Tag Archives: Franklin Roosevelt

Cordell Hull – Peacemaker

30 Oct

Last year, I was asked to write an article about Cordell Hull for the Tennessee Baptist History Journal. During the process, I did quite a bit of research. However, the best part of the assignment was the day I spent at his birthplace. My parents joined me on the drive through the backroads of Tennessee, and we spent the day looking at the scenery and talking about all kinds of things.

The article was recently published, but I could find no online resource. Instead of sharing a link, I decided to share the article. Oh, if you have never heard of Cordell Hull, then let me introduce you to the man.

In 2013, the State of Tennessee proposed the demolition of the Cordell Hull Building, which has housed government employees since the 1950s. Uproar ensued as preservationists and citizens expressed outrage toward the plan, and, after furious debate, state officials determined that renovation of the Cordell Hull Building was the best option.

Despite the intensity of the argument, few people mentioned the person for whom the building is named. Perhaps that was because Middle Tennessee is dotted with places named in his honor: Cordell Hull Dam, Cordell Hull Lake, Cordell Hull State Park. Perhaps it was because people who argued against the demolition of the building did not realize the important role he played in the history of the United States and the history of the world. As Harold B. Hinton wrote, “There are scores of Tennesseans who have helped mightily in the building of the United States, and Cordell Hull must be numbered among them.”[1]

On October 2, 1871, Cordell Hull was born in a log cabin on a twelve-acre farm rented by his sharecropper father, Billy.[2] In his memoirs, Hull described Olympus, the nearest community, as “the only store in the entire section. This was also the post office.”[3] This was also the rural setting from which he learned the value of hard work and from which his love for learning began.

Hull’s childhood was filled with days working with his siblings in his father’s fields. They cultivated oats, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, corn and made molasses to give all of that a sweeter flavor.[4] When his father bought a larger farm and built a store, Hull continued to assist the family economically. At age eleven, he clerked at the store, and, as Hull wrote, “Sometimes a customer would come in and ask for the man in charge. I would reply proudly, ‘I am the man in charge.’”[5] His father agreed, as he once stated, “Cord was always just like a grown man, from the time he could walk.”[6]

Hull also helped his mother, Elizabeth, with spinning, weaving and milking the cows.[7] However, it was from his mother that he gained his love for learning. Hull wrote:

With all her work, however, she taught us our A B C’s and the first portion of Noah Webster’s old blue-back speller, which was current for generations in all public schools. She required us children to read the Bible as much as possible, and she herself read it constantly.[8]

Obviously, religion played an important role in the daily life of the Hull family, and Cordell Hull looked fondly upon this foundation of his faith. In his memoirs, he recounted:

The people of our section were mostly Primitive Baptists and Methodists…We had to go between one and two miles to the Primitive Baptist church on Wolf River, though sometimes services were held in private homes. The preacher was generally a farmer who tried to make a living on a farm and also undertook to preach. He was known locally as “the preacher.” Members of the church gave a little toward paying the preacher but not much.[9]

Hull continued:

Sometimes they had a preacher come from a distance and then they held splendid meetings. People went to the church from far and near. They walked or rode on horseback or in wagons and carts. There were no buggies in the ridge country at that time. Young men joined up with girl friends and went together to church. The boys wore stiff-standing paper collars, which on hot days were pretty well wilted down by the time they got to church walking or riding. I shall never forget the solemnity and fervor with which those people sand the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”[10]

He also remembered the important role of faith in local society when he wrote:

If a person was “skeptical,” he was promptly discovered and branded as an infidel, which rendered him somewhat unpopular and at that time deprived him of the right to testify under oath. Such persons were few and far between. The social life in the ridge country revolved largely around the church.[11]

Hull’s work ethic; thirst for knowledge; and strong faith served him well as his world expanded through higher education, but, at a time when rural families often chose one son to pursue a professional career, he first had to convince his father with what Hinton called “the most important speech in his life.”[12] Local parents established a debating society because, as Hull wrote, “they were deadly earnest that their children should get the utmost from their schooling.”[13] In 1885, Hull took his turn at the podium and argued that George Washington was more important to American history than Christopher Columbus. In front of a crowded room, he won the contest, and his father decided that his son “should go away to the best school he could afford,” which was the Montvale Institute in Celina, Tennessee.[14]

