January 16, 1801 – Hamilton’s Astute Analysis of Jefferson

On this day in history, Alexander Hamilton wrote a letter to James Bayard (an American lawyer and politician from Wilmington, Delaware and a member of the Federalist Party). In the letter, he makes his objections to the nomination of Aaron Burr for the U.S. Presidency. In the process, he actually defends Thomas Jefferson, by way of comparison, but in so doing, mentions aspects of Jefferson’s character that, while blatantly evident in Hamilton’s time, have tended to get lost in our elevation of the Founding Fathers to the status of deities:

Perhaps myself the first, at some expence of popularity, to unfold the true character of Jefferson, it is too late for me to become his apologist. Nor can I have any disposition to do it. I admit that his politics are tinctured with fanaticism, that he is too much in earnest in his democracy, that he has been a mischevous enemy to the principle measures of our past administration, that he is crafty & persevering in his objects, that he is not scrupulous about the means of success, nor very mindful of truth, and that he is a contemptible hypocrite. But it is not true as is alleged that he is an enemy to the power of the Executive, or that he is for confounding all the powers in the House of Rs.”

It should also be noted that Hamilton was not even aware of all of the “dirty tricks” against him that came from the instigation of Jefferson. You can read all of Hamilton’s remarks to Bayard here.

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Review of “Ike’s Bluff” by Evan Thomas

A number of new studies of Dwight Eisenhower have reassessed him in a much more positive light than he was previously considered. (Historical revisionism of the Eisenhower Administration is not a new phenomenon, but it has picked up speed of late.) Evan Thomas joins the latest list of scholars who aim to elevate Eisenhower’s reputation, and he does so by focusing on his handling of the nuclear threat during his time in office. As Thomas demonstrates in this entertaining history:

The peace and prosperity that marked his two terms in office ‘didn’t just happen, by God’ (quoting Eisenhower)… The 1950’s were boringly peaceful (or are remembered that way) only because Eisenhower made them so.”

The principal thesis of Evan Thomas’s study of Eisenhower’s presidency is that the U.S. was able to keep the peace while simultaneously containing communist expansion during the 1950’s by credibly threatening to use nuclear weapons. That doctrine or policy became know as “massive retaliation,” meaning that the U.S. made it clear that it would use nearly its entire stock of nuclear weapons in any conflict. To Dwight Eisenhower, there were to be no small wars — it was all or nothing. Thomas argues (as does Jim Newton in Eisenhower: The White House Years), Eisenhower was so credible that no one, not even the audacious and provocative Mao Zedong, was willing to risk war with the U.S.

Eisenhower (Ike) benefited from his experience as a card shark. He took up poker at West Point, and won so often and so much that he had to quit to save his reputation. Then he took up bridge, and “was a fierce, take-no-prisoners player.” Both games require intelligence, skill at strategy and forecasting, confidence, and the ability to read one’s opponents. Ike, his staff secretary said, was adept at all of these traits.

These were skills he would take with him to the presidency.

Eisenhower at the Summer Bridge Nationals held at Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington D.C. in 1961

Ike’s first major challenge was to extricate the U.S. from the Korean War. He was elected partially on his promise, “I shall go to Korea.” President Truman famously queried, “What will he do when he gets there?” What he did shortly after returning was to raise the stakes of fighting for the other side. Some historians have claimed that Ike warned the Chinese, using the intermediary of India, that if the war continued the U.S. might feel compelled to use nuclear weapons. Indeed, some of Ike’s advisors later claimed these secret signals turned the tide. But Thomas questions this, in part because Nehru claims he never passed on the message. In any event, Ike greatly increased the bombing of dams and power plants, causing widespread flooding and ruining a year’s rice crop. The ensuing threat of famine was “deeply destructive and demoralizing” in and of itself to North Korea. In addition, the death of Stalin (who supported a dragged-out war to bleed the West), contributed to bringing the North Koreans and Chinese to the negotiating table.

Eisenhower was terribly concerned about the dangers of nuclear war. Accordingly, he developed a coherent strategy to avoid it. Unlike his Army Chief of Staff, the four star general Maxwell Taylor, and other advocates of developing the military ability to fight small wars, Ike thought small wars led to big wars, and in the nuclear age that might mean total war. The way to avoid small wars was to threaten big wars from the beginning, and mean it. Ike wrote that Taylor’s doctrine of flexible response:

…was dependent on an assumption that we are opposed by a people who think as we do with regard to the value of human life. But they do not, as shown in many incidents from the last war…. In the event they should decide to go to war, the pressure on them to use atomic weapons in a sudden blow would be extremely great.”

[Ultimately, General Taylor, critical of Eisenhower’s military policies, retired from active service in July 1959.]

