of the Anasazi and, almost equally so, in how learned interpretations about this people have evolved since I first encountered them.  That first mystery, laid the foundation for uncovering and solving mysteries, doing the detective work.  As a teen, I probably would have told you the most profound impact the trip had on me was my brother leaving—and emotionally it did—but looking back today, it is clear the trip also hardwired me intellectually.  It introduced me to questions and concepts with which I have forever been both informed and consumed.

College-aged, exploring the cave dwellings in Manitou Springs, CO


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Word of the Week, 8/29-9/4/11 – grammar

When I want to free myself from a particularly obnoxious person at a cocktail party, all I have to do is tell him that I’m a grammarian.  Without fail, he’ll lower his head and sidle away, mumbling into his shirt collar, “I never did well at that in school.”  When I like the person and want to continue the conversation with her, I say I’m a linguist

When you know the meanings of words and don’t know what a sentence says it’s because you don’t know the GRAMMAR of the sentence, the structural system that puts words together in meaningful units and indicates the relationships between units.  Put another way, the grammar of a sentence tells you who does what to whom.

~ Max Morenberg, Doing Grammar, 2nd ed.

Grammar is a sine qua non of language, placing its demons in the light of sense, sentencing them to the plight of prose.  

~ Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed

The word grammar, is of early Greek origin.  It is related to the word “gramma, -atos, -to” that which is drawn and that which is written, a written character, letter, and it is also related to “grapho” representation by means of linesa drawing, painting picture and writing, the art of writing, a writing.  In other words, for the Greeks, grammar meant representation in images and words–isn’t it interesting to note that in this early phase there is little to differentiate painting/drawing from writing?  (Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell & Scott–the “Middle Liddell”)

In classical Greek and Latin, the word’s definition was refined and “denoted the methodical study of literature”:

[Grammar] = “philology” in the widest modern sense, including textual and aesthetic criticism, investigation of literary history and antiquities, explanation of allusions, etc, besides the study of the Greek and Latin.  Post-classically, grammatica came to be restricted to the linguistic portion of this discipline, and eventually to “grammar” in the [modern] sense.  In the Middle Ages, grammatica and its [Roman] forms chiefly meant the knowledge or study of Latin, and were hence often used as synonymous with learning in general, the knowledge peculiar to the learned class.  As this was popularl supposed to include magic and astrology, the [Old French] gramaire was sometimes used as a name for these occult sciences.  In these applications it still survives in certain corrupt forms, [French] grimoire, Eng. GLAMOUR, GRAMARVE.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

Today, grammar refers to the study of language, its inflectional forms or means of indicating the relationships of words in a sentence and with the rules for employing in accordance with established usage.  It is “the scientific study and classification of the classes, forms, sounds, and uses of words of a particular language” and “the systematic study comparing the forms and constructions of two or more languages; comparative grammar.”  (The World Book Dictionary)  The word is often used interchangeably with syntax, which is more narrowly concerned with “the arrangement of words to form sentences, clauses or phrases; sentence structure… the patterns of such arrangement in a given language.”  (The World Book Dictionary)  It is more specifically the “part of grammar dealing with the construction of phrases, clauses, and sentences.”  (The World Book Dictionary)  

The other words that have grown from the common  root shows just how weird the links in history and linguistics can be.  Going back up to the OED’s definition, consider the connotation of grammar with learning and education.  At a certain point, alchemy and astrology really picks up interest in the high Middle Ages and becomes one of the major pursuits of learned types (read In Alchemy’s Defense).  As a result, the word that means the system that puts words together into meaningful units is related to other words in modern western languages that reference the occult, mysterious fascination, alluring charm, magic spells and enchantments!  (The World Book Dictionary)

Karen Elizabeth Gordon, quoted above, apparently appreciates the connection between the two words as her grammar book revels in the Victorian era gothic in her instruction manual:  “This is a dangerous game I’m playing, smuggling the injunctions of grammar into your cognizance through a ménage of revolving lunatics kidnapped into this book.  Their stories are digressions toward understanding, a pantomime of raucous intentions in the linguistic labyrinth.”

Grammar was part of the Liberal Arts program in the Middle Ages through the Early Modern era.  In today’s liberal arts system, subjects have realigned themselves and the humanities has been vastly downgraded, tragically.  As the internet reveals, the English language has a greater number of executors and executioners.  Without a proper understanding of grammar, rhetoric, logic and explanation are lost as writing collapses into a jumble of words or even merely letters, today.

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Irene creates theological problems, but is no Katrina

There has been some pretty bad flooding and wind damage in the Carolinas and Virginia, but Irene blew through the Mid-Atlantic last night doing far less damage than feared.  Many Marylanders will be without power for a day or two and flooding remains a concern in some areas, but businesses are opening their doors today, the state has a 311 call center open and is taking calls reporting power outages and downed trees or large branches, and Governor O’Malley tweeted recently that Ocean City, evacuated for the storm, will reopen by noon.  All good news.

Down in Washington DC, the Old Guard continued its sacred watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, through the storm (just as they did during the last hurricane to sweep through).

My family did get the message that church was closed due to lack of power, however the original message coming through featured a rather odd autocorrect: “No church.  No Trinity.”  Alas, Irene seems to have truly disrupted the Christian faith!


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Brush off the Dust Best of the Web – 8/22-8/26/11

1. The Real Story of Globalization


The Columbian exchange of ecology is thought by many scholars to be one of the key markers of the modern era.  Author Charles C. Mann explains the effects of earthworm stowaways and the introduction of potatoes.  A look at the unintentional transfers in the Age of Discovery, read it by clicking here.

2. 20 Celebrities with Stunning Home Libraries

You want to take a look at this for the pictures.  This is an impressive collection of celebrity home libraries–bibliophiles unite! (and drool…)  The article looks at the libraries of rockers, authors and actors.  Ogle at them by clicking here.

