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Fact vs. Fiction on America’s Birth

8 Jul
While America celebrates its independence on July 4, historians often point to July 2, 1776, as the date when the nation was actually founded.

While America celebrates its independence on July 4, historians often point to July 2, 1776, as the date when the nation was actually founded.

Two years ago, Wise Words dispelled some of the myths and shared a few surprising facts about Independence Day.

Marie McDaniel, assistant professor and Southern’s resident expert on colonial and early American history, addressed some of these misunderstandings in a blog post about our nation’s founding.

Now that the fireworks, parties and other celebrations are over, you might want to check out that piece.

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High School Students, Senior Citizens Mark 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

14 Nov

The contrast was stark.

Some 300 people of varying ages assembled recently at Southern for a forum in the Michael J. Adanti Student Center, Grand Ballroom. They were there to hear just how and why the Berlin Wall fell almost 25 years ago to the day.

The forum, “Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall: 25 Years Ago,” attracted high school classes from Shelton, Seymour, Cheshire and the Sound School, as well as a group of senior citizens from the Guilford Senior Center, and various faculty, staff, students and members of the general public from every age group in between.

Cheshire High School students respond to a question from keynote speaker Nicholas Burns before the start of an SCSU forum marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Cheshire High School students respond to a question from keynote speaker Nicholas Burns before the start of an SCSU forum marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Seymour High School students pause for a moment before the forum with keynote speaker, Nicholas Burns (standing, far left), and their history teachers Chris Pagliaro (standing next to Burns) and Heather Brown (standing, far right).

Seymour High School students pause for a moment before the forum with Nicholas Burns (standing, far left), and their history teachers Chris Pagliaro (standing next to Burns) and Heather Brown (standing, far right).

The attendees listened to the perspectives of the speakers, especially that of Nicholas Burns, a career U.S. diplomat who served in the State Department when the wall fell. He later was appointed to the National Security Council specializing in Soviet/Russian affairs, and would go to hold various positions, including the State Department’s third-highest position as undersecretary of state for political affairs. Today, he is a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, delivers the keynote address during the SCSU forum, 'Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall: 25 Years Later."

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, delivers the keynote address during the SCSU forum, ‘Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall: 25 Years Later.’

Opinions varied about the Berlin situation and the Cold War, to be sure, particularly with questions such as who and what were primarily responsible for the fall of the wall. But the windows by which they view the Berlin situation, and indeed the Cold War, were even more different.

Keynote speaker Nicholas Burns joins Guilford Senior Center members before the start of the program.

Nicholas Burns, who once served as the third-highest official in the U.S. State Department, joins members of the Guilford Senior Center before the start of the program.

Those individuals in their middle-age years and older remember well the wall coming down. Some can vividly recall the scenes on television as throngs of East Germans standing on and pushing through the gate. To most of us who grew up during the Cold War, the photos were surreal.

“I never thought the Cold War would end,” Burns said. “I thought it would go on and on. I didn’t have any particular insights that it was going to end. But there was a confidence that we were in the right and that they (the Soviet Union and their Eastern Bloc satellite governments) weren’t, and that ultimately, people were going to decide their own fate at ‘some point in the future.”’

But even Burns – someone who was an insider’s insider and was well aware of the movements toward greater freedom in Poland and Hungary earlier in 1989 – did not believe that “point in the future” would be in November of that same year.

That point of view was shared by most Americans, who dreamed of the day the Wall would fall, but did not believe it was imminent.

Cindy Simoneau, chairwoman of the SCSU Journalism Department, asks a question of the panel during the university's forum marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Cindy Simoneau, chairwoman of the SCSU Journalism Department, asks a question of the panel during the university’s forum marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The panelists are (from left): keynote speaker Nicholas Burns; Kevin Buterbaugh, SCSU professor of political science; Eileen Kane, assistant professor of history at Connecticut College; Steven Breese, dean of the SCSU School of Arts and Sciences; and Troy Paddock, chairman of the SCSU History Department.

Kevin Buterbaugh, a Southern professor of political science and expert on international relations who was among the forum panelists, added that even Soviet troops stationed in East Germany were taken by surprise on Nov. 9, 1989, and that they anticipated getting an order to close the border after it had opened. But that order never came from then-Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

“In many ways, the former East Germany was the most communist of countries,” added Troy Paddock, chairman of the Southern History Department and a German history expert who also was on the panel. “In some ways, it thought of itself as more communist than the Soviet Union.”

That made the fall even more dramatic.

Now contrast that feeling that the Wall was going to be with us for many years, with the life view of most college students and all of the high school students attending the event. The students watched intently at the clips of the wall’s construction, the famous speeches at the Wall by Presidents John F. Kennedy (1963) and Ronald Reagan (1987), and the Wall’s demise.

Shelton High School students are handed programs and goody bags on their way into the ballroom for the Berlin Wall forum.

Shelton High School students are handed programs and goody bags on their way into the ballroom for the Berlin Wall forum.

Students from Sound School in New Haven gather outside the ballroom after the forum.

Students from Sound School in New Haven gather outside the ballroom after the forum.


To them, it was history. Not living history. But history a la the way many adults today think of World War II. To them, the concept of a wall preventing free access across one of Europe’s major cities is foreign. They never remember a time in their lives when that was the case. It’s difficult to imagine such a thing.

