January 19, 1861 – Ireland Notes the Election of A Black President in the U.S.

On January 19, 1861, the Montpelier Vermont Patriot reported that the Argus, a regional newspaper in Ireland, discussed the implications of “a black Man’s” victory for the United States. “No Presidential election has excited so much party feelings as has the election of Abraham Lincoln, a black gentleman,” the Argus opined.

It is easy to see how they became confused. Lincoln was not well-known outside the country, and the Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, consistently castigated Lincoln as a “Black Republican” whose goal was to incite a civil war, emancipate the slaves, and make blacks the social and political equals of whites. (At Douglas’s first debate with Lincoln, on August 21, 1858, Douglas challenged the audience: “If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro.”)

Presumably the current newspapers of Drogheda double-checked before publishing on November 5, 2008….


January 17, 1961 – Eisenhower Warns of a Military-Industrial Complex

Eisenhower delivered his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961. He first observed that the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. . . . We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

He warned:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower delivering his farewell address January 17, 1961

Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, declared in 2010 (speaking at the Eisenhower Library) that America seemed to have an insatiable appetite for more and more weapons:

Does the number of warships we have, and are building, really put America at risk, when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined — 11 of which are our partners and allies?

Is it a dire threat that by 2020, the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?

These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief. They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today.”

There is no gainsaying the close relationship today between the military and the businesses and contractors that serve it. See, for example, the articles “Donald Trump, Palantir, and the Crazy Battle to Clean up a Multibillion-dollar Military Procurement Swamp” by Steven Brill online here and “Danger Zone” by Paul Barrett online here. Then of course there is the scandal involving Blackwater, the contract military firm, and its involvement with the Trump Administration and also with Russia. (Blackwater founder Erik Prince, the brother of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and a Russian close to President Vladi­mir Putin met as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump. You can read more about it here.)

You can read the entire text of Eisenhower’s speech here.

January 16, 1832 – Alabama Passes Laws Restricting Rights of the Native Tribes

When Alabama became a state in 1819, its white residents eagerly anticipated the eventual expulsion of natives in order to have access to their rich agricultural land so they could grow more cotton. Whites argued that Indians were racially inferior and incapable of land management because they viewed land holding very differently from European Americans, and besides, they simply wanted to take their land. State leaders began to insist that Indian nations were not really sovereign; therefore their land was rightfully owned by the states. To encourage Indian emigration, the federal government began offering western territory in exchange for Indian homelands. Most Cherokees refused to emigrate, however, and by the 1820s the Cherokee Nation under its leader John Ross vowed vowed it would not give up one more foot of land.

Cherokee Leader John Ross

Cherokee Leader John Ross

On this day in history, the General Assembly of Alabama enacted provisions prohibiting the Creek and Cherokee from practicing customs or making laws that conflicted with Alabama law. The provision stated, “All laws, usages and customs now used, enjoyed, or practiced, by the Creek and Cherokee nations of Indians, within the limits of this State, contrary to the constitution and laws of this State, be, and the same are hereby abolished.”

This statute was created just three years after another that effectively extended the jurisdiction of Alabama into Creek territory. The Creek Nation had repeatedly and unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government for assistance and protection.


Creek leaders continued organizing efforts to secure their tribal lands,but the 1832 law also declared it illegal for tribal leaders to “meet in any counsel, assembly, or convention” and create “any law for said tribe, contrary to the laws and constitution of this State.” Punishment for violating this law was imprisonment “in the common jail of the proper county, for not less than two, nor more than four, months.”

The 1832 law also provided that the Cherokee and Creek could only testify in court in suits involving other Cherokee and Creek, effectively ensuring that Creeks defrauded and illegally deprived of their land by white intruders would have no recourse in the Alabama courts.

In 1832, in the decision Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that individual states had no authority in American Indian affairs. President Andrew Jackson reportedly responded, reportedly responded: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” While there is no proof he actually said this, members of his administration made clear that was their policy. In fact, from 1814 to 1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating nine out of eleven treaties which divested the southern tribes of their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the west. Many of those treaties had been made not only by using bribery, but by negotiating with members of tribes not authorized to enter into negotiations. The government of course didn’t care, as long as it got the land.