Eisenhower with the Soviet, French, and British leaders on the eve of the 1955 Geneva peace conference

Ike expended serious efforts to induce the Soviets to engage in mutual reduction in arms. At the 1955 Geneva conference (see picture, above), he proposed “Open Skies,” a policy that would allow the Soviet and American reconnaissance planes to freely fly over each other’s territory. He wanted to reduce the threat of surprise attack, “the great fear of the new nuclear age.”

The Russians would not accept because (as we learned later) they were so weak they did not want the US to have a realistic appraisal of their strength.

But the U.S. was even better at craftiness with Ike at the helm. Thomas writes:

His ability to save the world from nuclear Armageddon entirely depended on his ability to convince America’s enemies—and his own followers—that he was willing to use nuclear weapons. This was a bluff of epic proportions.”

Thomas credits Eisenhower with many other wise choices during his presidency, such as his management of the Suez crises of 1956, his handling of volatile and dangerous characters like Chiang Kai-Shek and Curtis LeMay, his decision to emphasize ICBMs rather than bombers, and his avoidance of involvement in Vietnam despite the pleas of the French.

[It should be noted that Eisenhower was critical of the way the US under Lyndon Johnson fought the Vietnam war. Ike’s philosophy was to avoid a war unless you were willing to fight to win. One can only wonder how Ike’s Korean policy of relentless attacks on civilian targets, coupled with the threat of nuclear war, might have fared in Vietnam.]

Ike recognized and regretted that part of the price of avoiding nuclear war was convincing the US populace that the threat was both terrible and real. Yet he avoided letting the country devolve into a modern Sparta or a garrison state. Two bon mots from Thomas in the final chapter summarize the thrust of the book:

Ike was more comfortable as a soldier, yet his greatest victories were the wars he did not fight.”

Lincoln went to war to save the Union. Eisenhower avoided war to save the world.”

Evaluation: This is an excellent book not only for those not yet born during this period, but also for those who were around, but unaware of just how dangerous a time it was.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc., 2012

January 8, 1790 – President Washington Promotes Science and Literature

On this day in history, President George Washington delivered his “First Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union,” beginning “I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs.”

As part of his message, he opined:

The advancement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures by all proper means will not, I trust, need recommendation; but I can not forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home, and of facilitating the intercourse between the distant parts of our country by a due attention to the post-office and post-roads.

Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness. In one in which the measures of government receive their impressions so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours it is proportionably essential.”

You can read his entire address here.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

January 7, 1610: Galileo Goes Sky-Watching and Changes the Universe

The telescope was invented in the Netherlands. The news of the invention spread rapidly, and by 1609 telescopes were for sale in spectacle-makers’ shops throughout Europe. There were even those who used telescopes to observe the moon. But it was Galileo who best refined the telescope for astronomical viewing, subsequently studying not only our own moon, but also discovering the four satellites of Jupiter.

Galileo's original telescope

Galileo’s original telescope

At the end of 1609, Jupiter was the brightest object in the evening sky besides the moon. After Galileo had tinkered with his telescope and finished his lunar observations, he turned his attention to Jupiter. On January 7, 1610, he observed the planet and saw what he thought were three fixed stars near it, strung out in a line. The next night, he saw all three stars to the west of Jupiter. Over the next week he returned to the formation every night. He discovered that not only did the little stars never leave the planet, but they seemed to be carried along with it, and moreover, kept changing their position with respect to each other and to Jupiter. Also, a fourth companion entered the grouping that apparently had been around the other side of the planet during his initial observations.

By January 15th Galileo figured out that the moving bodies were not stars but four moons that were revolving around Jupiter. This proved that not everything in space circled the Earth. Therefore, to Galileo, our planet might not the absolute center of the universe, as the Catholic Church maintained (based on its understanding of the Bible).

Galileo's notes on the moons of Jupiter

Galileo’s notes on the moons of Jupiter

In March of 1610 he published a small book, Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), revealing some discoveries that had not been dreamed of in the philosophy of the time: mountains on the Moon, lesser moons in orbit around Jupiter, and the resolution of what had been thought cloudy masses in the sky (nebulae) into collections of stars too faint to see individually. Other observations followed, including the phases of Venus and the existence of sunspots.


These revelations, particularly about the moons of Jupiter, had a major impact on cosmology. Traditional belief held that there was only one center of motion, which was the earth. All heavenly bodies were believed to rotate around it. Copernicus had postulated that the earth went around the sun while the moon went around the earth, but his theories were considered absurd. (From about 1510 to 1514, Copernicus developed the first general outline of his new heliocentric system and presented it in a short manuscript, but it was not for publication; rather, he circulated it among his friends. He began to write the first book of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in about 1515 and again tried to keep it a secret, since he was concerned about the implications of his discovery. But again, word of his work spread among the circles of mathematicians and astronomers.)