But that’s the way history goes. One generation’s vivid memories are the next generation’s history. And it won’t be long before a new generation of high school graduates, and college graduates, will not have been alive when we were hit with the 9/11 attacks.

The forum can be viewed online in its entirety at CT-N.

Paul Revere’s Ride — Facts vs. Fiction

15 Jul

In keeping with the theme from our last blog post about popular misconceptions associated with the birth of our nation, a new series offered by the Military Channel is must watch TV for U.S. history buffs.

The series, “America: Facts vs. Fiction,” was launched last week and is scheduled to run on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. The series explores commonly held beliefs about American history and is billed as a series to debunk fiction and to set the record straight on half-truths. A 30-segment last week pertained to the famous ride of Paul Revere to warn the colonists of an imminent threat by the British army.blogreverephoto

Revere, of course, set out on horseback from Boston and intended to warn our militia stationed in Lexington and Concord about the impending British march toward those locations. But the show pointed out some interesting facts that are bound to surprise many people. Some of them include:

  • William Dawes, a 30-year-old tanner and militiaman, had the same mission as Revere, although he took a different route to Lexington.
  • Both Revere and Dawes — as well as Samuel Prescott, a doctor and a patriot — then sought to go to Concord. But Revere was captured along the way. Dawes never made it either. Historians believe he had been bucked off of his horse. But Samuel Prescott was the person who actually made it to Concord.
  • Yet, the famous poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and first published in 1860, incorrectly states that Revere reached Concord and implies he was the only rider.
  • While Revere did warn colonial town and military leaders en route to Lexington that the British regulars were on the move, historians dispute the notion that he shouted “The British are coming! The British are coming!” Most colonists at the time identified themselves as British and were still under the British crown. “The Redcoats are coming! The Redcoats are coming!” is a more plausible refrain, but we really don’t know for sure.

Marie Basile McDaniel, assistant professor of history at Southern, says the show was essentially correct in its claims. She also said that she is more interested in the “how and why” that inaccurate portrayals of the past are handed down in society, rather than the actual misconceptions themselves.

“As an example, students all over the country had to memorize the ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ poem – an exercise that lasted for decades!” she says. “You can still find people who had to memorize this poem in school.

So, why is it that Paul Revere is so emphasized in American history?

McDaniel notes that Revere was a patriot, and worked as a silversmith and engraver. He was very active in 1760s and 1770s political organizations, according to McDaniel.

“Maybe Longfellow’s poem, while not accurate, was reflecting a deeper truth about Revere’s place in pre-Revolutionary Boston.”

As an aside, McDaniel notes that many people might not realize the image on Samuel Adams beer is actually that of Paul Revere. “Although he was a brewer, Samuel Adams was not very good looking,” she says.

In fact, the homeliness of Adams is one of two prevailing theories as to why Revere’s image is on the beer bottles, rather than that of Sam Adams himself. The second is that the beer was originally going to be called “Revere Beer,” but that it did not fare well in poll testing. Yet, it was too late to change the image without incurring an additional cost.

Independence Day Trivia

1 Jul

Happy Birthday, America!

Our nation’s founding is a day to celebrate – often with fireworks, picnics and other early- summer fun. Most of us know the significance of Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence, of course. But there are plenty of interesting facts surrounding these historical milestones that would surprise many of us who are not experts in U.S. history.

blogindependencedayphotoWe wanted to share a few of these lesser-known facts with you. And thanks to background provided by Marie Basile McDaniel, assistant professor of history at Southern and our resident expert on colonial America, we’re able to do so.

First, contrary to popular belief, the United States declared itself an independent nation on July 2, 1776, not July 4, 1776.
The Second Continental Congress approved a resolution to do so on July 2. In fact, John Adams thought July 2 would be the date that would be celebrated as Independence Day. Nevertheless, you probably wouldn’t be successful in explaining to your boss that you should have July 2 off to celebrate Independence Day. Just a wild guess.

So, why do we celebrate the Fourth of July, rather than the Second of July?
The Declaration of Independence document itself was approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4.

Okay. That means the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, right?
Wrong. Most historians believe that most of the 56 congressional delegates who signed the document did so on Aug. 2, 1776. And the last individuals to sign waited until at least November 1776 (some say it was longer) to put their John Hancock on the document. (Sorry for the pun.) By the way, Hancock really was the first to sign it.

When was the Declaration of Independence written?

Thomas Jefferson, with the help of Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, wrote most of it in June 1776, soon after being appointed to a committee by Congress in that same month. The appointment followed a motion made by Richard Henry Lee, who represented Virginia in Congress, to declare the colonies independent. His motion was eventually voted on and approved July 2.

Were there revisions to the document?
Yes. In fact, Jefferson originally used the word “subjects,” rather than “citizens,” in the Declaration. This might well have been out of habit as the colonists had been considered “British subjects” since the pilgrims landed in the New World. But Jefferson later corrected the term. Congress made some revisions, as well.

Was there widespread support among the populace for the Declaration of Independence at the time it was approved?
Yes. While Americans were divided on whether or not to break away from England, there was considerable support at the grassroots level among those who wanted to be independent. In fact, many colonists were clamoring to issue a declaration even before 1776, but the elites in the Second Continental Congress kept delaying such a move because of potential military and logistical concerns.

And so it goes…Now you have some fodder to stump your Fourth of July party guests with a little Independence Day trivia. Does anyone have any other factoids about America’s birth that might surprise folks?

Happy 4th!

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