From Montvale, Cordell Hull matriculated to a normal school in Bowling Green, Kentucky and, after a few semesters, transferred to the National Normal University in Lebanon, Ohio.[15] Normal schools specialized in training students to become teachers. Despite this training, Hull wanted to study law, and his father rented an office in Celina where his son could begin reading the law.[16] Lawyers had been learning in this fashion for decades, however, in last decades of the 19th Century, the American Bar Association asserted that more rigorous training was needed.[17]

In 1891, Hull enrolled in the law school at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, an institution with the reputation of developing some of the nation’s best legal minds.[18] As Hinton wrote in his biography of Cordell Hull, “Ever since the Civil War many of the greatest figures in Tennessee’s legal and political life have had their principal training at Cumberland.”[19] Hull recalled, “When I went to Congress sixteen years later I found in Washington four or five Senators, one Justice of the Supreme Court and twelve to fifteen Congressmen who were graduates of Cumberland University.”[20]

In addition to his academic growth, Hull gained experience outside the classroom that prepared him for the future. At age fourteen, he attended his first court session and first became interested in law. At age seventeen, he read his first newspaper, the Nashville American and listened to the ideas of men who gathered at the general store. From them he learned that “a person can’t ever amount to something unless he stands for something.”[21]

When Hull traveled to Bowling Green, he rode a train for the first time, and, when he attended school in Lebanon, Ohio, he first experienced life outside of the South.[22] However, his political career began back home when he was asked to speak at a rally. The organizers ran out of speakers but remembered his previous debate performance. At age sixteen, Hull spoke in support of Grover Cleveland for president of the United States. Cleveland lost, but, a few years later, Hull was elected Chairman of the Clay County Democratic Committee.[23]

In 1892, Hull ran for the State Legislature. While not yet old enough to hold office, his birthday would come before the general election. Until that time, he had to face a formidable opponent for the Democratic nomination. Realizing that he could not win in a party convention, Hull maneuvered his opponent into a primary election. He bought and horse; stumped throughout four counties; and carried each one.[24] He also won the general election and served in the State House until 1897.[25]

At age thirty-one, Hull became judge of the Fifth Judicial District.[26] Despite the fact that he served for only four years, people called him “Judge” for the rest of his life. As Hinton wrote, “In talking to a considerable number of men throughout the region where he lived for thirty-five years, I heard only two call him by his first name…The rest called him judge.”[27] He continued, “Mrs. Hull learned to call her husband ‘Judge,’ which she does to this day when speaking of him.”[28]

Through his judgeship, Hull became well known throughout the region, and some Democrats believed he would be a strong candidate for Congress in the 1906 election. Facing a strong primary opponent, he traveled throughout the district and relied on his father’s vast friendships. Hull won by fifteen votes and easily carried the general election.[29] This began a twenty-four year career in the United States House of Representatives, broken only by a two year stint as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and placed him in position to impact the nation.[30]

In Cordell Hull: A Biography, Harold B. Hinton called Cordell Hull “Father of the Income Tax,” and the moniker is appropriate.[31] In 1907, Hull first introduced a comprehensive income tax bill but knew that it had little chance for passage. For years, he refined his plan and included it in as many speeches as possible. However, the Supreme Court had ruled the income tax unconstitutional.[32] Then, the political climate changed.

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson, who wanted a lower tariff and a new revenue stream in its place, won the presidency, and, a month before his inauguration, the constitutional amendment allowing an income tax was ratified. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, Hull was tasked with writing a new bill and introducing it to Congress. The income tax became law in October 1913, and, in his memoirs, Hull wrote, “Today the principle is so widely accepted that it seems difficult to visualize the need for the immense struggles that occurred before its adoption.”[33]

In 1914, the First World War began, and Hull saw an opportunity. As he later wrote, “To me, the war, disastrous as it was in all respects, offered both tragedy and a springboard for constructive legislation.”[34] This meant the introduction of his bill to tax inheritance, a revenue stream that Hull had been studying for several years. In 1916, President Wilson signed the Federal and State Inheritance Law.[35]

