A Woman of Honor


Mary Edwards Walker, America’s only female Medal of Honor winner

Approximately 1.8 million American woman are veterans of the armed services.  Of this number only one has received the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award, for her service.  Mary Edwards Walker was a volunteer surgeon during the Civil War, was captured by Confederate forces and imprisoned for four months, and ultimately was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson.

Walker was not the typical 19th century American woman.  She was the only female graduate from her medical school class at Syracuse Medical College in 1855.  When the Civil War started in 1861, she volunteered as a nurse near Washington, D.C. after being denied a commission as a medical officer.  In the fall of 1863, she moved to the bloody Civil War battlefields and was appointed assistant surgeon of the Army of the Cumberland in the war’s Western Theater.  It was during this time that she tended to the wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga, where some of the hardest fighting of the war took place.

After the Battle of Chickamauga, Walker continued to treat both soldiers and civilians.  In 1864, dressed in full uniform south of the Georgia-Tennessee border, Walker accidentally walked into a group of Confederate soldiers and was captured.  She was sent to a military prison in Richmond, Virginia were she was held for approximately four months before being exchanged for a Confederate officer.  Some believe she acted as a Union spy during this period but the evidence on this appears to be inconclusive.

After her imprisonment, Walker received a contract as an “acting assistant surgeon” with the Ohio 52nd Infantry and supervised both a hospital for female prisoners and later an orphanage.  She was able to help the wounded during the Battle of Atlanta while a surgeon in Louisville, Kentucky before the war ended.

Although never commissioned during the Civil War because she was a woman, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill on  November 11, 1865 presenting Walker with the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service.  Walker went on to champion various women’s rights issues, specifically norms regarding women’s dress.  She was not an advocate of the heavy dresses and corsets common to this period, preferring pants and men’s clothing instead.


Mary Edwards Walker (Right) in later years

In 1916, just a few years before her death in 1919, the Army rescinded her medal because she was never officially in the Army.  Walker never gave her medal back, instead she wore it daily for the rest of year life.  In 1977, her medal was restored by Congress and President Jimmy Carter.  She remains the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor and is another example of an individual American who nobly served her country in a time of need.

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A Real British Invasion

burning white house

The British Army burns structures in Washington, D.C. the night of August 24, 1814

One of the more curious nights in American history occurred on the evening of August 24, 1814.  The United States had been at war with Great Britain since June of 1812 when the U.S. felt it needed to stop the British practice of “impressing” American sailors on the high sees into service on British warships and to stop British interference with American trade with France.  Historians declared the conflict as the War of 1812.  For at least one night, the war with the British had disastrous consequences.  The British Army made landfall, defeated a poorly trained American force and then proceeded to burn structures such as the White House and Capitol building.

After making landfall near Benedict, Maryland, a British force of approximately 4,500 soldiers under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross disembarked and began a march towards Washington, D.C.  The Americans, apparently believing the British would target Baltimore and not Washington D.C, began scrambling for a defense of the nation’s capital.

The two sides met at Bladensburg, Maryland, about 6 miles northeast of the Capitol building. The Americans numbered about 6,000 but consisted mostly of militiamen rather than the professional British soldiers.  The seriousness of the situation began to set in as Washington, D.C. residents began to flee the city.  President James Madison and much of his cabinet rode out to witness the battle.  It did not go well.  Despite individual heroism from Americans such as Commodore Joshua Barney who tried gallantly to stop the British advance, most of the American forces became quickly disorganized and retreated.  There was nobody to stop the British.

That afternoon, word got back to the White House or the President’s House as it was commonly referred to at the time, that the city needed to be evacuated.  First Lady Dolly Madison began making arrangements to leave.  However, she refused to do so without the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington that hung in the White House.  Workers could not get the frame with the painting off the wall so Madison ordered the frame broken and the painting cut out.  It eventually made its way to a farm in Virginia.  Other national documents, including the Declaration of Independence had already been packed in linen bags and sent to an empty house in Virginia.

