Jackasses and Elephants–1/15 in history

Thomas Nast--"A Live Jackass Kicking A Dead Lion". 1/15/1870

Thomas Nast–“A Live Jackass Kicking A Dead Lion”. 1/15/1870

It was on this day, 15 January 1870, that the famous American editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast–also known for taking down the Tammany Hall ring and its boss William Magear Tweed through is political cartoons–cemented the jackass as the symbol of the Democratic Party.

However, contrary to conventional thinking, Nast wasn’t the first person to associate the jackass to the Democratic Party. During the election of 1828, opponents of Andrew Jackson labeled him a “jackass” for his beliefs. Jackson embraced the image and often used it in his own campaign imagery. The Democratic Party had been associated, in one way or another, with the Jackass since.

Andrew Jackson's ass

Andrew Jackson’s ass

But what about the elephant? Well, we can thank Nast for that one, too. In an 1874 cartoon, Nast has the Democratic ass hiding in a lion’s costume frightening the forest animals (labelled as various newspapers) and the elephant (“Republican vote”). The issue at hand was whether or not U.S. Grant would run for an unprecedented third term as President. Here’s a link to Harper’s detailed description of the cartoon.

The Third Term Panic

The Third Term Panic

After this cartoon ran, the Republicans quickly adopted the elephant as their symbol and the rest, as they say, is history.

As a side note: Nast is also credited with creating the first images of a modern Santa Claus.

Santa Claus and His Works. Harper's Weekly, 29 December 1866

Santa Claus and His Works. Harper’s Weekly, 29 December 1866

Best quotes in American History

This one comes from the trial of accused cannibal Alfred Packer. At his sentencing, the judge declared: “Packer, you depraved Republican son of a bitch, there were only five Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate them all!”

If only present day politics could be solved this easily.

Lies That Altered U.S. History (Part 3)


Ragged Dick and the American Dream

Ragged Dick and the American Dream

Event: The Writings Of Horatio Alger

Lie: “A good many distinguished men have once been poor boys. There’s hope for you Dick, if you’ll try.”–Horatio Alger, from Ragged Dick, p. 75. One of many “pluck and luck” books written by Horatio Alger from 1867-1890, Ragged Dick tells the tale of a young bootblack who works hard and rises to middle class respectability.

Born in Massachusetts in 1832, Horatio Alger was surrounded by Puritan legacy. His family could trace their origins directly to Plymouth Pilgrims and they were staunch Congregationalists, so much so that Horatio’s father had decided his eldest son would pursue a life in the ministry. It was here that young Horatio got his first lessons in what would later be called the “American” or “Calvinist/Puritan” work ethic.There are countless examples of the notion that hard-work was the path to greatness: Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard”–“All things are easy to industry, all things difficult to sloth”; Election of 1840–William Harrison was portrayed (falsely) as a man of the earth, from a log cabin in the west, and hard cider drinker while his opponent, Martin Van Buren, was portrayed as a wealthy elitist from the East; Abraham Lincoln–a man born simple in a log cabin rises to President. By the time Horatio Alger sat down to write his stories of young boys who worked hard and rose the social ranks in life, the ideal of the “Calvinist work ethic” had become firmly entrenched in the American conscience.

Lasting Impact: In the years following the Civil War, the United States saw an influx of immigrants from Europe. Some immigrants came because of religious persecution at home–Russian and Eastern European Jews. Many came because of troubling economic times at home–including high unemployment and limited opportunities. And some came for the “American Dream”. It was the work of Alger that captured the imagination and hopes of immigrants. With a little hard work, the American Dream could be realized. Having faced a world with limited opportunities Ragged Dick and the many other novels inspired waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants to filter through Ellis Island, settle in New York or Boston or Chicago, and strive for the elusive American Dream.

