Does Anyone Know what Time it is? Does anyone really care?

Chicago lyrics aside, do you really understand time as a function of American History?  You proably don’t… and you may not even really care.  But time has not been a constant throughout our history and often quite confusing.

Begin with the notion of “being late” to something.  In colonial America, being late wasn’t a thing.  Time was local, not universal.  If three communities in the same region all had clock towers, none of them might have the same time.  There was no official time from the Naval Observatory.  That doesn’t start until 1845 for greater Washington, DC and the official time keeping for nation starts in 1865.  So time was a local matter, and if it was 9 am in your community, that it was 9:15 in the neighboring village mattered not.  Who could travel fast enough (by horse) to get between the two communities to have those time differences matter?

So the concept of “you’re late” wasn’t a thing, because you weren’t expected to arrive at a precise time.  You might come over in the afternoon, or visit in the evening.  Generalized time.

It wasn’t until the introduction of the railroad that time mattered across places.  That you could now travel a distance of 10 miles by train to do some shopping in the bigger city close to you meant that you would need to know when to catch that return train home.  Standard time, rather than local time, was introduced by the railroads.  And with it the growing concept of tardiness.

And as railroads became faster and more universal, time across place mattered more and the introduction of time zones for the nation was born. In 1883 the railroads began using the concept of time zones in the U.S. and in 1918 the government adopted them officially.

Time was the source of frustration and anger in other ways beyond tardiness. In 1918 the government initiated Daylight Saving Time as a war productivity measure.  Some say the idea originated with Ben Franklin in a letter on the concept to French authorities.  Full of wit, perhaps America’s Founding Father of Snark may have been spoofing in his letter. Either way, by 1919 farmers were irked by the concept and led to its repeal that year.  Farmers use the sun, not the clock, for their field work but hired hands were using the clock and not the sun.  So a loss of productivity on the farm axed the measure meant to increase manufacturing productivity.  During World War II another national daylight measure was passed, then repealed after the war’s end.

But in its aftermath was a cacophony of state and local time codes that left many confused.  One fantastic tale was of an office building in St. Paul, Minnesota where some of the floors observed Daylight Savings time and others did not.  The Uniform Time Act of 1966 resolved local time issues, but still allowed for exemption by states — but only upon the days that the Federal law kicked in.  Today Hawaii and Arizona are the only state that exempt from Daylight Saving.  For where Hawaii is, perhaps the concept irrelevant. For Arizona it is only the Navajo reservations that do not jump the clock ahead each Spring.

Thankfully Indiana capitulated to Daylight Saving Time in 2006, as that state was confusing enough with the Central Time zone weaving through part of the state let alone determining your timezone and then what time of year it was.

But time exists across the calendar, and if you think the time on your wrist (or cell phone) has been a source of frustration, let’s reflect on time across the months.  Every December 31st we flip on the TV at 11:59 to watch the ball drop in New York City to usher in the New Year. Except… January 1st has not always been the first day of the year.

In pre-United States time in Colonial America, the “new year” was traditionally… March 25th.  America, governed by the British, continued under the Julian calendar despite the move across Europe to the Gregorian calendar.  That date, March 25th, is claimed to be “Lady Day” where Mary had learned she was pregnant with Baby Jesus.   England, the last to convert to the Gregorian calendar New Year of January 1st, did so in 1752 and created a bizarre set of circumstances.  1751 ended up being only nine months long and to further adjust to align with the Gregorian calendar, erased 11 days in September 1752.

Americans, oft for not following British law at the time, were already using the Gregorian calendar for international business beyong England’s reach.  Imagine the outcry today if we were to erase 11 days from any month.  Think of all the birthdays missed, anniversaries lost and National Day of (whatever) skipped!

Perhaps in all of this kerfuffle over time none is more amusing than the story of a Chicago convict was to be executed for his offense in 1921 (before the codication of time zones and Daylight Saving).  He asked at what time he was to be hanged?  When he was told it was to be at 8 a.m., he said “Chicago time or Central time?  The said Chicago time, to which he said “But I was sentenced before the time was changed and this rearrangement deprives me of an hour of life. That won’t mean anything after I’m dead, but it will mean a lot Friday morning.”  The officials relented and bumped his execution to 9 a.m., granting him one extra hour that morning.

Evidently they did know what time it was and somebody, indeed, really did care.


– J.


A lot of White House wind: Canadians, the President’s House and a blustery tale.

The President this week made an inflammatory statement to Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau in a phone conversation regarding trade between the two nations, citing a retaliatory reason as “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?”  The reference is from 1814 when the British stormed (foreshadowing, as we shall see) Washington in revenge for America attacking and burning govermental buildings in York, Ontario, Canada earlier in the War of 1812.


The burning of the White House has popular legend to it, as Dolly Madison famously grabbed the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington and threw it in the back of a wagon as they sped out of town as the British came upon the White House grounds.  The Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating long-form essay on the days surrounding this from the First Lady’s point of view.