George washington painting

The painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

dolly madison

Dolly Madison

The British entered Washington D.C. just after sunset.  They burned both the House and Senate chambers of the Capitol building as well as the Library of Congress and Supreme Court located inside.  The Washington Navy Yard, including two warships, had been ordered set ablaze by an American captain so they would not fall into enemy hands.

The enemy force then proceeded to the White House.  Much to their astonishment, they found the White House dinning room set for dinner for about 40 people with food and drink ready for consumption.  Dolly Madison had made the arrangement earlier in the day for an expected cabinet meeting that never occurred.  The British enjoyed the meal and after taking a few souvenirs, including personal items of the Madison’s, burned the White House into a shell.  They went on to  burn down the Treasury building and the building that housed the War and State departments.  The British did keep their burning and pillaging to government buildings, choosing to spare private property.

As bad as things were for the Americans, they could have been much worse.  The British abandoned their occupation of the capital after about 26 hours.  Why?  As had occurred at other moments in American history, fortune or the Hand of Providence looked down upon the United States.  A fierce thunderstorm and rare tornado struck the area and forced the unprepared British to flee back to their ships.  The storm was so violent, it tossed British cannons into the air and some British soldiers were killed by flying debris.  The rain doused the flames of the city.

President Madison returned to the city on August 27 after spending the prior few days in Virginia.  Although there was some discussion of moving the U.S. capital to Philadelphia, this never came to pass and the city was rebuilt.  On December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed between the U.S. and Britain, ending the War of 1812.

Although there have been other attacks on the United States such as those at Pearl Harbor and 9/11, this was the only time in American history the capital fell into enemy hands.  It remains a reminder that America needs to be forever vigilant.

Thoughts on the Declaration

calvin coolidge

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States

In 1923, President Warren Harding died in office while on a trip to San Francisco, leaving his vice-president Calvin Coolidge as the 30th president of the United States.  Coolidge took over during a decade known in history as the “Roaring Twenties” for its new technologies and the more abundant lifestyle enjoyed by many Americans.  However, Coolidge was the antithesis of roaring.  His governing style and quiet demeanor earned him the nickname “Silent Cal.” In fact, as historian and Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes described him, he was the “great refrainer” as president, preferring more of a don’t do philosophy rather than embracing the more ambitious agendas of other presidents.  This style had merit, as his presidency was marked by low unemployment, low taxes, higher wages and a budget deficit that was actually lower when he left office than when he took office.

History placed “Silent Cal” in office for the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  On July 5, 1926, Coolidge gave a speech in Philadelphia to commemorate the occasion.  He gave what many historians consider his finest speech, one that traces the historic origins of the Declaration and, above all, places it in a spiritual context.

Coolidge started the speech explaining that the ideas of the Declaration of Independence were not developed quickly, rather they were the careful thoughts of many people going back to to the early colonies.  The Declaration “did not partake of dark intrigue or hidden conspiracy,” rather it “took on the dignity of a resistance to illegal usurpations.”

Coolidge discusses other attempts of self government outside of the American colonies, but believed they lacked the new principles the Declaration created.  He quotes these principles directly from the document itself.  These being the doctrine that all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights and that the source of just power comes from the consent of the governed.

The speech then introduces two early figures in American history, both part of the clergy. The first was Reverend Thomas Hooker of Connecticut who as early as 1638 was stating in sermons that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.”  The other was Reverend John Wise of Massachusetts whose 1710 treatise, “The Church’s Quarrel Espoused” on freedom and civil government was used as an important source for the Founding Fathers.  Wise wrote among many thought-provoking passages that, “Democracy is Christ’s government in church and state.”

The ideas of Hooker and Wise, as well as other early clergy, were important in the drafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights by George Mason.  Published shortly before the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Declaration is widely accepted as a major influence on Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence.  For Coolidge, this progression shows the religious influence the early American clergy made on the Declaration as well as making its message “profoundly American.”  He goes on to describe the Declaration as a “great spiritual document” because, to him, the source of its greatness lies in its religious convictions.

