September 30, 1962 – Race Riots Over James Meredith’s Attempt to Enroll as the First African-American Student at the U. of Mississippi

On this day in history, riots erupted on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Town locals, students, and committed segregationists had gathered to protest the enrollment of James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran attempting to integrate the all-white school. More than 120 federal marshals were on hand to protect Meredith, but the crowd turned violent as the sun went down, and authorities struggled to maintain order. When the smoke cleared the following morning, two civilians were dead and scores more were reported injured.

After spending the night of September 30 under federal protection, Meredith was allowed to register for classes the following morning, and became the first black graduate from the university in August 1963.

Chief U.S. Marshal James McShane (left) and Asst Atty General for Civil Rights, John Doar (right) of the Justice Dept, escorting James Meredith to class at Ole Miss

Chief U.S. Marshal James McShane (left) and Asst Atty General for Civil Rights, John Doar (right) of the Justice Dept, escorting James Meredith to class at Ole Miss

September 28, 1850 – U.S. Congress Abolishes Flogging as a Disciplinary Action on U.S. Navy Ships

In the early days of the U.S. Navy, flogging was the most common means of enforcing discipline. A cat-o-nine-tails – a whip composed of nine knotted ropes – was applied to the bare back. Most naval officers believed that flogging was the only practical means of enforcing discipline aboard ship.



Although there had been a number of campaigns to get flogging outlawed over the years, two significant publications exposing the cruelties of flogging had a galvanizing effect on public opinion: Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1840), and White-Jacket, by Herman Melville (1850). Between December 1849 and June 1850 the Senate received 271 petitions from the citizens of various states urging the end of flogging. Democratic Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire had previously tried to get flogging in the Navy abolished, but now the moment was at hand.

On this day in history, Congress abolished flogging in the Navy but did not suggest alternative means of discipline. According to the U.S. Naval Institute:

Naval officers searched for alternative forms of punishment for malefactors, including tattooing, branding, wearing signs of disgrace, confinement in sweatboxes, lashing with thumbs behind the back, tricing up by the wrists, continuous dousing with sea water, straight jackets, and confinement in irons on bread and water. Officers objected to long confinement as a punishment because it removed the sailor from the work force and increased the workload of the innocent.”

Officers sought guidance from the Department of the Navy as to better punishments. In 1853 President Millard Fillmore issued a “System of Orders and Instructions” but the attorney general determined it was an unconstitutional infringement on the power of Congress to make rules for the Navy. Finally in 1855 Congress provided a new system of discipline based on rewards and punishments. But branding with a hot iron or tattooing was still permitted until Congress forbade the practice in 1872.

Banned Books Week September 21-27, 2014 Summary

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Sponsored by the American Library Association, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship by focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books.

On the Banned Books Week website, you can learn about the books most frequently banned over the years, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Call of The Wild, Fahrenheit 451, and For Whom The Bell Tolls, inter alia.

This map shows book challenges by state since 2013.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 6.32.01 AM

Here you can see the reasons most often given for challenging books.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 6.32.12 AM

Finally, here is an article about one person’s attempt to obviate the need for books that represent a threat. “Grace Ann” – a self-proclaimed Conservative Christian, is re-writing Harry Potter, so her children won’t be “turning into witches.” You can read about her project to make Harry Potter more “family friendly” here.

September 26, 1960 – First Televised U.S. Presidential Debate

On this day in history, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced each other before television cameras in front of an estimated 70 million American viewers. The debate was carried simultaneously by all three major television networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS. It was also carried by the radio networks of all three and that of the Mutual Broadcasting System.

Most of the news coverage after the debate focused on the appearance of the two candidates. Kennedy was clearly the more photogenic of the two. Not only was Kennedy young and handsome, but Vice President Nixon had been ill, and appeared pale and unwell. “The New York Times” reported that Nixon “dabbed frequently at the perspiration that beaded out on his chin.”

Today’s presidential candidates are much more aware of the importance of appearance in the televised debates.