3. Q and A: Smithsonian’s Elizabeth Cottrell on the Virginian Earthquake

East Coast earthquake epicenter map

As we prepare for Hurricane Irene, Smithsonian Seismologist explains the Virginia Earthquake.  Read the interview by clicking here.

4. Fiscal Woe haunting Baltimore Poe House

This article about the Poe house in Baltimore ran earlier in August.  Its publication may have actually spurred a response that can help save the literary relic and Baltimore landmark.  Read about the challenges by clicking here.

5. Scientific American: Cities


Science rag, Scientific American, is profiling the importance of urban environments moving forward.  Take a look at some of the things they want us to think about for the future by clicking here.

6. Ronald Reagan and Moammar Qadhafi

Moammar Qadhafi 1986

As I write this, Reuters is reporting that British jets are striking Qadhafi’s bunker.  Smithsonian went into its archives and pulled out these Reagan statements from twenty-five years ago regarding his decisions and battles with the longtime dictator of Libya.  Read about it by clicking here.

7. How to Maximize Limited Time on an International Trip


With all the lovely weather, folks on the east coast may be ready to leave town for a little extra R&R before summer is officially over.  BootsnAll Travel has some recommendations for maximizing your time on international trips.  Read them by clicking here.

8. Six Short Reads to Read During a Hurricane


Care of The New Yorker’s book-people, are six great reads for your battened down weekend and the impending Irene.  Read on by clicking here.

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Was the Papacy involved in the Norman Conquest?

In 1066, the Normans invaded England.  Did the Papacy support the action?  There are numerous accounts of the invasion and the events that led up to it?  Multiple reasons are given for William’s invasion: Edward declared William heir while in Normandy; his rival Harold Godwine, swore an oath on holy relics to so support William and then usurped the throne; Harold’s coronation was illicitly performed by Stigand; William was Edward’s kin; Harold was Edward’s kin through marriage; and, William unlawfully invaded as Harold was named successor while Edward was on his death bed.  Of course, we cannot really know definitively, but we can evaluate the accounts of the situation made by authors and scholars.

Anglo-Saxons long had a very tight relationship with the Papacy, but there is an element of Norman diplomacy, particularly in this age of the 11th century reform, that begins to explain the startling change in relations with the Papacy and the Anglo-Saxons.  Furthermore there are the questions of the papal banner, or gonfanon, with which the Normans went to war: Did it exist?  Presuming it did, what does it imply about the Papacy’s perception of the events?

I found the implications of the Papacy’s involvement have been largely left unstated despite the copious literature written about the Conquest and its aftermath in England.  Consider that in 1066 the Papacy may have endorsed a military campaign by a Norman against a church that had long been its darling in Europe with the presentation of a papal banner.  In the following pope’s reign, Gregory VII’s (Bishop Hildebrand was consecrated Pope Gregory VII after the Norman invasion) more military campaigns will be conducted under a papal banner and against Christian laity threatening church lands.  In 1098, the First Crusade is called and the Crusade institution is begun.  The Norman Conquest, thus, potentially contributes to an important evolution of thought.

Beginning with Gregory the Great’s mission in England, to Bede and the missions of Boniface and down to the invading Danes in the beginning of the 11th century, Anglo-Saxons had a revered relationship with Rome.  James Campbell, Henry Mayr-Harting and John Blair all demonstrate the friendship, reverence and devotion which the young Anglo-Saxon Church paid to the Church in Rome.  The tradition was of such strength and durability that even the invading Danish king, Cnut, sought to comply with the traditions of building churches devoted to Rome’s saints and become thoroughly indoctrinated in Christianity.  In The English Church and the Continent, Veronica Ortenberg describes presence of an Anglo-Saxon community within Rome itself, which received special privileges from taxation.  This neighborhood tended to the large number of English pilgrims from every rank in its society.  Under Alfred, and possibly Offa, the crown levied a Peter’s Pence, or Romscot, to be sent to Rome.

The Bayeux Tapestry: The Anglo-Saxon Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury

The first culprit to indicate a separation from this love is the Bishop Stigand.  Stigand, a simoniac, is a focal point for a new papal movements set on reform.  He was appointed by the king and does not go to Rome to receive his pallium from the rightful pope, Pope Leo IX who refused to consecrate him, but to the anti-pope Benedict X.  Eric John points out that King Edward was able to further undermine the rival Godwine family’s position in England when Spearhafoc was refused the episcopal see of London by Rome and Archbishop Robert because he was a simoniac, as well.  Not only did he lose the see, he lost his abbey at Abingdon, despite having been the canonical abbot there.

Stigand appears in the Bayeux Tapestry and the image is considered by H. E. J. Cowdrey’s paper, “Towards an interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry,” in particular with the placement and occupation of his hands.  Cowdrey’s interpretation focuses on the negative connotation of Stigand’s left hands and he hypothesizes his inclusion on the tapestry—especially with his left hand when holding the maniple—is intended to discredit him as bishop and Harold as king.  It is an ironic representation as the maniple is taken by the recipient with a prayer asking God to cleanse one’s hands.  Stigand and Spearhafoc represent a clergy which would raise the ire of the Church’s reformers in the eleventh century.

This segues nicely into the next point, that of the relationship of William, Duke of Normandy, and the Papacy of Alexander II, itself highly influenced by the reform bishop Hildebrand.  First, as Margaret Gibson points out, William had done everything he could in order to gain control over his own bishops.  This sort of lay interference was being targeted by the reformers, but William endeared himself to many influential clergymen, nonetheless, through other reforms, finance and defense.