Coolidge goes on to make another important point about the Declaration of Independence. He states, “About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful.”  While it is human nature to want to progress, any progress that deviates away from the Declaration’s basic principles is not progress, rather a dramatic step backwards to a time without them. This is because these principles have finality in them because they are God-given and no progress can be made beyond them.  He later touches on this theme again warning that radical reform of American institutions will cause more harm than good because it takes the country away from its founding ideals.

Coolidge ends his speech discussing the Declaration, in part, this way.  “It is the product of the spiritual insight on the people.  We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things.  These did not create our Declaration.  Our Declaration created them.”

Every American should read the full speech at the link below:

Calvin Coolidge on the Declaration of Independence – July 5, 1926

Celebrating Freedom For 239 Years!

“The Star Spangled Banner” performed by Madison Rising

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The 56 signatures on the Declaration appear in the positions indicated:

Column 1
Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
George Walton

Column 2
North Carolina:
William Hooper
Joseph Hewes
John Penn
South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Arthur Middleton

Column 3
John Hancock
Samuel Chase
William Paca
Thomas Stone
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
George Wythe
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Harrison
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton

Column 4
Robert Morris
Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Franklin
John Morton
George Clymer
James Smith
George Taylor
James Wilson
George Ross
Caesar Rodney
George Read
Thomas McKean

Column 5
New York:
William Floyd
Philip Livingston
Francis Lewis
Lewis Morris
New Jersey:
Richard Stockton
John Witherspoon
Francis Hopkinson
John Hart
Abraham Clark

Column 6
New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett
William Whipple
Samuel Adams
John Adams
Robert Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins
William Ellery
Roger Sherman
Samuel Huntington
William Williams
Oliver Wolcott
New Hampshire:
Matthew Thornton

Supreme Decisions

supreme court building

The Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.

At the center of the judicial branch of our federal government is the Supreme Court of the United States.  Designated by Congress to have nine members, the men and woman of the Court have furnished decisions that have become a vital part of American history.  Ever since the Court granted itself the power of judicial review through its decision in Marbury v. Madison in 1803, a simple majority of five members of the Court can be the final word on the constitutionality of both federal and state laws, as well as executive actions.

The Court’s power has long been the subject of passionate debate.  The Constitutional Framers were very concerned about one branch of the federal government having too much power over the others.  They went to great lengths with the checks and balances placed in the Constitution to make sure no one body or individual became the source of absolute power.  They placed in Congress the power to create the size of the Supreme Court and to establish the lower federal court system.  They also placed in Congress the power to regulate the original and appellate jurisdiction of all the federal courts, with specific exceptions stated.

A good understanding of the view the Framers took regarding the role of the Judiciary comes from Alexander Hamilton who wrote in Federalist 78 the following:  “Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive, that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them…”

By granting itself the power of judicial review, the Court forever changed the judiciary’s role in our republic.  It is a power not expressly granted in Article III of the Constitution although there appears to be some consensus that judicial review is at least an implied power in the Constitution.  Some scholars believe it was deliberately left out of the Constitution because it was assumed to be a power of the federal judiciary and thus it was unnecessary to enumerate it.  Others believe the Framers simply did not contemplate the issue during the drafting of the Constitution.

The opposing position is that the Framers did not include judicial review in the Constitution because they never intended it to be a power of the federal judiciary.  The Court was only to decide on criminal and civil cases, not the constitutionality of laws.  In fact, upon hearing about the Marbury decision, Thomas Jefferson feared it “would make the Judiciary a despotic branch.”

However one feels about the merits or deficiencies of judicial review, the historical evidence suggests the Framers had no intention in allowing five unelected lawyers the power to decide wide-ranging and important social, economic and political questions outside the other branches of government.  However, this is what has happened.  The Supreme Court can grant itself the power to hear certain cases as long as certain criteria are met and rule on them with little recourse from the elected branches.