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

In 1830, just a year after taking office, Jackson had pushed though Congress legislation called the “Indian Removal Act,” giving the president power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi. States like Alabama tried to make staying more unpalatable, but the tribes resisted removal; by 1838 only 2,000 had migrated; 16,000 remained on their land. The U.S. government sent in 7,000 troops, forcing the Cherokees into stockades at bayonet point. They were not allowed time to gather their belongings, and as they left, whites looted their homes. They were then marched out in what became known as the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease on their way to the western lands.

By 1837, the Jackson Administration had removed 46,000 Native American people from their land east of the Mississippi, opening 25 million acres of land to white settlement and to slavery.

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835.

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835.

January 14, 2016 – Permanent Split in Episcopal Church Averted

Jesus loves the little children, the song goes, but alas, apparently not necessarily all of them. Especially not gays and women.

On December 3, 2008, as the New York Times reported that Episcopalian conservatives voted to form their own branch of Anglicanism in the U.S. “precipitated by the decision to ordain an openly gay bishop and to bless gay unions.” The role of women and prayer book changes were also bones of contention, according to the Washington Post.

Anglicanism is a loose affiliation of some 85 million people.

Per the Post story, an official statement issued in 2008 after the split by leaders of the 2.2 million-member U.S. church maintained the Episcopal Church remained the only recognized Anglican church in the country:

We simply continue to be clear that The Episcopal Church, along with the Anglican Church of Canada and the La Iglesia Anglicana de Mexico, comprise the official, recognized presence of the Anglican Communion in North America,” Rev. Charles K. Robertson, an advisor to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, said in a statement. “And we reiterate what has been true of Anglicanism for centuries: that there is room within The Episcopal Church for people with different views, and we regret that some have felt the need to depart from the diversity of our common life in Christ.”

But tensions continued to simmer.

On January 14, 2016, the Anglican Communion suspended its American branch, the Episcopal Church, from voting and decision making in the global Anglican Church for the next three years, as reported by The Guardian. This too was a reaction to the Episcopal Church officiating marriages of same-sex couples in church, which the Anglicans contended violated church doctrine:

The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”

The Guardian observed:

The punitive measures and conservative statement came after four days of ‘painful’ talks in Canterbury aimed at moving the world’s 85 million-strong Anglican fellowship beyond deep divisions over homosexuality between liberals and conservatives.”

The Guardian noted that the agreement, averting a permanent split, was seen as a success for Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who had called the church’s leaders to Britain for the talks.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

January 12, 1965 – Death of Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was a celebrated black playwright who was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 12, 1965 and died in New York City at the age of thirty-four from pancreatic cancer on this day in history. Her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, was partially inspired by her family’s legal battle against racially segregated housing laws in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago during her childhood.


In order to meet the needs of growing families in the small black ghetto of Chicago, Lorraine’s father Carl (a prominent real estate broker) purchased large, older houses vacated by white flight and divided them up into small apartments that became known as “kitchenettes.” For his own family, he purchased a house in an area restricted to whites. The Hansberry family was thrust, the playwright said later, into a “hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’” where “howling mobs surrounded” their home. Hansberry was nearly killed when a cement slab was hurled through a window.

Her father joined with the NAACP to initiate a legal challenge against the restrictive covenants that kept blacks out of all-white neighborhoods. This struggle led to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940). The Court ruled in favor of Hansberry, although the ruling was made on technical grounds and did not invalidate all racial covenants.

The legal battle left Hansberry’s father embittered, and he died two years after the Supreme Court decision. Hansberry kept him alive however through her play, A Raisin in the Sun, set in the 1950’s on the Southside of Chicago. The Younger family is a poor black family living in one of the “kitchenette” apartments. When Lena, the mother of Walter and Beneatha, receives insurance money from the death of her husband, everyone is arguing over what to do with the money. Lena decides to use a part of the insurance money to buy a new house in a white neighborhood. The repercussions of this decision, resonating throughout the Younger’s microcosmic world as well as the world outside, propel the action for the remainder of the play.

