101 Things Every College Graduate Should Know About American History

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How precise is the educated American’s understanding of the history of our country? I don’t mean exact knowledge of minor dates, or small details about the terms of laws, or questions like “Who was secretary of war in 1851?” ( Answer: Charles M. Conrad.) But just how well does the average person remember the important facts—the laws, treaties, people, and events that should be familiar to everyone?

What follows is not a test; nor are these items necessarily the most important things to know about American history. But these are all things an American-educated person might reasonably be expected to be familiar with. Most of them can be found in my college textbook The American Nation or in any similar work. A good secondary school teacher might mention any of them in the course of a lecture or class discussion.

If you have never heard of most of these items, either you have a particularly poor memory or teachers like me have not accomplished what we set out to do. On the other hand, if you already know that, in addition to being President Millard Fillmore’s secretary of war, Charles M. Conrad killed a man in a duel (according to the Dictionary of American Biography , he was “very intense in his convictions and tenaciously persistent in support of whatever cause he espoused”) and served at various times in both houses of the United States Congress and in the Confederate Congress, you don’t have to read another word: you know about everything 1 have to say here—and a lot more. But for the majority of readers, here are 101 things you should know about American history.

POLITICS MAKES GOOD SLOGANS

 

1 TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO

Used by the Whie party in 1840, when William Henry Harrison, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, was the Whig presidential candidate, and John Tyler his running mate. The battle, fought in 1811 in Indiana, destroyed the Indian confederacy organized by Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief, and his brother, Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet.

2 54°40′ OR FIGHT

A Democratic rallying cry in the 1844 presidential campaign, referring to the dispute over whether the United States or Great Britain owned the Pacific Northwest, which had been under joint control since 1818. American expansionists, led by the Democratic presidential candidate, James K. Polk, demanded that the United States take over the entire region, which extended to 54°40′ north latitude. In 1846 President Polk agreed to a compromise dividing the region at the 49th parallel.

3 VOTE YOURSELF A FARM

Refers to the Republican party’s promise in the 1860 campaign to give land in the West to anyone who would settle on it. Unlike so many campaign promises, this one was kept, by passage of the Homestead Act of 1862.

4 HE KEPT US OUT OF WAR

A phrase used by Martin Henry Glynn, a former governor of New York, in the keynote speech at the 1916 Democratic Convention, which nominated Woodrow Wilson for a second term. When it and other references to Wilson’s success in maintaining neutrality drew thunderous applause, the Democrats decided to stress that argument in the fall campaign.

5 EVERY MAN A KING

The slogan of the Louisiana senator Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth movement during the Great Depression. Long proposed to confiscate all fortunes of more than five million dollars and all incomes of more than one million dollars, and to use the money to give every American family a house, a car, and an annual income of two thousand dollars or more.

 

6 DON’T SWAP HORSES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREAM

First used by Republicans to persuade voters to reelect Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

7 A CHICKEN IN EVERY POT

(And a car in every garage.) Used by the Republicans in the 1928 presidential campaign to suggest what they liked to call “Coolidge prosperity.”

8 HAD ENOUGH?

The question asked by the Republicans during the 1948 presidential campaign of their candidate, Thomas E. Dewey: after twelve years of “Democratic rule,” they maintained, it was “time for a change.”

9 A CHOICE, NOT AN ECHO

The postwar rallying cry of conservative Republicans opposed to nominating Republicans who favored accepting most New Deal reforms. When, in 1964, the conservatives succeeded in nominating Barry Goldwater for President, they made wide use of the slogan “In your heart you know he’s right,” prompting Democrats to retort …

10 … IN YOUR GUTS, YOU KNOW HE’S NUTS

 

11 A PUBLIC OFFICE IS A PUBLIC TRUST

This 1884 Democratic campaign slogan reminded voters that the Republican candidate (“Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine”) was believed to have sold favors to a railroad while Speaker of the House in the 1870s.

12 WE DO OUR PART

The motto of NRA, the New Deal National Recovery Administration, was used in conjunction with the famous Blue Eagle emblem to identify the products of companies that had adopted NRA codes of fair business practices.

13 NIXON’S THE ONE

Republican slogan in the 1968 presidential campaign, sometimes used by the Democrats on posters bearing the photograph of a very pregnant black woman.