101 Things Every College Graduate Should Know About American History


(1917), which contains the famous line “The world must be made safe for democracy.” The speech is remarkable for Wilson’s insistence that “we have no quarrel with the German people. … We fight without rancor and without selfish object.” Such forbearance and Wilson’s promise that victory would result in a “universal dominion of right” helped win liberal support for the war effort, but it contributed to postwar disillusionment when his idealistic hopes were not realized.


(1933), remembered for the line “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” for Roosevelt’s promise “to put people to work,” and perhaps for use of the phrase “good neighbor” when referring to foreign policy. It was an extraordinarily effective speech, but it also contained a good deal of windy political foolishness, and a considerable amount of bad advice. For example, the President felt it necessary to point out that “happiness lies not in the mere possession of money”; he promised to balance the federal budget and urged state and local governments to reduce their expenditures “drastically”; and he claimed that there was an “overbalance of population” in the nation’s cities.


101 It seems almost everyone is unable to remember the year—or even the decade—in which Congress enacted the Missouri Compromise. It was 1820. The compromise admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free one, but it also divided the rest of the land obtained from France by the Louisiana Purchase into slave and free territory at 36°30’ north latitude, Missouri’s southern boundary. Although this legislation satisfied moderates for a generation, by mid-century the slavery issue was becoming ever more intense.

It was addressed again by the Compromise of 1850; the 1820 act itself was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which permitted the residents of those territories to decide the slavery question for themselves. Passed in the forlorn hope of maintaining peace, the new legislation instead triggered bloody civil war in Kansas Territory between proslavery and antislavery settlers.

The violence of the 1850s throws the hopeless compromises of that decade into high relief and makes us less aware of the earlier measure.