Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘United States history’

Why you have to be careful with history – the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918

Monday, July 27th, 2015


I’m a sucker for “pop history” and I make it a point to read interesting looking books when they come up, doubly so when they are focused on United States history.  I grabbed the edition of the Untold History of the United States for young readers, to enjoy a quick read and get a handle on the material being presented to teenage readers.  One item in particular I found interesting was the report that in 1918 to help deal with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the United States, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 was passed that allowed “loose women” to be forcibly detained for examination for STIs and forcibly quarantined in the event of their being found to have an STI till it was cured.  The author claimed that over “20,000 women were so detained” – a factoid I found repeated on various websites talking about the act.


Now the US did launch a sizable media campaign against STIs during World War I, including efforts like the lovely poster above, and it appears probable that women were detained under the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, but if you dig below the surface outrage you’ll find a more complex picture.  The Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 actually was one of the first federal block grants for public health research, a funding bill that included a sizable chunk of money distributed to various states to study STI spread, treatments, and provide education about STIs.  The grant required state boards of health that took the money to have their state legislators pass laws that met several minimal requirements including:

“The spread of venereal diseases [STIs] should be declared unlawful”

“Provision to be made for control of infected persons who do not cooperate in protecting others from infection”

“The travel of venereally infected persons within the State to be controlled by State boards of health by definite regulations that will conform in general to the interstate quarantine regulations”

All nasty provisions and, probably, all enforced against female prostitutes or other women suspected of “loose morals.”


The problem though, is that this is not a clean story of “evil federal laws passed that incarcerated women with STIs” as the book above, its original documentary, and online sources would like to argue.  Instead it is a patchwork of laws and enforcement actions undertaken by states that voluntarily took money from the federal government.  Therefore these actions need to be examined on a state-by-state basis, a more detailed and demanding analysis that would require a more careful examination of local histories, archives, and realities.  It also though changes the narrative from “evil federal expansion of powers” which the original book presented it as and instead shifts it towards “states, with incentives, using the far broader powers to arrest individuals for activities we today find uncomfortable to consider crimes.”


My key point to all this is actually pretty simple – the act did exist but its reality is more complicated and requires a more careful discussion than sources put forward.  To my eye the larger issue in this is the broader authority states have to pass laws such as this, and how in the 1910s and 1920s it was socially acceptable for such regulations to be passed by states.  It ties into broader, and less comfortable, discussions that impact us today about federalism and state power versus the more constrained federal power, as well as the position of governments in the space of regulating public morality and public health.

But that doesn’t square with a nice “evil federal government” story so the nuance is lost in the interest of shock value.

On an unrelated note, I think that last STI poster is my personal favorite.

Sources:  Google Books Landmark Legislation entry mentioning the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, actual text of the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 at JSTOR, article that mentions the law by a professor of law at Duke University, NIH timeline entry confirming the passage and high-level purpose of the law



Knights of the Golden Circle

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015


The Knights of the Golden Circle was an organization that existed in the United States from the 1850s through the 1860s which espoused the idea of a radical expansion, and realignment, of the United States into an extremely “pro-slavery” nation.  Their major goal was to promote the idea of the seizure, as part of Manifest Destiny, of additional territory for the United States in Cuba, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, with the ultimate goal being that each of these new territories be added to the United States as “slave states” – those allowing slavery.  This planned goal also aimed at potentially creating a new super-Confederacy of states/republics, if necessary, encompassing the Southern states in the United States and the other new territories, with a capital centered in Havana, Cuba.


Now this new nation, (shown above in green), would have represented a major investment of military and cultural power by the United States to be achieved and probably was beyond the immediate capacity of the nation in the 1850s.  However the idea had many adherents in the American South and southern portions of middle states, mainly due to the economic possibilities it presented and concerns about the growing power of abolitionism as a political force in the United States.  The Knights of the Golden Circle were strongly pro-Southern as regional tensions increased in the United States and the organization supported the seceding states in 1861.  Many Democrats in the northern United States during the Civil War expressed support for some ideas purported by the Knights of the Golden Circle and members of the organization took part in some early military actions by the growing Confederate forces.


