100th anniversary of the “neglected anniversary” of Mencken and Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub – National Bathtub and Presidential Obscurity Day

December 28, 2017

THIS IS IT!

Writer Henry Louis Mencken. This photo, in the archives of the Maryland Historical Society, may have been taken in 1917, the year of Mencken's not-famous-enough hoax on poor old Millard Fillmore.

Writer Henry Louis Mencken. This photo, in the archives of the Maryland Historical Society, may have been taken in 1917, the year of Mencken’s not-famous-enough hoax on poor old Millard Fillmore. Image here via Paris Review.

December 28, 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the false news item, the hoax column written by curmudgeonly newspaperman H. L. Mencken, that lamented the unmarked passing of the anniversary of Millard Fillmore’s “greatest accomplishment,” the placing of a plumbed bathtub in the White House!

Contrary to Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 campaign slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War,” Wilson had just led the U.S. into World War I, on the side of the Allies, the British and French. Mencken was opposed to entering the war, but had thought that if the U.S. got involved it should be on the side of Germany.

So Mencken was quite tuned in to false reports which, he lamented, got picked up by newspapers and spread across the nation. Partly to make a point that news organizations needed to be more careful, and partly because he was on deadline and didn’t have another idea, Mencken created out of thin air a story of the “first” bathtub in the White House, placed by Millard Fillmore (Mencken said) over the objections of experts like the American Medical Association (Mencken claimed).

All hoax.

But that’s where this blog steals its name, and it’s the inspiration for many of us who think false news is bad news and should be stopped, with accurate reports. Be sure to read through to the comments at the end.

And remember: Don’t trust everything you read; read more so you cannot be hoaxed like this.

A Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub December 28 tradition; mostly encore post, but worthy of note on National Bathtub and Presidential Obscurity Day

100 years ago today, on December 28, 1917, this column by H. L. Mencken was published in The New York Evening Mail:

Portrait of H. L. Mencken

1927 Portrait of H. L. Mencken by Nikol Schattenstein; Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore

A Neglected Anniversary

On December 20 there flitted past us, absolutely without public notice, one of the most important profane anniversaries in American history, to wit, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub into These States. Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day.

True enough, it was not entirely forgotten. Eight or nine months ago one of the younger surgeons connected with the Public Health Service in Washington happened upon the facts while looking into the early history of public hygiene, and at his suggestion a committee was formed to celebrate the anniversary with a banquet. But before the plan was perfected Washington went dry (This was war-time Prohibition, preliminary to the main catastrophe. — HLM), and so the banquet had to be abandoned. As it was, the day passed wholly unmarked, even in the capital of the nation.

Bathtubs are so common today that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them. They are familiar to nearly everyone in all incorporated towns; in most of the large cities it is unlawful to build a dwelling house without putting them in; even on the farm they have begun to come into use. And yet the first American bathtub was installed and dedicated so recently as December 20, 1842, and, for all I know to the contrary, it may still be in existence and in use.

Curiously enough, the scene of its setting up was Cincinnati, then a squalid frontier town, and even today surely no leader in culture. But Cincinnati, in those days as in these, contained many enterprising merchants, and one of them was a man named Adam Thompson, a dealer in cotton and grain. Thompson shipped his grain by steamboat down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, and from there sent it to England in sailing vessels. This trade frequently took him to England, and in that country, during the ’30s, he acquired the habit of bathing.

The bathtub was then still a novelty in England. It had been introduced in 1828 by Lord John Russell and its use was yet confined to a small class of enthusiasts. Moreover, the English bathtub, then as now, was a puny and inconvenient contrivance — little more, in fact, than a glorified dishpan — and filling and emptying it required the attendance of a servant. Taking a bath, indeed, was a rather heavy ceremony, and Lord John in 1835 was said to be the only man in England who had yet come to doing it every day.

Thompson, who was of inventive fancy — he later devised the machine that is still used for bagging hams and bacon — conceived the notion that the English bathtub would be much improved if it were made large enough to admit the whole body of an adult man, and if its supply of water, instead of being hauled to the scene by a maid, were admitted by pipes from a central reservoir and run off by the same means. Accordingly, early in 1842 he set about building the first modern bathroom in his Cincinnati home — a large house with Doric pillars, standing near what is now the corner of Monastery and Orleans streets.

There was then, of course, no city water supply, at least in that part of the city, but Thompson had a large well in his garden, and he installed a pump to lift its water to the house. This pump, which was operated by six Negroes, much like an old-time fire engine, was connected by a pipe with a cypress tank in the garret of the house, and here the water was stored until needed. From the tank two other pipes ran to the bathroom. One, carrying cold water, was a direct line. The other, designed to provide warm water, ran down the great chimney of the kitchen, and was coiled inside it like a giant spring.

The tub itself was of new design, and became the grandfather of all the bathtubs of today. Thompson had it made by James Cullness, the leading Cincinnati cabinetmaker of those days, and its material was Nicaragua mahogany. It was nearly seven feet long and fully four feet wide. To make it water-tight, the interior was lined with sheet lead, carefully soldered at the joints. The whole contraption weighed about 1,750 pounds, and the floor of the room in which it was placed had to be reinforced to support it. The exterior was elaborately polished.

