October 25, 1940 – Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. Becomes the first African-American General in the United States Army

Benjamin Davis first entered the military service after high school, in response to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. In 1899, he enlisted as a private in the Regular Army, in a unit commanded by Lieutenant Charles Young, the only African-American officer serving in the U.S. military at that time. Young encouraged Davis’s ambition to become an officer, and helped tutor him for the test, which Davis passed in early 1901. On February 2, 1901, Davis was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the Regular Army, and was sent overseas to serve in the Philippine–American War.


In September 1905, Davis was assigned to Wilberforce University in Ohio as Professor of Military Science and Tactics, a post that he filled for four years then, and again in later years, along with instructing national guard members. In the ensuing years he also served in Liberia, along the Mexican-U.S. border, and back in the Philippines.

Military.com, the largest military and veteran membership organization, reports:

Davis’s service as an officer with the famed “Buffalo Soldiers” regiment in the Philippines and on the Mexican border was exemplary, yet his subsequent assignments as a college ROTC instructor and as a National Guard advisor were far from the front lines. All of his postings, including duty as the military attache to Liberia, were designed to avoid putting Davis in command of white troops or officers.”

Davis was assigned to the New York National Guard during the summer of 1938, and took command of the regiment a short time later. He was promoted to Brigadier General on this day in history, becoming the first African-American general in the United States Army.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. watches a Signal Corps crew erecting poles in France, 1944

Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. watches a Signal Corps crew erecting poles in France, 1944

Davis became Commanding General of 4th Brigade, 2nd Cavalry Division in January 1941. Six months later, he was assigned to Washington, D.C. as an assistant in the Office of the Inspector General and on the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. From 1941 to 1944, Davis conducted inspection tours of African-American soldiers in the United States Army.

On November 10, 1944, Davis was appointed Special Assistant to the Commanding General, Communications Zone, European Theater of Operations. He was influential in the proposed policy of integration using replacement units.

On July 20, 1948, after fifty years of military service, Davis retired in a public ceremony with President Harry S. Truman presiding. He died on November 26, 1970, at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

As military.com suggests:

Davis’s slow, steady, and determined rise in the Army paved the way for countless minority men and women — including his son Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate who in 1954 became only the second African-American general in the U.S. military and the first in the Air Force.”

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.

October 23, 1991 – Clarence Thomas Sworn in as Supreme Court Associate Justice

On this day in history, Clarence Thomas was sworn in by Justice Byron White as the 106th Justice of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice William Rehnquist was to have sworn in Thomas during a ceremony initially scheduled for October 21, but the ceremony was postponed until October 23 because of the death of Rehnquist’s wife. In a great historical irony, Thomas was filling the seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in September 29, 2009

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in September 29, 2009

Clarence Thomas was born near Savannah, Georgia on June 23, 1948. He received a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1974. He served in a number of legal and political positions, and was nominated to the Court by President H.W. Bush.

As Associate Justice, Thomas has an interesting reputation on the Court.

For example, as of February 22, 2014, eight years had elapsed since Thomas asked a single question during a Supreme Court oral argument. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin opined:

His behavior on the bench has gone from curious to bizarre to downright embarrassing, for himself and for the institution he represents.”

This reluctance to speak in public, as well as his tendency to concur with Antonin Scalia in a great many cases, has earned Thomas the sobriquet “Antonin Scalia’s sock puppet.”

Possibly of greater significance where these two justices are concerned, the “New York Times” revealed that Thomas, along with Antonin Scalia, had accepted invitations to “retreats” sponsored by conservative billionaire Charles Koch for political strategizing. Nevertheless, neither of those justices recused themselves in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (558 US 310,2010). According to The Center for Public Integrity:

The Citizens United ruling, released in January 2010, tossed out the corporate and union ban on making independent expenditures and financing electioneering communications. It gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools, calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates.”

Mr. Koch and his brother, David Koch, were among the main beneficiaries of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which valorized these huge amounts of spending as an exercise in “free speech.”

