What If?

Conjectural or speculative history can be a silly game, as in “What if the Roman legions had machine guns?” But this historian argues that to enlarge our knowledge and understanding it sometimes makes very good sense to ask …

What if any of the pre-Civil War Presidents had gone mad?

What if Andrew Johnson had been successfully impeached?

What if William McKinley had not been assassinated?

What if there had been no tape-recording system in Nixon’s White House? Read more »

Two Cheers For Optimism

One man measures his life-span against the length of recorded history and finds tidings of comfort and hope

At the risk of being sneered at as a NeoVictorian, I hereby admit to a nineteenth-century belief that, allowing for daily relapses Land hourly alarms, the world of man is improving. I am not by nature a Panglossian sort but, like the grandparent of a precocious child, I am overwhelmed by a sense of how far my still sprouting human species has come in so short a time. Read more »

Democracy Delineated

Declaring himself a “thorough democrat” George Caleb Bingham portrayed the American voter with an artist’s eye—and a seasoned politicians savvy

Between 1847 and 1855 George Caleb Bingham completed a half dozen or so canvases that are among the most unusual and interesting documents in the history of American painting. They are well known to students, critics, and art historians but they are only occasionally reproduced in books that celebrate the “finest” American paintings. Others of Bingham’s works are duly included in such selective compilations, for at his best he was a highly competent artist. Read more »

The First Hurrah

Presidential candidates stayed above the battle until William Jennings Bryan stumped the nation in 1896; they’ve been in the thick of it ever since

The most confident prediction that can be made about the 1980 presidential campaign is that the nominees will invest enormous energy, time, and money in stumping the country.Read more »

Pistols For Two … Coffee For One

“It is astonishing that the murderous practice of duelling should continue so long in vogue,” said Benjamin Franklin. Yet continue it did, often with peculiarly American variations

Few boys survive their school days without using their fists now and then. If these fights are extemporaneous affairs, fought in the immediate heat of anger, they are little more than animal reflex actions. But if they are of the “I’ll see you after school” variety, allowing time for rage to be replaced by trepidation, they become highly complex manifestations of human emotions and social pressures. By the time the young gladiators arrive on the field of combat, usually one or both of them would much prefer to be home watching television.Read more »

American Gothic

The revival in the nineteenth century of medieval motifs in architecture extended from villas and furniture to farmhouses and vineries

Many of the visitors who admire the classic calm of Monticello would be startled if they knew of the original intentions of Thomas Jefferson. In 1771, after he had begun work on the estate, he seriously contemplated building a battlemented tower on a neighboring mountain; and he also planned, though he did not actually erect, “a small Gothic temple of antique appearance” for the graves of his family and retainers. As usual, the master of Monticello was ahead of the times.Read more »

Memo To: Oliver Wendell Holmes From: The Friends Of Old Ironsides Subject: Help!

It was a bright day for the Republic, that afternoon of May 15, 1815, when the U.S.S. Constitution victoriously dropped anchor oil the Battery at New York. Of all the gala homecomings that Castle Clinton’s low brown walls would witness in the next century and a half, none would be charged with more patriotic fervor. Read more »

How to Get Elected

The American system of choosing a President has not worked out badly, far as it may be from the Founding Fathers’ vision of a natural aristocracy

“Elections, my dear Sir,” wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson after perusing a copy of the new Constitution, “Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with terror.” One can imagine the shudder with which both men, could they stand amid the bustle of a modern presidential campaign, would regard that quadrennial “carnival of buncombe.”

The Rise Of The Little Magician

Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s right-hand man, was a master of political intrigue who let nothing block his one unwavering ambition—the Presidency. But sometimes he was too smart for his own good

Early one spring evening in 1829, a brougham, handsomely carved and immaculately kept, jogged at a dignified pace down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. Within was a solitary figure sitting with the pompous grace of a Hindu rajah. He was the new Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren of New York, just arrived after a hard journey from Albany through the wilderness and cities of the seaboard. Recollections of that journey made his solitude welcome. He had much to think about.

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Faces From The Past-V

“My lamp is nearly burned out,” he admitted, “and the last glimmer has come.” For the past two years not a day had passed when he was free of pain; one lung was gone, the other diseased; he was tormented alternately by dropsy and diarrhea, racked by chills and fever. He sat quietly in the armchair, saving himself, a wasted figure in an old-fashioned, snuff-colored coat with high stiff collar.


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