The end of World War One brought victory to the United States and the Allies. However, due to disagreement in the United States over joining the League of Nations, it brought defeat to President Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party. For the next decade, the Republican Party dominated national politics, and Cordell Hull felt the effects of his party’s decline. He lost one election bid for the House of Representatives and, when he made a comeback, lacked the power that he once held.[36]

The opportunity for Hull’s reemergence came in the early 1930s. In 1929, the stock market crashed during the administration of President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, which provided the Democratic Party an opportunity to regain control. That same year, Tennessee Senator Lawrence Tyson passed away. Hull, who had often thought about running for the Senate, announced his candidacy for the seat.[37]

During the Democratic primary, Hull faced the Memphis-based political machine of Boss Ed Crump and accusations of being out of touch with Tennesseans. His opponents talked about his car having a Washington, D.C. license plate and about him needing a driver from Washington to take him over Tennessee roads. However, Hull’s popularity with the people and national Democratic leaders brought victory in the primary and in the general election.[38]

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt won the presidential election, and a Democrat inhabited the White House for the first time in twelve years. Hull wrote, “At long last, my party was back in power and I felt confident that a fruitful period of work and accomplishment lay before me and those of similar views.”[39] Despite that remembrance, he could not have envisioned that he would become the longest-serving Secretary of State in the history of the United States.

According to Hinton, “Through the preconvention days of 1932 Senator Hull had probably been the closest Congressional adviser Governor Roosevelt had.”[40] This placed him in the forefront of the new president’s mind for a cabinet appointment, but Hull did not see himself as a candidate. As Hull described:

At that moment I was to experience a great surprise. Mr. Roosevelt stopped over in Washington in January on his way to Warm Springs, Georgia, and sent for me to call on him at the Mayflower Hotel. Then and there, without much introduction, he offered me the Secretaryship of State.[41]

For over a month, Hull contemplated the offer and wondered if he could accomplish more in the Senate or as a member of the president’s cabinet. In February, Hull met with Roosevelt and explained, “If I accept the Secretaryship of State, I do not have in mind the mere carrying on of correspondence with foreign governments.”[42] The president-elect agreed, and Hull accepted the offer.

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office and embarked on the longest and one of the most influential presidencies in American history.[43] On the same day, Cordell Hull took the oath for his office. Over the next decade, he faced economic decline throughout the world and the rise of dictatorships in Europe and Asia. However, he wanted to first become a good neighbor to the nations of Latin America.

The United States had a long policy of intervention in Latin America that caused feelings of resentment and distrust. Hull worked through these issues at the 1933 Pan-American Conference and laid the groundwork for Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. He continued to strengthen this policy throughout the by working with diplomats at the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace in 1936 and at the Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the American Republics in 1940.[44]

Despite this success, turmoil and violence defined Hull’s term as Secretary of State. Fascist and dictatorial leaders bent on war gained power around the world, and he knew to observe them closely. Of Adolph Hitler, Hull wrote, “Right from the beginning we faced one problem after another in our relations with Germany.”[45] He also faced problems with Benito Mussolini of Italy, Hirohito of Japan and others as they took steps toward war.

In his memoirs, Hull wrote, “I made it clear that, if Europe and Asia took the courses which the Axis nations were charting for them, war was certain to engulf the world.”[46] On September 1, 1939, Cordell Hull was proven to be correct when Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. He spent the previous six years trying to prevent war. Now, Secretary Hull and President Roosevelt tried to steer the United States through war.

On September 5, Roosevelt declared the neutrality of the United States.[47] However, he and Hull knew that the nation must assist the fight to uphold democracy in Europe. After a political fight with isolationists, the Lend-Lease Act passed, and the administration gained the ability to ship weapons to nations fighting against the oppressive regimes.[48]

For two years, the United States assisted the Allies of Europe while watching the advances of Japan in Asia. As Hull wrote, “We considered Japan’s expansionist ambitions an eventual danger to our own safety.”[49] With that in mind, he spoke with Japanese delegates about protecting the sovereignty of Asian nations and the economic role of the United States in that part of the world. Those talks continued until December 7, 1941.

