Thursday, June 30, 2016

How America Got Its Name - Amerigo Vespucci, Richard Amerike - Will the Real Namesake Please Stand Up

Amerigo Vespucci
(from Christopher Columbus: His Life, His Work,
His Remains
by John Boyd Thatcher - 1904)
Naming a continent is a funny thing.

One man is the acknowledged discoverer of an entirely new world, yet by pure chance, it is named after another.

History tells us a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, scribbled America over the country of Brazil on a new map he was working on in 1507. He’d read Vespucci’s account of his discoveries, and decided it was a good way to honor the navigator and discoverer of that area.

According to Waldseemüller, he wrote the word America across Brazil on the new map because, “I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part America, after Amerigo [Vespucci] its discoverer, a man of great ability.”

Over time, the name just sort of stuck.

In 1538, the famed mapmaker Gerardus Mercator extended the name to all of North and South America. From that point on, Amerigo Vespucci’s Novus Mundo, or new world, would bear his name.

Amerigo Vespucci was born March 9th, 1454, in Florence, Italy. As a young man, he worked as a clerk for Lorenzo de’ Medici. In 1492, he was dispatched to Cadiz, Spain, to serve as an agent in that branch. In 1495, Vespucci helped procure supplies for Columbus’s second voyage.

Vespucci switched allegiances in 1499 and began work for the King of Portugal. He participated in several voyages of discovery. Some say, he acted as an observer for the king. Other accounts contend he was a navigator on several of the voyages. Whichever account is true, Vespucci was present on several important voyages of discovery.

General George Armstrong Custer - Hero, or Fool?

(from the Cyclorama of General 
Custer's Last Fight, - 1892)
Mention the name George Armstrong Custer and tempers start to flare. Many historians have made Custer out to be a martyr. Others portray him as a monster who sacrificed his troops in the Civil War to satisfy his quest for everlasting glory.

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Custer ranked dead last in his class at West Point. But, his timing for attending that institution couldn’t have been better. He graduated in 1861 at the start of the Civil War when the Union Army was desperate for new officers. Nearly 35 percent of his class resigned their commissions to return home and fight for the Confederacy.

Custer’s first assignment was as an aide to General McClellan. Not long after that, he received a commission as a cavalry officer, where he received a series of quick promotions due to his boldness in battle. After the Battle of Bull Run, the New York Tribune reported Custer had “most of the qualities which go to make up a first-class hero.”

What the newspapers didn’t report was Custer loved war. He was invigorated by the sights, sounds, and the smell of battle. While most officers kept to the rear of their troops, Custer led every charge of the Third Michigan—saber in one hand, pistol in the other.

He was reckless with the lives of his men. He didn’t plan; he didn’t scout out enemy positions. When others urged caution, Custer jumped in. During the Peninsula Campaign when McClellan stopped his troops to determine how deep the Chickahominy River was. Custer plunged in and rode out to the center. After proving its depth, he rode back to his place in line.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

1950s Nuclear Propaganda Films, or How to Not Panic, Duck and Cover, and Save Yourself From Nuclear Fallout

I've spent a lot of time on YouTube recently, employed on a search and destroy mission to uncover the best 1950s propaganda films concerning the nuclear menace.

Remember this was the period right after the war. Communism was spreading throughout Europe and Asia, the McCarthy Hearings were in full swing here in America, and companies were making a killing promoting portable bomb shelters for your backyard and basement.

It was a crazy, paranoid time. Many people expected the Red Army to come marching down your street at any moment. If you were a child of the fifties or sixties, one thing you're bound to remember is the "duck and cover" air raid drills. Students were marched out of the classroom, into the hallway, and forced to press their head between their legs. Like that was going to save you from a rogue Soviet nuclear missile.

One of the classic videos from this period is Duck and Cover starring Bert the Turtle. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Harvard Psychedelic Club, How Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Turned on the World

The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin is a fascinating look at how three Harvard University professors, and a graduate student came together in the early sixties to turn the world onto mushrooms, mescaline, and LSD-25. 

For Timothy Leary, the journey began on the afternoon of August 9th, 1960, when he ingested some psilocybin mushrooms. That trip changed his perception of reality and convinced him psychedelic drugs would soon become an essential tool in the psychologist's toolbox.

Huston Smith had literally written the book on world religions, The Religions of Man, later republished as The World's Religions. He was introduced to Timothy Leary by Aldous Huxley, another Harvard Man, who'd written The Doors of Perception, a book based on his experiments with mescaline. Leary introduced Smith to his "magic mushrooms" on New Year's Day in 1961. It was a bad trip, but it opened him up to the possibilities of what Huxley called these "heaven and hell" drugs.

Richard Alpert was late to the party. By the time he arrived in Mexico, the "magic mushrooms" were gone, and no one knew how to find more, so he had to wait for his conversion. He took his first "trip" in early February of 1961. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Stamp Act Crisis - Catalyst to Revolution, and the Birth of the Sons of Liberty

Pennsylvania Journal, October 31, 1765
(From Samuel Adams: A Character Sketch by
Samuel Fallows, 1898)
Have you ever noticed how sometimes the littlest acts create the biggest consequences?

England found itself strapped for cash at the close of the Seven Years War (known in the colonies as the French and Indian Wars), and saw the Stamp Act as a way to generate some much needed revenue.

When members of Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765, they didn’t give it a second thought. The tax was actually quite minor. It was expected to raise roughly £60,000 pounds, less than one-fifth of what it cost the Crown to keep troops stationed in North America for protection of the colonies. And, in all fairness, the revenues generated by the tax were to be used in the colonies to maintain order, and keep peace on the frontier.

The Stamp Act required colonists to pay a tax on every printed piece of paper—newspapers, magazines, broadsides, legal documents such as business licenses, permits, college diplomas, and even playing cards. Most of the fees weren’t outrageous, many of them started at less than a half-penny. The devil was in the details. The law required the tax to be paid in hard-currency—gold and silver, which was always in short supply in the colonies. And, the penalties for evading the tax were harsh. The fine was £10 for each pack of cards or pair of dice sold without a stamp, and £20 for each newspaper or pamphlet that did not list the name and address of the publisher. Tax evaders were to be tried before a Court of Admiralty, because Parliament felt colonial jury’s would be too lenient on tax evaders.  It also stipulated counterfeiters would be treated as felons, and suffer the penalty of death without benefit of clergy.