The organization had less real impact during the American Civil War but it was a lightening rod for Northern concerns about Southern sympathizers acting as spies and saboteurs during the Civil War.  Members of the Knights of the Golden Circle were regularly targeted for arrest by United States law enforcement and its key leaders were expelled from northern territory when caught.  The image of the Knights of the Golden Circle in the United States as traitors was not helped by activities like the attempting to outfit a secret privateer boat in California to attack Pacific shipping by the United States.  The organization did not survive the defeat of the southern states in the American Civil War and its membership most likely dissolved after the war.


I say “most likely” because the Knights of the Golden Circle have become one of the darlings of conspiracy theorists who posit the group survived the end of the American Civil War and became a key player in efforts to prepare for a second American Civil War.  Such theories are grounded mostly in speculation than anything solid, but it does give the organization a lasting minor place even in modern United States history.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Golden Circle and the Knights of the Golden Circle

James Wilkinson – Dick or Super Dick?

Monday, March 31st, 2014


One of the fascinating things about the history of the United States is the unusual cast of characters who played decisive roles in the formation of the nation – it is fair to say that the United States was founded by a blend of rebels, dreamers, plotters, visionaries, vagabonds, and scoundrels.  Above is one who fits in the last category, if one is being kind, James Wilkinson, born in 1757 and deceased in 1825.  Wilkinson began his career with the United States during its nascent years, serving initially as a Captain, and then being swiftly promoted to Colonel, during the opening years of the American Revolution.  In 1777 Wilkinson was charged by General Gates to carry the official dispatches back to the Continental Congress informing them of the major American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in New York.  Wilkinson completed his assignment, after a small delay to handle personal matters in Philadelphia, and while providing his report to the Congress of what happened he just happened to mention how incredibly brave and awesome he was at the battle.  Incredibly brave and awesome.  Carried the day brave and awesome.  But such flat out lying is understandable in a young and ambitious twenty year old and completely justifies his being promoted to Brigadier General by the Continental Congress and enraging other, more senior Colonels.  It also helped Wilkinson took part in a conspiracy to get General Washington tossed out as the Commander of the American Army, by 1778 Wilkinson feel in position due to General Gates having enough of his activities.  The Congress made Wilkinson a general in the supply services but he resigned the position.

But his career of messing with the United States had only just begun, in 1782 Wilkinson took a job as a general in the Pennsylvania militia and in 1783 served as a state assemblyman, but in 1787 he took a “special trip” down to New Orleans.  The purpose of his mission was to negotiate access for Kentucky to the Mississippi River – at the time Kentucky being a territory that was part of Pennsylvania and the Mississippi’s mouth being under the control of Spain, which also controlled New Orleans.  (Don’t ask.)  Wilkinson took this opportunity to try to hook up a deal with Spain, if they provided him with a “consideration” (money, property, position) he could ensure that Kentucky, rather than becoming a new state in the United States, instead peeled off and became a territory of Spain instead.  Wilkinson swore an oath of loyalty to Spain where he got the cool code name Agent 13, in reference to the secret code he used to communicate with Spain.  His plans with turning Kentucky into part of Spain failed and he didn’t get his money, but Wilkinson escaped being caught in his acts of questionable loyalty and was promoted to a position as commander of the entire United States army instead.  Wilkinson held this position from 1800 till 1812 when his lack of military skill and the demands of an actual war finally led to his being put in a lesser command, and later removed from the army entirely.  (He faced a court martial after losing two battles in the War of 1812 but was, of course, found innocent.)  In 1803 Wilkinson was the official who formally took ownership of the Louisiana Territory on behalf of the United States from France (again, don’t ask) – Wilkinson took advantage of this trip to hook back up with his Spanish buddies and offer to sell state secrets in exchange for getting his pension back.  (Which he totally did for another twelve years.)


In 1804 Aaron Burr (pictured above) decided that he had had enough of his political career being in free-fall and, after serving as the third Vice President of the United States, decided to pursue his own “questionable” venture in the western territories of the United States.  Burr traveled in the Ohio Territory and the Louisiana Territory talking to people about some interesting thoughts he’d had – about how the federal government was no longer following policies that really favored the west, about freedom, and about maybe organizing some other political arrangements in the western territories.  Was Burr advocating these areas secede from the United States and form a new nation?  Well, at his treason trial it was never really clear and he was acquitted, so from a legal perspective no.  But during his time working on this project Burr made a special friend who worked to help him in…whatever he was planning, a powerful general by the name of Wilkinson.  Wilkinson though decided, when the situation didn’t seem to be going his way, to cut his losses and provide evidence of Burr’s treasonous activities.  This included a helpful letter Wilkinson wrote that he said was a “copy” of a letter Burr had sent him asking him to help in treason, an action which of course horrified Wilkinson to his core.  Sadly he had lost the original of the letter but the copy had been made at the time and was most accurate.  The courts threw the copy out and Wilkinson was humiliated for this interesting evidence admission.

