American Politics at Ten Paces

Strict codes of conduct marked the relationships of early American Politicians, often leading to duels, brawls, and other—sometimes fatal—violence

Numerous books codified the rules of dueling or "code duello," including the 1829 All the Stages of a Quarrel, above, which mapped the position of the duelers' assistants, or seconds, on a dueling ground. Read more »

Compromise 3: Clay and The 1850 Debate

Fistfights broke out in Congress in 1850 over whether the territories just won in the Mexican War should be slave or free—and only a last-minute series of compromises prevented catastrophe

On a raw evening in winter of 1850, a weary-looking, feeble, and desperately ill old man arrived unannounced at the Washington, D.C. residence of Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky had come to seek Webster’s help in his battle to save the Union. He believed that Webster’s legendary eloquence would be essential in preventing what appeared to be a headlong rush by Southern states to secede from the Union and possibly initiate civil war. Read more »

The Bank War

With his usual furious vigor, Andrew Jackson posed a question that continues to trouble us to this day

The alarm bells are ringing for Social Security again. That’s not exactly news— predictions of the exhaustion of its trust fund have been made before. Earlier this year some members of yet another panel of experts proposed a new remedy: to wit, the investment of a part of those reserved billions in private securities instead of lesser-yielding but safer government bonds. That, of course, would make the United States of America a direct player in the market.Read more »

101 More Things Every College Graduate Should Know About American History

You Asked for It

When American Heritage suggested last year that I put together the article that became “101 Things Every College Graduate Should Know about American History,” I accepted the assignment eagerly. None of the many articles I have published in this magazine over the years have attracted half so much attention, and I became so absorbed in thinking of items to include that I soon had far more than could fit into an article. I therefore decided to gather still more.Read more »

The Blighted Life Of The Writer, Circa 1840

The urge to create literature was as strong in the mid-1800s as it is today, but rejections were brutal and the pay was even worse

How does the writing life in preCivil War America compare with that of the 1980s? If you had picked up the New York literary newspaper The New Mirror on Saturday, January 6, 1844, you would have read: “The prices paid now to acceptable magazine-writers are very high, though the number of writers has increased so much that there are thousands who can get no article accepted.Read more »

“the House Shall Chuse Their Speaker…”

And in doing so, the fate of Congress—will it be weak? will it be strong?—is determined

In December, 1847, after Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts had won election as Speaker of the House of Representatives, three of the nation’s most remarkable political leaders stopped by to offer advice. Winthrop, a graduate of Harvard College and scion of one of the country’s most distinguished families, was already a veteran of several Congresses and hardly the kind of man who would seek advice. The office he now held, however, was of immense importance. On him, in part, rested the fate of representative government in the United States.

 
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Lincoln As Poet

In the fall of 1844 a thirty-five-year-old lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, returned after an absence of nearly fifteen years to Spencer County, Indiana, to campaign in behalf of Presidential candidate Henry Clay. He had lived in the county—in the Pigeon Creek neighborhood—from the time he was almost nine years old until he was twenty-one, years of his life that later became legendary when the gangly, rustic youth himself became President of the United States. His mother and only sister were buried there.Read more »

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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Unforgiving Cousin: John Randolph Of Roanoke

John Randolph of Roanoke was a second cousin of Edmund Randolph, President Washington’s first Attorney General and second Secretary of State. It would be difficult to say which of the two careers was the more tragic. There could have been no more striking contrast than that between the two men—the elder, gentle and reflective, his endowments promising happiness and success: the other pursued from childhood by his inner furies. Edmund suffered from the sudden impact of events outside himself. John's defeat came from within. Read more »

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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