On that morning, Hull waited in his office for a meeting with representatives from Japan, but he first received a call from the president with news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. An hour later, the envoys arrived, and Hull admonished them for continuing talks of peace while planning an attack. He wrote, “I have seen it stated that I “cussed out” the Japanese envoys in rich Tennessee mountain language, but the fact is…no “cussing out” could have made it any stronger.”[50]

The next day, the United States declared war on Japan, and, a few days later, declared war on Germany and Italy. While Roosevelt planned for the fight, he directed Hull to plan for the peace. Thinking about Woodrow Wilson’s failure to convince the United States to join the League of Nations, Hull believed there needed to be “a viable and practical structure by which the peace of the world could be successfully maintained.”[51] He formed a committee of Democrats and Republicans to complete the task, and, in 1943, the State Department completed the “Charter of the United Nations.”[52]

Due to ill health, Hull retired and, while appointed to the American delegation, could not attend the first meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco.[53] However, President Roosevelt had already stated what everyone involved already knew. Cordell Hull was the “Father of the United Nations.”[54] In 1945, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace “in recognition of his work in the Western Hemispheres, for his international trade agreements, and for his efforts in establishing the United Nations.”[55]

On July 23, 1955, Cordell Hull passed away and left a legacy of public service that began in rural Tennessee and ended with an attempt to create everlasting peace for the world.[56] Hull must have been thinking of those days when he ended his memoirs by writing:

If we are willing from time to time to stop and appreciate our past, appraise our present and prepare for our future, I am convinced that the horizons of achievement still stretch before us like the unending Plains. And no achievement can be higher than that of working in harmony with other nations so that the lash of war may be lifted from our backs and a peace of lasting friendship descend upon us.[57]

     [1] Harold B. Hinton, Cordell Hull: A Biography (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1942), 4.

     [2] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park, Tour, July 30, 2016.

     [3] Cordell Hull, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, vol. 1 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1948), 3.

     [4] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [5] Hull 1948, 12.

     [6] “The Hulls of Tennessee,” LIFE, March 18, 1940, 81.

     [7] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [8] Hull 1948, 5.

     [9] Ibid., 8.

     [10] Ibid., 8.

    [11] Ibid., 8.

     [12] Hinton 1942, 25.

     [13] Hull 1948, 14.

     [14] Ibid., 15.

     [15] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [16] Hinton 1942, 29.

     [17] Albert J. Harno, Legal Education in the United States: A Report for the Survey of the Legal Profession (1953), 19.

     [18] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [19] Hinton 1942, 30.

     [20] Hull 1948, 27.

     [21] Ibid., 24.

     [22] Ibid., 23.

     [23] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [24] Hull 1948, 29.

     [25] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [26] Hull 1948, 38.

     [27] Hinton 1942, 25.

     [28] Ibid., 10.

     [29] Hull 1948, 43.

     [30] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [31] Hinton 1942, 129.

     [32] Hull 1948, 48.

     [33] Ibid., 71.

     [34] Ibid., 75.

     [35] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [36] Hinton 1942, 166.

     [37] Hull 1948, 134.

     [38] Ibid., 136.

     [39] Ibid., 154.

     [40] Hinton 1942, 203.

     [41] Hull 1948, 156.

     [42] Ibid., 158.

     [43] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [44] Ibid.

     [45] Hull 1948, 236.

     [46] Ibid., 665.

     [47] Hinton 1942, 341.

     [48] Ibid., 348.

     [49] Cordell Hull, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, vol. 2 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1948), 982.

     [50] Ibid., 1097.

     [51] Ibid., 1625.

     [52] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [53] Hull 1948, 1721.

     [54] Ibid., 1723.

     [55] Cordell Hull Birthplace and Museum State Park.

     [56] Ibid.

     [57] Hull 1948, 1742.

D.C. Road Trip – A Lot of Statues and One Chandelier

23 Jul

We rose bright and early on Thursday because we had an appointment to keep. We were scheduled to meet at the office of our congressional representative, Diane Black, and a member of her staff was going to lead us on a tour of the Capitol. After a short cab ride, we found ourselves at the entrance of one of the several congressional office buildings. I was expecting a long wait through security, but it was easier than I expected. There was a metal detector, but that was about it. Heck, I thought it was harder to get the elevator to work at our hotel.