When the British entered the Executive Mansion (as it was called in its day), they found the table set for a dinner party.  What happened next reads right from President Trump’s narrative for impudent, boorish behavior, with the actions by the British right out of Reality TV stuff.   Consider the memory of a British officer who was part of the partaking:

“When the detachment, sent out to destroy Mr. Madison’s house, entered his dining parlor, they found a dinner-table spread, and covers laid for forty guests… They sat down to it, therefore, not indeed in the more orderly manner, but with countenances which would not have disgraced a party of aldermen at a civic feast; and having satisfied their appetites with fewer complaints than would have probably escaped their rival gourmands, and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them.” – George Robert Gleig, 1814


What burned that day were more than the White House, as first the Capitol had been torched, and after the White House the Treasury Building, The War Department and the Navy Yard were all set afire.

But of these fires, the decision to torch the symbols of democratic America was determined… by a vote of His Majesty’s loyal subjects (although officers).  British General Cockburn (yes, let that name sink in), led the vote in Congress as it were, “Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned? All for it will say ‘Aye.’”

The terror of the citizenry that day was exacerbated by an Executive Decision made by President Madison in his capacity as Commander in Chief.  After leading his troops out of DC (one has a hard time imagining a modern president actually commanding troops), he ordered the destruction of the one bridge crossing the Potomac.  The people of DC were trapped in town with the incendiary British.

But what happened the next day after that tragic August day could be seen as fate or a Shakespearean tragedy… maybe both.  White most of these iconic buildings are framed in stone, their utter destruction by the fires would have been certain had mother nature not intervened.  A tremendous storm literally shook before a day could pass, the deluge dousing the remnants of the flames the British set.  But this was no ordinary summer storm, as a today viewing the record of the witnesses it is believe it was a tornado that tore through town, doing far greater damage to homes that were spared the torch.

“Of the prodigious force of the wind it is impossible for you to form any conception… The darkness was as great as if the sun had long set and the last remains of twilight had come on, occasionally relieved by flashes of vivid lightning streaming through it; which, together with the noise of the wind and the thunder, the crash of falling buildings, and the tearing of roofs as they were stript from the walls, produced the most appalling effect I ever have, and probably ever shall, witness. This lasted for nearly two hours without intermission, during which time many of the houses spared by us were blown down and thirty of our men, besides several of the inhabitants, buried beneath their ruins. Our column was as completely dispersed as if it had received a total defeat, some of the men flying for shelter behind walls and buildings and others falling flat upon the ground to prevent themselves from being carried away by the tempest.” – George Robert Gleig, 1814

But it’s what happens next that has a very different ending than where America is today in 2018. The British withdraw from Washington, in the face of thousands of American reinforcements angling for a counter-attack on the city.  They move on instead to Baltimore, and famously fail to take Ft. McHenry and ultimately abandon attempts to capture that city.  An Anthem is born from it. The war will end without a real victor, with one more legendary battle happening at New Orleans after the fact (news of the peace treaty traveled too slow), where Andrew Jackson will reap glory with a rag-tag bunch of soldiers in combat that, according to his official report, saw 2,100 British fall within a span of a half hour and only 13 Americans fell.  Jackson will ride this into the Presidency in 1828, after failing to win the Electoral College in 1824 despite winning the popular vote.

While the War of 1812 ended with no clear cut international victor, the real winner may have been the American people, who rallied together in outrage that the British had burned the nation’s capital. The new sense of patriotism created a brief era of unity,

“…[t]he war has renewed and reinstated the national feelings and characters which the Revolution had given. The people . . . are more American; they feel and act more as a nation.” – Albert Gallatin, former Secretary of the Treasury and Ghent Treaty participant

President Trump finished the week ruffling the feathers of the Canadians and other allies at the G7 summit in Canada, and it appears that no American unity is anywhere on the horizon.  The storm of American politics rages on.


The FIRST Witch Hunt was the worst one…

Ah, the President of the United States does love to mangle American History.  This morning he set to his favorite Historical Misappropriation Delivery Tool… Twitter and said:

djt salem

Well, actually… no.  The single greatest Witch Hunt in American political history was the one that actually gave you the name with which you use: witch hunt!  Now whether his is the second or 200th can be debated, but not the “single greatest”.  Continue reading

Would Jackson have stopped the Civil War? Yes and No: History is Complicated.

It’s hard to keep up with the current President’s wild historic thoughts, so I finally have the time to dig in on this now moldy tweet about Andrew Jackson stopping the Civil War…

trump jackson

At first blush, it’s no surprise that Trump would have an affinity for Jackson.  He had visited Jackson’s home six weeks earlier than his tweet.  It is oft reported that the last things in POTUS’s head contribute greatly to his positions, often contradicting those he had earlier or those of his staff moments before the change of direction. Continue reading

The Original #fakenews was Born on Today in 1770

In 2017 #fakenews does not really mean the news is false, but is now broadly interpreted as being “made up” to fit a narrative. The current President likes to hammer on CNN and the New York Times as “fake news” but nothing in what they report is false.  To the partisan eye it may be intentionally misleading, but it is not fake.

That said it was on this day in 1770 that #fakenews may have been born. The setting: a group of protesters become increasingly angry at government presence. Tempers flare and violence ensues.  When the smoke clears 5 lay dead and seven are wounded.  Those are the facts that could be readily agreed upon by all — but it is not how it will be presented to America. Continue reading