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus

The discovery that Jupiter also had moons, and that they rotated around that planet, not only gave credence to the Copernican theory but shook up the foundations of science, and religion as well.

Galileo continued to disturb the universe, and was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy in 1633. He was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.

January 5, 1934 – The Costigan – Wagner Anti-Lynching bill is Proposed to the Senate

As Wil Haywood reports in his book Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, “since 1900 [to 1934] there had been thirty-five hundred recorded lynchings in the United States; there had been only twelve convictions.” [Note: Statistics exist from 1882 forward; had Haywood taken those numbers into account, the total would have been over forty-six hundred.] Previous attempts to introduce antilynching legislation at the federal level had met with no success. Haywood adds, “President Roosevelt agreed with the need for an antilynching bill, but he retreated from southern opposition to it, and the bill gained no traction.”

In 1934 the NAACP launched a campaign to obtain passage of an antilynching bill introduced by Senators Edward P. Costigan of Colorado and Robert Wagner of New York on this day in history. Like those that preceded it (and failed), the Costigan-Wagner bill placed responsibility for its enforcement with local authorities. Sheriffs who failed to take appropriate action to protect prisoners in their custody could be penalized under the act. Provision was also made to compensate the families of those who had been victimized by mob action.

Senator Edward Prentiss Costigan

Senator Edward Prentiss Costigan

Thurgood Marshall, then serving as Solicitor General of the U.S., sent a letter to Maryland Senator Millard Tydings, urging him to lend support to the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill. Senator Tydings had delayed in taking a stand on the proposed bill and Marshall sought to convince the senator that it was in his interest as “a champion of fair-play and justice” to support the bill. But Senator Tydings had a number of objections to the law, including his belief that the law infringed on “state’s rights.”

Thurgood Marshall in 1936

Thurgood Marshall in 1936

Marshall disagreed, writing in a letter to Senator Tydings on January 29, 1935:

This bill does not deprive the states of a single right which they now have. When the officers of the state either act on behalf of the mob or fail to use reasonable means to prevent them from acting, as was done in the lynching of Claude Neal in Florida; when daily newspapers told of the proposed outrage and invited all to attend; and when the lynching was over, the lawless element with the sanction of officials of the state continued to spew their venomous wrath upon innocent, law-abiding tax-paying Negro citizens . . . how in the name of justice and decency can anyone talk of protecting the rights of such a state when it has forfeited all rights to be classed as a state because of open treason and rebellion?”

It was not until April 15, 1935 that Senator Costigan served notice upon the Senate that upon conclusion of debate on [a farm bill] he would demand consideration of the anti-lynching bill introduced by himself and Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York.

A filibuster was immediately organized to resist the bill’s passage in the Senate.

Much to the disappointment of the African-American community, this bill did not pass and lynchings continued in many Southern states well into the fifties.

January 3, 1959 – Alaska Joins the Union as the 49th State

Alaska became the 49th state of the Union, pursuant to Public Law 85-508, 72 Stat. 339, enacted July 7, 1958 and signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower the same day, allowing for official statehood on this day in history. Overall, Alaska’s land area is 16.1 percent of the entire United States. (Nevertheless, in 2014, Alaska averaged only 1.3 people per square mile, in contrast to 90.2 people per square mile nationally.)


Alaska was famously purchased from Russia on March 30, 1867, when the United States agreed to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million, or for a price of about two cents an acre. The treaty was negotiated and signed by Secretary of State William Seward and the Russian Minister to the United States. Critics of the deal to purchase Alaska called it “Seward’s Folly,” “Seward’s Icebox,” or “Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.” Opposition to the purchase of Alaska subsided with discoveries of gold in Alaska in the 1890’s and 1890’s. Today, of course, Alaska is valued for, inter alia, its black gold, or petroleum. (See summary of the sale and document collection on the Library of Congress web site, here.)

Portrait of Secretary of State William H. Seward.  Brady National Photographic Art Gallery

Portrait of Secretary of State William H. Seward. Brady National Photographic Art Gallery

The United States flag was raised on October 18, 1867, now called Alaska Day, and the region changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, for residents, Friday, October 6, 1867 was followed by Friday, October 18, 1867 — two Fridays in a row, because of the date-line shift.

During the “Department Era,” from 1867 to 1884, Alaska was variously under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army (until 1877), the United States Department of the Treasury from 1877 to 1879, and the U.S. Navy from 1879 to 1884.