From the office, we made our way through the tunnel to the Capitol. People were hustling and busting, and I realized something. The vast majority were in their 20s. I came to the conclusion that our government is actually run by young people who have the drive and energy to do it.

The tour of the Capitol was awesome and was one of my favorite parts of the trip. We saw scars from where the British burned the building during the War of 1812. We also saw a chandelier that began its life in a whorehouse before being moved to a Methodist church. Finally, it made its way full circle to our nation’s Capitol. It started in a place where they screw people for their money and ended up in the same type of place.image-13

The old chambers of the House and Senate were also cool. I wanted to see the place where Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was almost beaten to death, and, suddenly, there we were.

The rotunda was interesting, but I really liked the statues scattered throughout the building. Each state submits two statues of people who are important to them. There were a lot of presidents, but there was also Helen Keller and a Native American leader. Tennessee’s entries are Andrew Jackson and John Sevier, two men who were not fond of each other.

However, there were also statues of other people who were important in Tennessee history.

Texas offered a statue of Sam Houston, who served as governor of Tennessee. Also, his first law office was in Lebanon.image-14

Nebraska had a statue of William Jennings Bryan, who died in Tennessee after serving as the prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial.image-15

Without a doubt, the highlight of the visit was sitting in the gallery and watching the House of Representatives at work. As we looked down upon them, a few things went through my mind.

The room is a lot smaller than I imagined.

This is the room where Franklin Roosevelt made the “Infamy Speech.”

The House of Representatives is chaotic. We watched them take two votes, and hardly anyone was sitting down. They were walking around. They were standing in front of the speaker’s stand and talking. Kids were on the floor. Staff members were in and out. It was in complete disarray.

Most members of the House are anonymous. Most people probably know their own representative and others in their state, but that is about it. Heck, we sit close to the Kentucky border, and I could not tell you who any of their people are. Except for a few in leadership positions, no one really knows who these people are.

After watching them for a while, we decided to walk down the hall and watch the Senate. This is when we discovered why our government cannot get anything done. We had to leave our belongings in a room before going to the House chamber. However, we could not get to the Senate without first going back to get our stuff and turning it in again at the Senate holding room.

Understand? Me neither. We had to go back downstairs; get our stuff; turn it in at a different location; then go to the Senate. Ridiculous.

Then, we got to the Senate chamber and watched one guy give a speech to an empty room.

We left the Capitol and made our way to a sandwich shop for lunch. Then, we walked across the street to the Library of Congress.

Did I say walk? This is when we realized that walking to everything was not going to be as easy as we thought. The Mall is a huge expanse, and things that look close on the map may not be close in reality. With a busy morning behind us, we decided to take a cab to the hotel and rest up before dinner, which was at a cool South American restaurant. My wife and I both had mojitos with huge pieces of sugar cane sticking out of them. Nothing like a drink with a hunk of wood-like stuff.

After dinner, we walked to the Mall to see the monuments at night. We had heard that this is the best time to look at them. Several things stuck with me.

People play kickball and softball around the Washington Monument. I had never thought of it as a big recreational area, but that is what it is.

The World War II Memorial is amazing.image-18

The water in front of the Lincoln Memorial is huge, but it is also where Captain America met Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Tons of people want to see the Lincoln Memorial and will risk their lives for it. We saw one woman wreck a Segway. However, I can understand why. It is an inspiring experience.image-16

The Vietnam Memorial is behind a bathroom. We lost the people we were with when we thought they went to the bathroom. Actually, they were going to the Wall.

The Korean War Memorial is the one I most wanted to see, and I was not disappointed. Seeing the soldier statues glowing in the night was a haunting experience.image-17

With that, we caught a cab back to the hotel. My stepdaughter went to the room while my wife and I hung out in the lobby to make sure the rest of our gang made it back.

A Few Days in December 1941

7 Dec

December 7, 1941 was a Sunday. It was also the day that the Japanese fleet attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.Pearl Attack

Actually, that is not accurate. It was an attack on various locations around the island of Oahu. Most people know the story and have seen the footage of the attack. However, something else was taking place thousands of miles away.

