Exhibit Review: Spirited Republic at the National Archives

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There’s not much I can tell you about this exhibit that the iBook and the National Archives website can’t but here’s a few good finds when/if you decide go:

Courtesy of National Archives

Courtesy of National Archives

  • George Washington’s document to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1792
  • Andrew Jackson’s petition for tax relief from whiskey tax in 1803, wherein he complains that “he could not believe that the United States would draw Money, from the misfortunes, of her Citizens.”
  • FDR’s 1932 Campaign Broadside urging voters to do their part for “repeal” and his White House Cocktail shaker set
  • Benjamin Rush’s “Drunkometer,” a circa 1920s predecessor to the breathalyzer
  • Some temperance postcards, propaganda and some prohibition repeal propaganda
  • IDs of some prohibition agents (like Daisy Simpson, pictured on the left), patents of alcohol paraphernalia approved during prohibition, medical and home-brew work arounds on the Volstead Act
  • A great cartoon by Walter Enright wherein the GOP elephant is walking on a fence between “Wet” and “Dry” country
  • Repeal-era labels from about 40 different beers
  • The Congressional Record books with the 18th and 21st amendment
  • A memorandum from WWII temperance advocates,”Alcohol– Hitler’s Best Friend”
  • Johnny Cash’s letter to Betty Ford in 1984 after she revealed her addiction to pain killers/alcohol

While I really enjoyed the exhibit given my background reading and watching Ken Burns’ series Prohibition, I felt the exhibit could have used more tactile objects. The Archives obviously has mostly paper documents (which are notoriously difficult to display well), it would have been cool to see a keg or a police tools or even just an old-time bottle to add a splash of excitement to the exhibit.

At the beginning of the exhibit, there’s a display of gallon jugs revealing how much alcohol an average American consumed in the 1700s/1800s. It is an impressive start but there’s nothing in the exhibit until the prohibition era that conveys how much alcohol played a role in the early days of the republic beyond an order to suppress a rebellion and a few petitions to the government.

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Event Recap – District of Change: Traffic! Metro! Bikers! How to Survive the D.C. Commute

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On Monday, May 11, 2015, District of Change held an event, “Traffic! Metro! Bikers! How to Survive the D.C. Commute” at the DC Public Library. Here’s a summary:

David Plotz, of Atlas Obscura and Slate, organized a panel of transportation and urban planning experts consisting of the Robert Thomson, who writes on Dr. Gridlock for the Washington Post; Harriet Tregoning, the former head of D.C.’s Office of Planning; and Dan Tangherlini, who has worked at the District’s City Adminstrator and interim General Manager of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. I’ll be referring to them by their initials in the transcript.

Alongside the event was a parallel race to the library from Dupont Circle where four participants raced by car, bicycle, train and bus (including Plotz’s wife, Hanna Rosin, and their daughter) to the library, announcing their arrival amidst the panel discussion.
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With Malice Toward None

soldiers540-d35cda7cac719e51a86334950d884669205cd2e0-s1400Today is the sesquicentennial anniversary of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered a month before the end of the American Civil War. The speech briefly explains Lincoln’s redemptive vision of the war as a bloodletting for the country’s sins. Lincoln historian Gary Wills described in 1999 why the speech deserves its place in the Lincoln monument. He considers it even better than the Gettysburg Address. More recently, the above photo of the inaugural audience surfaced in 2008.

The Bludgeon of History

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This past week, Rudy Giuliani sparked a war of words by questioning President Obama’s “love of country” and his faith at private Republican fundraiser. One thing that struck me that has not been discussed as much is this quote from Giuliani:

What I don’t find with Obama — this will get me in more trouble again — is a really deep knowledge of history. I think it’s a dilettante’s knowledge of history.

In American debate, “history” remains a frequent trump card. It’s been battered to death that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. As law-makers tote pocket Constitutions as evidence of their unsullied ethical prom-pledge, they forget the dirty art of compromise it once embodied.

History does have a powerful hold on the American imagination. We cite stories of victory and loss as if these anecdotes prove something akin to the laws of physics. This is why we still have philosophical fights about the curriculum of classes like AP US History, arguing over how (or whether) to teach students about colonialism, the causes of the Civil War, and dissent in America.

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What Giuliani misses in his criticism is that our reading of history is always selective. His experience having been mayor of New York during September 11, however, does not make him a scholar on Islam.

Some people have studied the long history of the tension between the West and the Middle East and concluded that the two philosophies will always be at odds with each other. Others have studied a time before that when ideas exchanged freely between the two cultures. We cannot choose to make our remembered experiences to be self-evident truths.

It is a folly to summarize the history of these cultures by the Crusades or the attacks on the World Trade Center as if we could make an empirical judgement about the nature of either religion. History can excavate knowledge from the past to give context but it can never draw conclusions.

9/11 commemorationPresident Obama’s favorite Martin Luther King-attributed expression could easily be paraphrased as “The moral arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” For him, American history recalls a hard fought war that eliminated slavery, protests to expand the right to vote to women and blacks, global fights against totalitarianism, and a Civil Rights movement that beckoned for a country to live up to the content of its creed.

