6 Historical Heroes Who Did Awful Things Nobody Talks About
One problem with history is that we tend to view everyone through a modern lens. Thus, the "good guys" surely held all of our modern progressive views. (The Spartans in 300 were all about freedom and democracy, right?)
The reality, of course, is that every real hero had an ugly side, one which was either overshadowed by their heroism or was simply consistent with the general ugliness of the era. Still, you're not getting a true sense of history if you ignore the fact that ...
George Washington Had An Expensive Birthday Bash While His Army Starved
The first president of the United States, according to legend, was a humble man who was pathologically unable to tell a lie and had wooden teeth. We generally accept that most of that is false, but even if we are about to say he insisted on jerking off during every battle, that doesn't change the fact that the guy was always a hero when it counted.
"He rubbed one out while everyone stood at attention and watched; it gave us the morale to survive Valley Forge."
But Everyone Forgets ...
George Washington was so humble that he refused a salary ... instead taking an expense account that he intentionally exploited the crap out of. We've mentioned before some of his crazy expense account abuses -- for example, in seven months, Washington spent $6,000 dollars, or 75 times the yearly salary of a private, on booze alone. He billed the Continental Congress $3,800 for his retreat from New Jersey, and spent 120 times the monthly salary of a private on a goddamn saddle for a horse (or at least, we hope it was for a horse).
Despite the fact that 1776 dollars make the contents of your wallet look like monopoly money, for $6,000 today, you could drink booze while fucking flying, and then buy three horses.
Of course, he also bought hundreds of actual humans over the years, so purchasing power comparisons may not hold up.
Washington also used his expense account to lend money to deadbeat friends who never paid him back, and to buy senselessly extravagant things, like crate after crate of limes. At Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, one-sixth of the critically under-supplied American army died, much of them from starvation. The food situation was so desperate that Washington sent troops to as far away as New Jersey to "forage" -- better known as "stealing food from random people so our army doesn't die of starvation".
"... And try to find beans that aren't covered in farmers' tears this time. Too salty."
And though Washington was concerned his army would die of a "famine" at Valley Forge, on his birthday, he used his expense account to eat mutton and fowl, and even hired a band to play. In fact, to raise morale for the starving troops, most of whom had no shoes or coats, Washington spent money out of the budget to put on a play (either the taste of soldiers has changed radically over the centuries, or this play better have had a lot of nudity). That one angered the Continental Congress to the point where they banned everyone in the entire army from ever attending a play, on threat of court-martial.
All in all, Washington spent about $450,000 (in 1780 dollars) on himself during his eight-year stint as commander-in-chief of the army. It's difficult to tell how much that is with 235 years of inflation, but it is in the $4-4.5 million neighborhood. Yeah, if you see Washington's supposed wooden teeth in a museum, it's only because somebody pried the gold grille off it after he died.
Winston Churchill Starved India
Winston Churchill is fondly remembered for his witty one-liners, as well as the whole "winning World War II" thing. Often regarded the greatest Prime Minister in British history, it's almost like looking cool smoking a cigar and making inspirational anti-Nazi speeches was enough to get people to ignore his spectacular list of crimes against humanity.
But Everyone Forgets ...
In 1943, one of the worst famines in history was raging in the Bengal region in British India. This was in the middle of World War II, and Churchill made it much worse by diverting food out of India to supply the British forces in Europe. "But that was to defeat Hitler!" you're probably thinking. "That's the kind of sacrifices that have to be made!" Well, not really -- there was no shortage of food for the troops at the time, and Churchill refused offers of free food from the United States and Canada. He was kind of doing it for no other reason than to be a dick.
"We're still upset we can't colonially oppress you anymore, so we're milking this India thing for all its worth."
When concerned administrators in India sent Churchill a telegram to let him know about the piles of bodies building up on India's streets, Churchill replied simply to ask why Gandhi wasn't dead yet. Oh, that adorable Churchill wit! Churchill later told the Secretary of State for India, "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion." He went on to say that Indians brought the famine upon themselves by "breeding like rabbits." Those statements could be perceived as racist, if read in a certain light.
Specifically, any light bright enough to read that text in.
It wasn't Churchill's first experiment with racist assholery. Before he was the head of the government, he was Secretary of State for War when the British ruled Iraq. It was his job to sort out a little uprising problem, and his eager response was to bomb them with chemical weapons. Like, straight away, without even having to be asked. According to Churchill, "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes." Another zinger from the quip master!
