Author Archives: David Silbey

January 27, 2014, 5:16 pm

Floated Through The Air Like Autumn Leaves Dealing Death And Destruction

1938 hurricane September 21 1938 weather mapThe Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was the first substantial hurricane to hit New England since the 19th century. It was a powerful storm (peaking at Category 5 and making landfall at Cat. 3), and the weather forecasting of the day was off in both its severity and its timing. This latter was particularly bad, as the hurricane arrived well before it was predicted to, and thus caught many before they had finished (or started!) their preparations. The eye went over New Haven, CT. Colonel Edwin Bowden, who we last saw losing money in the 1925 Florida housing boom was stationed in Devens, MA when the hurricane hit. He and a friend set out in the middle of the storm to rescue his wife, who was visiting friends at an exposed location. Bowden’s story (sorry for the image file!):

Library of Congress Veterans Collection. Photo copyright David Silbey 2013

The Bowden family survived…

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January 25, 2014, 8:36 pm

Saturday Things Worth Reading

1. Information destruction through history infographic final revisedLovely graphic of information destruction through the ages at Global Data Vault:

Throughout the ages, it has happened again and again. Whole libraries of clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, bark codexes and paper books have been destroyed by natural disasters, fire and war. The Royal Library of Alexandria, where the accumulated knowledge of ancient scientists, physicians and philosophers was stored, was destroyed by fire. The destruction likely started during Caesar’s Civil War when Julius Caesar purposefully set his own ships ablaze, and many scholars believe the library suffered numerous other tragic fires throughout history. More than 120,000 volumes written by classical Greek and Roman authors were lost when fire destroyed the library at Constantinople in 473A.D.. Virtually all of the codexes recording the history, beliefs and sciences of the Maya were intentionally destroyed by…

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January 22, 2014, 2:18 am

Answer to Kevin Drum’s Question “Can 3 Lawmakers Revive the Voting Rights Act After the Supreme Court Trashed It?”


January 20, 2014, 6:00 am

The Leading Edge: Erica Hannickel

Welcome to the Leading Edge, a series on new works in history. We start things off with Dr. Erica Hannickel, Assistant Professor of Environmental History at Northland College, whose work on the history of American wine reveals all sorts of fascinating connections to immigration, race, and the Industrial Revolution. And, notably, the “Croesus of Cincinnati.”

15162How is it that historians don’t include Cincinnati land speculator and winemaker Nicholas Longworth in our panoply of most powerful 19th century moguls? For a time, Longworth was considered the second-richest man in America, behind John Jacob Astor.[1] Antebellum America knew Longworth as the “Western Bacchus” and “Croesus of Cincinnati”; today, a few historians crown him the “father of American wine” (in truth, he was the father of American sparkling hock). [2] Indeed, Longworth transformed Cincinnati into the …

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January 17, 2014, 7:13 am

Pressing Down

From “address made by Sgt. McLin Sheddan Choate of Battery F, 113th Field Artillery at the 65th reunion in 1983.”

At 11:00 am on November 11, 1918, after years of war, the firing ceased. The silence was as if one was in a small room and the ceiling was pressing down until you could hardly breathe. Then the realization came that it was all over–like an explosion. “Thank God. It is all over.”

From the Library of Congress Veterans Collection.

January 15, 2014, 4:43 pm

Frenzied Finance

Real estate bubbles did not pop into existence in the 21st century. There’s a long tradition of land speculation in American history, something of which I was reminded of during my research today. I was reading the 1943 memoirs of Colonel Edwin Bowden, a career Army officer, and he was discussing his involvement in the Florida land boom of the 1920s. As one historian described the boom:

There was nothing languorous about the atmosphere of tropical Miami during that memorable summer and autumn of 1925. The whole city had become one frenzied real-estate exchange. There were said to be 2,000 real-estate offices and 25,000 agents marketing house-lots or acreage. The shirt-sleeved crowds hurrying to and fro under the widely advertised Florida sun talked of binders and options and water-frontages and hundred thousand-dollar profits; the city fathers had been forced to pass an ordinance for…

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January 13, 2014, 4:54 pm

The Life and Death of Technologies

The dial tone is nearly a century old, leading the New York Times to do a magazine piece on it. The article is interesting, and you should read it, but it made me think of the life and death of technologies. Something like the dial tone has already largely disappeared from American life. My daughter will likely have no idea what it was. Phrases associated with disappearing technologies will shift out of everyday use:


And “video cassette recorder:”


Something much less familiar, pneumatic tubes, which were quite frequently used in the mid-20th century:


My sense is that technologies go from being leading-edge to being standard to being old fashioned to being antique. At first, a new technology is a marvel, then it is assumed, then it is past it, and then they are answers to Trivial Pursuit questions. Ten years ago, an author might have given their fictional character a…

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January 3, 2014, 4:34 am

Introduction: The Leading Edge

Just in time for the American Historical Association meeting (or #AHA2014 as the cool twitter kids have it) I’m starting a new feature on this blog. Modeled after John Scalzi’s “Big Idea” pieces, this series will give historians a chance to submit a piece about their current project – dissertation, book, etc. – and have that piece run in front of a wider audience. They can use the slot to talk about what they’re working on, why they think it’s important and interesting, and how it fits into the larger historiography.