Regardless of how the power came to be, judicial review is a part of the American system. How has the Court used this power over the years?  One example is shown through the Court’s treatment of segregation.

After the Civil War and the end of slavery, many Southern states segregated services such as public transportation and schools, among others, along racial lines.  But what many Americans might not know is that the Supreme Court was in a position to end racial segregation.  It did not.  On May 18, 1896, eight members of the Court established a policy known as “separate but equal” through its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that allowed for separate public facilities based on race.  This despite the fact that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1868.

Only Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner, dissented from the opinion.  His dissent is an example of the sometimes elegant rhetoric Supreme Court justices have authored.  He wrote in part:

“In view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens.  There is no caste here.  Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.  In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.  The humblest is the peer of the most powerful.  The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved…”

It wasn’t until May 17, 1954 that the Court revisited the “separate but equal” doctrine. Through its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ended segregation of public schools.  Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:  “To separate them [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone.”  The Court declared:  “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate by equal’ has no place.”  Although the decision only applied to schools, the Court would eliminate segregation in other areas in subsequent rulings.

supreme court justices

The Current Justices of the Supreme Court as of 2015:

Chief Justice John Roberts – Appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia – Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy – Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas – Appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer – Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994

Associate Justice Samuel Alito – Appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor – Appointed by President Barak Obama in 2009

Associate Justice Elena Kagan – Appointed by President Barak Obama in 2010

As any practicing attorney will tell you, judges were not created equal.  Americans can only hope that those appointed to the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts with lifetime tenure will respect, rather than abuse the power they have been given.  Our country and our freedoms deserve nothing less.

Americans should read Supreme Court decisions for themselves.  Here is a link to some of the cases mentioned:

Marbury v. Madison

Plessy v. Ferguson

Brown v. Board of Education

Duty, Honor, Country

Douglas Macarthur

General Douglas MacArthur

General Douglas MacArthur’s life is one of complete service to America.  A veteran of World War I, he led the 42nd Infantry Division into many of America’s most intense battles of the war.  After World War I, he went on to become the chief of staff of the Army and was later asked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create a defense force for the Philippines, an American commonwealth at the time.

It was during World War II that MacArthur distinguished himself further.  In 1941, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur was named commander of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific.  After the Japanese attacked the Philippines, MacArthur organized the island’s defenses before being ordered by President Roosevelt to leave the Philippines for Australia.  He received the Medal of Honor his actions.

By 1942, MacArthur was appointed supreme commander of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific.  He spent the remainder of the war successfully commanding forces in the Pacific against the Japanese.  MacArthur ultimately accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945 and spent the next six years overseeing Japanese reconstruction.

MacArthur was placed back in command of American and United Nations soldiers after Communist forces from North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950.  However, he was removed from his position by President Harry Truman after the two men disagreed over strategy, specifically whether to wage war against Communist China.  At the time of his removal from command, he was very popular with the American public who honored him with parades in various cities.

Towards the end of his life, MacArthur gave a speech to the corps of cadets at the West Point Military Academy in New York where he received the Thayer Award, given to a citizen whose service best reflects West Point’s motto of Duty, Honor, Country.  MacArthur graduated from West Point at the top of his class in 1903.  He later served as the academy’s superintendent from 1919-1922.

As America remembers those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country, Douglas MacArthur’s words are must reading.  Click on the link below for a full transcript and audio mp3 of his speech delivered on May 12, 1962:

Duty, Honor, Country

America Enters The Great War


Approximately 4.355 million Americans served in World War I

In 1914, Europe and much of the world were engaged in a horrific struggle that at the time was known at the Great War and that history would ultimately call World War I.  The assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand of Austria set off a chain of events that resulted in world powers going to war against each other.  On one side were Germany, Austria-Hungry and the Ottoman Empire known as the Central Powers.  On the other were France, Britain, Great Britain, Russia, Italy and Japan known as the Allied Powers.  The war would be known for its brutality, trench warfare, the use of chemical weapons and new inventions of war such as the machine gun, tank and airplane.