In 1884, the region was organized and the name was changed from the Department of Alaska to the District of Alaska.

After the gold rushes in Alaska and the nearby Yukon Territory brought thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska, Alaska was granted territorial status by the U.S. in 1912. But most Alaskans date Alaska’s territorial status from the Organic Act of 1884, Act of May 17, 1884, 23 Stat. 24, which established Alaska as a public land district and provided that the laws of the United States relating to mining claims were to have full force and effect. The Act of August 24, 1912 extended the laws and Constitution of the United States to Alaska and created a territorial legislature. Acts of the legislature were subject to review by the U.S. Congress.

Official state flag of Alaska, adopted in 1959.

Official state flag of Alaska, adopted in 1959.

The Alaska Statehood Act was only approved following more than ten years of active congressional consideration. Major objections to statehood included the lack of contiguity with the rest of the states, a small population, and economic dependency on Federal Government expenditures.

The House report on the Statehood Act indicated that the intent of statehood status was to enable Alaska “to achieve full equality with existing States, not only in the technical juridical sense, but in practical economic terms as well.”

Significantly, Section 4 of the Statehood Act required that “the State and the people of Alaska disclaim any rights to any land, the right or title to which is held by the United States, except for those lands granted or confirmed by the Statehood Act.11 Alaska also disclaims any rights to any lands or other property (including fishing rights) that are held by Alaska Natives or by the United States in trust for them. The United States retains absolute jurisdiction over these Native lands.”

Settlement of any Native land claims was expressly deferred.


As of July 1, 2014 Alaska had 19 organized boroughs, which are equivalent to “counties” in the rest of the United States, with some 80% of the population in just five of the boroughs. Owing to the state’s low population density, most of the land – some 56 percent – is located in the “Unorganized Borough” which, as the name implies, has no intermediate borough government of its own, but is administered directly by the state government. For statistical purposes the United States Census Bureau has divided this territory into ten census areas.

At the time Alaska was granted statehood, the population was barely over 225,000. 2015 census estimates put the population at 737,625, with over half residing in the Anchorage region.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 6.04.07 AM

Global warming has brought new problems to Alaska. According to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey, average annual statewide temperatures have increased significantly over the past 50 years. Across Alaska, significant shifts in vegetation composition and production have already been observed.

Climate change has also affected the sport for which Alaska is perhaps best known, the annual (since 1973) Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It is traditionally run in early March from Settler’s Bay to Nome. Mushers and a team of 21 dogs cover the distance in 9–15 days or more.


But as the LA Times reported:

As the winters have warmed, the Iditarod has become not just a colorful Alaska tradition but a vivid window into the uncertainties presented by the changing climate.”

In 2014, low snow and muddy conditions caused crashes and damaged sleds that ended the race early for some mushers. In 2015, low snow prompted officials to move the start of the race 300 miles north to Fairbanks. Again in 2016, there was very little snow in Anchorage. Race organizers tried hauling snow in by train, but it was mixed with too much debris.

Less snow means higher speeds, and a change in the nature of the race.

Other attractions of Alaska include Denali National Park, the one of the largest in the United States and encompassing North America’s highest mountain; Tracy Arm Fjord; Kenai Fjords National Park; the northern lights; and other natural wonders.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

January 1, 1801 – John Marshall Writes Alexander Hamilton About Jefferson and Burr

On this day in history, John Marshall, who became the fourth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of the same month, on January 31, 1801, wrote to Alexander Hamilton about his opinions of the two candidates for the next president of the United States.

John Marshall

John Marshall

He averred (spelling kept as in original):

…my own mind had scarcely determind to which of these gentlemen the preference was due. To Mr. Jefferson whose political character is better known than that of Mr. Burr, I have felt almost insuperable objections. His foreign prejudices seem to me totally to unfit him for the chief magistracy of a nation which cannot indulge those prejudices without sustaining debt & permanent injury. In addition to this solid & immovable objection Mr. Jefferson appears to me to be a man who will embody himself with the house of representatives. By weakening the office of President he will increase his personal power. He will diminish his responsability, sap the fundamental principles of the government & become the leader of that party which is about to constitute the majority of the legislature.”

But then again, he gathered Burr wasn’t so great either:

Your representation of Mr. Burr with whom I am totally unacquainted shows that from him still greater danger than even from Mr. Jefferson may be apprehended. Such a man as you describe is more to be feard & may do more immediate if not greater mischief. Believing that you know him well & are impartial my preference woud certainly not be for him—but I can take no part in this business. I cannot bring my self to aid Mr. Jefferson. Perhaps respect of myself shoud in my present situation deter me from using any influence (if indeed I possessd any) in support of either gentleman.”

You can read the complete letter here.