The Bayeux Tapestry: Harold swearing allegiance to William on holy relics before King Edward's death

Frank Barlow indicates that William had welcomed the Truce of God movement which had been put forth by leading reform clergy.  The Truce, itself an extension of the Peace of God movement which declared that certain persons were never to be harmed, was intended to restrict violence during certain days and seasons.  William’s intent as expressed to his vassals was to have disputes among them settled in the ducal court instead through arms.  Both the Peace and Truce aimed to curtail lay violence since little central authority existed following the (gradual) collapse of the Carolingians.  As Kathleen Cushing has suggested, this measure was in no small way intended to protect the clergy and Church lands from lay violence, often in the form of heirs taking back land that had been given as donations and by ancestors.  In order to defend the Peace and maintain Truces, oaths were taken and the Church enlisted portions of the warrior laity to enforce it.

Gregory VII later coined the term milites Sancti Petri, refering to knights fighting on behalf of the Papacy in the years following the Conquest and leading up to the First Crusade.  Jonathan Riley-Smith has pointed out that this was in keeping with the trends of the clergy who blessed their defenders as milites of their patron saint.  Did Hildebrand in a sense do this with the Norman Conquest?  Hildebrand established himself as a leader in Church sanctioned violence, especially against Christian Europeans.  Carl Erdmann stresses that Hildebrand’s involvement can best be seen in the case of the Norman Conquest.  Erdmann quotes Gregory VII to William (from the collected Register of Gregory VII), who stated, “You know how zealously I exerted myself that you might obtain the royal office.  I was reviled for this by some brothers, who blamed me for the pains I took over such a bloodletting.”

For William’s part, R. Allen Brown credits him for doggedly pursuing diplomacy, especially with the clergymen in his domain.  Brown writes,

[B]y his own considerable efforts, the Conqueror won his reputation as the champion both of orthodoxy and reform, so that, when the time came, the Papacy was the chief prize of Norman diplomacy, and the expedition to England was undertaken by this favoured son of the Holy Church with papal blessing and a papal banner.

Gregory VII took the credit in the letter quoted by Erdmann.  There was a clear connection established and fostered between the two camps.

So, the question then remains, what is the significance of the Papal banner?  This is not easy to establish under Alexander II.  While some claim he sent a military mission to Spain under a Papal banner other scholars resist the notion.  Erdmann in particular stresses the banner’s importance.  Other than Gregory’s letter, this is the most formal demarcation we have of Papal approval.  It is not mentioned in the texts we have from  Alexander II, but numerous other sources surrounding the Conquest attest to it.  Many scholars, though not all, believe this to include the Bayeux Tapestry, in scene 46.  J. Bard McNulty does not include it in the body of his commentary of the tapestry but does include it in the appendix, interpreting; “[the lettering] HIC NUNTIAM EST WILLELMO DE HAROLD.  Here news of Harold is brought to William,” he writes, “William holds the banner, or gonfanon, sent him by Pope Alexander II, who endorsed the invasion.”

Is this evidence of a papal banner being granted to William?

The implication, therefore, is that the Papacy is sending William to defend the Church in England from the likes of simoniacs such as Stigand, elsewhere discredited in the tapestry as noted by Cowdrey above.  This presentation of a banner is generally understood to imply some obligation of a feudal type to the Papacy, but William and more so his son William Rufus will staunchly resist this.  For example, Stigand, still Archbishop of Canterbury at the conclusion of the conquest and denied the right to crown William king, is not immediately removed from his uncanonical position.

This feudal obligation to the Papacy will be altered in the calling of the First Crusade as the Crusaders are called to take up arms as milites Christi, creating new theological challenges for the laity and the clergy.  Regardless of this change, it is worth noting that, while William Rufus refused aid, a number of William the Conqueror’s family and dependents will answer the call to the First Crusade, including one of his sons who will grant the duchy of Normandy to William Rufus to acquire the necessary funds for the enterprise.

Additional and fresh study is warranted on the exact nature and implications of the papal banner.  Erdmann (who published in the 1930s) points out that the only visual representation we have is that of the Bayeux Tapestry, and the artist may never have seen it.  Its significance remains enigmatic in terms of the evolution of the Church’s regard for violence despite Erdmann contributions.

Further work must be done in characterizing this campaign as a Church authorized power play or something more in line of a proto-Crusade.  Additionally, the actions of the Anglo-Saxon laity and clergy deserve to have greater comparisons drawn (or contrasted) with others who similarly fell victim to the Papacy’s authorization of violence.  To what degree did a failing relationship with a reforming clergy justify endorsing this measure against them?  Is the simony of its clergy and oath breaking (a problem for reformers in the Peace ot Truce) of its king enough to warrant the actions of Alexander II, Hildebrand and William?  These questions require more research and have not been adequately answered in light of the evolution of sanctified violence.  One thing is clear, the Conquest had a part to play in contributing to new ideas of violence and hopefully its part will be fully understood in coming research.

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Where were you when the 8/23/11 VA earthquake hit? Share your story!

Map showing earthquakes

If you have the chance, please, leave me a comment describing where you were, what you were doing, who you were with and any other details you would like to share.  I want to compile a collection of experiences!  Please, include the following: city and state, how people you witnessed reacted to the quake, what you felt, whether you were hurt and any other details you think pertinent!  If you didn’t feel it where you live, but would like to share your experiences or reactions to it, feel free!  All are welcome!

Seismic Waves


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Word of the Week, 8/22-8/26/11 – fasces

fas·ces  | ‘fæs,ez | ·plural  n.  (in ancient Rome) a bundle of rods with a projecting ax blade, carried by attendants (lictors) of chief magistrates as a symbol of a magistrate’s power.

• (in Fascist Italy) such items used as emblems of authority.

~ The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words

lictors:  attendants of the higher Republican magistrates; they carried the fasces, a bundle of rods encasing a double-headed axe, the former symbolizing the power of scourging, the latter of decapitation

fasces: they symbolized the power of higher magistrates (see above).  Twelve lictors carrying the fasces had accompanied the kings; in the Republic the twelve fasces alternated between the two consuls on a monthly basis.

