Friday, December 28, 2007

Filibuster? I hardly know her!

In the early days of email forwards, and even before that, I used to delight in those lists of allegedly arcane laws that would circulate. (Here's a good example list. Like, here in New York, unwanted flirting is apparently punishable by forcing the offending party to wear horse blinders.) Their veracity was always very suspect, and a good number of them were probably impossible to enforce even if they WERE real laws, but they were still amusing.

I bet Robert Byrd likes them too, because an arcane Senate rule once helped him bust through a filibuster.

In February 1988, a campaign finance measure was on the Senate floor, and the Republicans were attempting to keep it from going to a vote by any means necessary. This included playing hooky from the session to prevent a quorum from being present. Frustrated with the low turnout, then-Senate majority leader Byrd invoked an old rule that empowered the Sergeant-at-Arms to physically round up absent parties and force them to attend the session. Those present voted 45 to 3 to proceed, and so the Sergeant-at-Arms was dispatched.

(The Sergeant-at-Arms, by the way, is an actual salaried position, and he's usually a pretty tough guy. Back when I was in high school, we had Sergeant-at-Arms as an office you could run for in most clubs, but it was mostly just another opportunity for kids to pad their college resumes, since really, who's going to filibuster at a Key Club meeting?)

Among those arrested were Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR), who'd barricaded himself inside his office. According to an article in the National Review, "a cleaning woman ratted on him," and the Sergeant-at-Arms, together with two aides, forced open the door to apprehend Packwood. Another senator, Steve Symms of Idaho, was spotted but outran his would-be captors.

Here's the entire article in question. It's much funnier if you envision all of this with the "Benny Hill" theme playing underneath it.

Here's more information, courtesy of the U.S. Senate, about filibustering. The Senate now has the power to shut someone up with a 2/3 majority, but it hasn't stopped folks like Strom Thurmond and Huey Long from taking up hours of floor time to stall a vote.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

These Wonderful Things Are the Things We Remember All Through Our (Very Short) Lives

The only trouble with writing about Currier and Ives is that I will now be singing "Sleigh Ride" for the rest of the day. Oh well, 'tis the season.

Anyway. Currier and Ives. They were a nineteenth-century firm that specialized in mass-produced lithographs -- "Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures," they called themselves. People generally bought (or otherwise received) their hand-colored prints and framed them for decorative purposes. You probably know them best for their images of fruit bowls, horse races, or idyllic winter landscapes, but they really did all kinds of stuff -- and I do mean all kinds. Because in addition to their clip-arty lithographs suitable for hanging above the mantel, Currier and Ives also had a weird thing about deathbeds:

And okay, if it was just this one, I could see that being a big seller - it was a pretty major event in the lives of many Americans, and a good number of them adored Lincoln.

But it's not just this one. They are legion. The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection is crawling with images of one famous guy or another languishing as he gasps out his last breath, surrounded by loved ones and colleagues (you may recognize then-vice president Andrew Johnson in Lincoln's picture above).

Here are a few others:

Here's Garfield.

Here's John Quincy Adams, who apparently had no female relatives.

And just so you know, it wasn't specific to presidents.

I'm somehow having a hard time picturing someone actually framing and hanging a deathbed photo like this. If you really loved the figure in question, you'd probably want to commemorate them in the prime of their life. Unless you hated them, I guess, which...maybe you'd want a picture of their death in that event, but Currier and Ives doesn't seem like the sort of agency that caters to the mean-spirited. I mean, they enjoy hunting dogs, and doe-eyed Miss Liberties, and fruit orchards, and sleighs. They don't seem like the sort of people to dance on graves. Even taking into account the Victorian (and earlier) obsession with all things death, it's weird.

My best guess has something to do with the fact that Currier and Ives had a deal with the New York Sun for awhile in which a hand-colored print came with the newspaper once a week. The weekly print was often something that had happened recently - hence the reason for all the Civil War battles and images of ships blowing up. The death of a major historical figure is news, and of course they'd commemorate it somehow.

Just as newswires today have pre-written obituary template stashed away for various notable people, I'm imagining Currier and Ives had a specific deathbed template, just to cut some corners - add the head of the recently deceased, add some appropriately gendered and aged loved ones, and voila.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Links are Marginally Funny

From Mental Floss: Five Artistic Rivalries that Got Ugly (thanks to emakelle for this link!)

Via American Presidents: 20 Things You Didn't Know About U.S. Presidents, in which James K. Polk attempts to challenge Andrew Jackson for Most Hardcore President by undergoing gall bladder surgery sedated only by brandy. I must say, that impresses me almost as much as having They Might Be Giants write a song about you. You sure know the way to my heart, Mr. Polk.

And in case your curiosity is piqued by the same things mine is piqued by, I went ahead and found the recipe for President Eisenhower's vegetable soup. A few other presidential recipes are at this site. Being a less ambitious cook than Ike, I think I'm more likely to make President Clinton's Chicken Broccoli Enchiladas before I attempt the Eisenhower vegetable soup.