In this luxurious tub Thompson took two baths on December 20, 1842 — a cold one at 8 a.m. and a warm one some time during the afternoon. The warm water, heated by the kitchen fire, reached a temperature of 105 degrees. On Christmas day, having a party of gentlemen to dinner, he exhibited the new marvel to them and gave an exhibition of its use, and four of them, including a French visitor, Col. Duchanel, risked plunges into it. The next day all Cincinnati — then a town of about 100,000 people — had heard of it, and the local newspapers described it at length and opened their columns to violent discussions of it.

The thing, in fact, became a public matter, and before long there was bitter and double- headed opposition to the new invention, which had been promptly imitated by several other wealthy Cincinnatians. On the one hand it was denounced as an epicurean and obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic, and on the other hand it was attacked by the medical faculty as dangerous to health and a certain inviter of “phthisic, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs and the whole category of zymotic diseases.” (I quote from the Western Medical Repository of April 23, 1843.)

The noise of the controversy soon reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition reached such strength that it was reflected in legislation. Late in 1843, for example, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Del.) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.

This legislation, I suspect, had some class feeling in it, for the Thompson bathtub was plainly too expensive to be owned by any save the wealthy; indeed, the common price for installing one in New York in 1845 was $500. Thus the low caste politicians of the time made capital by fulminating against it, and there is even some suspicion of political bias in many of the early medical denunciations. But the invention of the common pine bathtub, lined with zinc, in 1847, cut off this line of attack, and thereafter the bathtub made steady progress.

The zinc tub was devised by John F. Simpson, a Brooklyn plumber, and his efforts to protect it by a patent occupied the courts until 1855. But the decisions were steadily against him, and after 1848 all the plumbers of New York were equipped for putting in bathtubs. According to a writer in the Christian Register for July 17, 1857, the first one in New York was opened for traffic on September 12, 1847, and by the beginning of 1850 there were already nearly 1,000 in use in the big town.

After this medical opposition began to collapse, and among other eminent physicians Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared for the bathtub, and vigorously opposed the lingering movement against it in Boston. The American Medical Association held its annual meeting in Boston in 1849, and a poll of the members in attendance showed that nearly 55 per cent of them now regarded bathing as harmless, and that more than 20 per cent advocated it as beneficial. At its meeting in 1850 a resolution was formally passed giving the imprimatur of the faculty to the bathtub. The homeopaths followed with a like resolution in 1853.

But it was the example of President Millard Fillmore that, even more than the grudging medical approval, gave the bathtub recognition and respectability in the United States. While he was still Vice-President, in March, 1850, he visited Cincinnati on a stumping tour, and inspected the original Thompson tub. Thompson himself was now dead, but his bathroom was preserved by the gentlemen who had bought his house from the estate. Fillmore was entertained in this house and, according to Chamberlain, his biographer, took a bath in the tub. Experiencing no ill effects, he became an ardent advocate of the new invention, and on succeeding to the Presidency at Taylor’s death, July 9, 1850, he instructed his secretary of war, Gen. Charles M. Conrad, to invite tenders for the construction of a bathtub in the White House.

This action, for a moment, revived the old controversy, and its opponents made much of the fact that there was no bathtub at Mount Vernon, or at Monticello, and that all the Presidents and other magnificoes of the past had got along without any such monarchical luxuries. The elder Bennett, in the New York Herald, charged that Fillmore really aspired to buy and install in the White House a porphyry and alabaster bath that had been used by Louis Philippe at Versailles. But Conrad, disregarding all this clamor, duly called for bids, and the contract was presently awarded to Harper & Gillespie, a firm of Philadelphia engineers, who proposed to furnish a tub of thin cast iron, capable of floating the largest man.

This was installed early in 1851, and remained in service in the White House until the first Cleveland administration, when the present enameled tub was substituted. The example of the President soon broke down all that remained of the old opposition, and by 1860, according to the newspaper advertisements of the time, every hotel in New York had a bathtub, and some had two and even three. In 1862 bathing was introduced into the Army by Gen. McClellan, and in 1870 the first prison bathtub was set up at Moyamensing Prison, in Philadelphia.

So much for the history of the bathtub in America. One is astonished, on looking into it, to find that so little of it has been recorded. The literature, in fact, is almost nil. But perhaps this brief sketch will encourage other inquirers and so lay the foundation for an adequate celebration of the centennial in 1942.

(Text courtesy of Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k))

The entire history was a hoax composed by Mencken.

Even conservative wackoes appreciate the column.

Content with his private joke, Mencken remained silent about the hoax until a follow-up article, “Melancholy Reflections,” appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 23, 1926, some eight years later. This was Mencken’s confession. It was also an appeal for reason to the American public.

His hoax was a joke gone bad. “A Neglected Anniversary” had been printed and reprinted hundreds of times in the intervening years. Mencken had been receiving letters of corroboration from some readers and requests for more details from others. His history of the bathtub had been cited repeatedly by other writers and was starting to find its way into reference works. As Mencken noted in “Melancholy Reflections,” his “facts” “began to be used by chiropractors and other such quacks as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They began to be cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene.” And, because Fillmore’s presidency had been so uneventful, on the date of his birthday calendars often included the only interesting tidbit of information they could find: Fillmore had introduced the bathtub into the White House. (Even the later scholarly disclosure that Andrew Jackson had a bathtub installed there in 1834—years before Mencken claimed it was even invented—did not diminish America’s conviction that Fillmore was responsible.)