What the immigrants found instead were ghettos, tenements, corrupt local officials, unscrupulous factory managers, and uncaring factory owners. The vast majority of immigrants never found the American Dream no matter how hard they worked. However, their work ethic prevailed. You could see it in the way Americans faced the adversity of the Great Depression and World War II. Recently, this work ethic has come under assault as being either blatantly racist or elitist (Source and Source). Their argument is that the wealthy abused the poor to get their status, in turn bastardizing the Puritan work ethic. The other view could be that without the hope of a better life for their children and maybe themselves, the immigrant’s “work ethic” toward an American Dream may have been weaker and the accomplishments made during America’s Gilded Age may never have been achieved. Either way, this ideal made popular by Horatio Alger had a major impact on America today.

Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Luck. Sometimes for a lie to work out you need a little luck. For Horatio Alger a little luck in timing and place helped his “lie” roll into an ideal. Having failed as a minister–because he probably he had an “unnatural familiarity with boys”–and as a school teacher, Alger’s “pluck and luck” books proved the work ethic. He persevered, found a niche, and filled it. His niche just happened to be during one of the greatest influxes of immigrants in American history who attached to his message like infants to the teat. Whether or not you accept that the “Calvinist/Puritan” work ethic was good or bad for America, it must be conceded that without it this nation would look remarkably different.


Event: Mexican-American War

Lie: “…after a long-continued series of menaces [the Mexicans] have at last invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil.”– President James Polk’s War Message 1846.

On the eve of the Mexican-American war, the United States had been “reawakened”. A second wave of religious fervor swept the nation, primarily its western states–Kentucky, Tennessee–and there was a general feel of accomplishment and achievement–except for anyone who identified as Native America, women, or slave; but things were on the eve of change for most of them, also. America had experienced a period of “good feelings”–though those good feelings were about as great as the feelings of week-long incontinence. In this specter of joy, a newspaper editor and political hack, John O’Sullivan, wrote about American destiny. He called it Manifest Destiny and by 1845, the notion dictated every aspect of American politics and society. However, the concept wasn’t new. In 1776, a writer–only known as Salus Populi–wrote a piece called “To The People Of North-America On The Different Kinds Of Government“. In it, the author declared:

I cannot help cherishing a secret hope that God has destined America to form the last and best plan that can possibly exist; and that [H]e will gradually carry those who have long been under the galling yoke of tyranny in every other quarter of the globe, into the bosom of perfect liberty and freedom in America.

Polk was a political ally of Andrew Jackson–working with Jackson during his Bank War. He also understood the political climate of America and while men like Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren were trying to distance themselves from expansionism, Polk dove headlong into it declaring that Texas should be “re-annexed” and Oregon “re-occupied.” This stance got Jackson’s personal blessing and would thrust Polk into the White House.

The Cat and the CockLasting Impact: Two words: Civil War. The Mexican-American War is often characterized as one of darkest blemishes on the face of America. Polk’s behavior in Mexico could be seen as the modern equivalent of Aesop’s “The Cat and The Cock” fable where the cat finally catches the cock and then has to devise a reason why it should devour him. But, we cannot forget that Mexico had a part in this behavior also–they impeded American commerce and often plundered it, imprisioned American citizens, spurned all the envoys that Polk had sent to negotiate. Today, we view “the strong and the weak” as a test of right and wrong. A strong nation, the United States, should never have behaved toward Mexico, the weaker, in the ways it did; however, weakness should not justify impudence, insolence, or threats. 

The war happened. Live with it. The Mexican-American War’s lasting impact has little to do with how crass or absurd or wrong American expansion was during the 1840s, but the impact of Texas’ annexation had on the people of the United States. Abolitionists in the New England states were right in their beliefs that the annexation of Texas may have been justified under the concept of “Manifest Destiny” or an attempt to bring those living in tyranny into the loving bosom of the United States, but it was morally wrong. It was morally wrong to grab land in the West just to expand slavery. America was just expanding its own tyranny westward.

Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Conscience. Or a lack there of. When a person lies enough, they tend to believe the lie as truth. In this case, the lie was our manifest destiny to do God’s work, but somehow that work got distorted in a myriad of other issues. James Russell Lowell warned America, specifically the annexationists, of the harm in believing the lie and moving it into the collective conscience and eventually moving into Texas when he wrote in his poem “The Present Crisis” (1845) “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide/In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side…. They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.” We are still burdened with the issues that Manifest Destiny wrought upon the U.S. in 1845.


Read Part 2 here

Read Part 4 here

Lies That Altered U.S. History (Part 2)



Event: Red Scare/McCarthyism

Lie: “I have here in my hand a list of 205… a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” –Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Wheeling, W. Va, Feb. 9, 1950 (accuracy of the number presented is not certain)

American fears of all things red dates back to the late 1800s and the immigrant push from southern Europe and their bringing socialistic tendencies to the United States. Various immigration quotas were set in place to curb this influx, but the seeds of anxiety had been planted, fed, and raised since. During the 1930s, it was fashionable for members of Hollywood and the wealthy elite to frequent communist parties, but in 1940, Congress would pass the Smith Act which made it illegal to assist any groups “who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of the government of the United States by force or violence.” By 1950, the United States had witnessed the Soviet Union envelop all of Eastern Europe into its sphere of influence, Churchill issue his “Iron Curtain” speech, the passage of Executive Order 9835 (loyalty oaths for all federal employees), the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood Ten, the trial of Alger Hiss, China “falling to communism,” and the Soviet Union detonating its first atomic bomb.

For men like Joseph McCarthy, there was only answer to the menacing spread of communism across the globe and the specter of atomic death: Communists had infiltrated America.

Telegram from Sen. McCarthy to Pres. Truman

Telegram from Sen. McCarthy to Pres. Truman

Unfortunately for McCarthy, the places he found communists were in his alcohol-induced hazes. After telling a group of Republican Women on Feb. 9 that he had a list of 205 suspected communists–the list was probably a blank scrap of paper–he fired off a telegram to President Truman where he claimed the number was 57. On the 20th, he addressed the Senate and announced 81 communists. Even if we are to accept the 205 count inaccurate, McCarthy could never settle on a single number and refused to list the names on his document or provide specific evidence.

Lasting Impact: It’s a shame no one stood up and shouted, “Liar, liar pants on fire.” No one did and McCarthy’s four years of terror warped America in ways unimaginable. Victor Navasky said this of McCarthyism in his book Naming Names

The social costs of what came to be called McCarthyism have yet to be computed. By conferring its prestige on the red hunt, the state did more than bring misery to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Communists, former Communists, fellow travelers, and unlucky liberals. It weakened American culture and it weakened itself.

Our modern-day witch hunt destroyed the lives of people far removed from politics as hblock2state and local governments ran their own personal hunts. Men and women lost their jobs, found their names on countless blacklists, and watched as their children were ostracized by society around them. Libraries yanked copies of such subversive titles as Robin Hood because it proposed the notion of “stealing from the rich to give to the poor.” Unions were condemned as anti-American, and the AFL and CIO were forced to merge in 1955 just to survive. But the political ramifications were just as severe. No one would dare open debate on trade with China. In the aftermath of the Korean War, though people’s private thoughts may have harbored it, no one would speak out and question the U.S.’s role in Southeast Asia. McCarthyism taught America not to question the state, and that the average, good American didn’t criticize, conformed, and ostracized those who were different.

Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Belief. Had it not been for McCarthy’s public assault on the Army in 1954 and his apparent drunken stupor live in every American home with a television, McCarthy’s reign of terror may very well have lasted into the 1960s. Imagine a deeper seated Red Scare during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For Joseph McCarthy, his belief that communists had entrenched themselves in the highest levels of government altered how we believe our own leaders today. Repeat the lie long enough, and it eventually becomes truth.