A Raisin in the Sun has become an American classic, enjoying numerous productions since its original presentation in 1959. The Broadway revival in 2004 brought the play to a new generation, and earned two Tony Awards for individual performances.

Sydney Poitier & Claudia McNeill as Walter & Mama Younger

Sydney Poitier & Claudia McNeill as Walter & Mama Younger

Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She became the first black student to live at her dormitory. She worked for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign and participated in the Young Progressive League, becoming president of the organization in 1949 during her last semester. While still in Madison, she was profoundly affected by a university production of Sean O’Casey ‘s Juno and the Paycock. She was moved by O’Casey’s ability to universalize the suffering of the Irish and later wrote: “The melody was one that I had known for a very long while. I was seventeen and I did not think then of writing the melody as I knew it—in a different key; but I believe it entered my consciousness and stayed there.” She would come to sing that song as a Negro spiritual with her first produced play, A Raisin in the Sun.

In 1950 she left Madison and moved to New York City. In Harlem she began working on Freedom, a progressive newspaper founded by Paul Robeson. In 1952 she became associate editor of the newspaper, writing and editing a variety of news stories that expanded her understanding of domestic and world problems. The rich cultural and intellectual environment of Renaissance Harlem also stimulated Hansberry, and she began composing short stories, poetry, and plays.

In 1953 Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish literature student and songwriter, whom she had met on a picket line protesting discrimination at New York University. Thereafter, she worked as a waitress and cashier, writing in her spare time. After Nemiroff gained success with his hit song, “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” Hansberry was able to devote herself entirely to writing. The working title of A Raisin in the Sun was originally The Crystal Stair after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The new title was from another Langston Hughes poem, which asked: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, / Or does it explode?”

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959 and was an instant success with both critics and audiences. The New York critic Walter Kerr praised Hansberry for conveying “the precise temperature of a race at that time in its history when it cannot retreat and cannot quite find the way to move forward. The mood is forty-nine parts anger and forty-nine parts control, with a very narrow escape hatch for the steam these abrasive contraries build up. Three generations stand poised, and crowded, on a detonating-cap.” (New York Herald Tribune, March 12, 1959). Sidney Poitier played the role of Walter Lee. The film version of 1961, also starring Sidney Poitier, received a special award at the Cannes festival.

Hansberry became a celebrity overnight. The play was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1959, making Lorraine Hansberry the first black playwright, the youngest person, and only the fifth woman to win that award.

Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Nemiroff in the backyard of their home in Croton-on-Hudson

Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Nemiroff in the backyard of their home in Croton-on-Hudson

In 1960 the NBC producer Dore Schary commissioned Hansberry to write the opening segment for a television series commemorating the Civil War. Her subject was to be slavery. The result was The Drinking Gourd, a television play that focused on the effects that slavery had on the families of the slave master and the poor whites as well as the slaves. The play was considered too controversial by NBC television executives and, despite Schary’s objections, was shelved along with the entire project.

A Raisin in the Sun, however, continued to enjoy widespread popularity. In the wake of its’ extended success, Hansberry became a public figure and popular speaker. She declared “all art is ultimately social” and called upon black writers to be involved in “the intellectual affairs of all men, everywhere.” As the civil rights movement intensified, Hansberry helped to plan fund-raising events to support organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).


Early in April 1963, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite the progressive failure of her health during the next two years, she continued her writing projects and political activities. She also completed a photo-essay for a book on the civil rights struggle titled The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964).

In March 1964 she quietly divorced Robert Nemiroff, formalizing the separation that had occurred several years earlier. Only close friends and family had known; their continued collaboration as theater artists and activists had masked Hansberry’s homosexuality. Those outside their close circle only learned of the divorce when Hansberry’s will was read in 1965.


Throughout 1964 Hansberry’s hospitalizations became more frequent as the cancer spread. In May she left the hospital to deliver a speech to the winners of the United Negro College Fund’s writing contest in which she coined the famous phrase, “young, gifted, and black.” She also managed to complete The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which opened to mixed reviews on October 15, 1964.