(No, dear reader, probably not correct; surely John Adams brought a bathtub with him when he moved into the White House, then called the President’s Mansion.  Plumbing, hot water, and finally hot water to a bathtub in the president’s residence, were installed between 1830 and 1853, as best I can determine.)

Mencken wrote an introduction to the piece in a later bookA Mencken Chrestomathy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1949):

The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity… Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.

There’s a moral to the story:  Strive for accuracy!

So, Dear Reader, check for accuracy, and question authority.

Fact checks — what else might need to be corrected in this story?

Resources:

Finally, Dear Readers — have you noticed someone falling victim to the hoax of Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub recently?  Give us details in comments, please.

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300 Spartans, led by Leonidas died August 11, 480 B.C.

August 11, 2017

It’s a different Leonidas, but Michael Phelps last year tied a record for winning 12 solo events in Olympics previously held by a man called Leonidas of Rhodes. The record had stood, as best historians can tell, for 2,168 years.

That was August 10, 2016. On August 11, we remember Leonidas of Sparta, for events in war, not peace.

300 popped up on some movie channel back in 2008 as I was preparing to teach world history again.  I did not major in history, and my high school history instruction featured no AP courses (Pleasant Grove High, in Utah, didn’t offer such things then; I assume they do now, but I don’t know).

What I knew about Sparta and the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae came from my reading encyclopedias as a child, and culture.  Never had an occasion to write a speech about the events, though had I known the history better, I might have found some opportunity.  Sen. Orrin Hatch would have loved a compare and contrast speech between the stand of the Spartans and his work against the labor law reform bill in 1977 and 1978; more likely, we could have used the simple historical facts that the stand of the 300 at the same place today would be impossible due to poor soil conservation practices of the local farmers, which has created a plain broad enough for a Persian Army to march through with impunity, never fearing drowning in the sea that no longer exists there.  Thermopylae is a grand historical metaphor for a good orator.  The simple facts of history are important, too — Churchill knew Herodotus’s stories well, and considered them when planning military actions in the area in two world wars.

The movie came up from students in the previous year; it offered, perhaps, a hook for an introduction to world history, explaining why we bother to study it at all.

I got a time delay recording to watch it, which I did, mostly.  Interesting stylization.  Cartoonish characterizations, which one should expect from a movie intended as homage to the graphic novel that directly spawned it, more than an instruction about history.  We might doubt that the Persians had trained and armored rhinoceroses in their armament.  Dialogue — well, this is Hollywood.  It would have been in some dialect of Greek, and no Hollywood scriptwriter would have been able to reproduce it.

What about the battle itself.  World history courses in U.S. high schools should pay attention to this battle, I think.

A monument to Leonidas I - Inscription, Molon Lave, which roughly translates to Come and get it!

A monument to Leonidas I – Inscription, “Molon Lave,” which roughly translates to “Come and get it!”

Several sources dated the climax of the battle as August 11, 480 B.C. — 2,497 years ago. (The battle is said to have occurred during the Olympics that year, too.)

World history classes dig through that period of history in the first semester.  Teachers, it’s time to think about how we’re going to facilitate this history this year.  As always, some bright student will wave a hand in the air and ask, “Mr. Darrell!  How do they know what happened if no one survived, and nobody had their Sony videocorder?”

At least one other student in the course of the day will be surprised to discover the movie wasn’t a filmed-on-the-spot documentary.  But apart from that, how do we know the events well enough to pin it down to one day?  And, since the Greeks surely didn’t use the Gregorian calendar, since it wasn’t invented until the 18th century — how do we know the date?

The short answer is “Herodotus.”  The longer answer may resonate better:  This is one dramatic battle in a year-long fight for the history of the world.  The Greeks were understandably and justifiably proud that they had turned back Xerxes’s armies and navy (The Battle of Salamis, a bit after Thermopylae).  So, these events were preserved in poetry, in the chronicles, in song, in sculpture, and in every other medium available to the Greeks.  Your AP English students will probably tell you the movie reminds them of The IliadThere’s an entré for discussion.

Turning points in history:  Had Xerxes succeeded in avenging his father’s, Darius’s, defeats, and subjugated the Greeks, history would be much different.  The culture the Romans built on, the trading patterns from east to west and around the Mediterranean, the technologies, the myths, and the stories of the battles, would be different. (Remember, one of Darius’s defeats was at the Battle of Marathon, from which we get the modern marathon racing event, the traditional close of the modern Olympics.)

How do we know?  How do we know?

How do you handle that question?  (Tell us in comments, please.)