In Washington, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who graduated from Cumberland University, was preparing to meet with the ambassador of Japan when word of the attack got to his office.Cordell Hull

Hull greeted the ambassador, who did not know the attack had already taken place, and read documents stating that negotiations between the two nations were ending. The Secretary of State exploded with angered while the ambassador quickly left. Hull uttered a few other choice words while realizing that the United States had just entered the World War.

On December 8, Franklin Roosevelt convened a joint meeting of the Senate and the House of Representatives to request a declaration of war against Japan. On that day, he said:

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

I Hope the Buggles Were Wrong…

20 Sep

When they sang “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Why? This week, I appeared on WANT 98.9, the station that plays Real Country.WANT

Before anyone gets worried, I did not sing. Instead, I was a guest on Coleman & Company, a talk show where local people are interviewed. This time, it should have been called Larry & Company because my good friend was hosting while Coleman is on vacation. You have read about Larry before.

We talked about all kinds of things, but history dominated the time. We discussed Quanah Parker, a famous Comanche, and his mother, who was taken captive by the Comanche. We talked about the pioneers who traveled over the Oregon Trail. We also talked about George Allen, a Cumberland University student who later went on to become a close confidante to Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. It was an enjoyable experience, and everyone said that I did a good job.

After the interview, I started thinking about the first time I was in that studio. When I was a kid, the radio station held a spelling bee, which was divided by grade level. Each school sent the winners of its grades to compete against the winners at other schools.

There was this one kid that I could never beat. Her name was Melissa, and she was not my favorite person. Every year, I finished second to her first. Finally, we made it to 5th grade, and I won. It was one of those pivotal moments in life that affects everything that will come later. After beating her, I could conquer the world.

That’s when the 5th grade teacher changed the rules and said it would be best 2-out-of-3. It was devastating. Think about a team winning the Super Bowl and being told they have to win it again. With my spelling senses reeling, she crushed me in the next two matches.

I was not happy. My mom was not happy at a completely different level. She confronted the teacher and asked about the change. The teacher’s answer was simple. She thought Melissa would have a better chance of winning on the radio and set it up so she could make it. That was not the answer my mom wanted to hear.

Fast forward a couple of years. I am in 7th grade at a local private school. It is the last grade that takes part in the spelling bee. I breeze through the contest and qualify for the spelling bee on the radio. On a Saturday morning, we pull up to the station and go to the studio, the same studio I was in this week. Kids from the other schools were going to their seats, but I only had my eye on one.

One by one, kids made their way to the microphone to spell a word. Some got through and some didn’t. I only paid attention when she was up there. When she got one right, I knew that I had to get one right. I didn’t care about winning the whole thing. I just wanted to outlast Melissa.

The contest continued until the unthinkable happened. She missed a word. I knew that I had to get the next one right to truly beat her. I got to the microphone. The moderator, which may have been Coleman, gave out the word. I took my time and nailed it. With great satisfaction, I went back to my seat and she slithered out of the room.

I didn’t win the contest, and I don’t remember who did. All I remember is who stayed in the longest, and it wasn’t Melissa. I hope my old 5th grade teacher was listening.

A Brief Look at the Historical Legacy of Lebanon, Tennessee

19 Aug

I just started a new book by Andrew Carroll called Here is Where, about a journey to find historic places that have been lost to, well, history. Although I am only a few pages in, it promises to be a good read about his journey to find these places and the people he met along the way.

It has also made me think about the history of my town. In class, we talk about the big events and people who took part in them, but history is local. There are a lot of amazing stories about people and events that we have never heard of. They are important to the towns in which they lived, but their notoriety doesn’t go past the city limits. My town is full of history.

Of course, some people don’t believe that. Several years ago, I was in a meeting, and a lady said that we had no history. That’s when I rattled off a list that included some of the following.

