Multiple choice: You’re Matthew Lyon, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1801. On the occasion of your fifty-second birthday, you’re asked what your most enduring legacy will be, that for which you’ll be remembered in two hundred years. Which of the following answers do you choose?
You were the first person convicted for violating the Sedition Act of 1798, when you accused President John Adams in print of “ridiculous pomp,” among other things.
You were the first (and only) member of Congress to be reelected while imprisoned (for the above infraction).
You were the first member of Congress charged with “gross indecency” and were repeatedly threatened with expulsion from office, for spitting in the face of a fellow member of Congress, and for the physical violence that ensued.
You cast the deciding Congressional vote to elect Thomas Jefferson as President during the Election of 1800
With perfect hindsight from the twenty-first century, the election of Thomas Jefferson looms large in the list above, but all of these choices are notable for their impact on the course of early American history. Matthew Lyon was an Irish immigrant, an entrepreneur, and an (allegedly) disgraced Revolutionary War officer who served with Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. Lyon was a vehement anti-Federalist. The Federalists believed in a strong central government, whereas Lyon and his fellow Democratic-Republicans feared monarchy and favored states’ rights instead.
In the early days of the American republic, the territorial imperative that would develop into manifest destiny was more of an optimistic thought experiment than an imperial (or divine) mandate to subdue the wilderness. For the first release of Readex’s Territorial Papers of the United States, let’s examine a few deceptively simple terms and the concepts underlying them, namely Territory, and Paper.
A Territory denotes a specific piece of land over which a consistent level of sovereignty and law is extended. But what did that require, exactly? When surveys were perilous, expensive and imprecise, and even explicit natural boundaries were often contested, the concept of a Territory required magical thinking. Certainly American Indians took that position; the boundaries delineated in treaties and land grants took little account of indigenous traditions, alliances and patterns of settlement. In that much U.S. territories seemed quixotic and arbitrary, foisted upon established societies that could do quite well without legal title, not to mention Indian removal.
At the confluence of the period of racial violence known as Red Summer (1919) and the first Red Scare (1917-1920), Jamaica-born poet and journalist Claude McKay merged black anger with radical politics in his most well-known poem, “If We Must Die.”
McKay’s sonnet initially appeared in the July 1919 issue of The Liberator, a radical socialist magazine published in New York City from 1918-24 by Max and Crystal Eastman. The fame and impact of “If We Must Die” was such that it was soon reprinted as a rallying cry in other progressive magazines such as the September 1919 issue of The Messenger, available in African American Periodicals, 1825-1995.
Fifty years ago the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a multi-pronged military campaign that underscored South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu’s inability to protect his country’s urban areas from attack.
Although the assaults were eventually repulsed, the heightened focus on the defense of South Vietnamese cities exposed rural areas to greater infiltration by the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) cadre, consisting of civilians and paramilitary personnel collaborating with the communist North.
America formalized the Phoenix Program in 1967 as a means of addressing just this eventuality. Through a melding of rural development with intelligence gathering and targeted detention and killing of suspected Viet Cong, they hoped to turn the tide of the war to the South and democracy.
The “Bridge of No Return” doesn’t look like much today: four waist-high blue bollards at the eastern end stand guard over grass growing through the cracked roadway. A weathered sign reads, “Military Demarcation Line” in English and Korean. The bridge’s railings are surely inadequate to prevent some desperate soul from leaping into the shallow river below. At the western end a low concrete wall hints that the last pedestrian or vehicle passed over the span long ago.
As often happens in real estate, location is everything. This bridge spans the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) in Panmunjom, the United Nations Joint Security Area between North and South Korea, in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The DMZ is a heavily fortified and closely monitored strip of land 151 miles long and 2.5 miles wide that approximates the 38th parallel of latitude. The MDL represents the cease-fire line of a war that has been unresolved since 1953. Those who were repatriated across this bridge acknowledged that they could never go back whence they came; theirs was a one-way trip.
In 1993, protected by a heavily armed Secret Service escort, President Bill Clinton walked over this bridge to within about ten feet of the MDL, scrutinized all the while by North Korean soldiers armed with AK-47s. Obviously President Clinton lived to record this excursion in his memoirs, but on August 18, 1976, two American servicemen supervising a landscaping detail nearby were not so fortunate.