Lorraine Hansberry’s battle with cancer ended at University Hospital in New York City. She was just thirty-four years old. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window closed on the night of her death.


Hansberry left a number of finished and unfinished projects. In her will, she designated Nemiroff as executor of her literary estate. Hansberry’s reputation continued to grow after her death in 1965 as Nemiroff edited, published, and produced her work posthumously. In 1969 he adapted some of her unpublished writings for the stage under the title To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. The longest-running drama of the 1968 – 1969 off-Broadway season, it toured colleges and communities in the United States during 1970 – 1971. A ninety-minute film based on the stage play was first shown in January 1972.

In 1970 Nemiroff produced on Broadway a new work by Hansberry, Les Blancs, a full-length play set in the midst of a violent revolution in an African country. In 1972 Nemiroff published The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry, which included Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers?, a short play about the consequences of nuclear holocaust. In 1974 A Raisin in the Sun returned to Broadway as Raisin, a musical, produced by Robert Nemiroff. Raisin won a Tony Award as the best musical and ran on Broadway for nearly three years.

In 1987, A Raisin in the Sun, with original material restored, was presented at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and other theaters nationwide. In 1989 this version was presented on national television. The year 2004 saw the first Broadway revival of the play. With the hip-hop star Sean “P. Diddy” Combs in the lead role of Walter Lee, the show attracted a large and diverse audience. For her performance as Lena Younger, Phylicia Rashad won the first Tony for best performance by an actress in a drama ever awarded to an African American woman. Audra McDonald won her fourth Tony for best featured actress for her role as Beneatha.


Nemiroff died of cancer at age 61 on January 17, 2009.

Hansberry made a significant contribution to American theater, despite the brevity of her theatrical life and the fact that only two of her plays were produced during her lifetime. A Raisin in the Sun was a turning point for black artists in the professional theater. One of the most popular plays ever produced on the American stage, it ran for 538 performances on Broadway, attracting large audiences of white and black fans alike. Her position on the political obligations of black writers continues to be an inspiration to her intellectual heirs.

January 11, 1755 – Birthdate of Alexander Hamilton & Review of “Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged A Nation” by John Ferling

John Ferling, a respected scholar of the American Revolution, sets forth the ideological differences between two of our most influential Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Hamilton, and recounts the poisonous enmity between them that arose as a result. The story is relevant even today, since the bitter partisan divide America is now experiencing is quite similar to that which threatened to tear apart the fabric of the country apart in its infancy.


Ferling provides a more dispassionate (i.e., less hagiographic) portrait of the two men than many recent biographies. He is quite good at laying out the philosophies of these two great thinkers, and showing how much they both contributed to the tenor and construction of the new nation. Nevertheless, when it comes to dissecting the personal characteristics of the two men, Ferling goes easier on the shortcomings of Jefferson than he does on Hamilton, even making Hamilton sound a bit like he verged on insanity toward the end of his life.

Hamilton was certainly more volatile and impulsive than Jefferson, but the actions instigated by each of them ended up mirroring the other’s. The main difference, in my view, was that Hamilton was more open about his feelings and actions than Jefferson; Jefferson’s behaviors could be just as egregious, but he cleverly operated almost exclusively behind the scenes, using sycophantic lackeys to do his dirty work (most notably: Virginia Congressman William Branch Giles, newspaperman Philip Freneau, and future presidents James Madison and James Monroe). As Ron Chernow observed in his 2004 magisterial biography Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was a “proficient political ventriloquist” who was “skilled at using proxies while keeping his own lips tightly sealed.” He used other men to hound Hamilton and discredit him, through whatever combination of truth and lies were necessary to accomplish that goal.

In spite of all the time and effort spent by each of these men in attacking the other, they also managed to make major contributions to the establishment of the American Republic. It was largely thanks to Hamilton that the nation was able to grow strong enough to overcome the defects it suffered when bound only by the Articles of Confederation. But Hamilton’s vision included the possibility of a nationstate bound to a plutocracy.