North Vietnamese motor boats attacking the USS Maddox

North Vietnamese motor boats attacking the USS Maddox

Event: Gulf of Tonkin

Lie: “Last night I announced to the American people that the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters, and therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations.”–Lyndon Johnson

Troop increases in Vietnam post-Tonkin Resolution

Troop increases in Vietnam post-Tonkin Resolution

Lyndon Johnson was a product of his time. While not an avid historian as other presidents had been, Johnson understood that foreign policy issues would come to define his administration. He’d watched as Franklin D. Roosevelt had tried to sway America off of its isolationist island during the 1930s (and how only an attack against the U.S. at Pearl Harbor would swing America into war). He watched as Truman’s last years as president were marred by the specter that “he’d lost China to the communists.” Closer to home, he was there as Kennedy struggled to deal with Castro in Cuba and had first hand experience with Eisenhower and Kennedy’s Vietnam crisis and eventual war. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson had no choice but to confront the hand grenade sitting squarely in his lap. The 1964 election was the moment that pulled the pin and left Johnson holding what would ultimately make or destroy his presidency. In taped phone records, Johnson admits that he didn’t “think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out.” (Source) However, history had shown Johnson that he had no choice and he decided that he “wouldn’t be the President that let Southeast Asia go the way China went.”

Johnson needed his own Pearl Harbor, a USS Maine to rally Americans to a cause that he knew would ultimately doom America.

Lasting Impact: That the incident with the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin was 17_News_Fight_if_we_must_3-12-26-01completely manipulated, misconstrued, and misrepresented to Congress is without a doubt. That Congress–414 to 0 in the House and 88 to 2 in the Senate–passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the President carte blanche power to wage war in Vietnam as he saw fit shouldn’t surprise anyone either. Just look at how willing Congress was to authorize war with Mexico in 1848 and Spain in 1898 on dubious grounds to see that our political leaders don’t really understand their history. This is the lasting impact. The idea that we don’t understand our history and that, post-McCarthy, no one was willing to question leadership. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution briefly signed away a power specifically handed to Congress–war powers–to the Commander-in-Chief, and for six tenuous years we had exactly what the Framers of the Constitution hoped would never happen. James Madison said this of keeping war away from the President:

“The constitution supposes, what the history of all governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the legislature.”

And that legislature abdicated its duty to the American citizen.

Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Integrity. When we elect our political leaders there is an inherent belief on our part that these men and women will represent us with a certain level of integrity. We believe them. We trust them. It is a strange belief and trust in someone we have never spent any time with, someone we do not really know on a personal level. We accept their lies because we believe that they have what is best for us in mind. The Gulf of Tonkin shook that view of integrity. Not into our cores, our psyche, yet, but a growing distrust in the “other”–the party contrary to ours–began to fester. And yet, despite a nagging question inside us, we still believe in our leaders. We still hold in them an integrity that they may not have earned, and their lies have a strange way of solidifying that belief.

Read Part 3 “Lies That Altered U.S. History” here

Read Part 1 “Lies That Altered U.S. History” here

Lies That Altered U.S. History (Part 1)

In Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, young Ernest Pontifex is facing a dilemma: He’s given his dead aunt’s pocket watch to the girl he loves knowing that his father’s wrath would fall heavy upon him when he returned home, twice fold for being late for dinner. Though we all know that honesty is the best policy, young Ernest decides that “the best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.” And so Ernest shades the lie in a veil of truth by saying that he’d lost it running home through a field because he was late for dinner. In that, he found that he could take a truth and fold a lie within it and bring them both out the longest way possible.


In her article “Lying In Everyday Life,” Bella DePaulo (et al) found that people lie in one of five of their everyday interactions. Whether we lie to protect ourselves or we lie to protect others, we’ve created a tapestry of truths that may not show the entire painting. And these controlled attempts to shade the truth become accepted realities between the speaker and the listener. Most lies live in the shadowy world of one person’s perception of reality.

But at what point do these shadowy truths become an accepted reality? And to what degree do these shadows become light? Here is a list of eight lies that altered U.S. history so dramatically that their shadowy truths became full-fledged realities. The list does not represent a ranking of historical lies or their impact.


