Fillmore’s bathtub, water’s running

July 24, 2006

I got several e-mails about the mystery of just who did install the first bathtub in the White House — the first plumbed, running water bathtub, not just the first tub. The White House Historical Association provides partial answers at their website:

The first running water was plumbed into the White House in 1833 — during Andrew Jackson’s administration.

Running hot water first made it to the First Family’s quarters on the second floor in 1853 (no, it wasn’t that somebody left the water on from 1833 and it took 20 years to back up — we’re talking pipes and a water heater).

1853! There was an election held in 1852, but Fillmore’s party, the Whigs, gave the nomination to Gen. Winfield Scott. He lost the election to Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce. (Fillmore would be the last Whig president; he won the Whig nomination in 1856, and the nomination of the Know-Nothing Party, but neither party had much strength. The race was between John C. Fremont of California, who had the first-ever presidential nomination of a new party made up of Free Soilers, antislavery Democrats and Whigs, called the Republicans; and Democrat James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Buchanan won, of course. Fillmore was actually president during part of 1853!

There are two issues of interest to me here. The first, of course, is whether the White House Historical Association has fallen victim to the Mencken hoax, or whether the first plumbed bathtub really was installed in 1853; and the second issue is related: If the tub was installed after March, it would have been in Pierce’s administration (the new president took office in March until 1933). So there were two presidents in 1853, and one of them was Millard Fillmore. Which would get the credit, if 1853 is an accurate year?

Isn’t it somewhat ironic that there is, at this date, a possibility that part of Mencken’s hoax could be verified as accurate?


9/11, opinions, and academic freedom

July 24, 2006

An opinion piece in Sunday’s papers goes to the root of a problem that plagues the teaching of history.

Stanley Fish professes law at Florida International University. In Sunday’s New York Times he offers his views on college professors who indoctrinate their students, as opposed to doctrinaire college professors who teach. Fish draws a careful and reasoned distinction between academic freedom, which he notes is the freedom to study virtually anything and try to bring value to academics with one’s analysis of the subject, and freedom of speech, which in this case includes a freedom for advocacy to indoctrinate students, and a freedom which Mr. Fish claims to be out of line in the classroom.

The article will be available free for a few days at the New York Times’ website.

The case in question involves a teacher with a one-semester contract at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Kevin Barrett teaches “Islam: Religion and Culture.” What makes this course controversial is Mr. Barrett’s saying, on a radio talk show, that he shared with his students his view that the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was perpetrated by the American government, rather than terrorists.

Fish wrote:

Mr. Barrett’s critics argue that academic freedom has limits and should not be invoked to justify the dissemination of lies and fantasies. Mr. Barrett’s supporters (most of whom are not partisans of his conspiracy theory) insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. (This was the position taken by the university’s provost, Patrick Farrell, when he ruled on July 10 that Mr. Barrett would be retained: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.”)

Both sides get it wrong. The problem is that each assumes that academic freedom is about protecting the content of a professor’s speech; one side thinks that no content should be ruled out in advance; while the other would draw the line at propositions (like the denial of the Holocaust or the flatness of the world) considered by almost everyone to be crazy or dangerous.

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