America, under President Woodrow Wilson, took a neutral stance at the beginning of the war.  As time passed, German aggression towards the U.S. could no longer be ignored. America declared war on German on April 6, 1917 and did the same to Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungry on December 17, 1917.  The resources and new troops America brought into the war after close to three years of heavy fighting proved important in the defeat of the Central Powers.

There were some key factors that led America into World War I.  The first was the use of German U-boat submarines against civilian ships around Great Britain.  Although some smaller American vessels were sunk by the Germans, it was the sinking of the British-owned Lusitania off the coast of Ireland that began to turn American opinions about entering the war.  The attack on May 7, 1915 killed 1,198 people, including 128 Americans.  In August, 1915, another Italian ship was sunk, killing 27 more Americans.  Other unarmed ships were sunk into 1916.   President Wilson threatened to sever diplomatic relations with Germany unless these attacks stopped.  Germany did stop the attacks temporarily.

As the war became more desperate for Germany at the beginning of 1917, the German government resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to defeat Great Britain.  In response, Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany while U.S. ships were being sunk and Americans killed by German aggression.

While the American government was debating its next move against Germany, British intelligence intercepted a message from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to the German Ambassador in Mexico.  Known as the Zimmerman Telegraph, the message was a promise to Mexico that if it entered the war on the German side, Germany would offer territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in exchange.

With public opinion firmly against Germany, the United States went to war in Europe. President Wilson declared he wanted to “make the world safe for democracy.”  The first troops arrived in France on June 25, 1917 under the command of American General John “Black Jack” Pershing.  Americans saw combat against the Germans in places such as St. Mihies and Belleau Wood and in a campaign known as the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Approximately 85,000 Americans, along with French and British soldiers helped turn back the Germans in the Second Battle of the Marne, the last major German offensive of the war. Americans made important contributions on the ground, at sea and in the air.

trenches world war 1

Americans in the trenches of World War I

The casualties and loss of human life are head shaking.  This was due largely to old military tactics being used against modern weapons.  On the Western Front, after a long artillery bombardment along the trenches, soldiers would charge out only to be killed by enemy machine gun fire.  Although figures seem to vary, military casualties on all sides are approximately 9 million killed and 21 million wounded.  The Germans and French had close to one million casualties at the Battle of Verdun alone.  For the war, these two countries had close to 80% of males between the ages of 15-49 sent into battle.  France’s overall casualty rate, or those killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner was about 73.3%.  Russia’s was 76.3% and Austria-Hungary’s was 90%.  For the entire war, America had about 116,516 soldiers killed and another 204,000 wounded.  This figure includes those killed both on the battlefield as well as through disease or accidents.  America’s overall casualty rate was 7.1%.

The Central Powers began to run out of men and materials after four brutal years of war. Finally on November 11, 1918, Germany signed an armistice ending the war.  This is why America observes Veterans Day on November 11.

The Great War reshaped the map of Europe and led to the end of imperial dynasties in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey.  It was war at its worst.  Americans should be proud and remember those soldiers who fought bravely, while at the same time feeling fortunate their suffering was not greater.  American military and industrial strength led the exhausted Germans to seek an end to the war.  It also marked an important moment in the 20th century as America emerged as a global power.

After the war, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles that, among other provisions, blamed them for the war and made them pay reparations.  This left many Germans feeling angry, including a young corporal named Adolph Hitler.  The “war to end all wars” did not live up to its name.  America and the world did little as the evil of Nazi Germany grew and plunged the globe into World War II.

chemical attacks world war 1

Soldiers of War World I had to endure chemical weapon attacks.  These attacks were later banned as part of the Geneva Convention.

To the Shores of Tripoli

USS Philadelphia

The USS Philadelphia set ablaze on February 16, 1804.

