Have a drink with: James Marsh
Maybe pass on the coffee, though…
Ask him about: Arsenic and old cases
In case you missed, it, I recently wrote at Atlas Obscura about 19th century efforts to take the threat and mystery out of arsenic poisoning, until then one of the most frequent and stealthy means of getting rid of that one person in your life who really can’t take a friggin’ hint. The development of the Marsh Test in the early 1800s meant that suddenly there was a precise, scientific means of figuring out whether someone had been knocked off with history’s own real-life version of iocane powder. Read on:
Have a drink with: The 19th Century Anti-Gun Lobby
“We’re all hot at the same time, and we should do somethin’ about it!”
Ask them about: Background checks
If you watch enough movies – Civil War dramas, Wild West adventures, Five Points gangland brawls, Mel Brooks – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 19th century was one long festival of unmitigated gun violence.
Indeed, in the 1800s, industrialization was the catalyst for mass production and ownership of guns. Prior to that, gun ownership was relatively rare and despite a romantic ideal of the American militia, apparently most of them literally couldn’t hit a barn door.
But what might surprise you is that the American reputation for a history of unchecked gun culture is, on the whole, undeserved. In the 19th century concealed carry prohibitions were common – and serious.
Have a drink with: The Mainstream Media
Fake news. Sad!
Ask them about: thin-skinned Federalists
Today I’m over at the wonderful Historista blog with an essay on how the Trump administration’s media efforts to control news media echo the 1798 Sedition Act.
Go check it out!
Skip drinks because it’s: The Speed Limit
You there, do you know how fast you were going?
Ask it about: Can it drive 55?
Most of us like to think that history is a parade of accomplishments, but when you get down to it somebody has to invent the everyday stuff, too – and as much as it pains me to say so, my home state has done more than most in making the world a duller place. Go ahead and thank Connecticut, pioneer of the boring, for we have given you: wooden nutmeg scandals, government paperwork, car taxes, the insurance industry, and the nation’s first law school.
And as if that weren’t enough, in 1901, my home state was first in the country to set a speed limit for motor vehicles.
No city driving over 12 MPH, now. In the burbs, you can punch it up to 15.
Have a drink with: The Electoral College
Neither elected, nor a college. Discuss.
Ask them about: Any December plans?
Most people hadn’t though much of the Electoral College before the contested Bush-Gore election in 2000, and many assumed that up to that point in American history it had mostly been a smooth, rubber-stamp affair. In truth, before 2000, seventeen elections ended in Presidents elected without a majority of the popular vote, and some scholars have figured out that minor vote shifts – a matter of 75,000 votes or fewer – could have changed the result in half of the elections for which data is available. (see detail here and here)*
So what did the founders mean when they set up this odd institution to elect the President? The Electoral College emerged from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, during which the founders were justifiably pissed off at having to spend their entire summer indoors in Philadelphia.
After long weeks of gridlock and argument over the structure of the Congress for our not-yet-unwrapped nation, there was no break in the fighting between small states and large. The Virginia Plan based the structure of Congress on state population, while the New Jersey Plan insisted each state have equal representation in the legislature. The Connecticut Plan won the day with the suggestion that one house be based on population and the other on equal allocation across states.
Then someone broke the news that they had to figure out how to elect the President, and it was late August by this point. Everyone could agree on one thing: we don’t want to repeat THAT whole mess again, plus we are running out of states after which to name proposals. Can we make the president thing easier? Yes.
Have a drink with: New Haven Puritans
Judge swung his fist down, plunk plunk…
Ask them about: Anything but Quakers.
It’s election season, which means we are faced with ample opportunity to confront our worst tendencies and unresolved problems as a society, along with the inevitable call to harken back to a better, simpler, more moral time in American history.
Just so we’re clear, though, that time was not the 17th century.
Consider The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity, a fascinating collection of thirty-three cases heard before the Puritan courts of the 17th century New Haven Colony and superbly edited by Connecticut superior court judge Jon Blue. We can learn a few things from this book:
- Do not let a few instances of good justice wallpaper over a majority approach that marginalizes citizens and preserves a fear-based status quo.
- Don’t serve sailors booze by the quart.
Have a drink with: William Randolph Hearst
“…an especially dangerous specimen of the class.”
Ask him: How’d you like Citizen Kane?
Kentucky’s William Goebel, who has the unfortunate distinction of being America’s only governor to be assassinated in office, was shot by an unknown gunman in January 1900 during the recount of his own contested election. The author and satirist Ambrose Bierce tactlessly commented in the New York Evening Journal:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
Bierce was at the time a columnist for William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner, and neither was his employer was any fan of President McKinley’s; one of the Hearst papers famously ran an anonymous column in 1901 urging that “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.”
Suffice it to say that when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in September 1901, folks remembered what they’d read in the paper.
Have a drink with: The Twelfth Amendment
Ask it about: Can it get us tickets to Hamilton?
Last week former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote a public letter explaining his considered refusal to declare candidacy in the presidential election. Bloomberg described the election thus far as “doubling down on dysfunction,” and you can’t exactly blame him for that since the delegate situation is a mess, conservatives are allegedly calling for a convention brawl, the Simpsons predicted President Trump back in 2000, and third-party candidacy is suddenly a hot topic).
Bloomberg, though, tucked a little something else in there:
“In a three-way race, it’s unlikely any candidate would win a majority of electoral votes, and then the power to choose the president would be taken out of the hands of the American people and thrown to Congress.”
This is not made up. It’s the Twelfth Amendment, and I can explain it to you. With musicals!
Have a drink at: The White House Egg Roll
Mr. President, can we play in your yard?
Ask Rutherford B. Hayes about: Inviting 600 kids over for Easter
It was 1876. Congress was debating expenditures, and they were in a pickle over the Capitol grounds – every year at Easter, the place was swamped with kids and families rolling dyed eggs down the hills. This in and of itself was ok, but the overall ruckus made a mess of the lawn, and Congress’ landscaping budget was totally dry for the year. Plus, this was an age where cattle still routinely grazed in downtown D.C. and people were totally freaking out the cows.
So Congress, in its characteristic fun-loving spirit, proposed a solution in the form of “An act to protect the public property, turf and grass of the Capitol grounds from injury,” reading:
It shall be the duty of the Capitol police on and after April 29, 1876, to prevent any portion of the Capitol Grounds and terraces from being used as playgrounds or otherwise, so far as may be necessary to protect the public property, turf and grass from destruction or injury.
The President was on board, and the Capitol Building Turf Protection Act was enacted on April 21, 1876. You may now in your mind picture Ulysses S. Grant shaking his fist and shouting, “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!”