~ Livy, The Rise of Rome, Books 1-5, translated by T. J. Luce (from the “Explanatory Notes”)

1st-century BCE bronze figurine of lictor with fasces (British Museum's Romans Gallery: The Republic

Fasces is a Latin word, referring to a bundle, fagot, packet or parcel.  In a certain context, it referred to a soldier’s kit.  It is, however, most typically used in reference to a bundle of ferulae (rods) with an axe in the middle.  The origin of the physical fasces are difficult to trace, but it had a ceremonial role in the Roman government.  One theory from Roman times was that they were introduced by the Etruscans, their predecessors on the Italian peninsular (although it is unverified in the archaeological record).  The civic role of lictor, also traced back to the Etruscans, was the position that carried the fasces before different magistrates.  Titus Livius (Livy) describes the (most likely) mythical founding king of Rome, Romulus, as establishing the role of the lictors to give himself a regal appearance:

[Romulus] thought that the rustics would feel bound to observe the laws if he made his own person more august and imposing by adopting various insignia of power, both in his dress and particularly by the addition of twelve lictors to accompany him in public.  Some think he took this number from the number of augural birds that portended his kingship.  I myself incline to the opinion of those who believe that, just as the attendants and other paraphernalia of office were borrowed from the neighboring Etruscans, who gave us the curule chair and the toga praetexta, so also the number twelve was borrowed from the lictors the Etruscans furnished to the man they elected king of their league, each of the twelve Etruscan peoples contributing one lictor apiece.

~ Book I, Ab Urbe Condita, Livy (T. J. Luce’s translation)

Note, that in this description he does not mention fasces; is this deliberate, accidental or coincidental?  We don’t know, of course.  Later, in Book II, he does address the fasces.  Book I covers the history of Rome under kings.  Book II begins his “history of a free nation in peace and war… the election of annual magistrates and greater obedience to the commands of law than to those of men,” which is the subject of the rest of Ab Urbe Condita; Rome as a Republic.  He writes:

One might more correctly say that the birth of liberty was owing to the annual nature of the consuls’ tenure than to any lessening of the power the kings had possessed.  The first consuls enjoyed all the rights and insignia of the highest office: they were only forbidden to hold the fasces at the same time, lest double intimidation of the people should appear to be their aim.  By agreement with his colleague Brutus was the first to hold the fasces, and he proved thereafter to be as keen a guardian of liberty as he had been its initial champion.

~ Book I, Ab Urbe Condita, Livy (T. J. Luce’s translation)

The fasces was, thus, a symbol of authority, with the obvious connotation of justice vis-à-vis the ability to punish in scourging and executing.  The latter point is particularly the case once Rome becomes a Republic.  As Livy explains, this symbol, because it would have been the symbol of a king’s powers of intimidation before the Republic, was not one the consuls were allowed to carry in an era of Roman liberty.  The lictors, however, did carry the fasces in the Roman Republic.  C.T. Lewis in his Elementary Latin Dictionary explained it, thusly:

Twenty-four lictors, with the fasces, walked in a single file before a dictator [a temporary role alternately assumed by the consuls in time of emergency–usually military], twelve before a consul, six before a praetor

[Lictors] scourged or beheaded condemned criminals

In other words, separated from the context of a single ruler, it implied order and punishment meted for crimes committed against the law–not meted out of vengeance or whim by a tyrant (a Greek word, distinguishing a single-ruler from a democracy).

The symbol of the fasces was employed liberally in American iconography.  For example, the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives explains that there is a fasces located on either side of the flag in the U.S. House: “The bronze fasces, representing a classical Roman symbol of civic authority, are located on both sides of the U.S. flag.  The original Roman fasces consisted of an axe within a bundle of rods, bound together by a red strap.  The fasces were carried before the consul and were used to restore order and carry out punishment of the courts.”

Bronze fasces on either side of the flag in the U.S. House of Representatives

Additionally, it is expounded that, “The U.S. adopted the fasces as a symbol of the authority of Congress in part due to their symbolic relationship with Republican Rome, which the founding fathers consciously referenced in the formation of the United States.”  This suggests to me a “Livian” influence among the Founding Fathers, but the website continues with this: “The form of the fasces also symbolically refers to the philosophy of American democracy. Like the thin rods bound together in the fasces, the small individual states achieve their strength and stability through their union under the federal government.”  (These quotes come from the Office of the Clerk website.)

The fasces is seen in a number of American structures and designs.  Notably, the fasces is seen on our currency, which has historically been one of a nation’s most important canvases for self-representation.

The eagle on the back of the quarter is clutching a fasces.

There are also claims that the eagle on the backside of the dollar bill is gripping arrows that are meant to represent a fasces.  This seems difficult to affirm as there are no arrows in a fasces, nor is the eagle gripping an axe.  A pamphlet describing our monetary symbolism, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, confirms that the arrows are representing war across from the laurels of peace in the other talon.

The war-like symbol of the arrows gripped in the talon of eagle is sometimes considered a fasces.

One of the more interesting suggestions of a Roman fasces appearing in American iconography is on the sides of Abraham Lincoln’s chair at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.  According to the National Park Service, sculptor Daniel Chestor French, included “the reeds wrapped together in the arms of Lincoln’s chair [to] prompt the visitor to remember the way that Lincoln wanted to keep us bound together as one nation.”  There is no axe and the NPS does not suggest that French intended it to be a fasces.

Bound staves appear on the Lincoln Memorial.

If it is a fasces, it would appear to be one in the latter definition of the Office of the Clerk: the states bound by unity in the Federal government.  Of course, given the association of fascism with the fasces, it is not hard to see how some would react to the imagery in the Lincoln Memorial.  However, the association with fascism is pretty recent.