My workplace, Cumberland University was founded in 1842. Thousands of students have passed through its doors, but none are more important that Cordell Hull.Cordell Hull

Never heard of him? Well, he was Secretary of State under Franklin Roosevelt and known as the “Father of the United Nations”. He was also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, his time as Secretary of State was in and around World War II. During that time, Cumberland University also played an important role as the headquarters of the Tennessee Maneuvers, a series of war games to prepare for the invasion of Europe. Soldiers fought battles and captures town all of Middle Tennessee. General George Patton was in charge of the Maneuvers and spent some time in town. I have heard that his private plane was still at the local airport when he was killed.George Patton

Another military leader started his career in town. Sam Houston opened his first law office on the square.Sam Houston

He went on to become governor of Tennessee, an office from which he would resign under mysterious circumstances. It was then that he went to Texas and became one of the leaders of the fight for independence from Mexico. After victory, Houston became the president of the nation of Texas and the governor of the state of Texas.

I always thought it was fitting that the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Titans. They were just coming back home.

Following the military theme, Castle Heights Military Academy opened in 1902 and was a top private school for decades. Kids were sent from all over the world for a regimental education. The local girls loved them. The local guys didn’t care for them all that much. Thousands of students marched the grounds of Castle Heights, and some of them became famous. Can you imagine Gregg and Duane Allman in a military school?Allman Brothers

Me neither. However, they spent time at Castle Heights.

Another famous rock star spent time here while he was doing some recording in Nashville. Paul McCartney showed up with Wings and stayed at a local farm.Paul McCartney

He even wrote a song about it.

The farm was owned, and is still owned by Curly Putman, who wrote “He Stopped Loving Her Today“, considered by most to be the best country song ever recorded.

Oh, there’s one more thing that is of some historic note. Cracker Barrel was founded here by Danny Evins, who started serving food to attract people to his gas station.Cracker Barrel

The next time you get Uncle Herschel’s breakfast you should remember that Uncle Herschel was from here, too.

Listeria

11 Jul

I was at the pharmacy buying legal drugs and had to wait the required 20 minutes for them to fill my prescription. There were five druggists and one customer, so I’m not sure why it should take that long. Maybe, they were sampling their merchandise. Anyway, I entertained myself by looking at greeting cards; checking out the new wave of condoms; and, in the end, heading over to the magazine stand. There, in the middle of the too-much-about-celebrities and the too-little-about-sports, I found TIME: The 100 Most Influential People of All Time.

I know what these “list” magazines are. They are a way for magazines to make some extra money and maybe get new subscribers. They are pointless because the lists are totally subjective, and there is no way of knowing how they came up with the names. Besides, what makes 100 so special anyway? It’s just a round number. Despite all of that, I am a sucker for these types of things. I even bought Rolling Stone: 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and made sure I had all of the songs on my iPod. This, despite the fact that “Like a ROLLING STONE” by Bob Dylan was ranked Numero Uno, and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The ROLLING STONES came in second. Talk about subjective lists with self-promotion.

As you can probably imagine, I bought the history list, too. I am a historian who likes lists. What can I say? Now, I’m not going to go through the entire list, but a few things stood put to me.

1. There are a few people on the list who are subject to speculation in their actual existence. There’s Abraham, Jesus Christ, Confucius. Heck, some people even doubt the reality of William Shakespeare. Yet, they are on the list. Let me set this straight. I am not saying that they did not exist. They, or the inspiration for them, probably did. Also, there is no doubt of the impact that they and their followers have had on the world. I only think it is interesting that the list includes people who may not have actually been people.

2. There are four U.S. presidents on the list – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. I have already written about what I think of our presidents, so I won’t go into great detail. However, this brings some thoughts to mind. First, these four did a great job and left an impact on the world. Second, the other forty haven’t done much. I mean, these guys are always called “the leader of the free world” and are said to hold “the most powerful office in the world”. If that’s true, then why are there not more on the list?

I’ll tell you why. None of that is really true. There are a lot of leaders of “the free world”, and the presidency is not even supposed to be “the most powerful office” in the United States. The three branches – executive, legislative and judicial – are equal. It’s a team effort, and the president is supposed to run the day-to-day operations. Obviously, this job description has been skewed through the years by the people in office (definitely by the four on the list), but the fact remains that the presidency is supposed be no more powerful or influential than the other areas of government.