As for Thomas’s jurisprudence, Jeffrey Toobin observes about Thomas:

For better or worse, Thomas has made important contributions to the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court. He has imported once outré conservative ideas, about such issues as gun rights under the Second Amendment and deregulation of political campaigns, into the mainstream.”

Justice Thomas

Justice Thomas

His position on affirmative action, comparing its effects to those of slavery and segregation, have made liberals cringe (and no doubt have Thurgood Marshall rolling over somewhere).

Nevertheless, as Akhil Amar, a liberal professor at Yale Law School, averred, “Thomas’s views are now being followed by a majority of the Court in case after case.”

Tom Goldstein, the publisher and co-founder of SCOTUS blog, wrote: “I disagree profoundly with Justice Thomas’s views on many questions, but if you believe that Supreme Court decision-making should be a contest of ideas rather than power, so that the measure of a justice’s greatness is his contribution to new and thoughtful perspectives that enlarge the debate, then Justice Thomas is now our greatest justice.”

On February 13, 2016, Antonin Scalia died in his sleep at the age of 79. His death may have been behind Justice Clarence Thomas’ decision to ask a question from the bench for the first time in 10 years. That same month, Thomas startled court watchers when he suddenly spoke up asking a line of questions concerning the Second Amendment.

October 21, 1859 – John Brown Justifies His Actions at Harpers Ferry

On October 16, 1859 abolitionist John Brown led a small force in an attack on the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His stated purpose was to steal weapons in an attempt to rally and arm local slaves and abolitionist whites to his cause. He carried with him two documents denouncing slaveholders and emphasizing that citizenship should be guaranteed without respect to race or sex.

His plan was not well-conceived, however, and the raid was unsuccessful. Brown was wounded and captured by a force of marines led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Army. Brown was tried, convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and sentenced to be hanged.

A contemporary newspaper illustration showing the interior of the engine house at Harpers Ferry immediately before the door is broken down by US armed forces.

A contemporary newspaper illustration showing the interior of the engine house at Harpers Ferry immediately before the door is broken down by US armed forces.

Shortly after the raid, John Brown was interviewed by a group of citizens that included a reporter for the New York Herald who published an account of the interview on this day in history. The transcript included the following:

Bystander – Upon what principle do you justify your acts?

Mr. Brown – Upon the golden rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God.

Bystander – Certainly. But why take the slaves against their will?

Mr. Brown – I never did. . . . I want you to understand gentlemen – (and to the reporter of the Herald) you may report that – I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. . . . The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here. . .

Reporter of the Herald – I do not wish to annoy you; but if you have anything further you would like to say I will report it.
Mr. Brown . . . I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better – all you people at the South – prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet. . .”

An 1846 daguerreotype of Brown

An 1846 daguerreotype of Brown

[In particular, one has to love the question from the “Bystander”: “Why take the slaves against their will?”]

October 19, 1960 – Martin Luther King Jr. Arrested at a Sit-in in Atlanta, Georgia

On this day in history, Martin Luther King, Jr., along with dozens of others, was arrested during a sit-in at “The Magnolia Room” in Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta, Georgia. At Rich’s, African Americans could purchase items from the store but they were not allowed to try on clothing or sit at a table in the Magnolia Room. Because Rich’s was an Atlanta institution, Atlanta’s African-American students made the Magnolia Room the center of their struggle for integration. This sit-in took place eight months after the famous sit-in at the F.W. Woolworth Co. lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Since that time, several southern cities had integrated its lunch counters, and students in Atlanta wanted to do the same for their city.