Naval Officers Think The Maine Was Destroyed By Spanish Mine

Naval Officers Think The Maine Was Destroyed By Spanish Mine

Event: Sinking of the USS Maine

Lie: In this case, there are quite a few of them.

“Crisis at Hand: Cabinet in Session; Growing Belief in Spanish Treachery”–New York Journal

“Maine explosion caused by bomb or torpedo”–The New York World

In 1898, the United States was watching the Cuban Revolution closely. The nation had long desired Cuba and had offered to purchase the island from the Spanish in 1848 but was met with general indifference from the Spanish. On the premise that the government was protecting U.S. business interests on the island, the U.S. navy ordered the USS Maine to Havana harbor.

Indignities Practiced by Spanish Officials On Board American Vessels

Indignities Practiced by Spanish Officials On Board American Vessels

As the revolution gained momentum, American sympathy toward the Cubans was manipulated by the press–chiefly by the papers of William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) and Joseph Pulitzer (The New York World). Their war for readership would become known as “yellow journalism” and their stretching of the truth in Cuba persuaded the American people to demand that McKinley throw U.S. support behind the oppressed Cubans and protect “Refined Young Women Stripped and Searched by Brutal Spaniards While Under Our Flag on the [ship] Ollivette.” In the end, the newspapers had even the Captain of the Maine, who had initially said that it was an accident and that the Spanish were assisting his crew, believing that the Spanish had destroyed his ship and forced McKinley, who had long hoped for neutrality in the Cuban crisis, to ask Congress for a declaration of war on April 20, 1898.

Lasting Impact: One of the first impacts of the circulation war between Hearst and Pulitzer would be on the media itself. The idea of Yellow Journalism lingers today and can be seen in our culture of sensationalization. When AOL runs articles from TMZ as headlines on their website’s home page the reader is eyewitness to this. A satirical account of the conflict between Samsung and Apple out of Mexico in 2012 claimed that Samsung was going to pay their billion dollar settlement to Apple in coins. This was picked up by many news outlets and reported as fact. That people in the past were duped by Yellow Journalism could be excused, they had limited resources to check the validity of the news, but for us today to accept these wildly unfounded statements as true shows how misguided our trust in the media today is. (Here’s a link to Snopes.com regarding the Samsung vs. Apple hoax)

The bigger impact, yes larger than the gullibility of Americans, was the impact that the Spanish-American War had on the future of the U.S. regarding foreign policy. Following McKinley’s assassination, the United States adopted an openly aggressive policy toward Latin America: first with Theodore Roosevelt and his “Big Stick” diplomacy, then with “Dollar Diplomacy” and William Taft, and ending with “Moral Diplomacy” and Woodrow Wilson. In the ten years following the Spanish-American War, the United States would take part in the overthrow of governments (Mexico, Panama/Columbia), armed occupation (Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti), revolution (Panama from Columbia in order to build the Panama Canal), and the “financial supervision” of banks (Haiti, Dominican Republic). Franklin Roosevelt will try to ease relations during the 1930s with the “Good Neighbor Policy” where he removed our troops from Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba, but this neighborly policy would not last and the United States would be back in Cuba in 1961-1962, and in Central America through the 1960s to 1980s. We would support brutal dictators like Augusto Pinochet (Chile) just because he wasn’t a communist. We let a fruit company dictate the direction of a nation.

Smallest amount of lying goes the farthest way: Fortune. Pulitzer gets writing awards named after him. Hearst gets to build a massive castle in California (and a granddaughter who gets kidnapped). The United States becomes the policeman of Latin America.


"The Bloody Massacre Perpetuated In King Street"

Event: Boston Massacre

Lie: Paul Revere’s engraving titled “The Bloody Massacre Perpetuated In King Street”

In propaganda, words mean everything. In this case, one word that Paul Revere chose would reverberate through an entire colony and set the stage for a revolution the world had never seen before.

That word: “massacre.”

The revolution: America’s.