Of course Wilkinson remained in command of the United States army even after this got out, personally I’m guessing because the federal government somehow lacked other people with military training.

Finally after being relieved of his command in the War of 1812 Wilkinson quietly faded into obscurity…which is of course a falsehood.  He actually wrote his memoirs trying to clear his name and in 1821 traveled to Mexico and attempted to get the government there to give him a special land grant in Texas.  He died in Mexico waiting for approval of his request.  His activities as a spy were finally proved in 1854 when a Louisiana historian found letters in Wilkinson’s handwriting documenting his activities on behalf of the Spanish crown.

James Wilkinson – definitely one of our more “colorful” founding figures.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on James Wilkinson, PBS documentary entry on James Wilkinson, Wikipedia entry on Aaron Burr.

September 11…1814 – the Battle of Plattsburgh

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013


Today on 11 September the United States takes a moment to honor and remember the events that occurred in 2001, unfortunately one of the pains of being a historian was captured by a comment by one of my instructors in graduate school, Professor King:  “Anything newer than fifty years isn’t history, it’s politics.”  People may argue the timeline but as I’ve gotten older I’m realized I agree with him to a high degree, the more recent the event the less information is present and the smaller the role of the historian.  However 11 September is a date that should resonate through U.S. history for multiple reasons and today I get to talk about one of my favorites, the Battle of Plattsburgh which took place on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812, helped greatly shape U.S. history, and was an incredible military victory for the U.S. against the invading forces of Great Britain.   This battle was the linchpin in an effort by the U.S. to defeat a British invasion from Canada aimed at marching southward through New York state and slicing the United States apart to weaken its war effort and gain a stronger position during the negotiations to end the war taking place in Ghent.  Great Britain’s major goal was to wrestle control of the Great Lakes from the U.S., establishing itself as a dominant economic force in North America by controlling access to the valuable growing trade in the the Midwest and newly acquired Louisiana territory.  The U.S. goal was to stop this attack, blunt the British advance, and push the British position back to where it was at the start of the war, i.e. not controlling the Great Lakes and certainly having no troops on territory in New York.


Historically speaking the land battle for the village of Plattsburgh itself is boring, a column of British regulars marched slowly into New York state along the western shore of Lake Champlain, being delayed by a smaller force of U.S. regulars augmented by poorly trained New York militia forces.  The fascinating part is the naval battle that took place for control of Lake Champlain itself, a vital part of the British plan to ensure their ground invasion force could remain supplied.  The U.S. fleet on the lake had only recently gotten larger than the British fleet and was outgunned in long range cannon, but matched the British in short range cannon.  The U.S. commander, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, tucked his ships into Plattsburgh Bay to force the British fleet to engage him at close range, he’d anchored his ships in place to present a fortified line.  The British, in turn, planned to engage the U.S. fleet by sailing into it and focusing on the ends of the U.S. naval line, to hopefully pound the line to breaking and force the U.S. fleet to scatter.  The winds were not with the British and several of their larger vessels ended up not able to implement the plan, leading instead to a slogging battle between the U.S. fleet and the British fleet.  In particular the two main ships, the HMS Confiance and the USS Saratoga, flagships of the fleet, had battered each other into near submission, the HMS Confiance only giving ragged fire and the USS Saratoga having all its guns facing the Confiance knocked out of action.


What made the battle a U.S. victory though was the plan by Macdonough prior to the battle to carefully rig the Saratoga with a complex anchoring scheme, anchors bow and stern to hold it in place, and sideways anchors called kedge anchors.  At the moment when both flagships were in their worse state Macdonough had his bow anchor lines cut and his men haul on the kedge anchors, allowing the Saratoga to pull a 180 degree spin and suddenly face the British with its undamaged side, all guns intact and ready to rock and roll.  The ensuing bonus round of heavy fire from the Saratoga smashed the British flagship, that setback combined with the general losses both sides had taken resulted in the British fleet surrendering.   With the loss of Lake Champlain the British land forces pulled out and the campaign to invade New York came to an end.