Martin Luther King, Jr. arrested in Atlanta on October 19, 1960

Martin Luther King, Jr. arrested in Atlanta on October 19, 1960

On this day, 52 protestors, including King, were arrested for violating legislation which allowed individuals to be charged with a misdemeanor if they refused to leave private property when asked. Charges against sixteen of the group were dismissed, and another 35 were released on bond. But King was kept in jail because of a previous 12-month probationary sentence on a charge of driving without a valid Georgia license (based on an “anti-trespass” law enacted to curb lunch counter sit-ins). He was now transferred to Reidsville State Prison, where he was then sentenced to four months in a Georgia public works camp.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leaves court after a four-month sentence in Atlanta, Ga., Oct. 25, 1960, for taking part in a lunch counter sit-in at Rich's department store. (AP Photo)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leaves court after a four-month sentence in Atlanta, Ga., Oct. 25, 1960, for taking part in a lunch counter sit-in at Rich’s department store. (AP Photo)

King’s attorneys filed an appeal, and intervention by then presidential candidate John Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy convinced a judge to grand bond. King was released on October 27, two days after he was sentenced and one day after he arrived at the Georgia State Prison.

Review of “Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams” by Louisa Thomas

The author spent five years researching and writing this book on Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of the sixth U.S. President, John Quincy Adams.


In “The Wall Street Journal” Book Section on April 15, 2016, Jane Kamensky reviews a new book on Abigail Adams, observing: “If you can name one woman from the era of the American Revolution, it’s likely Abigail Adams.”

Louisa Adams, as limned by Louisa Thomas, sounds every bit as remarkable as Abigail – maybe more so – and yet there has not been much written about her. From this story, it is clear we have missed out knowing this inspirational woman and First Lady.

Louisa first encountered John Quincy Adams (JQA) when she was 20 and he 28. They met in London, where Louisa was born in 1775. She lived in momentous times, not only because of the events that ensued in the United States, but because of the growing number of debates over rights for women and blacks. (Louisa died in 1852, on the brink of another American cataclysm.)

Louisa Adams

Louisa Adams

JQA sounds like a curmudgeonly husband at best, but it had to be “difficult” for a man of his time to have a wife so intelligent and outspoken as Louisa. His mother, Abigail, was certainly intelligent, but was not only much more genteel in manner, but more accepting of women’s “secondary” role. Louisa was neither one.

Louisa was exceedingly well-read, both for her own time and any time: she read Plutarch, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Shakespeare, Dickens; Voltaire and Molière in French; radical feminists of the time (urging her son Charles to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman); newspapers, literary journals, novels, travelogues, histories; and the Bible, to which she increasingly turned as she aged. In addition to all this, she kept diaries, wrote two autobiographies, and sent frequent letters to her children, and to her in-laws, John and Abigail Adams, informing them of developments on the political scene. (John Adams later wrote to her, “Your journal is a kind of necessary of life to me. I long for it the whole week.”)

John Quincy Adams as a diplomat

John Quincy Adams as a diplomat

When JQA ran for president, this was at a time when it was still frowned upon for a candidate to campaign himself [would that those times still obtained!]. Moreover, JQA was of the mind that people should just know that he was the superior intellect and therefore vote for him. Louisa had a much more realistic view of how the political process operated. Exasperated that JQA couldn’t even bothered to be civil to would-be supporters, she took up the mantle herself: entertaining, cajoling, making the case for her husband’s worthiness, and passing on information to him from political actors.

Louisa’s position on women’s rights were complicated. In that era, the pressures to be “ladylike” were intense, and Louisa felt them keenly. Yet she also was frequently angry over the subjugation of women, writing to her husband (they were frequently separated):

That sense of inferiority which by nature and by law we are compelled to feel, and to which we must submit, is worn by us with as much satisfaction as the badge of slavery generally….”

As for slavery, she was even more conflicted. Her family, to whom she was extremely loyal, owned slaves. And while Louisa felt that the principles of Christianity militated against the system of slavery, she harbored a deep racism toward blacks. She also resented the dangers to her husband when he took up the cause of slavery (he received a number of death threats), wishing that he would leave well enough alone, or let God take care of it, or indeed, anyone else but her husband. At that time, however, unfortunately there was hardly anyone else with the courage to take on the subject.

