Tag Archives: 19th Century

“Madame Abomah” traveled the world in the late 19th Century as the world’s tallest woman


The tragic, failed Presidency of Franklin Pierce

President Franklin Pierce moved into the White House in the years running up to the Civil War. The nation needed a strong leader. Instead, it got a President who would have been weak in the best of circumstances, but was broken after he and his wife witnessed the death of their young son in a train accident a few months prior to the inauguration.

The Presidential podcast:

James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, guides our exploration of Pierce’s tenure in the White House, between 1853 and 1857; along with Edna Greene Medford, who chairs Howard University’s department of history. They discuss not only the policies that happen on the 14th president’s watch, but also the personal tragedy that unfolds right before he takes office.

Like his predecessors, Pierce supported the alleged rights of slaveowners to own other people.

I’ve been reading a bit about slavery in the past year or two, and it’s giving me fresh appreciation for what a monstrous institution it was.


Serve & Protect: History of American police

American police departments were founded in the early 19th Century not to control crime but to combat civil dissent, which took the form of riots. Since then, relationships between police and the communities they’re chartered to serve has been fraught.

The Backstory podcast:

For many Americans, the storyline that played out on August 9 [2014] in Ferguson, Mo. — when an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by a white police officer — is not a new one. But the sustained protests that followed, in which Ferguson police used military equipment for crowd control, have generated a new round of questioning about the role of local police in their communities.

So on this episode, we’re looking at the history of policing in America, and how the police departments we’re familiar with today began to take shape. And we’ll consider what happens when the police don’t protect those they serve….

Scholar Khalil Gibran Muhammad talks with Brian Balogh about how many ethnic groups have shed their criminal reputations through police service, and the more complicated legacy of early African-American officers.

Many ethnic groups, including the Irish and Italians, saw many individuals become police officers, which aided assimilation. African Americans have been blocked from that route.

Also: Technology has shaped the police from the beginning, from the invention of handcuffs to handguns to two-way radios to bodycams.

Presidential conspiracy theories, from Zachary Taylor to JFK


President Zachary Taylor. Is that a face or what?

After dying in office in 1850, President Zachary Taylor’s death was the subject of a conspiracy theory for nearly 150 years. Finally in 1991, a historical novelist convinced Taylor’s family to have his body exhumed to test for arsenic poisoning. The test came up negative.

The JFK assassination is, of course, the subject of a hornet’s nest of conspiracy theories. There’s even a conspiracy theory that the CIA conspired to discredit the phrase “conspiracy theory” – to give people who believe in conspiracy theories the reputation of lunatics. Yes, it’s a conspiracy theory about “conspiracy theory.”

Oddly, very few people use the word “conspiracy” when discussing the one Presidential assassination that’s well-known to be a conspiracy: Abraham Lincoln’s.

The Washington Post Presidential podcast, with Lillian Cunnigham, examines the Taylor administration. Taylor was a hero of the Mexican-American War who didn’t get a lot done as President, because he expected Congress to behave like subordinate officers and obey his commands. That’s not how government works.

Presidential conspiracy theories, from Zachary Taylor to JFK [Lillian Cunningham – The Washington Post]

As president, Taylor kept his distance from Congress and his cabinet, even as partisan tensions threatened to divide the Union. Debate over the slave status of the large territories claimed in the war led to threats of secession from Southerners.

Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not push for the expansion of slavery. To avoid the question, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850. Taylor died suddenly of a stomach-related illness in July 1850, so had little impact on the sectional divide that led to civil war a decade later.

Zachary Taylor [Wikipedia]

And that’s the root of the conspiracy theory surrounding Taylor’s death – that Southern slave-holders poisoned Taylor for blocking the expansion of slavery.


He served just one term, was elected with four major goals, completed all of them, and died a few months after leaving office.

In a feat basically never before or again accomplished in the White House, President James K. Polk managed to execute nearly every single goal he established for himself at the outset of his term in office. So why is he rarely considered among the great American presidents?

In the newest podcast episode of “Presidential,” we explore that question with historian Amy Greenberg, a professor at Penn State University. Greenberg explains Polk’s key traits—in particular, his intense work ethic and his willingness to lie—that made his one term, from 1845 to 1849, so effective. Yet she also reflects on why “effectiveness” may not be the right gauge for greatness.

Musician John Linnell, of the band They Might Be Giants, also makes a guest appearance to discuss the song he composed about James K. Polk and what inspired him to write it.

Among Polk’s goals were annexing California and Texas. But he had to launch an imperialist war based on lies to do it, which might account for his relative obscurity today. Even in 1846, many Americans considered that beyond the pale.

James K. Polk: Getting it done [Lillian Cunnigham – Presidential – The Washington Post]