The English word, fascism, comes from the Italian word fascismo, which is first known in 1921.  The Italian government under Mussolini used the fasces as its symbol.

Symbol for the volunteers in the Italian government of Mussolini.

The Spanish government under Franco also made use of the fasces, as did the Nazis in their iconography.

The fasces appears on the left, opposite the eagle and swastika standard (borrowed from the Roman army)

These governments employed the symbols very recently in our collective history.  So, wannabee-clever conspiracy-theorists, who point to the U.S. government, or Lincoln more specifically, as an oppressive regime in the fascist tradition through fasces-iconography are simply ignorant.  Of course, having said that, the imagery is not likely to be employed in more recently introduced symbols because of its popularity with the fascist regimes–despite the obvious incongruity in their use of it, given the origins!  While it has been usurped as fascist imagery, it is more appropriately the symbol of just, representative governance.

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Brush off the Dust Best of the Web, 8/14-8/19/11

1.  Monsters of more than the midway

Is football one of the things that is wrong with this country?  In the Chicago Tribune, Allen R. Sanderson argues that football’s supremacy over baseball as America’s pastime is part of what is wrong with this country.  Football has a detrimental effect on this country, he argues, on everything from municipal governments to cultural mores.  Read it by clicking here.

2.  The Deadliest Dieseases [Info-graphic]

Very simply an info-graphic which breaks down the worse pandemics in human history.  Some of the deadly diseases we face do not have solid numbers but they are nonetheless represented.  To take quick look at the diseases humanity has faced, by the numbers click here.

3. Sending the police before there’s a crime

Have you ever seen the movie, Minority Report?  Well, the future is here!  A new computer program is sending the police to locations based on the high probability that a crime will take place… and there are arrests being made.  It is an interesting and controversial program; read about it by clicking here.

4. 6 of history’s greatest art heists and scams


If you are a fan of White Collar or The Thomas Crown Affair, then you, like Neil Caffery, probably love a good art heist.  Mental Floss has the 6 best in this book review; read about them by clicking here.

5. The Rise of Global English

This is a fascinating piece about the evolution of English in the wide world of business from a Oxford English Dictionary’s post.  It starts with the observation that non-native English speakers were more effective than their British and American counter-parts in business discussions.  Read more about the development of English in the world by clicking here.


6.  Bike Lanes ‘Round the World


From the travel blog by Sarah Estermen on Wend, comes a great post with a fabulous photo collection of bike lanes around the world.  This is eye-candy if you like 1) traveling and 2) biking.  Check it out by clicking here.


7. Lost Dr. Seuss stories to be published in September


Dr. Seuss fans, UNITE!  September will come in bringing Fall, school supplies and more Dr. Seuss stories!  Read about it by clicking here.


7.  The Body on Somerton Beach

This is another brain-tickler, in unsolved criminal history.  A man is found dead on a beach and no one can account for him or how he died.  The more details that were found out, the more perplexing the case became!  Read this excellent synopsis from the Smithsonian’s “Imperfect History” blog by click here.


8. The Berlin Wall Sickness that still plagues people today

Suburban houses, divided by the wall

A particular aversion to enclosed spaces that is not just your ordinary claustrophobia lingers for residents in Berlin.  This is a timely and sensitive piece from the BBC about the psychological effects of the Berlin Wall on the people who had to live with it.  Read it by clicking here.


9.  People say the darnedest things to get out of jury duty

So, if you were called for jury duty, would you go?  If you didn’t want anything to do with this civic duty, how far would you go to get out of it?  The Capital of Annapolis, MD, has shared some of the most astonishing (and entertaining) excuses people have used to skirt the court’s request.  Read it by clicking here.


10.  Sticking it to China

A Georgia factory is making chop-sticks for China.  Take that!  Read about it by clicking here.

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Visiting the Civil War in Frederick, MD

Tombstone of Confederate soldier Private George W. Boatwright

“The stone behind it should say the same thing,” says the white-haired gentleman down the way from me; he must be retired, I guess, since it is a little after noon.

And, he’s right.  I’m kneeling in front of a nearly 150 year old tombstone, badly faded, but just legible is the name I was seeking when I walked down the line of Confederate graves in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, MD.  The front row is made up of the original stones and behind it are newer headstones, more easily read.  Along the line of graves, between every fourth grave and its neighbor, are crisp new Confederate flags.

Confederate graves at Mt. Olivet Cemetery

“Do you need a marker for that one?” he asks walking towards me, but I don’t understand him at first.  He’s wearing a white t-shirt from a Civil War event and belted khaki shorts with white tennis shoes.  I realize he is offering me a Confederate flag for the grave in which I am obviously so interested.

“Oh, Boatwright,” he says before I can answer him.  “I remember him.  We had a ceremony a few years ago, for him.  My wife invited one of his relatives up here.  We had a ceremony,” he waves in the direction of the Confederate memorial, nearby—a Confederate soldier standing guard with his eyes in the direction of his fallen comrades, flanked by a full-size Confederate flag, “and my wife read some letters we had from him.  And, we gave her a flag, not one of these; a big three-by-five one.”

The Confederate Memorial in Mt. Olivet

He goes on, explaining that he is putting the small flags between the graves back out, “I came out here last week and there were twelve missing in the middle.  I came out again and then they were all gone.  No one can tell me why they were taken down.  I asked here—they’re good to us, here—and he did some looking and found’em up in the main building.  We put’em out once a year, but especially this year being the Sesquentennial year.  So, I am putting’em back.  No one can tell me why they were taken down.”  He shakes his head.

I am not interested in a flag and try to be polite.  My interest in this grave was from a letter excerpt I saw at the Battle of Monocacy National Park Service (NPS) Visitor’s Center, “The caption said he was buried here and I just wanted to come … and, pay respects.”