President John Quincy Adams

President John Quincy Adams

Although she and JQA remained married over fifty years, their marriage was certainly not of the quality that John and Abigail Adams had. Often Louisa resented JQA, and he frequently felt annoyed with her. Yet there had also been, the author finds, “moments of real tenderness, companionship, support, and joy.”

Discussion: The author took great pains to make this book about Louisa rather than about John Quincy, and I think she does a very good job in that respect. Nevertheless, Louisa’s story cannot really be told outside of the story of her husband. Thus, while I think I understand why the author chose not to include pictures of John Quincy, it still would have been nice to have a few included, as well as more than one of Louisa.

Louisa Adams as First Lady

Louisa Adams as First Lady

While I don’t usually opt to read biographies, preferring a broader glimpse at the sociopolitical context of any historical era, the roles played by the extended Adams family in American history in many senses does provide just that.

Louisa Thomas has done a great service by researching the life of a woman whose role in American history has too long gone unrecognized. As the wife of a man who was a Minister to the Great Britain, the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. President, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, her story is as interesting and amazing as John Quincy’s own – in some ways even more, because she was a woman who often had to act on her own and in her husband’s stead.

Evaluation: This is an excellent and illuminating look at a woman’s life well worth contemplating, in the process shedding a great deal of light on American political life in antebellum times via the astute observations of Louisa Adams. Students of early American history and of the history of women’s role in America will find this book most gratifying.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

October 15, 1860 – Lincoln Gets Fashion Advice from an 11-Year-Old Girl

On this day in history, 11-year-old Grace Bedell in Westfield, New York sent Lincoln a letter advising him that a beard would help him get elected as President of the United States.

August 13, 1860 The last beardless photo of Lincoln. 

August 13, 1860
The last beardless photo of Lincoln. 

Lincoln wrote back on October 19, thanking Grace for her letter and began growing a beard. After he was elected, he took an inaugural journey by train from Illinois to Washington, D.C., and stopped in Bedell’s hometown of Westfield, New York. There, Lincoln asked to meet Grace Bedell.

November 25, 1860 One month after Bedell's letter. 

November 25, 1860
One month after Bedell’s letter. 

The February 19, 1861 edition of the “New York World” recounted the meeting as follows:

At Westfield an interesting incident occurred. Shortly after his nomination Mr. Lincoln had received from that place a letter from a little girl, who urged him, as a means of improving his personal appearance, to wear whiskers. Mr. Lincoln at the time replied, stating that although he was obliged by the suggestion, he feared his habits of life were too fixed to admit of even so slight a change as that which letting his beard grow involved. To-day, on reaching the place, he related the incident, and said that if that young lady was in the crowd he should be glad to see her. There was a momentary commotion, in the midst of which an old man, struggling through the crowd, approached, leading his daughter, a girl of apparently twelve or thirteen years of age, whom he introduced to Mr. Lincoln as his Westfield correspondent. Mr. Lincoln stooped down and kissed the child, and talked with her for some minutes. Her advice had not been thrown away upon the rugged chieftain. A beard of several months’ growth covers (perhaps adorns) the lower part of his face. The young girl’s peachy cheek must have been tickled with a stiff whisker, for the growth of which she was herself responsible.”

February 9, 1861 Ten days before seeing Grace Bedell en route to his Inauguration

February 9, 1861
Ten days before seeing Grace Bedell en route to his Inauguration

You can read a copy of both letters here.


Review of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” by Jane Mayer

Jane Mayer has written a very disturbing book about the influence of big money (and I mean very big money) on American politics and society. She details how a handful of billionaire families have utilized tax-exempt private foundations to influence legislation and regulation to benefit their personal financial interests, ostensibly in the interest of “social welfare.”


Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code authorizes the creation of tax exempt corporate entities devoted to “social welfare.” These entities are allowed to engage in electoral politics, and since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, they have done so with a vengeance. Moreover, unlike other entities engaged in electoral politics, 501(c)(4) organizations do not have to disclose the identities of their contributors. Most prominent among the family foundations enjoying this tax largess is that owned by Charles and David Koch.