The project doesn’t have to be complete/published/contracted but it should be reasonably far along and substantially well developed. The closer to it being in some tangible form, the more people are going to be able to do (buy, read, etc) with it. The Chronicle gets seen by a lot of people, and Edge by some fraction of that, so it’s a pretty sizable audience to parade…

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January 2, 2014, 5:13 pm

Evolution and Tribalism

The left blogosphere has been remarking on a Pew Center poll showing that Republican belief in evolution has been dropping over the last four years.

Evolution2013 4

Kevin Drum thinks it’s tribalism:

I don’t think it shows that conservatives are becoming more hostile to science, or even more hostile to evolution. Like so many poll questions these days, it gets interpreted by a lot of people as little more than “Are you a liberal or a conservative?” As Krugman says, between the pollster’s mouth and the respondent’s ears, it morphs into a tribal marker, not an actual question about an actual policy.

Which isn’t that worrying, except in the magnitude of the effect. But he’s not sure and “Perhaps some enterprising political scientist at the Monkey Cage can review the evidence about this for us?” Well, I’m only a historian, but let me suggest another interpretation. The Republicans answering the…

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December 31, 2013, 3:51 pm

The Military, Unleashed


Until the pendulum swings back and Congress proves willing to issue declarations of war in circumstances that permit no-holds-barred fighting, the military will continue to be asked to act with finesse.

is a myth. There has never been an American war in which Congress permitted “no-holds-barred fighting.” Even in World War II, perhaps as close as we’ve ever gotten, the US deliberately refrained from using chemical or biological weapons. The US has always limited what it is willing to do in wars, sometimes to a greater degree, sometimes to a lesser. Imagining that it hasn’t doesn’t help our understanding of the past, or our understanding of the present.

December 31, 2013, 12:52 am

Right vs. Law

From the comments to this post, Mark Lafue’s quite reasonable comment:

I am perhaps groggy and not thinking clearly, but are there ways in which freedom of speech is protected by laws not derived from the constitution? There are and always have been laws that protect rights to property, life and liberty from non-government actors, but off the top of my head I can’t think of any that cover freedom of expression.

And my response: There are laws that Mark is not thinking of, such as international treaty laws that protect freedom of expression, but my point is to separate the idea of “freedom of speech” as a right with the laws passed to protect that right. Rights – in the constitutional sense – are not created by the laws. They exist independently, and the laws are there to protect them, not to establish them. That’s why the First Amendment reads, in part, Congress shall make no law…

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December 30, 2013, 1:44 am

Unruly Academics, Part II

Felix Salmon has the same opinion of the Times article that I did:

Which is why David Kocieniewski’s article about Craig Pirrong and Scott Irwin this weekend is such a disappointment. It’s currently doing very well on the NYT’s most-emailed list, but it’s easy to guess who’s doing the emailing: people who love to hate Wall Street, and who will use just about any possible excuse for doing so. Because in this case Kocieniewski has missed the mark. Neither Pirrong or Irwin is mendacious or venal, and indeed it’s the NYT which seems to be stretching the facts well past their natural breaking point.

Paging Margaret Sullivan

December 28, 2013, 5:44 pm

Unruly Academics, Uppity Workers

Unruly Academics

The New York Times has discovered influence peddling in academia, and it’s front page news:

But interviews with dozens of academics and traders, and a review of hundreds of emails and other documents involving two highly visible professors in the commodities field — Mr. Pirrong and Professor Scott H. Irwin at the University of Illinois — show how major players on Wall Street and elsewhere have been aggressive in underwriting and promoting academic work.

Twitter blew up, of course. The odd thing, though, is that the case against Irwin, at least, is about as substantial as a tissue in a rainstorm. There are vague mutterings about Irwin testifying before Congress on, shockingly, his area of expertise, allied with mutterings about donations to the University of Illinois. It’s not until nearly the last paragraph of a 3000 word article that we discover that:


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December 27, 2013, 7:32 pm

In Wonderful News For Freedom Everywhere

Prod01 009646

A judge has ruled that the NSA can, in fact, collect lots of random information about Americans. Goody:

While robust discussions are underway across the nation, in Congress and at the White House, the question for this court is whether the government’s bulk telephony metadata program is lawful. This court finds it is.

Sigh. It does make it more likely that the Supreme Court will address this at some point, not that I’m particularly confident about that body’s ruling.

I wanted to note something, though, which is this paragraph in the Talking Points Memo story:

In arguments before Pauley last month, an ACLU lawyer had argued that the government’s interpretation of its authority under the Patriot Act was so broad that it could justify the mass collection of financial, health and even library records of innocent Americans without their knowledge. A government lawyer…

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December 24, 2013, 9:12 pm


Alan Turing was pardoned by the Queen this past week. I use “pardon” because it is the official word, but the reality is that the British government should have begged forgiveness of Turing’s family. This blog has talked about Turing before. What I said then stands now:

It is nonetheless some small form of redemption, for the British government more than Turing, who himself actually needed nothing in the way of absolution.

The British government would absolve itself even more by revisiting those persecuted gay men and women who were not famous historical figures and “pardoning” them as well. Governments, almost inevitably, have to be wicked. This would make the British government at least a bit less so.