Readex had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Finkelman, a leading authority on American legal history, race relations and religious freedom, to discuss the importance of primary documents in his work as a scholar and professor. Now the President of Gratz College, Finkelman has taught law and history courses at more than a dozen intuitions. He is the author or editor of more than fifty books, including Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court, which will be published this month by Harvard University Press.
In our discussion, Finkelman compared his work flow to that of scholars in decades past, noting how the online availability of primary sources not only fosters faster work, but also unlocks new findings in ways never before possible. Watch the highlights of our interview to learn how digital resources like the U.S. Congressional Serial Set and American Pamphlets can help students discover historical connections and energize their research.
You may have heard of the “Pentagon Papers” from the Vietnam War era. More recently, the “Panama Papers” exposed the use of that country’s legal and financial institutions for tax evasion. But what about the “Pumpkin Papers?” In the spirit of the season, we’ll shed some light on these documents that were used to keep the specter of communism at bay following World War II.
In 1950, the admission of the “Pumpkin Papers” as evidence of espionage against Alger Hiss led to his conviction for perjury, resulting in a five-year federal prison sentence. But perhaps as significant, the conviction of Alger Hiss brought U.S. Representative Richard M. Nixon to national prominence, as seen in these clippings from the Readex digital edition of the Washington Evening Star.
The aims of the Committee of Liberation of the Peoples of Russia are: the overthrow of Stalin’s tyranny, the liberation of the peoples of Russia from the Bolshevik system, and the restitution of those rights to the peoples of Russia which they fought for and won in the people’s revolution of 1917.
Andrei Vlasov, The Prague Manifesto, November 14, 1944
It’s November 14, 1944, and an armed uprising against Stalinist terror and Bolshevism is in progress. Its participants number well into the six figures and have been formed into an actual army. Its leader is Andrei Vlasov, a former general in the Red Army who had fought the Germans at the Battle of Moscow in 1941. Now he is allied with them, but only just.
Vlasov makes his way to the microphone in a crowded ballroom in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and declaims a manifesto excoriating Soviet communist oppression. He speaks as a pragmatic man of firm convictions and steady purpose, and he gives a bravura performance, a definitive example of speaking truth to power. But he is also a man divided in his loyalties.
In 1967 author and journalist Eugene Lyons published an article in the WashingtonEvening Star under the headline, “Freedom Came to Russians on this Day 50 Years Ago.” A bit of math would place that momentous event in 1917; surely he’s referring to the “Great October” revolution?
No, his dateline is March 12, and the revolution he’s commemorating is the one that actually resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. By Lyons’ reckoning, the true Russian revolution occurred in February (following the Russian Orthodox Julian calendar, which would place it in March according to the Gregorian calendar used in the West).
In his article, Lyons took severe issue with the Soviet mythology surrounding the October (Bolshevik) revolution that literally wiped out the most liberal government Russia had ever known, writing:
The successful grab for power by Lenin, Trotsky, and their small following was a deed plotted in secrecy, a private cabal, with the masses so much raw stuff to be terrorized and processed.
Consider for a moment the plight of Indonesia’s leaders in 1945: how to establish a national identity in a country spread across more than 13,000 islands, featuring hundreds of languages and ethnic groups, all in a precarious balance between the military, Muslims, and communists?
During Indonesia’s struggle to break free from over 300 years of Dutch colonial rule, and then from Japanese military occupation following World War II, early attempts to govern through parliamentary democracy became synonymous with corruption and bureaucratic paralysis. Between 1950 and 1959 there were seven attempts to build coalition governments, the last culminating in a period of martial law. Clearly a new approach was needed.
That approach came to be known as “Guided Democracy” (Demokrasi Terpimpin). Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president and the leader of the 1945 revolution that finally established Indonesia as a sovereign state, exercised an increasingly prominent role in the nation’s politics until his downfall in 1967. His administration’s managed or “Guided” democracy became more than an empty slogan or a euphemism for one-man rule; we shall see that there was indeed a unique Indonesian variant of the socialist experiment.