Sunday, March 15, 2015

On the Peculiarities of General Dan Sickles

On the Peculiarities of General Dan Sickles: If there was ever an American Civil War General who led an extraordinary life not named Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, it was Daniel E. Sickles. For starters, he lived to the age of 94, having been born in 1819 in New York City, and later dying there in 1914. Prior to the Civil War, Sickles worked as a lawyer and served as a legislator in the New York State Assembly. He married a woman who was half his age in the early 1850s, and by 1857, he was elected to serve in the U.S. Congress as a Representative from New York. While in Washington D.C., his young wife (who was only about 20 at the time) had taken up an affair with the local district attorney (who also happened to be Francis Scott Key's son). Upon learning of his wife's infidelity, Sickles proceeded to shoot and kill Philip Barton Key II. At the trial, Sickles pleaded "temporary insanity" and was actually acquitted of murder. His plea is often considered the first use of an "insanity" defense in the history of American jurisprudence. But aside from Sickles' legal issues, he is perhaps best known as the General who lost his leg during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Although the cannonball that tore through his leg effectively ended his military career, Sickles was happy to donate both the cannonball and his amputated leg to the newly formed Army Medical Museum. And on every anniversary of the amputation, Sickles visited the display that contained his shattered leg.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

On Buddy Cianci's Providence

On Buddy Cianci's Providence: As mayor of Providence for two (non-consecutive) decades, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci epitomized the city's "underworld" reputation. Ever since Providence's founding by Roger Williams in 1636, it has been known as a refuge for religious exiles, political prisoners, and career criminals. Situated under the arm of Massachusetts, it has been referred to as both "the sewer" and "the armpit" of New England. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic immigrants, mainly from Ireland and Italy, converged upon the city to work in its burgeoning textile industry. It was under these circumstances that some of Cianci's ancestors emigrated from Italy to Rhode Island in the 1890s. By the early 1900s, Providence's various neighborhoods had become divided along ethnoracial lines. The Italians settled in Federal Hill, the Irish in Smith Hill, the "old-moneyed" WASPs in College Hill, and the African Americans in Wanskuck. Cianci himself actually grew up in Cranston, but he attended private school in the wealthy College Hill neighborhood (where Brown University is located). Yet as the city's youngest-elected and first-ever Italian mayor, Cianci sought to smooth over the city's ethnoracial divides (which had persisted throughout the decades). And although he survived two felony convictions, with the second one sending him to prison for five years, Cianci has become an icon in Providence. The city will never be the same without him.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

On the Birth of American Judicial Review

On the Birth of American Judicial Review: This concept may seem somewhat rudimentary, but it's crucial to the founding of the United States federal government. In 1803, a major case involving the constitutionality of a federal law came before the Supreme Court, which did not have a permanent home in Washington D.C. till around 1810. Known as Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall, whose formal legal training was no longer than six weeks, held that part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was "unconstitutional." In doing so, Marshall established the principle of "judicial review," which saw the Supreme Court curbing the power of Congress (and the Presidency). This principle essentially completed the trifecta of "checks and balances" that the Constitution's writers had originally envisioned (and borrowed from Montesquieu). Ultimately, it would be fifty-four years before the Supreme Court invalidated another federal law (see the 1857 Dred Scott decision). And although Alexander Hamilton had discussed "judicial review" in his Federalist No. 78 essay, the concept had never been put into practice. Thus, until Marshall rose to the occasion in the Marbury case, the Supreme Court (or Judicial Branch) was commonly viewed as the weakest (or least effective) branch of the federal government.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

On the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy

On the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy: Pictured above is a version of the Jolly Roger (flag) flown by pirates (mostly English privateers) during the early eighteenth century. A more traditional Jolly Roger would contain crossbones instead of crossed swords. This specific version was actually invented by Calico Jack, who was perhaps the most notorious pirate to operate from New Providence Island in the Bahamas during the early 1700s. What made Calico Jack particularly intriguing was the fact that he allowed two female pirates in his crew, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. For the most part, the presence of female pirates on ships was extremely rare throughout the Caribbean, as eighteenth-century seafaring occupations were almost entirely male-dominated. In fact, Read often had to dress like a man in order to be taken seriously as a privateer. Although Read was born in England and Bonny in Ireland, they both ended up in the Bahamas by the late 1710s. Read was originally part of the British military (dressed as a man), but left after realizing that her prospects for promotion were severely limited in peacetime. Bonny, on the other hand, had married a small-time pirate named James Bonny, who eventually became an informant for the Bahamian Governor (Woodes Rogers). Yet Anne decided to join forces with Calico Jack, becoming his mistress and "baby mama" in 1720.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why American Public Schools Have Struggled

Why American Public Schools Have Struggled: American public schools today seem concerned about almost everything except education itself. From Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to 504 plans to English-language learners (ELLs), how are teachers expected to educate "all" children to high standards? And how did it get to be this way? To answer this question, one ought to examine the emergence of Progressive education in the early 1900s, when the very definition of "school" was entirely up-for-grabs. According to education historian Diane Ravitch, when the American high school curriculum started to become standardized in the 1890s (in preparation for college admissions), it opened the door for a series of "experts" to assess how knowledge transferred from teacher to student. These "experts" largely possessed backgrounds in child psychology, and included people like G. Stanley Hall, Henry Goddard, and Edward Thorndike. For Ravitch, these "experts" represented a kind of "anti-intellectualism," which diverted attention away from the process of teaching a traditional curriculum and toward the process of satisfying student needs. Unfortunately, American educators simply forgot how to say "no," as every conceivable student need started to seep into the once revered curriculum.