A miniseries based on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is currently under production. Only funny because of the extremely diverse cast, and the inclusion of Eddie Vedder makes me wish hard that he'll dress up in a powdered wig and perform some grunge-flavored hist-rock. Also, because Team America: World Police has completely ruined my image of Matt Damon.

The New York Times republished a bestseller list from 1943. Testament to how fleeting fame is when you've written a book, even a bestselling book. The only books on here that I'd heard of were made into movies. (And I have neither seen said movies nor read the books.)

Speaking of the NYT bestseller IS still a pretty awesome honor to be on it, and I would be remiss here if I didn't send some props out to my former professor and favorite historian, Joseph J. Ellis, whose latest is sitting pretty on the top ten nonfiction bestsellers list this week. Go Joe!, I mean, Dr. Ellis. Sir.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

History is Funny, and Federalism is Gangsta

Here's an oldie but goodie from ...this past August, courtesy of Overheard in New York.

White teen girl, about statue of Alexander Hamilton: Look at him! I mean, he's such a dreamboat... That's why he's my favorite federalist.
Mom: And what did your class call him?
White teen girl: Hammy! And he was big pals with B-Frank, and Johnny Ads, and G-Dubya, and J-Marsh, and... And... And I can't remember any more founding fathers, but of course they all had their own gangsta names, too. They were big pimpin' over there in Independence Hall. The only things they were missing were the hos... And that's why Abby A. wanted them to remember the ladies.

--Columbia University

After you read enough Hammy, you find him WAY less dreamy, as I'm sure this teen girl will discover if she decides to major in history someday.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Did Andrew Jackson really shoot a guy in the junk?

In an earlier post, I showed you a fantastic rap video that featured, among other things, a kid dressed like Andrew Jackson claiming to have shot a guy in the testicles.

Clearly, this is something that, if true, involved both history and funny, and I've meant to explore it for quite some time, and in the process I have become better acquainted with the man who is perhaps the biggest badass ever to have served our country as chief executive.

Most of what you probably know about Jackson is pretty textbook: he's on the twenty. His nickname was "Old Hickory." He fought in more than one war. He had really funky hair. He destroyed the national bank. He was really awful to the Native Americans.

Good or bad, these things only barely hint at Jackson the Badass. It wasn't until I read a couple of accounts of his 1806 duel with Charles Dickinson (this one and this one are both especially good) that I fully appreciated his badassery.

Jackson loved duels. He participated in over a dozen of them throughout his life, but his duel with Dickinson was the only one that ended in someone actually dying. In this instance, Dickinson had insulted Jackson's wife, Rachel, because she was a divorcee (Jackson was her second husband), which understandably pissed off Mr. Jackson. (Apparently he defended his wife's honor a lot. More power to ya, Andy!) So the challenge was issued, and the men rode from Tennessee into Kentucky, where duels were still legal, to engage in their competition.

You may know this from reading up on the Hamilton-Burr duel (at least I did), but the code duello that governed dueling practices of the day basically gave the following rules:

1. The men stand 24 feet apart.
2. A signal is given.
3. Both men very quickly draw, aim, and fire. If one of them dies, the duel's over.
4. Whoever shoots first has to wait for the other guy to shoot before he can shoot again.
5. After both men shoot, if they're both still alive, they can call it a draw and go home or they can keep shooting. (Most of the time, the duelers were satisfied by having both gotten a shot out, and just by showing up, you'd proven that you were a gentleman after some fashion, so mostly I think they just shot and went home.)

Because you have to draw and shoot so quickly under these rules, it's no wonder so many people lived through them - it's pretty hard to do, especially with an early-19th-century pistol.

Rule number 4 came into play in the Hamilton duel because Hammy shot first - straight up into the air - some say intentionally, in hopes that Burr would fire into the air too. (Spoiler - he totally didn't.) In the Jackson-Dickinson duel, Jackson decided to play that rule the other way. Dickinson was a far better shot on the quick, so Jackson figured he could buy some time by letting Dickinson get a shot off first and then pausing to aim.

That's right, he let the other guy shoot directly at him. Badass!

And the other guy hit him. In the chest. Even more badass! (The bullet, inches from Jackson's heart, was too dangerously placed to be removed, so it stayed there for the rest of his life.)

And then Jackson calmly placed one hand over the wound, cocked his gun, aimed carefully at Dickinson's midsection, and fired, killing him. That's so badass it makes 50 Cent look like a basket of fluffy kittens.

(And it's more than a little bit unsporting, many people would argue.)

So is he badass? Hell to the yeah.
Is he a dirty cheater? Possibly.
Did he really shoot a guy in the jewels? Inconclusive. Some sources say "groin," others say "middle," still others only point out that he died. I'm going to guess not, though, because most accounts explicate that Dickinson was shot once and died on the spot, and getting hit in an extremity like the testicles probably wouldn't kill you instantly. The femoral artery, maybe, and the gut, possibly, but right square in the nads wouldn't necessarily have done the trick, I don't think.

I guess it's a little bit more amusing if that's what happened, but the idea of Jackson taking a bullet to the chest without flinching is funny enough on its own.

Next time, I'll tell you about his cursing parrot.