I like this battle for the way it ties together many of the loose threads that vex high school sophomores.  Is history exciting?  It can be, as the Frank Miller graphic novel and and the Zack Snyder movie demonstrate.  How important is accuracy in making the story exciting?  (Do the rhinoceroses improve the story of the courage of the Spartans, or merely offer a good graphical metaphor for the overwhelming forces of the Persians?)  What happens when one nation invades another — who has the advantage?  Is knowledge of geography important — in battle, for example?  The philosopher Santayana notes that those who do not remember history are “condemned” to repeat it.  Xerxes tried to apply the lessons of the history of his father’s failed invasion; was he successful?  Remember this point:  Napoleon failed in his invasion of Russia in 1812; Adolf Hitler assigned his generals to study Napoleon’s failure, for Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941; so convinced were the Germans that they knew the lessons, they invade Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion.  Did it go any better?  George Washington consciously patterned his life on the great Roman warrior and leader, Cincinnatus — especially in turning over rule once the task was done, as Washington did twice.  What if Washington had, instead, patterned his life after Leonidas?  How might the American Revolution have turned out, and how might the United States have developed, had Washington sacrificed himself as Leonidas did?

The story of the Battle of Thermopylea, the bravery and cunning tactics of Leonidas and the 300, the wars between Persia and the Greek City States, form a good foundation for a study of history at any point after.  It is the stuff of great history, and the stuff of great rhetoric.  It could be the stuff of great AP essays and good writing exercises in general.   Damn the Common Core State Standards*, and damn the misguided Texas critics of CSCOPE, this is a topic I wish more world history teachers would spend some good, profitable time on

Resources and commentary on Thermopylae, Leonidas, and the 300:

More:

Livius.org map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought

Livius.org map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought. Note that, in purple, the map shows where a plain now exists, which was an ocean the Spartans could use to squeeze the Persian Army, about 25 centuries ago. What a difference 25 centuries can make.

_____________

*  Common Core State Standards in social studies actually would support what I’m asking here, if only they weren’t filtered through state school boards who do not value scholarship, but instead wish history to be a checklist of faux-patriotic bullet points to regurgitate.  Here in Texas, we are not affected by Common Core — but we are affected by meddling in history standards by people whose agenda does not include making history exciting and good.  Common Core standards — technically — do not mention Thermopylae.  However, this is the sort of material, including the original texts of Herodotus, whose study the Common Core standards encourage, especially for analysis of the sort I think Thermopylae invites.  Texas TEKS allow mention of the battle, though the Battle of Thermopylae has been purged from the actual standards; Texas lesson plans frequently suggest “watching a film on the Battle of Thermopylae,” and “Answer questions on the battle; trade and grade.”  Teachers infuse those dull words with life — we hope.  Teachers’ actual practice in the classroom is the saving grace for this important history, in Texas; Texas world history teachers face their own Xerxes.  The Texas Lege recently removed the requirement that students study world history, instead giving them a choice of either world history or world geography.  And so the dumbing down of history by (probably well-meaning, but not well-thinking) legislators continues.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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Quote of the Moment: John Kennedy, citizen of Berlin, June 26, 1963 (54 years ago)

June 26, 2017

Rare color photograph of President John Kennedy addressing a crowd in the then-divided city of Berlin, June 26, 1963

Rare color photograph of President John Kennedy addressing a crowd in the then-divided city of Berlin, June 26, 1963

Let us remember ties that bind our nations in brotherhood with other nations, including especially the memorable speech of  U.S. President John F. Kennedy on June 26, in Berlin, in 1963.

From the Smithsonian Magazine site:

June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner”

In West Berlin, President John F. Kennedy delivers the famous speech in which he declares, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Meaning literally “I am a citizen of Berlin,” the statement shows U.S. solidarity with democratic West Berlin, surrounded by communist territory.

View a video of President Kennedy’s speech at American Rhetoric, Top 100 Speeches.

Kennedy’s entire speech was good. It was well drafted and well delivered, taking advantage of the dramatic setting and the dramatic moment. John Kennedy well understood how to give a speech, too.

Below is most of the speech, nearly five minutes’ worth, from a YouTube file — another indication that schools need to open up their filters to allow at least some of the best YouTube material through:

Amazing to look at the massive crowd, and see no magnetometers were in use to check for weapons, and no significant barriers stood between the people and the speakers on the dais. Wouldn’t happen today. O, tempora, o, mores!

You may also want to note these posts:

German government photo and caption: The masses that greeted Kennedy in front of the West Berlin City Hall and throughout the city were jubilant. (© Press and Information Office of the Federal Government; Steiner)

German government photo and caption: The masses that greeted Kennedy in front of the West Berlin City Hall and throughout the city were jubilant. (© Press and Information Office of the Federal Government; Steiner)

Update: NBC News featured the speech on its network feed this evening.

 

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Save

Save


300 Spartans, led by Leonidas died August 11, 480 B.C.

August 11, 2016

It’s a different Leonidas, but Michael Phelps yesterday tied a record for winning 12 solo events in Olympics previously held by a man called Leonidas of Rhodes. The record had stood, as best historians can tell, for 2,168 years.

That was August 10, 2016. On August 11, we remember Leonidas of Sparta, for events in war, not peace.

300 popped up on some movie channel back in 2008 as I was preparing to teach world history again.  I did not major in history, and my high school history instruction featured no AP courses (Pleasant Grove High, in Utah, didn’t offer such things then; I assume they do now, but I don’t know).