These two brothers control Koch Industries, the second-largest privately owned company in the United States (with 2013 revenues of $115 billion). The family business was started by their father Fred, who developed a new method for the refinement of heavy crude oil into gasoline. Fred Koch, a great influence on his sons, was one of the 11 founders of the John Birch Society, a far-right advocacy group supporting anti-communism and limited government. The brothers, with profits from their Kansas-based company, have become a major source of support for conservative candidates and causes in American politics that will benefit their financial operations.

Charles Koch in 2012

Charles Koch in 2012

In particular, Mayer describes how the Kochs have funded ostensibly “scientific” research to create the notion that climate change is a hoax. They claim they were driven by principle, “but their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests.” Of course, regulation of the emission of green house gases like carbon dioxide would greatly increase the cost of doing business for many of the Koch businesses.

But the Kochs have not confined their activities to sponsoring the publication of dubious scientific papers. Mayer reports that they have frequently used private detectives to dig up dirt on the private lives of their adversaries and legitimate climate scientists. Moreover, there appears to be plenty of evidence that the Koch’s businesses violated numerous environmental regulations and may have been criminally liable.

Mayer also documents the extent to which the Kochs have used their money and influence to transform the political system, especially at the state level, to one that would favor their antigovernment philosophy. As Alan Ehrenhalt writes in his review of this book for “The New York Times”:

“What the Kochs and their allies have created, in her view, is a private political bank capable of bestowing unlimited amounts of money on favored candidates, and doing it with virtually no disclosure of its source. They have established a Republican Party in which donors, not elected officials, are in charge. In 2011, when House Speaker John Boehner was desperate for Republican votes to prevent the government from defaulting on its debt, he went to see David Koch in Manhattan to plead for help. ‘It had taken years,’ Mayer writes, but the brothers ‘were becoming a rival center of power to the Republican establishment.’”

In some instances, Mayer overstates her case. She sees every conservative cause as intrinsically evil, and any funding of such causes as sinister. She does an injustice to the “Law and Economics Movement” because of support it received from the Olin Foundation, one of her bugbears. John M. Olin, who also made his fortune from the fossil fuel industry – in particular from the coal industry – believed universities were “brainwashing centers” for the liberal left, and dedicated his donations to countering this alleged influence.

John M. Olin

John M. Olin

Olin endowed the still-influential “Law and Economics” curriculum in law schools nationwide, which stresses the importance and “neutrality” of the free market, instead of giving equal or greater value to social considerations that might not be the most economically efficient. The Olin Foundation spent $68 million underwriting its growth. But this movement was already quite influential at the University of Chicago in the early 1960’s without any help from John Olin. The Law and Economics philosophy influenced a whole generation of lawyers, leading to the junking of many anticompetitive regulations, a re-examination of antitrust law, a great reduction in the enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act, and the abolition of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

This small criticism aside, Mayer’s writing had me cringing at the thought of the Kochs, Olins, and a host of even crazier right-wingers promulgating their nonsense, and in many cases, not being required to disclose their identities. In this election cycle, for example, “The New York Times” reported that the political network overseen by the Kochs planned to spend close to $900 million, “to influence legislation and campaigns across the country, leveraging Republican control of Congress and the party’s dominance of state capitols to push for deregulation, tax cuts and smaller government.”


As Bill McKibben characterized the influence of these conservative billionaires in “The New York Review of Books”:

“…the Kochs, and the closely connected group of billionaires they’ve helped assemble, have . . . distorted American politics in devastating ways, impairing the chances that we’ll effectively respond to climate change, reducing voting rights in many states, paralyzing Congress, and radically ratcheting up inequality.”

Evaluation: This well-researched and well-documented important book should be read by all citizens, even if it will probably raise your blood pressure.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Doubleday, 2016