Later, during his second run as Prime Minister, Churchill tried to think of what foreign race he hadn't committed an atrocity against yet, when rebels started making a fuss in Kenya. Churchill did what he did best -- he rounded up 150,000 "blackamoors" (what Churchill called Kenyans) and put them in what has been deemed "Britain's Gulags" in order to clear up some fertile land for white settlers. One of the victims was Hussein Onyango Obama, Barack Obama's grandfather. Yep, Winston Churchill had the grandfather of the current American president put in a concentration camp and tortured for two years.
Alexander Graham Bell Was A Eugenicist Who Feared The Deaf
Alexander Graham Bell is known for inventing the telephone and for being confused with Thomas Edison a lot.
They did use a strikingly similar creative process: unrepentant theft.
But Everyone Forgets ...
When Bell wasn't busy inventing the telephone, he was involved in a bizarre campaign to eliminate deaf people. You might assume that this was just good business sense, since deaf people were unlikely to become a huge market for telephones, but Bell's concerns were more weirdly specific. He feared that deaf people would take over America, like some kind of hearing-impaired Illuminati.
Which makes us wonder if he invented the Internet message board, too.
Bell was a dyed-in-the-wool eugenicist, which was a popular position in the early 20th century, before the Nazis came along and most adherents decided "Oh, maybe this ideology fucking sucks." On top of that, he was probably bad at understanding it, since deafness isn't usually congenital, and even having two deaf parents doesn't mean that you're going to be deaf yourself. Still, Bell was mortified when he saw that deaf people were setting up their own organizations, meeting other deaf people, and intermarrying, which he saw as the precursor to the rise of a "deaf race."
In his ongoing campaign against the deaf menace, Bell personally convinced state legislature after state legislature to ban sign language in school, shut down schools for the deaf, and bar deaf teachers from teaching deaf students. Bell's hope was that deaf people would all become great at lip-reading and thus fully integrate themselves into society, a wish that he shared with his good friend Helen Keller -- who, if you want to be even more depressed today, we must reveal was also a fan of eugenics.
Which seems ill-conceived for someone who spent half their life one step away from forcible commitment.
Bell served six years as chairman of the board of scientific advisers to the Eugenics Record Office, and even spent time as the president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, an organization which became a major model for the Nazi eugenics program, after which Americans decided "Oh ... oh, maybe this is a bad idea."
Ulysses S. Grant Tried To Deport All The Black People To A Caribbean Island
When Honest Abe issued the Emancipation Proclamation, someone probably asked, "You and what army?" That army was led by Ulysses S. Grant, the local drunk. In a mere 15 years, the now-legendary Grant spectacularly went from being an alcoholic to being the president of the United States. Though he mostly sucked at being president, he is always remembered fondly for his work freeing the slaves and saving the union.
Plus, you gotta love a president any of you could knock back a few drinks with.
But Everyone Forgets ...
President Grant was concerned that blacks and whites would never be able to live together peacefully, so he concocted an insane plan to buy the Dominican Republic for $1.6 million and send all four million freed black people in the United States there. Because while he was sympathetic enough to free them from slavery, he wasn't quite willing to let them run around interacting with white people.
Correction: a president some of you could knock back a few drinks with.
He even got legendary anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner, then the most powerful man in the Senate, to agree to help him deport all the black people. And the Dominican Republic, then known as Santo Domingo, was totally on board with this idea, though that may have something to do with Dominican President Buenaventura Baez personally being offered $100,000 in the annexation treaty.
Given American history in general, you would think that when a country was asking to be annexed, the United States would treat it like a Christmas present. But Charles Sumner changed his mind at the last moment and decided to fight the treaty, claiming it was Grant's first step in a "dance of blood," whatever that means. Partly because of Sumner's back flip, the treaty failed to pass the Senate.
Without any more context, we're going to assume this is what Sumner was worried about.
And while it could be argued that Grant had good (if misguided) intentions there, the same can't be said for the time that he made an order banning all Jews from the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
Apparently, Grant was annoyed by cotton smugglers running around, and he blamed the Jews, as though Jews are somehow known as the Hamburglers of the cotton industry. As Grant explained in General Order #11, "The Jews as a class violate every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also War Department orders." His solution was to ban Jews from several states, under punishment of arrest. Grant's order is the only example of a purely anti-Semitic action taken by the U.S. government in its history, and yet somehow, Grant still won the Jewish vote both times that he ran for president. The guy must have been persuasive as hell.