What I knew about Sparta and the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae came from my reading encyclopedias as a child, and culture.  Never had an occasion to write a speech about the events, though had I known the history better, I might have found some opportunity.  Sen. Orrin Hatch would have loved a compare and contrast speech between the stand of the Spartans and his work against the labor law reform bill in 1977 and 1978; more likely, we could have used the simple historical facts that the stand of the 300 at the same place today would be impossible due to poor soil conservation practices of the local farmers, which has created a plain broad enough for a Persian Army to march through with impunity, never fearing drowning in the sea that no longer exists there.  Thermopylae is a grand historical metaphor for a good orator.  The simple facts of history are important, too — Churchill knew Herodotus’s stories well, and considered them when planning military actions in the area in two world wars.

The movie came up from students in the previous year; it offered, perhaps, a hook for an introduction to world history, explaining why we bother to study it at all.

I got a time delay recording to watch it, which I did, mostly.  Interesting stylization.  Cartoonish characterizations, which one should expect from a movie intended as homage to the graphic novel that directly spawned it, more than an instruction about history.  We might doubt that the Persians had trained and armored rhinoceroses in their armament.  Dialogue — well, this is Hollywood.  It would have been in some dialect of Greek, and no Hollywood scriptwriter would have been able to reproduce it.

What about the battle itself.  World history courses in U.S. high schools should pay attention to this battle, I think.

A monument to Leonidas I - Inscription, Molon Lave, which roughly translates to Come and get it!

A monument to Leonidas I – Inscription, “Molon Lave,” which roughly translates to “Come and get it!”

Several sources dated the climax of the battle as August 11, 480 B.C. — 2,493 years ago. (The battle is said to have occurred during the Olympics that year, too.)

World history classes dig through that period of history in the first semester.  Teachers, it’s time to think about how we’re going to facilitate this history this year.  As always, some bright student will wave a hand in the air and ask, “Mr. Darrell!  How do they know what happened if no one survived, and nobody had their Sony videocorder?”

At least one other student in the course of the day will be surprised to discover the movie wasn’t a filmed-on-the-spot documentary.  But apart from that, how do we know the events well enough to pin it down to one day?  And, since the Greeks surely didn’t use the Gregorian calendar, since it wasn’t invented until the 18th century — how do we know the date?

The short answer is “Herodotus.”  The longer answer may resonate better:  This is one dramatic battle in a year-long fight for the history of the world.  The Greeks were understandably and justifiably proud that they had turned back Xerxes’s armies and navy (The Battle of Salamis, a bit after Thermopylae).  So, these events were preserved in poetry, in the chronicles, in song, in sculpture, and in every other medium available to the Greeks.  Your AP English students will probably tell you the movie reminds them of The IliadThere’s an entré for discussion.

Turning points in history:  Had Xerxes succeeded in avenging his father’s, Darius’s, defeats, and subjugated the Greeks, history would be much different.  The culture the Romans built on, the trading patterns from east to west and around the Mediterranean, the technologies, the myths, and the stories of the battles, would be different. (Remember, one of Darius’s defeats was at the Battle of Marathon, from which we get the modern marathon racing event, the traditional close of the modern Olympics.)

How do we know?  How do we know?

How do you handle that question?  (Tell us in comments, please.)

I like this battle for the way it ties together many of the loose threads that vex high school sophomores.  Is history exciting?  It can be, as the Frank Miller graphic novel and and the Zack Snyder movie demonstrate.  How important is accuracy in making the story exciting?  (Do the rhinoceroses improve the story of the courage of the Spartans, or merely offer a good graphical metaphor for the overwhelming forces of the Persians?)  What happens when one nation invades another — who has the advantage?  Is knowledge of geography important — in battle, for example?  The philosopher Santayana notes that those who do not remember history are “condemned” to repeat it.  Xerxes tried to apply the lessons of the history of his father’s failed invasion; was he successful?  Remember this point:  Napoleon failed in his invasion of Russia in 1812; Adolf Hitler assigned his generals to study Napoleon’s failure, for Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941; so convinced were the Germans that they knew the lessons, they invade Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion.  Did it go any better?  George Washington consciously patterned his life on the great Roman warrior and leader, Cincinnatus — especially in turning over rule once the task was done, as Washington did twice.  What if Washington had, instead, patterned his life after Leonidas?  How might the American Revolution have turned out, and how might the United States have developed, had Washington sacrificed himself as Leonidas did?

The story of the Battle of Thermopylea, the bravery and cunning tactics of Leonidas and the 300, the wars between Persia and the Greek City States, form a good foundation for a study of history at any point after.  It is the stuff of great history, and the stuff of great rhetoric.  It could be the stuff of great AP essays and good writing exercises in general.   Damn the Common Core State Standards*, and damn the misguided Texas critics of CSCOPE, this is a topic I wish more world history teachers would spend some good, profitable time on

Resources and commentary on Thermopylae, Leonidas, and the 300:

More:

Livius.org map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought

Livius.org map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought. Note that, in purple, the map shows where a plain now exists, which was an ocean the Spartans could use to squeeze the Persian Army, about 25 centuries ago. What a difference 25 centuries can make.

