During the 1930s, Nazis promoted the idea that Thomas Jefferson hated Jews. Nazis still believe that is true. At a nighttime rally earlier this year on the campus of the University of Virginia, near Monticello, a large number of Nazis carrying torches circled the Thomas Jefferson monument on campus chanting ‘Jews will not replace us!’ The Nazis were and are entirely wrong about this. Thomas Jefferson was completely devoid of any religious prejudices, and Jews in America and Europe always regarded Jefferson as a reliable friend and ally.

MONTICELLO. Thomas Jefferson died broke and deeply in debt. Soon after his death, Jefferson’s home, Monticello, starting falling into disrepair. It is expensive to maintain a mansion, and there was no money in Jefferson’s estate. The only reason Monticello didn’t just rot away was because a Jewish family bought the house soon after Jefferson’s death in order to preserve it. Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the U.S. Navy, bought Monticello in 1832 and immediately began making repairs and repurchasing furniture that had been sold after Jefferson’s death. During the Civil War, there were no battles around Monticello, but the house was extensively damaged by vandals. Even Jefferson’s gravestone was overturned and defaced. Most of the furniture was stolen by looters. After the war, Jefferson Monroe Levy bought Monticello from his uncle, Uriah Phillips Levy, and once again began restoring the mansion and recovering Jefferson’s furniture. In order to get back Jefferson’s furniture from the people who stole it, Levy had to advertise that he was prepared to pay cash for Thomas Jefferson’s furniture with ‘no questions asked’ as to how you got it. Although this was a morally questionable thing to do, from a practical standpoint, it was the only way that Levy could get Thomas Jefferson’s furniture back, and ultimately, he did get most of it back. In 1923, Levy turned the title to Monticello over to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which still owns it. The Levy family spent over $2 million (inflation adjusted) of their own funds in order to maintain Monticello during the 90 years that they owned it. I don’t think that the Levy family would done all this if Thomas Jefferson was an anti-Semite.

MONTICELLO INVENTIONS. Visit Monticello if you get the chance! You may be surprised at the many inventions and innovations you will see there. Jefferson was quite an inventor. Thomas Jefferson invented the first hideaway bed and dumbwaiter for wine bottles, both of which are still there. Jefferson also invented the pedometer and the polygraph (not a lie detector, but a copying machine.) Jefferson enjoyed fine food and was the first person in the United States to make waffles, ice cream, and macaroni. In the photo below, you can see Monticello’s pond. This pond was not just ornamental. Jefferson enjoyed eating fish, but Monticello is not on a river, so Jefferson had live fish delivered to his home and dumped in the pond. When Jefferson was in the mood for fresh fish for dinner, he would go to the pond, point to a fish, and have his cook scoop it up and cook it.

Was The Civil War Fought Over States’ Rights or Slavery?

Every year, at least one of my students asks me this question; however, there is no way to answer it because the question is illogical. The problem is that the question presumes that states’ rights and slavery were two separate issues, which they were not. Until the Constitution was amended at the end of the Civil War, slavery was a states’ right, and for the leaders of the Confederate government, it was the states’ right worth fighting over. Until the ratification of 13th Amendment, states could decide for themselves whether to allow or prohibit slavery. States could also regulate slavery as they pleased, and slave codes varied a lot from state to state. For example, New York allowed slavery for over 200 years but abolished it in 1828. In Maryland, my home state, there were both free blacks and slaves. Strangely, it was legal in Maryland for free blacks to own black slaves, and some did. When I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, I knew people who lived in houses that had slave quarters on the premises. The slave quarters were usually small buildings behind the main house that the current homeowners were, more often than not, using for storage. In Alabama, on the other hand, there were no free blacks. All black people in Alabama were slaves. If a slave in Alabama was given his freedom by his owner, he had to leave the state within 30 days. If he didn’t leave within that time, he would be arrested and sold back into slavery at public auction. This was called remancipation. So it is pointless to debate whether the Civil War was fought over states’ rights or slavery. They were not separate issues. Nevertheless, I hear white Southern politicians arguing about this question on TV all the time. It seems that for most Southern politicians, there is no question as to what the Civil War was all about. They all seem to think that it was all about states’ rights and that slavery had nothing to do with it. Why do so many Southerners believe that? I think it is because white Southerners would like to believe that their ancestors fought and died for a good cause, something more noble than simply the perpetuation of slavery.

California Bans ‘Redskins.’ So What About Confederate Heroes?

Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law making California the first state in the nation to ban public schools from using the term ‘redskins” as a team name or school mascot. As a result of this law, 4 high schools in California will have to change the names of their teams. They will have a year to come up with new names. All 4 of the schools are in poor communities in the Central Valley. The principals of all 4 schools said that the only reason they hadn’t already changed the names of their teams was because of the cost. They say they don’t have the money to buy new uniforms. This new law raises a question in my mind: “What, if anything, is California going to do now about the many public buildings, monuments, parks, etc. in this state that are named after Confederate heroes?” (I teach Civil War history at Orinda Intermediate School.)