First Televised Presidential Debate, September 26, 1960

First Televised Presidential Debate, September 26, 1960

September 24, 1789 – The Judiciary Act of 1789 Signed Into Law

On this date, The Judiciary Act of 1789, officially titled “An Act to Establish the Judicial Courts of the United States,” was signed into law by President George Washington. Article III of the Constitution had established a Supreme Court, but left Congress the authority to create lower federal courts as needed. The Judiciary Act established the structure and jurisdiction of the federal court system and created the position of attorney general. Although amended throughout the years by Congress, the basic outline of the federal court system established by the First Congress remains largely intact today.

George Washington appointed the most Supreme Court justices, eleven in all. Franklin Roosevelt made the second highest number of appointments, nine. These included eight Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the elevation of one already sitting justice to Chief Justice. (That justice was Harlan Fiske Stone, originally appointed to the Court by President Calvin Coolidge.)

George Washington’s appointments

John Jay…………………1789-1795 (Chief Justice)
John Rutledge………….1789-1791
William Cushing………..1789-1810
James Wilson…………..1789-1798
John Blair……………….1789-1795
James Iredell…………..1790-1799
Thomas Johnson……….1791-1793
William Paterson……….1793-1806
John Rutledge………….1795-1795 (Chief Justice)
Samuel Chase………….1796-1811
Oliver Ellsworth………..1796-1800 (Chief Justice)

Franklin Roosevelt’s appointments

Hugo Black………………………………….1937-1971
Stanley Foreman Reed……………………1938-1957
Felix Frankfurter……………………………1939-1962
William O. Douglas………………………..1939-1975
Frank Murphy……………………………….1940-1949
James Francis Byrnes……………………..1941-1942
Robert Houghtwood Jackson…………….1941-1954
Harlan Stone elevated to Chief Justice…1941- 1946
Wiley Rutledge……………………………..1943-1949

Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut was the primary author of The Judiciary Act of 1789

Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut was the primary author of The Judiciary Act of 1789

Review of “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” by Lynne Cheney


Cheney’s biography is a thorough and very well-written but ideologically driven account of James Madison’s life and especially his influence on the Constitution. She writes:

By the time of the Philadelphia convention, Madison was the political equivalent of Mozart in the late 1770s, who after years of writing music was about to create his greatest works. He was Einstein, who after years of studying with ‘holy zeal’ was on the verge of his annus mirabilis, the miracle year of 1905, in which he would establish the basis of the theory of relativity and quantum physics.”

This paragraph is a good example of one of the main problems I had with this book. The hyperbole about Madison is way over the top. While Cheney occasionally mentions at least some of the intellectual contributions of other Enlightenment thinkers in the 1700s (all of whom influenced both Jefferson and Madison) including Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire, basically Madison is to Cheney an original thinker showing a rare genius with few equals in history. She never even mentions the large impact made by the American, Roger Williams, with his seminal 1644 treatise about the freedom of religion, which inspired the Enlightenment figures (particularly John Locke) who then in turn influenced the Americans of the next Century.

Furthermore, she downplays the huge role of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, which is absurd considering that he produced most of the essays. Rather, Cheney contends, it was Madison who was the chief architect and primary interpreter of the Constitution, and “more than any other individual . . . responsible for creating the United States of America in the form we know it today.” Most historians would list Jefferson, Hamilton, and even George Washington in that capacity before they would throw Madison’s name into that hat. [Hamilton's Reports on the Treasury were also voluminous, brilliant, and consequential for the evolving shape of the country.]

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Another complaint I have is Cheney’s depiction of the issues that fired the quest for independence. She mentions the imposition of taxes, for example, but completely omits how many objections to them were related to the fact that they would cut into the profits of successful smugglers, like John Hancock. She also never mentions the anger the colonists felt over the British having the nerve to enforce treaties they made with the Native Americans, rather than just allowing the colonists to take over all that rich land. Similarly, she takes no note of the role George Washington played in actually starting the French and Indian War, only observing that he had a reputation for great courage in that conflict. In other words, like other conservative historians, she is eager to cast the early Americans in the best light, leaving out evidence of their greed, hypocrisy, and other instances of bad behavior.