As for Jefferson, it was his radical egalitarian vision (at least in theory) that put into words the dream of equality of opportunity that still inspires those seeking freedom from oppression. (Nevertheless, no matter what interpretation later generations made of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a racist who “believed that blacks were slow, lazy, oversexed, less capable than whites of reasoning, and on the whole an inferior race.” They were, however, suitable for sexual exploitation. Although he claimed he wanted to abolish slavery, he did not want blacks, once freed, to remain in the country.)

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Ferling devotes some space to trying to explain Jefferson’s hypocritical divide between his professions about slavery and the actions he did, or rather, did not, take. Like other historians, Ferling makes a number of excuses for Jefferson. He does, however, admit that Jefferson absolutely would not consider emancipation without expatriation of freedmen and that “he refused to denounce the spread of slavery, and in private he made it clear that if the Union was torn asunder over the issue, he would stand with the South in defense of slavery.” Still, Ferling suggests that Jefferson was no worse than Washington, writing: “Like Washington, Jefferson made a conscious decision to keep others enslaved so that he might live the sumptuous life.”

But there were crucial differences between Washington and Jefferson on slavery. Washington, even Ferling admits, stated that if the Union broke up, he would move to the North and side with them, not with his home state of Virginia. Ferling does not go into Washington’s position on slavery in depth, presumably because it is beyond the purview of the book. But Washington not only struggled more with how to deal with slavery during his life, but would have freed his slaves at or before his death if he had been able to do so. Under the dower laws of the time, many of his slaves either belonged to Martha, or were married to slaves belonging to Martha. He refused to break up slave families, and Martha had no inclination to free her slaves. (After her husband died however, the slaves, who knew that Washington arranged for them to be freed when Martha died, were looking a little too happy for Martha’s comfort level, and she became uneasy that they would try to advance the date of her death. After a year, therefore, she freed them herself.) In contradistinction, Jefferson stipulated that only five of his slaves be freed even upon his death (all of them were from the Hemings family).

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

Regarding the invective and undermining engaged in by each man against the other, it is my distinct impression that Jefferson was the more venomous of the two, and did the most damage. His tactics, however, allowed him to escape the judgment of his fellows (and of history) more unscathed than did Hamilton.

Evaluation: Ferling breaks no new historical ground, but he is a spritely writer about an endlessly fascinating subject. He gives a much more balanced view of Jefferson than many other biographers, and does an excellent job in condensing and illuminating the political philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton. If you are interested in the contributions of these two powerful and formidable men to the American project, this book makes a great introduction.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2013

January 8, 1815 – The British March Against New Orleans

The Battle of New Orleans, begun on this day in history, was the final major battle of the War of 1812. In fact, the war had already officially ended two weeks earlier with the Treaty of Ghent, but the news had not yet reached combatants in New Orleans.

At that time, the British were occupying the Florida Panhandle and attempting a westward expansion through territory in what is now the Gulfport–Biloxi Mississippi metropolitan area. Strategically, the port of New Orleans would have anchored these conquests and given the British control of the Mississippi River, severing vital commercial routes for America. The British began amassing its invasion force in the summer of 1814. The pirate Jean Lafitte warned the Americans of the attack however, and the U.S. government dispatched a frantic message to General Andrew Jackson to proceed immediately to New Orleans and defend the city.

Portrait said to be of Jean Lafitte

Portrait said to be of Jean Lafitte

General Andrew Jackson, for all his other sins, was an excellent war tactician. His outnumbered troops managed to decimate the British lines, who were hampered in large part by the swampy terrain. Within an hour after it started, the fight was ended by the surrender of the British on the battlefield. The assault on Jackson’s fortifications was a fiasco, costing the British some 2,000 casualties including three generals and seven colonels. Jackson’s ragtag outfit had fewer than 100 casualties.

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

Although the battle had no bearing on the outcome of the war, Jackson’s overwhelming victory guaranteed him war hero status, and convinced the Spanish to sell the disputed territory to the U.S.

The Battle of New Orleans was also the last armed engagement between the United States and Britain.