While critics should point out lessons from the past that President Obama misses, they would do well to listen to his story too. Perhaps we should hold a summit to address both Giuliani and Obama’s historical blind spots. The syllabus for the first lesson: the ignorance of calling the Bin Laden raid “Geronimo.”

Why Lincoln Laughed by Russell Conwell

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So it seems February contains nearly everyone important’s birthday: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King. But according to a barrage of emails from my alma mater begging for donations, Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University, had a birthday on February 17.

I recently nabbed a 1922 copy of Conwell’s book Why Lincoln Laughed. It’s a great string of yarns and I encourage you to read the whole e-book at the Gutenburg Project.


Conwell recalls going to visit Lincoln in 1864 to get a friend in his Massachussetts regiment pardoned. His friend had been sentenced to death for giving a Northern newspaper to a rebel. He was charged with corresponding with the enemy when he was really fraternizing in No Man’s Land.

Lincoln immediately dismisses the matter, having already discussed it with Secretary Stanton and decided to issue a pardon.

Conwell continues,

The name of my young soldier friend was not mentioned again in the course of what turned out to be a long and wonderful chat about subjects as alien to discipline as music, education, and the cultivation and use of humor. The President had a purpose in detaining me, though at first I did not perceive what this was.


The President voices his regrets about never having a college education, a rant about the inappropriateness of the “highfalutin’ songs” in church, and a digression about his dreams to the detained Conwell A few chapters simply recount Lincoln reading Artemus Ward clippings aloud to the young soldier. It takes a good amount of time for a modern reader to trudge through the dialect as Ward lampoons the president, so here’s a taste:

“Mr. Linkin, who do you spect I air?” sed I.

“A orfice-seeker, to be sure,” sed he.

“Wall, sir,” sed I, “you’s never more mistaken in your life. You hain’t gut a orfiss I’d take under no circumstances. I’m A. Ward. Wax figgers is my perfeshun. I’m the father of Twins, and they look like me—both of them. I cum to pay a friendly visit to the President eleck of the United States. If so be you wants to see me, say so, if not, say so & I’m orf like a jug handle.”

Conwell muses on about how Lincoln appreciated “the importance of mental discipline” and how “he gave humor a high place as an aid to its attainment.” Lincoln recalls one of his favorite encounters between his son, Tad and the satirist.

It seems that Tad came to Ward at the table one day after he had heard somewhere a joke about Adam in Eden. So he said to Mr. Ward, “How did Adam get out of Eden?”

Ward had never heard the conundrum and did not give the answer Tad expected, but he had one of his own, for he exclaimed “Adam was ‘snaked’ out.” It took Tad some little time to fathom this reply and gave him some splendid mental exercise.


In the final chapter of the book, Conwell describes his childhood memory of a man he considered Lincoln’s foil, John Brown. Conwell’s father assisted Brown in housing people escaping slavery on an “underground railway.”

When Conwell tells Lincoln that his mother thought Brown was “monomaniacal and frequently said so,” Lincoln “laughed heartily” but “made no verbal comment.” While both men were earnest and sincere in their beliefs, Conwell says that Brown “lacked the quality of human understanding which Lincoln possessed so richly.”

Tom Wolf and the Death Penalty Plea

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Looks like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf is entering his first non-Yuengling-related policy fight: suspending the death penalty.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, Wolf’s suspension of the death penalty is awaiting a report from a task force studying the issue.

Proponents and opponents of the death penalty have reacted to the news as expected. Opponents of the death penalty have lauded the decision. State house Republicans, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association have all condemned the governor’s moratorium on capital punishment.

One person in the list of opponents to Tom Wolf’s policy stuck out. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams called the action “an injustice to the citizens of this state.” This made me wonder why a pretty liberal District Attorney would disagree so quickly with our recently elected governor. It seems this issue might not be as partisan as I had originally believed.

One thing that struck me is that the death penalty has been used only three times in Pennsylvania since 1978, though there are 186 inmates on death row. Though there is majority support in the state for capital punishment, juries have been reluctant to implement the penalty.

So now a question: Is the pushback to suspending the death penalty related to any other policy effects?

Clearly the heinous nature of the crimes death-row inmates commit stir emotions. But keeping a death penalty that is never actually put to use seems to render it moot, yet people insist it is important. Is it possible there is an alternative reason so many people in the justice system want to defend to the death penalty? Does it serve as leverage for law-enforcement and prosecutors to reduce the court’s caseload?

Without digging too far into this, a study in 2009 argued that states with the death penalty have significantly more plea bargains. Other advocates argue that the death penalty makes no difference in helping prosecute crimes and may actually cause wrongful convictions under the threat of death.

I know this can be a profoundly emotional topic but I also know that a lot of readers have direct experiences that can add to the conversation of how this policy affects our justice system (particularly in Pennsylvania).

Feel free to comment below or email me your thoughts at asmall1863@gmail.com.