3. One of the presidents, Roosevelt is on the list along with Winston Churchill. Undoubtedly, they made it because of their efforts against Adolph Hitler (who is also on the list) during World War II. In my opinion, all three of those people deserve their listing. I’m sure a lot of people object to Hitler’s presence, but the list is about influence, not humanity. He started a war that shaped the rest of the 20th Century – from technology to the Cold War.

Mentioning the Cold War leads me to the issue with this grouping. Where is Joseph Stalin? He was one of the Big Three who fought against Nazi Germany. In fact his nation was actually invaded by German troops. Want to know an interesting statistic? More Soviet women died in combat than American men. On top of that, his policies shaped the 20th Century as well.

4. I also find it interesting that my area of historical study, the American West, is also included. I just can’t figure out why. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea make the list for their journey through the Louisiana Territory. It’s important for the United States, but I am not sure about its influence on the world. First, someone had already made the trek through Canada. Second, most of their travels went through lands already ventured into by Europeans. Third, Native Americans had been there for a long time.

Speaking – actually, writing – of Native Americans. Sitting Bull is on the list. This is one of my favorite people from history, and I will visit the Battle of Little Big Horn, the site of his greatest victory, in a few weeks. However, I don’t see how the killing of George Custer makes him one of the top 100. Sitting Bull didn’t even lead forces into battle because he was recovering from the Sun Dance. He is tattoo worthy, though.

As written earlier, I will not go through the entire list, but I will mention my favorites from each category.

In “Beacon of Spirits”, I like the inclusion of Socrates and Plato.

“Explorers and Visionaries” has Charles Darwin and Alexander Graham Bell, with whom I share a last name. Unfortunately, we are not related.

Queen Elizabeth I and Simon Bolivar are listed under “Leaders of the People”.

“Architects of Culture” includes Michelangelo and Louis Armstrong.

That’s it. If you were on the committee, then who would you put on the list?

Things I Have Learned During Finals Week

4 May

Today, my colleague in the historian’s craft posted a great piece about the most memorable answer he has seen on a final exam. It is a very funny story, and you should check it out. (Yes, funny stuff happens in the world of academics. In fact, it happens all the time.) There is no way I can top that answer, but it made me think about some of the things I have seen through the countless final exams weeks of my life.

Final exams are the culmination of months of learning by the students. It is when they take the information they have absorbed and prove that some of it stuck. But, final exam week holds a deep secret in the dark corridors of the ivory towers. It is a time for the faculty to learn something as well. Through years of grading tests and seeing people operate in the stressful environment of the last week of school, I have learned quite a bit. This is a serious and not-so-serious list of the information that I have absorbed.

(Due to federal requirements, the events that I describe are HISTORY and not the PRESENT.)

Being within 3 points of an A means that a student should get an A. (After all, close counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.)

Al Capone ran for president of the United States in 1928. (I don’t know why. He was already richer and more powerful.)

Extra Credit should be given after the semester is over. (Especially if it provides the 3 points needed for an A.)

Even I, the great and powerful, can miscalculate sometimes. (I know. It’s hard for me to believe, too.)

On December 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy”, the empire of Japan attacked Alaska. (There wasn’t much happening in Hawaii.)

Mothers can get vicious about grades. (Even after their children have reached adulthood.)

The bookstore folks get really stressed out during finals week. (I really didn’t think they had much going with books being returned; people picking up graduation regalia; and everything else.)

Students realize they have scholarships. (And a bad grade may make that scholarship disappear.)

Franklin Roosevelt was blind when he was elected president. (I realize how someone would think this. Have you seen Eleanor?)

Retirement is bittersweet. (It’s tough to watch people leave something that they have been doing for decades.)

Speakeasies have never existed. (Maybe Al Capone wasn’t so rich and powerful after all.)

People worry about the length of the graduation ceremony. (Guys, be happy you made it and stop worrying.)

Almost everyone shows up to take their final exam. (It’s amazing really. People that you haven’t seen in months suddenly show up. It’s like the return of Gilligan or something.)

The student affairs folks already plan for next semester. (They do that. I promise. It’s like people are really on the ball.)

Napoleon Bonaparte was an American who traveled to France to help with the revolution. (I knew he was too ambitious to be French.)

Alexander Graham Bell is my ancestor. (Oh, how I wish that were true.)