_____________

*  Common Core State Standards in social studies actually would support what I’m asking here, if only they weren’t filtered through state school boards who do not value scholarship, but instead wish history to be a checklist of faux-patriotic bullet points to regurgitate.  Here in Texas, we are not affected by Common Core — but we are affected by meddling in history standards by people whose agenda does not include making history exciting and good.  Common Core standards — technically — do not mention Thermopylae.  However, this is the sort of material, including the original texts of Herodotus, whose study the Common Core standards encourage, especially for analysis of the sort I think Thermopylae invites.  Texas TEKS allow mention of the battle, though the Battle of Thermopylae has been purged from the actual standards; Texas lesson plans frequently suggest “watching a film on the Battle of Thermopylae,” and “Answer questions on the battle; trade and grade.”  Teachers infuse those dull words with life — we hope.  Teachers’ actual practice in the classroom is the saving grace for this important history, in Texas; Texas world history teachers face their own Xerxes.  The Texas Lege recently removed the requirement that students study world history, instead giving them a choice of either world history or world geography.  And so the dumbing down of history by (probably well-meaning, but not well-thinking) legislators continues.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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Quote of the Moment: John Kennedy is a citizen of Berlin, June 26, 1963 (53 years ago)

June 26, 2016

Rare color photograph of President John Kennedy addressing a crowd in the then-divided city of Berlin, June 26, 1963

Rare color photograph of President John Kennedy addressing a crowd in the then-divided city of Berlin, June 26, 1963

Let us remember ties that bind our nations in brotherhood with other nations, including especially the memorable speech of  U.S. President John F. Kennedy on this day, in Berlin, in 1963.

From the Smithsonian Magazine site:

June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner”

In West Berlin, President John F. Kennedy delivers the famous speech in which he declares, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Meaning literally “I am a citizen of Berlin,” the statement shows U.S. solidarity with democratic West Berlin, surrounded by communist territory.

View a video of President Kennedy’s speech at American Rhetoric, Top 100 Speeches.

Kennedy’s entire speech was good. It was well drafted and well delivered, taking advantage of the dramatic setting and the dramatic moment. John Kennedy well understood how to give a speech, too.

Below is most of the speech, nearly five minutes’ worth, from a YouTube file — another indication that schools need to open up their filters to allow at least some of the best YouTube material through:

You may also want to note these posts:

German government photo and caption: The masses that greeted Kennedy in front of the West Berlin City Hall and throughout the city were jubilant. (© Press and Information Office of the Federal Government; Steiner)

German government photo and caption: The masses that greeted Kennedy in front of the West Berlin City Hall and throughout the city were jubilant. (© Press and Information Office of the Federal Government; Steiner)

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


Texas Gov. Abbott sides with cancer, brags about it

October 23, 2015

I get e-mail from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and all too often it leaves me shaking my head in disgust.

This one came today. I suppose one needs to understand that the e-mail is intended to mislead the recipients about what Gov. Abbott is doing.

In the War on Cancer, Abbott has sided with cancer. As Attorney General in the later stages of the wilting administration of the beleaguered Rick Perry, Abbott refused to investigate a Texas Constitutionally-established, billion-dollar fund to support cancer research whose administration then-Gov. Perry had turned over to old political friends.

Tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money went into black holes of bank accounts of Perry’s political supporters.

Abbott should have recused himself from any investigation by his office, because under the laws setting up the research fund, he was on the board.  Any investigation would need to answer the question about what Abbott had done to be sure the funds were spent as the law intended.

Conflicts of interest don’t bother Greg Abbott, though, so long as the conflicts work in favor of his friends, and political donors.

Fortunately for Texas, there is another, separate office to investigate public wrongdoing in state agencies, the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s office. That office indicted one of the cancer agency’s officials (he was convicted of misappropriating $11 million in public funds), and promised to indict more.

This so angered Perry he stepped all over the Texas Constitution to bring down the Travis County DA — and that earned Perry his own indictment after an investigation by a GOP-led task force.  Oh, yeah, there were other shenanigans by Perry that he might have wanted to cover up; but the cancer research abuse already sent one Perry buddy to jail.

You get the idea. Cancer research is political in Texas, and probably not all that serious a concern to GOP elected officials. Cancer is something poor people get. Republicans have health insurance.

For years, Planned Parenthood clinics in Texas and the rest of the nation offered free cancer screenings and checkups to women who otherwise could not get them for lack of money. These services have nothing to do with abortion, but a lot to do with obstetrical and gynecological care poor women cannot get otherwise.

Well, now Greg Abbott has ordered funding for those health care services to stop.

Read Abbott’s fund-raising letter — yes, he wants me (and you) to donate to his unholy campaign against women’s health care — and pay particular attention to how he avoids any mention of what kinds of services this funding cut-off will kill. He wants you to think he’s fighting abortion.

Which might be oddly and rarely true, if his denial of cancer screenings enables cancer to kill a woman who might have later gotten an abortion, or destroy her ability to conceive at all.

See the letter, sent with the subject, “Another win against Planned Parenthood”:

___________________________________

Friend,

Abbott cuts funding for cancer fightAbbott cuts funding for cancer fight disclaimer_______________________________________

So there you have it. Greg Abbott wants you to send him money, because he’s stopped poor women in Texas from getting cancer screenings.