1772 portrait of Washington painted by Charles Willson Peale, showing Washington in uniform as a colonel of the Virginia Regiment.

1772 portrait of Washington painted by Charles Willson Peale, showing Washington in uniform as a colonel of the Virginia Regiment.

Speaking of bad behavior, Cheney, in enumerating all that Madison had in common with his BFF Jefferson, avers:

They both hated slavery, upon which Virginia’s culture and commerce were built. They understood the contradiction between the liberty they sought for mankind and the servitude they witnessed daily, yet at the end of long lives they would both die owning slaves.”

What she elides over here is that they didn’t just “witness” servitude, they actively participated in it, particularly Jefferson. Jefferson not only pursued slaves who ran away, but had his overseer whip the young male slaves when they didn’t work hard and long enough. Moreover, neither freed their slaves upon their deaths, even, in Jefferson’s case, in spite of promising at least to free the offspring of his mistress, Sally Hemings. (Madison did in fact have a legal problem with dower slaves, so that he wasn’t entirely able to free all of them upon his death even if he so desired. Jefferson, who had no living spouse, did not have that excuse.)

But the meat of the book is a very exhaustive account of Madison’s political life. Cheney provides a lot of minutiae, and quotes extensively from Madison’s papers. Even Dolley, as delightful as she was by all accounts, doesn’t get much coverage in this book. While this makes the book a welcome resource for scholars, it makes it a little too dense for leisurely history reading.

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

Discussion: Some critics have argued that the agenda of the book is to establish Madison’s supremacy as a Constitutional “Founding Father.” This would definitely be of assistance to the right wing of the current Supreme Court because of Madison’s advocacy of strict construction and states’ rights. Madison did in fact write in Federalist No. 45, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”


But Madison, like Jefferson, discovered that once he held the office of President, he regarded the power split quite differently. In fact, he was driven to claim that the very idea that he once supported state nullification was totally wrong. (He seems to have forgotten that he actually authored the Virginia Resolution of 1798. Cheney contends it was Jefferson who inserted the words “null, void, and of no force or effect” into Madison’s draft, but that Madison was too loyal to his friend to point that out.) She also records Madison’s outrage on Jefferson’s behalf when Jefferson’s private letters were disclosed revealing his own lack of hesitation to wield executive power when he thought circumstances called for it. Madison huffed that private communications should remain private.

Cheney also downplays Madison’s darker side. Just to take one example, consider Madison’s authorship of the so-called Helvidius essays. Jefferson often used Madison to do his dirty work. In this instance, in 1793, he wanted Madison to attack Hamilton:

For God’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public.”

Usually, Madison was a willing patsy for Jefferson, although this time, he was not eager to do it for a variety of reasons, some of which had to do with his health and other commitments. In any event, Cheney merely notes that Madison argued “the nuances of legislative versus executive power” and other such academic issues. Ron Chernow, in his biography of Hamilton, provides specific quotes from the essays to show that Madison (anonymously of course) showed little reticence in print, revealing a great deal of animosity as he “flayed Hamilton as a monarchist ….”

Evaluation: Cheney is very polished as a writer, and very detailed (at least when it suits her agenda) as an historian. In most respects, this biography provides a thorough, if a bit white-washed and exaggerated account of Madison’s participation in, and importance to, the founding of the American Republic.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Viking, a Penguin Random House Company, 2014

September 20, 1810 – Thomas Jefferson Weighs In on The Rule of Law

On this date, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John B. Colvin, in which he opined:

The question you propose, whether circumstances do not sometimes occur, which make it a duty in officers of high trust, to assume authorities beyond the law, is easy of solution in principle, but sometimes embarrassing in practice. A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 69 other followers