Although not historical I personally like to think of the British commander that day in purely modern gaming terms – cussing and yelling as he watched his American counterpart use some B.S. cheat mode to suddenly get his ship back up and running with full guns.  Macdonough was a national hero for his victory and, along with an elevation in rank, got a shiny gold medal of thanks from the U.S. Congress.


The British commander who was in overall command of the invasion of New York was relieved of his command of Canada’s armed forces and sent home.  What makes this battle particularly impressive though is the larger context, this victory took place at the same time that the city of Baltimore was under attack (a battle every U.S. citizen has heard of as it that victory is commemorated in the U.S. national anthem) and right after Washington D.C. got turned into a crispy fritter.  The United States at the time seemed to be in danger of coming apart at the seams and this victory was a key moment that proved that even in the face of such setbacks and dangers, the U.S. had the strength, and the resolve, to survive and even triumph in the face of incredible odds.

Source:  Wikipedia entry on the Battle of Plattsburgh and the Battle of Plattsburgh site on America’s Historic Lakes (with maps!)



Historic Political Cartoon – Election of 1900

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

With current events panning out the way they are a lot of people are feeling frustrated with both the Democrats and Republicans – some are not sure which party really represents which political alignments on the spectrum – and others are just frustrated with party wrangling.  Many people feel that neither party is a good choice for the nation right now and neither party clearly has the interests of the nation at heart.  Well fear not good citizens because your complaint is an old complaint – as can be seen by the political cartoon above.  The caption reads:

Both: “Take Me!”

Columbia: “But I don’t like either of you!”

Both: “You’re bound to take one of us, all the same.”

(For those wondering – Columbia represents the United States – one of the many allusions to the US used in the late 19th/early 20th century.)

The gentleman on the left is William McKinley and the gentleman on the right is William Jennings Bryan, respectively the Republican and Democratic candidates for the office of President in the 1900 election.  McKinley ran on a platform of “sound money” (gold backed money) and protective tariffs, Bryan ran on “free money” (gold and silver as both legal tender) and as an anti-imperialist after McKinley’s first term of office included the US fighting a war with Spain, grabbing the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and also annexing Hawaii.  The cartoon is also useful because of where the figures are positioned, McKinley on the left and Bryan on the right, it roughly mirrors the classic association of both parties politically in 1900.

Yup – you read correctly – prior to 1900 the Republicans were associated more with leftist, radical policies and the Democrats were associated with rightest, conservative policies, an association dating back to the 1850s and coming to and end in this era.  You see the Republicans had been known originally as the “Radical Republicans” but they enjoyed a long period in political power from the 1860s through the early 1900s, a period of booming industry, commerce, and the rise of a new economic organization force in the United States – the multiple state corporation.  The Republicans having been in power in government have long been courted by these interests and the political outlook and platform of the Republicans has shifted from their more radical days to one that is more pro-business in outlook.  In turn the Democrats have slowly shifted from being a party in support of conservative traditional values and instead are courting, and embracing, Progressive causes and the disaffected leftist vote in the United States.  The elections of 1896 and 1900 are a high point in this change when both parties outlooks are smeared across a broad range of issues.  Both parties were feeling their way to new political positions – the realignment concluded successfully by the 1920s when the Democrats were recognized as the party that had embraced Progressive goals and reform as their agenda and Republicans had embraced fully the pro-business and pro-smaller government outlook they hold today.

Although that said the actual divide over the role, size, and power of the federal government of the United States is a far older issue that traces far back to the founding of the Republic.  Parties in the United States have appeared, existed, and died multiple times, shifted positions, formed and reformed, but eventually one ends up on one side of this divide and the other ends up on the other side, with smaller elements holding extreme positions on the spectrum of this issue.

But when you next go to the polls and if you feel like you have to hold your nose and vote for the lesser of two evils – take a moment of comfort and remember that you are sharing that same feeling with people multiple times in the past.

Sources: Cartoon, Life Magazine, 1900

Information, Wikipedia Entries on the Presidential Election of 1900, Free Silver, and the History of the Democratic Party.