By 1801, pirates known as corsairs acting on behalf of the Barbary states of Algiers, Tunis, Morocco and Tripoli along the Mediterranean Ocean had been demanding tribute from countries for “protection” of their merchant shipping for nearly 300 years.  The state-sponsored pirates would use fast ships to board other vessels, overwhelm their crews, take them captive and finally demand ransom from their home countries for their release.

While under the protection of Great Britain who possessed the greatest navy in the world at the time, U.S. merchant ships had nothing to fear.  However, once independence was achieved, the United States was on its own and had to make a decision about how to respond to the Barbary threat.  The options included paying a tribute or declaring war.

By 1801, the United States had negotiated treaties with the various Barbary states that did pay a modest tribute to each of them in exchange for the safety of American shipping. However, the pasha of Tripoli believed the arrangement did not pay enough, so in March of 1801 he demanded more.

President Thomas Jefferson had just been inaugurated for his first term and believed that building a navy and putting into action was a better alternative than giving payments because those payments were always subject to the whims of the Barbary sultans.  Jefferson sent three frigates and a sloop of war out to the region as a “squadron of observation” to protect American ships.

For the better part of three years, the United States Navy had a presence in the Mediterranean, rotating naval vessels to protect American shipping.  There were direct engagements with the pirates as well as instances of American merchant ship crews being held for ransom but the American presence decreased pirate attacks.

The situation changed in October 1803.  The USS Philadelphia ran aground near the entrance to Tripoli Harbor and the ship and crew surrendered to the Tripolitans.  Commodore Edward Preble, in charge of American forces, decided the Philadelphia could not fall into enemy hands.  About 70 volunteers led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur disguised themselves as a Tripolitan crew and sailed into Tripoli Harbor to destroy the Philadelphia.  They were discovered, but after a short, violent hand-to-hand struggle were able to retake the ship and set it ablaze.  Decatur was made the youngest captain in the navy at age 25 due to his heroics.  The renown British admiral Horatio Nelson called the raid “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

By 1805, the United States continued to resist the acts of the Barbary pirates.  There was a blockade of Tripoli Harbor put in place and the U.S. Navy continued to engage in encounters with the pirates.  A plan was enacted to try to gain peace by overthrowing the pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, with his exiled older brother.  A force of a few hundred men made up of Arab and Greek mercenaries and supported by U.S. Marines from the American ship Argus marched 500 miles through the Libyan Desert.  On April 27, 1805, this force, supplied by the Argus and two additional warships, captured the town of Derne, east of Benghazi. This victory created a path to Tripoli and the potential overthrow of the pasha.  Fearing his overthrow, the pasha of Tripoli negotiated peace.  The terms included a U.S. payment of $60,000 for the  release of all Americans including the crew of the Philadelphia but required no more future tribute payments.  In 1815, after a second war with Algiers, the United States made no further payments to any Barbary state.

Many historians consider the First Barbary War as America’s first war on terror in the Middle East.  However it is thought of, an important statement was made by President Jefferson that the United States would stand up for itself on the world stage.

The Marines’ Hymn:

From the Halls of Montezuma,
To the Shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;

Most Americans are familiar with the opening lines of the Marines’ Hymn.  The opening line references another nineteenth century conflict, the Mexican-American War, and the Battle of Chapultepec.  The line “to the shores of Tripoli” is in reference to the the Battle of Derne as described above.  In fact, Marine officers still wear Mameluke swords shaped like Arab scimitars.


Slipped the Surly Bonds of Earth

The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986.

Americans have always been at the forefront of pushing our planet towards new frontiers. Nothing has epitomized this more than the space program.  But with great risk often comes great hardship, and sometimes tragedy.  For a generation of Americans, especially those of grammar school age in 1986, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger was a shocking event.  Seven astronauts, including a teacher named Christa McAuliffe who had trained for months to go into space, were killed.  After a long investigation, it was found the explosion was caused by defective O-rings in the Challenger’s solid-fuel rockets.