Because, abortion, liberty, guns, and probably, illegal immigrants.

And, because he can get away with it.

How stupid must a Texas politician be to think promoting cancer will help any of those problems? How conniving must one be to try to hoodwink Texans into sending him money, neglecting to mention it’s money to support cutting medical care to women who need it?

How stupid must Texas voters be, if they don’t see through this corrupt ruse?

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89 years ago, May 23, 1926: Mencken confessed Fillmore bathtub hoax, “any facts . . . got there accidentally”

May 23, 2015

Reasons for my annual observance of a moment of silence, here on May 23, for the failed confession of Mr. Mencken should be obvious to even a sleepy reader.  Alas, annually the need grows to call attention to the dangers of hoaxing, as hoaxes particularly in the political life of the U.S. grow in number, in viciousness, and in the numbers of gullibles suckered.  Here, again, is our annual reading of the confession with a few photographs and new links thrown in for easy learning:

May 23, 1926, H. L. Mencken‘s newspaper column confessed his hoax of nine years earlier — he had made up whole cloth the story of Millard Fillmore‘s only accomplishment being the installation of a plumbed bathtub in the White House (in the 1850s known as the Executive Mansion).

H. L. Mencken, America's "wittiest defender of liberty," according to a story in the resurrected American Mercury. Image from American Mercury.

H. L. Mencken, America’s “wittiest defender of liberty,” according to a story in the resurrected American Mercury. Image from American Mercury.

Alas, the hoax cat was out of the bag, and the hoax information still pollutes the pool of history today.

Text of Mencken’s confession, from the Museum of Hoaxes:

Melancholy Reflections

On Dec. 28, 1917, I printed in the New York Evening Mail, a paper now extinct, an article purporting to give the history of the bathtub. This article, I may say at once, was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious…

This article, as I say, was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days, and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction. It was reprinted by various great organs of the enlightenment, and after a while the usual letters began to reach me from readers. Then, suddenly, my satisfaction turned to consternation. For these readers, it appeared, all took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness. Some of them, of antiquarian tastes, asked for further light on this or that phase of the subject. Others actually offered me corroboration!

But the worst was to come. Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men. They began to be used by chiropractors and other such quacks as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They began to be cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene. They got into learned journals. They were alluded to on the floor of congress. They crossed the ocean, and were discussed solemnly in England and on the continent. Finally, I began to find them in standard works of reference. Today, I believe, they are accepted as gospel everywhere on earth. To question them becomes as hazardous as to question the Norman invasion.

* * *

And as rare. This is the first time, indeed, that they have ever been questioned, and I confess at once that even I myself, their author, feel a certain hesitancy about doing it. Once more, I suppose, I’ll be accused of taking the wrong side for the mere pleasure of standing in opposition. The Cincinnati boomers, who have made much of the boast that the bathtub industry, now running to $200,000,000 a year, was started in their town, will charge me with spreading lies against them. The chiropractors will damn me for blowing up their ammunition. The medical gents, having swallowed my quackery, will now denounce me as a quack for exposing them. And in the end, no doubt, the thing will simmer down to a general feeling that I have once more committed some vague and sinister crime against the United States, and there will be a renewal of the demand that I be deported to Russia.

I recite this history, not because it is singular, but because it is typical. It is out of just such frauds, I believe, that most of the so-called knowledge of humanity flows. What begins as a guess — or, perhaps, not infrequently, as a downright and deliberate lie — ends as a fact and is embalmed in the history books. One recalls the gaudy days of 1914-1918. How much that was then devoured by the newspaper readers of the world was actually true? Probably not 1 per cent. Ever since the war ended learned and laborious men have been at work examining and exposing its fictions. But every one of these fictions retains full faith and credit today. To question even the most palpably absurd of them, in most parts of the United States, is to invite denunciation as a bolshevik.

So with all other wars. For example, the revolution. For years past American historians have been investigating the orthodox legends. Almost all of them turn out to be blowsy nonsense. Yet they remain in the school history books and every effort to get them out causes a dreadful row, and those who make it are accused of all sorts of treasons and spoils. The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel.

* * *

As a practicing journalist for many years, I have often had close contact with history in the making. I can recall no time or place when what actually occurred was afterward generally known and believed. Sometimes a part of the truth got out, but never all. And what actually got out was seldom clearly understood. Consider, for example, the legends that follow every national convention. A thousand newspaper correspondents are on the scene, all of them theoretically competent to see accurately and report honestly, but it is seldom that two of them agree perfectly, and after a month after the convention adjourns the accepted version of what occurred usually differs from the accounts of all of them.

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attor...

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attorney General of the United States), left, with Senator Warren G. Harding (later President of the United States) at Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio during the 1920 presidential campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I point to the Republican convention of 1920, which nominated the eminent and lamented Harding. A week after the delegates adjourned the whole country believed that Harding had been put through by Col. George Harvey: Harvey himself admitted it. Then other claimants to the honor arose, and after a year or two it was generally held that the trick had been turned by the distinguished Harry M. Daugherty, by that time a salient light of the Harding cabinet. The story began to acquire corroborative detail. Delegates and correspondents began to remember things that they had not noticed on the spot. What the orthodox tale is today with Daugherty in eclipse, I don’t know, but you may be sure that it is full of mysterious intrigue and bold adventure.