John & Joseph LeConte. California was always a free state, and it was a Union state in the Civil War, but nevertheless, there are monuments to Confederate heroes all over California, including right here in Berkeley. The biggest building on the U.C. Berkeley campus is LeConte Hall, named after the brothers John and Joseph LeConte. John LeConte was an early president of the University of California, and Joseph LeConte headed the university’s physics and natural history departments. The LeConte brothers grew up in Georgia on their father’s plantation, where the family owned over 200 slaves. During the Civil War, the LeConte brothers volunteered their services to the Confederacy. The Confederate government gave the LeConte brothers the job of solving their most urgent chemical problem – making gunpowder. When the Civil War began, there was very little gunpowder in the South, and they had no way to make it. All of the gunpowder and chemical factories in the United States were in the North. The Confederacy also couldn’t import gunpowder because the Union navy was blockading southern ports. The leaders of the Confederate government knew that unless they found some way to make large quantities of gunpowder, the South would quickly lose the war.

Gunpowder is a mixture of 3 ingredients: sulphur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, which is also known as niter or saltpeter. The South had plenty of sulphur, and it is easy to make charcoal. However, the South didn’t have much potassium nitrate. Potassium nitrate is a basic ingredient in gunpowder, and there is no substitute. You can’t make gunpowder without it. The LeConte brothers conducted experiments trying to find a practical way of producing potassium nitrate from materials commonly available in the South. Their experiments were successful, and as a result, they wrote pamphlets which were distributed to Southern farmers explaining how they could extract potassium nitrate from the urine of farm animals. Because of the LeConte brothers, the Confederacy never ran out of gunpowder during the Civil War.

Both of the LeConte brothers were committed to the principles of the Confederacy and were openly racist. Joseph LeConte wrote extensively on the subject of race. He wrote that “the enfranchisement of the negro was the greatest political crime ever perpetuated.” He found Reconstruction intolerable. In order to avoid teaching black students at the University of South Carolina, Joseph LeConte gave up his professorship and moved to Berkeley, where his brother John was already running the university. The LeContes are honored all over the city of Berkeley. LeConte Hall is gigantic. It is the largest academic building on any public university campus anywhere in the United States. In addition, there is a LeConte Avenue in Berkeley, a LeConte Elementary School, LeConte Apartments, and a LeConte Park.  According to AirBnB’s website, I live in Berkeley’s ‘LeConte District.’ Plus, there are statues, busts, and plaques of the LeConte brothers scattered all over campus.

Now What? O.K. California has banned ‘redskins’. So what should we do now about the heroes of the Confederacy? My own opinion is that, at the very minimum, we shouldn’t name anything else for the LeContes. They have more than enough stuff named for them scattered around town already. Admittedly, the LeConte brothers held obnoxious racial views, but their views were common among wealthy white men in America 150 years ago, both in the North and the South. If we rename everything in Berkeley that is now named for the LeConte brothers, then what do we do about all the other stuff in town that is named for other slave owners and racists. For example, Berkeley has both a Washington and a Jefferson elementary school. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both major slave owners.

Jack London. And what should the city of Oakland do about all the stuff there that is named for Jack London? Jack London was very racist. His 1904 essay ‘The Yellow Peril’ is full of ugly anti-Chinese stereotypes. Even worse is Jack London’s ‘The Unparalleled Invasion’, a science fiction novel in which the author gives his approval to a plan to exterminate of the bulk of the population of China by biological warfare as the “only possible solution to the Chinese problem” and then resettling the country with Westerners. Renaming everything in Oakland that is currently named for Jack London would cost a ton of money. There is a lot of stuff in Oakland named for Jack London. So what do you think Berkeley and Oakland should do?

Civil War Inventions.