“I know what you mean,” he says, nodding.

*   *   *

Earlier that morning I had been at the NPS’s Monocacy Battlefield and Visitor’s Center.  Recently renovated, the building is constructed like a barn, except with a shiny metal green roof reflecting the sun and different materials for better insulation and climate control than a barn.  The bottom floor has the visitor’s information desk, docent offices and the gift shop, while the second floor is the museum for the battle.  The exhibit first explains Maryland’s place in the war.  Wedged between the Mason-Dixon Line to the north and the Potomac River to the south, Maryland was a tense zone between fiercely Unionist Pennsylvania and the Confederate vanguard of Virginia.

Loyalties in Maryland were divided, here, as elsewhere, but the state’s location made it different from others.  Out of the four candidates that ran in the 1860 election Maryland voted as follows: John C. Breckenridge (added to the ballot by those Democrats who thought Stephen A. Douglas was too moderate) with 42,497 votes, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party with 41,177 votes, Stephen A. Douglas of the Democratic Party with 5,873 votes and Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party with less than 2,300 votes, statewide.  All this, coming from the state bordering the president-elect’s new home on three sides, led to the Union effectively invading the state after bloodshed in Baltimore shortly following the secessions.  While Union sentiment grew under these conditions, southern sympathies remained strong in the state.  It was in Frederick, not the Union-occupied state capital, in Annapolis, that the Maryland legislature would vote on secession, concluding that they lacked the constitutional authority to make such a decision.

Monocacy Museum looking out at the old Georgetown Pike that leads to Washington DC

Twice the Confederate Army came through Frederick, MD on invasions of the North; twice it would fail.  The first attempt in 1862 terminated with the Battle of Antietam, near Hagerstown, MD, while the second ended with the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania the following year.  By mid-1864, the Confederacy was forced back to Atlanta, GA in the western front and to Richmond, VA in the eastern front.  But, to achieve this Gen. Ulysses Grant stripped down the capital’s defensive units for the advantage in troops.  Lee sought to use this and sent Lt. Gen. Jubal Early west and north around Grant into Maryland.  He hoped to shift the front back north, take Washington D.C., provide a victory for morale, and free Confederate prisoners of war held at Point Lookout Camp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace (later the author of Ben Hur) would meet Early just outside Frederick City at the Battle of Monocacy, at the junction of the river of the same name and the B & O railway, with an inferior force, both in experience and number.  Wallace would lose the battle, but in delaying Early by a day, he would give the Union forces enough time to reinforce Fort Stevens, protecting the District of Columbia.  Glenn H. Worthington, a six-year-old witness to the battle from the basement of his family’s farm, would grow up to become a judge and spearhead the campaign to get the battle its due recognition and to preserve it as a National Park.  In 1934, the measure was passed in Congress, preserving the site of the “battle that saved Washington.”

The Best Farm

Today the Battlefield is accessible by car and foot, paths leading around the houses and farmland that was caught in the crossfire of Union and Confederate guns.  I biked from the Visitor’s Center under a cloudless sky, except for some high wispy ones sauntering across the blue, to the parking sites—the bikes are not allowed on the footpaths—and, spent the rest of my day getting around on two wheels.  All three of the houses caught up in the battle’s movements, the Best, Thomas and Worthington farms, can be visited, as well as the old Gambrill Mill site.  After parking one can hike around the trails and see the different fronts of the battle and lines of defense and attack.  The Visitor’s Center explains the battle’s chronology with audio and a model of the terrain highlighted with small inset lights according to the troop activity.  I started there.  The NPS maintains an authentic look on the grounds by renting the land out to a local farmer.  Archaeology continues at the Best Farm, including the excavation of slave quarters which predate the Best’s residency on the site, beginning just before the Civil War, and when the dig is open visitors can access it to an extent, but it was closed the day of my visit.

Each of the houses and the mill became field hospitals for the battle’s wounded.  Nearby, Frederick City, would function as one large hospital during the war, taking over churches and homes.  The city also cared for the wounded from major battles, such as Antietam, as well as the numerous smaller skirmishes in the hills of western and central Maryland.  It is perhaps fitting, then, that the city is home to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD

Located in historic downtown Frederick, MD, lined with its historic houses and row-homes, on 48 East Patrick Street, the museum’s moniker is “Divided by Conflict, United by Compassion.”  It hosts two floors, seven thousand square feet, of exhibit space devoted to Civil War-era medical education, enlistment medical exams, camp life, evacuation and first responder developments, field care, Civil War-era hospitals, embalming and the modern military medical advancements.  As much devoted to setting the record straight as they are to general education, the museum curators emphasize certain myths debunked.  Principal among these is the commonly repeated line about surgeries performed without anesthesia or drugs, of which there were in fact many options.  Ether and chloroform were the most prevalent among these.

There is also emphasis on the development of the medical arts as a result of the damage done to the bodies of soldiers during the long war.  These include, most notably, the advent of facial reconstruction surgery and the advancements of prosthetics.  While these achievements are impressive, and my inner dork thrills to trace something so modern seeming to the Civil War era, I found some of the images a bit difficult to really study because of the mutilation that some suffered in battle.  I very much enjoyed the ongoing displays of Union Private Peleg Bradford’s letters which included much about the privations of the war and his experiences after being wounded.  Transcripts of the various letters are included and collection of them can be purchased in the gift shop.

Private Peleg Bradford's letters to home

Frederick City was located along the C&O Canal out of Georgetown, the B&O Railway and National Road out of Baltimore, which made it a good location for transporting the sick and wounded.  These transportation lines also made it a crossroads that both forces exploited during the war.  In particular, Frederick owes its early growth and significance to the National Road.  Developing into a “pike town” and then a small city with healthy farms surrounding it, reinforced its connection to Baltimore and the port.  This year the road celebrates its Bicentennial Anniversary.