President Ronald Reagan addressed the country the night of January 28, 1986.  He concluded his remarks with the lines, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them…as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”  Below is his full address as well as a tribute to the Challenger astronauts:

The Challenger explosion was not the first time nor the last that tragedy befell the American space program.  On January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were killed on the ground by a fire in their command module while conducting tests for an upcoming Apollo mission.  On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere killing all seven astronauts on board.  Most recently on October 31, 2014, a test pilot for Virgin Galactic, a private company seeking to send passengers into space, was killed and another pilot seriously injured in a crash during a test flight.

Americans should be proud of the space program their country has produced.  Its efforts landed a man on the moon, produced the world’s first reusable spacecraft through the space shuttle program, produced devices such as the Hubble Space Telescope that have allowed us all to view deeper into space than ever before and put a rover on Mars just to name a few accomplishments.  Through all this, new technologies were created as a result of the space program.  Just a short list includes smoke detectors, solar energy production, insulin pumps, water filtration systems, memory foam, artificial limbs and video enhancing and analysis systems.

But it is still the individuals willing to push humankind beyond its limits and explore the vastness of our universe that are the heroes.  They should be remembered.  Below are the names of the astronauts killed in the two space shuttle disasters:

Challenger – Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith A. Resnik, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Ronald E. McNair, Mike J. Smith, and Ellison S. Onizuka.

Columbia – David M. Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon.


The Columbia crew

Poor Richard

ben franklin

Benjamin Franklin was the publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanack from 1733 to 1758.

Of all the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin stands out for his diverse career.  Statesman, diplomat, inventor, scientist and a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Franklin was one of the leading figures in early American history.  What many Americans may not realize is that Franklin began his career as a printer in Philadelphia and is responsible for many proverbs and maxims still used today.  As publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin dispensed his unique brand of wisdom.

Every year, Americans waited for the release of their favorite almanac, a popular source of reading in early America.  Shortly after it came out in 1733, Poor Richard’s Almanack became the almanac of choice.  Written through a fictional astrologer named “Poor” Richard Saunders and his wife Bridget, Franklin used his almanac as a “vehicle for conveying instruction among the common folk.”  Although the almanac discussed such topics as the weather, astrology and agriculture, it was the humorous and practical advice Franklin dispensed about everyday life that made the almanac so appealing to the public.  History remembers Poor Richard for its maxims, proverbs and sayings that were put in the margins each year.

Below are some of the most well known:

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Well done is better than well said.

People who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages.

He’s a fool that makes his doctor his heir.

He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.

Necessity never made a good bargain.

A Penny saved is Twopence clear.

Diligence is the mother of good luck.

Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices.

Kings and bears often worry their keepers.

Haste makes waste.

No gains without pains.

Vice knows she’s ugly, so puts on her mask.

Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults.

There’s a time to wink as well as to see.

There was never a good knife made of bad steel.

God helps them that help themselves.

Fish and visitors stink after three days.

One today is worth two tomorrows.

If a man could have half his wishes, he would double his troubles.

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

Work as if you were to live a hundred years,
Pray as if you were to die tomorrow.

The cat in gloves catches no mice.

A country man between two lawyers, is like a fish between two cats.


Poor Richard’s Alamanack sold ten thousand copies a year and because there was one published every year, it outsold the Bible in colonial America.

Although some of these sayings came from Franklin, as stated in Franklin’s autobiography, the majority “contained the wisdom of many ages and nations.”  Franklin often took older proverbs and shortened or reworded them.

Through Poor Richard’s proverbs, Franklin tried to help inspiring tradesman “inculcate industry and frugality as the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue.”  It was his use of humor that made this message resonate with his readers.  Today, as in years past, Americans can read Franklin’s work and smile and think at the same time.

Further reading on Benjamin Franklin can be found in Benjamin Franklin, An American Life by Walter Isaacson.