But, Revere’s engraving is one big lie. Merriam-Webster’s defines massacre as “1 : the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty. 2 : a cruel or wanton murder.” The Boston Massacre was hardly that. Revere’s image–most likely copied from another engraver, Henry Pelham–shows a regiment of British soldiers lining up and firing at a crowd of colonists. It almost appears orderly, like a firing squad. But this is nothing like the reality of the events. Here, Revere has shaded the truth. That British soldiers were wandering the streets of Boston is true. That their presence was more than irksome is also true. That some fifty colonists decided to take it upon themselves to attack a British sentinel is omitted from the image. When the commander in charge, Thomas Preston, brought in reinforcements those men were met with snowballs, rocks, sticks, and any other projectile that the colonists could throw. A mob was forming. It is true that a British soldier fired into the crowd–probably more out of self-defense than anything–but a trial would acquit and release Preston and his men (Two would later be found guilty of manslaughter). After the shooting was done, three men died on the scene, eight were wounded (two would die later) and a revolution was born.

A massacre? Probably not. Five men.

A firing squad? Definitely not.

massacre 1And for the little white lies. White lie #1: In the image it would appear that this happened in broad daylight when, in fact, the “massacre” occurred after nine at night. The only hint at that would be the tiny crescent moon. Does this matter? From the perspective of the British, yes. Who knows what is lurking in the dark streets of Boston at night? White lie #2: It was winter and there was snow on the ground; the very snow that the mob was using to concemassacre 2al stones inside as they through them at the soldiers. Does this matter? If the British are going to say that they were attacked, best to conceal the weapon from the general public, right? The only hint at the temperature/season that Revere provides is the whisp of smoke coming out of the chimney. White lie #3: Revere has the British soldiers firing with Captain Preston holding his sword as though he is giving the orders to attack. The shadowed truth that Revere is telling here is that it is probable that Captain Preston gave an order to fire, but only in self-defense. And, as an aside, doesn’t the British soldier at the top look like he is having way too much fun? White lie #4: massacre 3This one is interesting. Sometimes when we lie, we are really telling the truth, but hope the person doesn’t see through it. In this case, Revere has discretely hidden a sniper in the haze of gunshot. If you look in the window of the “Butcher’s Hall” (coincidence?), you will see a sniper firing a rifle. Whether this is a British soldier or a colonist is not clear. Here is a transcript of Captain Thomas Preston’s testimony and trial.


Lasting Impact: The American Revolution was no sure thing. The Boston merchant class and elite, including men like John Hancock and Samuel Adams, had a vested interest in revolting from England. But that was not the case for most colonists. Estimates vary from one-third to one-in-six colonists as being loyal to the British crown on the eve of revolution. Many in the South saw revolution as a threat to their way of life; England was promising freedom to slaves in return for their pledge of loyalty. By the war’s end, some 80,000 colonial Loyalists left America for England and Canada, including Thomas Hutchinson–descendent of Anne Hutchinson–who was burned out of his house and driven from the United States under threat of tar and feathering from colonial Patriots. In this light, Revere’s engraving is the greatest political propaganda piece in history. It swung the tide of colonists who were disinterested in revolution into the camp of revolutionaries. Within months, anti-British rhetoric was sweeping the colonies via pamphlets, speeches, and two other engravings depicting the Boston Massacre. The colonists now had their reason to fight.

Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Immortality. In his personal life, Paul Revere was a mediocre silversmith and not an artist, though he did create the first seal for the united colonies. That he stole/borrowed the image from Henry Pelham is undeniable; Pelham publicly accused Revere of using his image without permission. Revere’s military career was far from distinguished–he was arrested and later acquitted of disobeying orders. He is immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” though Revere himself was captured before he reached Concord (it was really William Dawes and Samuel Prescott who finished the ride and warned the colonials in Concord). Revere’s engraving etched his name into our history, and without his engraving, we might not have our history.

Read Part 2 of “Lies that Altered U.S. History” here