Following the development of the city along the National Road, it grew further as a “canal town” and “rail town” becoming a city by the day’s standards.  In 1862, on October 4, following the Battles of Antietam and South Mountain, Abraham Lincoln would stop and give a speech of gratitude to the soldiers and the people of Frederick from a railroad car platform, thanking, “the good citizens of Frederick, and to the good men, women, and children in this land of ours, for their devotion to this glorious cause, and I say this with no malice in my heart toward those who have done otherwise.”  A plaque on the street corner, part of the Civil War walking tour, commemorates the spot where the speech was delivered.

The B & O railway station from which President Abraham Lincoln gave his speech to the people of Frederick

There are a number of walking tours, both guided and self-guided that will take one through the city’s historic landmarks.  Materials for the self-guided tours, such as the African American Heritage Sites tour pamphlet, and information regarding guided tours are available at the Frederick Visitor’s Center located at 151 S. East St.  In conjunction with a small exhibit space extolling the virtues of Frederick City and County, is a brief video focusing on the highlights.  Located nearby is the Museum of Frederick County History, housed in a historic residence at 24 E. Church St.  It also holds the city and county archives.

All of this is located in Frederick’s thriving historic district.  Still fed by regional farming, the city has numerous eateries.  The Black Hog BBQ and Bar, named after one of the rarest and endangered heritage breeds of hogs, serves quality BBQ in several American styles.  Café Nola, decorated by local artists, lending it a funky feel, serving Illy coffee and espresso with wide variety of breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch samplings made from locally farmed organic produce, eggs and meat.  The Brewer’s Alley, which micro-brews its beers in-house and also sources its ingredients locally, and is housed in the original town hall, it continues a long tradition of Frederick beer brewing.  In addition to food, the downtown area has filled up with specialty shops, such as the Trail House, specializing in outdoors gear and a great hub of knowledge for exploring the wild environs around the city; and, Earthly Elements, devoted to rocks, semi-precious stones and fossils, as decoration or jewelry.  A healthy arts scene also supplies fine arts galleries, theater and music.  Just outside of town, the Baltimore Orioles’ Class A affiliate, the Frederick Keys, plays America’s pastime during baseball season.

Cafe Nola looking out on East Patrick Street

On the edge of town, just before the Francis Scott Key Mall at the I-70 junction, is Mt. Olivet Cemetery.  It is not the only cemetery in the city, and had laid its first internee to rest a mere seven years before the start of the Civil War, but is home to two hundred eighty-two Confederate prisoners.  Many of these are Confederate prisoners of war captured in the Battles of South Mountain (1862), Antietam (1862), Gettysburg (1863) and Monocacy (1864).

Private George W. Boatwright, of the 12th Georgia Light Artillery, wrote a letter on June 4, 1864 to his sweetheart, Martha “Mattie” Jane Burrows, asking for her hand in marriage.  Five days later, at the Battle of Monocacy, he would receive a mortal wound, dying on July 12th; Mattie’s answer is lost to us.  He was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, drawing me to it as I biked back into town from the battlefield.

*   *   *

I ask the man setting the flags out where the Union soldiers were, and he explains that during the war, Confederates soldiers were not buried with Union soldiers.  In Maryland, there is another Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, but soldiers not buried there could have been shipped as far as Hollywood in Virginia.

Biking through the battlefield

I bike along the car’s path, visiting other noteworthy graves, such as Barbara Fritchie, memorialized in a Whittier poem for her loyalty to the Union, and the World War II monument.  Looping back to the entrance I am passing the cemetery’s Babyland, when I come upon the gentleman’s spotless red GMC Sierra parked on the side of the road, where he is marking a Confederate officer’s grave with a flag.  His license tag is a Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans vanity plate.  Exiting past the Francis Scott Key memorial, I think about two quotes I saw at the Battlefield’s Visitor Center that morning:

…It will be a glorious day for our country when all the children within its borders shall learn that the four years of fratricidal war between the North and South was waged by neither with criminal or unworthy intent, but by both to protect what they conceived to be threatened rights and imperiled liberty: that the issues which divided the sections were born when the Republic was born, and were forever buried in an ocean of fraternal blood.

~ Lt. Gen. John B. Gordon, CSA, Reminisces of the Civil War

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it,—those who fought for liberty and justice.

~ Frederick Douglass, Decoration Day, 1871

Considering the divisions within Maryland then, I have to wonder, still, which of these two gentlemen hits nearest the mark.  I have not resolved this in my own mind.


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America: A rather young democracy – Guest Post

A guest blog, republished with permission from Pete’s Open Notebook, Pete Thomas asks, when did the U.S. become a full-fledged democracy?  Using criteria from Democracy Index and Freedom in the World, he analyzes the historical milestones that mark America’s progress in attaining full-fledged democracy.

America: A Young Democracy

When did freedom ring? When did America live up to its ideals? Some would say it still hasn’t, given such things as anti-gay laws, anti-muslim laws, illegal immigration laws, and lack of prisoner rights (including, in some cases, the loss of the right to vote, indefinite detention, and, in a few notable cases, torture).
Yet for most citizens, there is a high level of freedom, and for our country a high level of democracy. But obviously this wasn’t always the case, and certainly not solved by our independence in 1776.
Question: When did American become a full-fledged Democracy?
Let’s take a look at some data, focusing on two modern reports, and from there we’ll work backwards. The first is the respectedDemocracy Index. In 2010, the United States placed 17 out of 167 nations, and among the 26 nations listed as “full democracies”. The second report, Freedom in the World, listed the United States as “free” in 2010, receiving top marks for political rights and civil liberties.
Now let’s go through their methods for figuring out our rankings, and figure out when we became a viable democracy.
Freedom of the World‘s view of a free democracy:
  1. A competitive, multiparty political system; Year: 1796
    This is something we’ve had for many years, at least for the two main parties (it’s currently extremely difficult to win any election on a third party ticket). The last time this was not true is debatable. During Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Radical Republicans placed rules on southern governments, ruining competition, and allowing the Republicans 12 years of rule. But the true beginning of a competitive, multiparty system began in 1796, when Thomas Jefferson split off with the Federalists to face (and lose to) John Adams as a Democratic-Republican in the second presidential election. The first two elections were won by George Washington, who did not officially belong to a political party.
  2. Universal adult suffrage for all citizens (with exceptions for restrictions that states may legitimately place on citizens as sanctions for criminal offenses); Year: 1965
    LBJ Signs the Voting Rights Act