Every year around this time, I teach Civil War history at Orinda Intermediate School, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. A lot of modern weapons were invented or first used in the Civil War, including repeating rifles, land mines, iron battleships, submarines, and machine guns. However, a lot of other inventions came out of the Civil War besides weapons. Some of them might surprise you.
CivilWarCanOpener1. Can openers. Union soldiers ate a lot of canned food during the Civil War. Although canned food had been around for 50 years prior to the Civil War, strangely, nobody made can openers prior to the war. Prior to the Civil War, people opened tin cans with hammers and chisels or hatchets. Opening tin cans made a huge mess and frequently injured the person trying to open the can. After many soldiers were injured opening tin cans, the Union army started ordering and distributing can openers to soldiers in 1862.
2. Home delivery of mail. Prior to the Civil War, people picked up their mail at the post office. During the war, the number of letters being mailed increased dramatically, as soldiers wrote home to their families and families wrote to soldiers. In 1863, the post office started delivering mail to people’s homes, but only in cities where the cost of the postage was less than the cost of delivering the letter. In other words, the post office began home delivery of mail where and when it was profitable.
3. Left and right shoes shaped differently. Prior to the Civil War, right and left shoes were interchangeable. During the Civil War, experiments conducted by the U.S. War Department showed that soldiers could march much farther without exhaustion when wearing boots cut differently for the right and left foot. Union soldiers were given boots shaped for the right and left foot, but Confederate soldiers continue to wear the old style interchangeable boots. That proved to be a big disadvantage on long marches, like from Virginia to Gettysburg.
4. National paper currency. The U.S. government did not start printing paper money until the Civil War. The U.S. government made coins, but not paper money. Most paper money was made by state chartered banks. The U.S. government quickly ran out of gold and silver coins early in the war and began printing paper money in 1861. Counterfeiters were not far behind. By the end of the war, the U.S. government estimated that about 1/3 of all the paper currency in circulation was counterfeit.
5. Standard premade clothing in sizes small, medium, and large. Prior to the war, stores carried clothing in one size only. If something didn’t fit, you had to take it to a seamstress to make it bigger or smaller. The army found that it was cheaper and more efficient to buy clothing in different sizes.
6. Absentee ballots. Northern politicians knew that Union soldiers were likely to vote Republican, so Republican-controlled state legislatures passed laws allowing soldiers to vote by mail.
7. Income tax. The U.S. government needed money to finance the war. Prior to the Civil War, the federal government had very little income, most of which came from liquor taxes and import duties.
8. Military aircraft. The Union army used hot air balloons for reconnaissance. They would send a soldier up in a balloon with a telescope. He would look down at what was going on behind Confederate lines and write down on a piece of paper what he saw. Then he would tie the paper to a small rock and drop the rock out of his basket. A soldier on the ground would remove the paper from the rock and take it to headquarters. This was observed by a young German military officer named Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. He was sent to the U.S. by the Bavarian government during the Civil War to observe and report on new weapons. Zeppelin was fascinated by the hot air balloons being used by the U.S. army. He returned to Germany, where he invented the zeppeli

Mark’s Improbable People

I teach American history at Orinda Intermediate School one day a week. I have been doing this for a long time. I like to tell stories to my students about improbable people and unlikely historical events. These stories get and keep their attention.

Wilmer McLean. Wilmer McLean was a very improbable person. He was born in 1814 McLeanand died in 1882. McLean was fond of telling his friends and dinner guests that: “The war (The Civil War) started in my backyard and ended in my parlor.” He was telling the truth.The first battle of the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. The battle was fought on July 21, 1861  in Manassas, Virginia on Wilmer McLean’s farm. McLean’s house was commandeered by the Confederate army just before the battle and became the headquarters of their commanding officer, General Beauregard. The first canon shot fired in the first battle of the war blew up McLean’s rose garden. While General Beauregard and his staff were eating lunch in Wilmer McLean’s kitchen, a Union canon ball fell down the kitchen fireplace chimney, blowing soot all over the food, the general, and his staff. When the battle was over, there were thousands of dead and dying men all around McLean’s house. After the battle, McLean decided to move. His house was situated at a strategically important location. Several railroads intersected in Manassas, and the main railroad line that connected Richmond, Virgina and Washington, D.C. went right past McLean’s farm. It seemed obvious to McLean that the 2 sides would fight over his farm again, which they did. The Second Battle of Bull Run, fought a year later in 1862, was even bloodier than the first.

Wilmer McLean went looking for another place to live, someplace where the war would never find him. After traveling around, he settled on a small town about 100 miles to the south called Appomattox Court House. There was nothing there that would attract an army. There were no railroads, no navigable rivers, and no factories. He lived in Appomattox peacefully until the war was almost over. Then on the morning of April 9, 1865; 2 Union officers rode up to his house. They told McLean that Generals Grant and Lee had agreed to meet, and they were looking for a suitable place for the meeting to take place. McLean had the finest house in town, and they wanted it. McLean said No. He wanted nothing to do with the war and said so, but the Union officers would not take No for an answer and threatened to commandeer the house if McLean would not let them to use it. McLean had no choice, so he agreed to let Grant and Lee meet in his living room. That afternoon, Lee surrendered to Grant in Wilmer McLean’s living room, effectively ending the war. Among the many notable people present in Wilmer McLean’s living room that afternoon were Generals Philip Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer and Captain Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Lincoln.After the war was over, McLean moved back to his house in Manassas, abandoning his house in Appomattox. However, McLean’s house in Appomattox  is still standing, and it and looks exactly as it did in 1865. It is part of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Monument and is operated by the National Park Service.So Wilmer McLean was telling the truth. The Civil War really did begin in his back yard, and it ended in his living room. What are the odds of that happening?