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U....

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U.S. delegation to the International Chamber of Commerce which sailed on Kroonland in 1920. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are the facts? The facts are that Harvey had little more to do with the nomination of Harding than I did, and that Daugherty was immensely surprised when good Warren won. The nomination was really due to the intense heat, and to that alone. The delegates, torn by the savage three cornered fight between Lowden, Johnson, and Wood, came to Saturday morning in despair. The temperature in the convention hall was at least 120 degrees. They were eager to get home. When it became apparent that the leaders could not break the deadlock they ran amuck and nominated Harding, as the one aspirant who had no enemies. If any individual managed the business it was not Harvey or Daugherty, but Myron T. Herrick. But so far as I know Herrick’s hand in it has never been mentioned.

* * *

English: Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier i...

Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in arena before fight at Boyle’s Thirty Acres. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I turn to a more pleasant field — that of sport in the grand manner. On July 2, 1921, in the great bowl at Jersey City, the Hon. Jack Dempsey met M. Carpentier, the gallant frog. The sympathy of the crowd was overwhelmingly with M. Carpentier and every time he struck a blow he got a round of applause, even if it didn’t land. I had an excellent seat, very near the ring, and saw every move of the two men. From the first moment Dr. Dempsey had it all his own way. He could have knocked out M. Carpentier in the first half of the first round. After that first half he simply waited his chance to do it politely and humanely.

Yet certain great newspapers reported the next morning that M. Carpentier had delivered an appalling wallop in the second round and that Dr. Dempsey had narrowly escaped going out. Others told the truth, but what chance had the truth against that romantic lie? It is believed in to this day by at least 99.99 per cent of all the boxing fans in Christendom. Carpentier himself, when he recovered from his beating, admitted categorically that it was nonsense, but even Carpentier could make no headway against the almost universal human tendency to cherish what is not true. A thousand years hence schoolboys will be taught that the frog had Dempsey going. It may become in time a religious dogma, like the doctrine that Jonah swallowed the whale. Scoffers who doubt it will be damned to hell.

The moral, if any, I leave to psycho-pathologists, if competent ones can be found. All I care to do today is to reiterate, in the most solemn and awful terms, that my history of the bathtub, printed on Dec. 28, 1917, was pure buncombe. If there were any facts in it they got there accidentally and against my design. But today the tale is in the encyclopedias. History, said a great American soothsayer, is bunk.

[Emphasis in that last paragraph added here.]

Mencken’s confession gets much less attention than it deserves.  In a just world, this essay would be part of every AP U.S. history text, and would be available for printing for students to read individually in class and to discuss, debate and ponder.  Quite to the contrary, state legislatures today debate whether to require teaching of the hoax that disastrous climate change is not occurring, only 45% of Americans claim to know better for certain; more legislatures work hard to devise ways to insert hoaxes against biology (evolution and human reproduction, notably), astronomy and physics (Big Bang), history and even education (Islam is a root of socialist thought, President Obama is not Christian, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, teachers are socialists).

In 2013, the governing body of the Boy Scouts of America voted on whether to allow homosexual boys to be Scouts — as if an 8-year-old kid joining Cub Scouts knows enough about sex and love, and sex predation, to threaten the Constitution of the U.S. if we allow him to learn how to put alphabet macaroni onto a board spelling out “Mom,” or to learn how to carve an automobile out of a block of wood and race it on a closed-course track.  The so-called Family Research Council (FRC) has conducted a campaign of vicious hoaxes against the measure, even going so far as to purloin official logos of the Boy Scouts to suggest they speak for BSA.  The hoax has millions of victims, they claim.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., GOP Members of Congress call for investigations into wrongdoing evidenced in e-mails between the White House and State Department and CIA, over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens.  To hear the GOP describe it, you’d never know that the GOP opposed President Obama’s actions to save the city of Benghazi from destruction by dictator Muammar Gadhafy a few months before, that the GOP slashed the security budget for all U.S. diplomatic missions, leaving Ambassador Stevens underprotected, that the GOP was opposed to much of the work of Ambassador Stevens, or that the incriminating e-mails were hoaxed up by GOP Congressional staff.  [This paragraph was written two years ago; still oddly valid in 2015.]

Other hoaxes that plague our nation, national security, and freedom from fear:

  • Texans fret that President Obama will invade Texas and annex it into the United States of America.
  • Many business lobbyists scream that rogue scientists cooked up global warming, and tell us that all of us frogs will know when the water is too warm, and can leap to safety later.
  • Any Google or Bing search turns up high dudgeon ne’er-do-gooders who scream that we need to bring back DDT to beat malaria, Ebola, West Nile virus and tooth decay, though DDT has always been available to fight disease-carrying insects, and it won’t work against Ebola, and it’s inappropriate against West Nile.
  • Et cetera.
  • Et cetera.
  • Et cetera.

If you see pale faces among the GOP Congressional staff or the FRC this morning, it may be because the ghost of H. L. Mencken appeared to them last night to give them hell.  We could hope.

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Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience, and repetition of the facts.


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