    That’s a big exception (by some estimates a 5.3 million exception in the U.S.). In my opinion, universal adult suffrage did not become official until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can argue for 1971 as well,  when adults between the ages of 18 and 20 earned the vote with the passage of the 26th Amendment (previously you could be drafted at 18 but not vote until 21). Every year previous to 1965, voting intimidation and ineligibility kept universal suffrage from becoming a reality. Starting with the first election, you were not allowed to vote if you were non-white, female, or if you did not own land.  The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, led to suffrage for freemen and former slaves, but women still were not allowed the right to vote (not until 1920). By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, “Jim Crow” laws made it tough or nearly impossible for African-Americans in the south to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 righted most of this wrong (the poll tax, another barrier to voting, was declared illegal a year later).

  3. Regularly contested elections conducted in conditions of ballot secrecy, reasonable ballot security, and the absence of massive voter fraud that yields results that are unrepresentative of the public will; Year: 1965
    Some gerrymandering aside, most congressional and presidential elections are regularly contested (and can switch parties). For massive voter fraud, some may point to the hyper charges between both parties in recent years. Politically, it’s probably too early in history to confirm the 2000 Presidential Election results as “unrepresentative of the public will” (an extremely close race nonetheless – being a candidate’s brother in charge of disputed ballots). The Presidential Election of 1876 would count, where Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden, even though Tilden had the popular and electoral votes, and was decided along party lines in congress.. Hayes gained the presidency without incident though, in return for ending Reconstruction, which, in turn, led to voter intimidation and fraud throughout the South for nearly a century. Again, 1965 looks to be the key, where African Americans were not long disenfranchised.
  4. Significant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media and through generally open political campaigning; Year: 1800
    Other than the failed Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which tried to push press to a single side (for the Federalists and John Adams, against Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republican), public access of the (usually two) political parties have been given saturated coverage by the media. Today there are presidential debates (since 1960) and primary elections (through most of the US history party nominees were picked behind closed doors). The two parties views (and sometimes a third or forth) are represented through the media through news and campaign ads. So although the media rights and public access hasn’t always been 100% (still probably not), I’ll pick 1800 as when this clause was fulfilled. When Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts failed their cause, and the media were once again free to question, probe, and criticize.
Democracy Index‘s methodology:
  1. “Whether national elections are free and fair”; 1965
    Samuel Tilden was robbed

    Compared with most other countries, the United States has an excellent record of free and fair elections. This again goes back to the Voting Rights act of 1965, the first year that men and women, no matter their race nor geographic location, could vote in an election, without fear of intimidation or retribution. There has been 11 presidential elections since 1965, and in all but one (cough cough 2000) the candidate who received the most votes won the election. There has been no clear example in the modern era of a candidate with poor voter approval stealing an election. With term limits set in place after Franklin Roosevelt’s term, there’s been an inability of the executive branch to skew multiple elections in their favor.

  2. The security of voters“; Year: 1965
    There has been no major successful voter intimidation efforts in recent times. Intimidation probably reached its peak during the Jim Crow years. Yet, in recent times, one can cast a ballot anonymously and successfully without fear of reprisal.
  3. The influence of foreign powers on government“;  Year: 1776
    This has always been close to zero. Since ousting Great Britain in the American Revolution, our nation is prideful of its independence. Current contenders for influence would include China (who we owe a massive debt to) and Israel (who, for better or worse, has a successful lobbying group), but neither has a solid command over our government. We’ve been close allies at times with Great Britain, who encouraged our entry into World War II (we still took 3 years), and who previously burned down our White House (a bad influence). Currently The United States is the large foreign influence on our allies, never the other way around.
  4. The capability of the civil servants to implement policies“. Year 1829
    Minus the obvious congressional gridlock, the Constitution and current government structure allows for successful innovation and change. These policies might be supported by special interest lobbies, but nonetheless, most rules are voted on by congress, implemented by senate-approved members of the executive branch, and overseen by a large judicial branch. There has hardly been a time in American history where our country failed to move forward with new laws and policies. But for the sake of picking a date, I chose 1829, the first year of Andrew Jackson’s administration. Jackson created a powerful executive branch which was able to control policy equal with the other two branches.
So my best estimate of when the United States became a free democracy was in 1965. Our stature only improved in 1971 when we let adults who can be drafted to war also be allowed to vote. We’ve been pretty good ever since. Previous to 1965 we were a “flawed democracy” in the terms set by the Democracy Index. It’s debatable if we were ever in a “hybrid regime” (maybe Lincoln suspending habeus corpus in the Civil War, the Radical Republican’s rule during Reconstruction, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 12 years as president). As for being an “authoritarian regime”, the United States, even under British rule, citizens never had it that bad. Slaves and Native Americans, though, had an awful time, so maybe previous to 1861 we were authoritarian. Nevertheless, congrats to our country on over 40 years of relative freedom and democracy!

Special thanks to Pete Thomas of Pete’s Open Notebook for allowing the republication of this post in “Brush off the dust! History now!”


Filed under Guest posts, Historian's Journal