W.E.B. Du Bois Was Friendly To The Nazis (For A While)
W.E.B. Du Bois was an early American civil rights leader, so one would expect the man to be a walking, talking fountain of tolerance.
But Everyone Forgets ...
A bizarre, five-month-long trip to Nazi Germany in 1936 that was funded by a Nazi on the condition that Du Bois not criticize their treatment of Jews, which should probably have been a red flag.
"Troubling red flag" was likely a pretty consistent theme of that trip.
When Du Bois returned to the United States, he wrote that the German's hatred of the Jews "is a reasoned prejudice, or an economic fear." Jewish and anti-Nazi organizations were very unnerved when the great Du Bois came back from Germany and started saying anything about Nazism other than "let's kill it with fire."
As a black man touring the goddamn Third Reich, Du Bois was pleased to be able to report that he experienced no racial discrimination. Which isn't that much of a surprise, considering that the visit was orchestrated as an effort to cover up said racial discrimination. Du Bois actually wound up sharing many of the Nazi views on Jews (saying they were an "alien presence" and "foreign element" in Germany), claimed Hitler's dictatorship was necessary and that national socialism made sense, and spoke highly of Hitler's right-hand man, Rudolph Hess.
He stopped short of tongue-kissing Eva Braun, but not by much.
Du Bois ultimately spent years backpedaling and defending himself in the black press, and whatever he was trying to say either was a mountain of pro-Nazi comments, or got buried under a mountain of pro-Nazi comments, which are the worst type of comments.
As for what he truly believed, he did probably hold some anti-Semitic views, and was especially frustrated that the Jews in Germany were not particularly vocal about the mistreatment of African-Americans. In retrospect, there were probably better ways to express that than doing the full Hitler publicity tour.
Tibetan Monks Were Feudal Tyrants Who Owned Slaves and Tortured Dissidents
If you've heard activists crying "Free Tibet!", there's a good reason for it. Before being subjugated under the tyrannical thumb of China, Tibet was a peaceful country led for centuries by Buddhist monks, most recently Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning human rights activist Tenzing Gyatso, the Dalai Lama. And if you've ever seen pictures of Tibet, you can't help but notice those monks lived in some spectacular houses.
"Shit, my Frisbee went over the side."
But Everyone Forgets ...
That's the Potala Palace, where the Dalai Lamas lived with their many, many slaves. Before China took over, the political structure in Tibet was essentially feudalism, which you might remember from history class as a form of government so archaic that it was wiped out in the 1400s for being too outdated.
There were really only two classes of people in Tibet: the monks, known as Lamas, who lived in luxury, and the serfs, known as "literally everyone else," who had no rights and basically lived only to serve the Lamas. And the Lamas weren't necessarily the kind of quiet, benevolent hippies that Hollywood wants you to believe.
You'd think that guys discouraged from ever taking money would tone it down a bit with the gold.
First of all, taxes in Tibet were about as high as you would expect from a country in which every individual member of government lived in their own massive castle. The Lamas put a tax on everything, and we mean everything -- there was a tax for being born, and after that, just about everything you did after waking up in the morning, from keeping animals to attending festivals to leaving town, had a hidden price tag. Homeless and begging on the streets? Hope you're able to scrape up enough change at the end of the day to pay the begging tax.
Those who couldn't afford to pay their taxes had the option of, well, starving to death, at which point all of your debts (including your newly acquired death tax debt) would pass on to your family. Or you could take out a loan from a monastery with an interest rate that made loan sharks look like philanthropists.
"Before we figure out what you owe, you should know there's a math tax."
If serfs defaulted on their debts, broke the law, or attempted to flee, then they had one of Tibet's torture chambers to look forward to. Yes, "Tibet's torture chambers" were things that existed. Of course, Buddhism clearly disallowed the death penalty, but the Lamas found loopholes in the dogma that made things like eye-gouging, amputation, and tongue removal fair game. Tibetan monasteries reportedly had private prisons and carried handcuffs in children's sizes, in case you wanted to know if they had all the evil bases covered.
This obviously raises the question of why exactly it is we tend to think of Tibet as some kind of paradise. The simple answer is that, after the Chinese invasion, only the aristocratic Lamas escaped, dancing across the Himalayas like they were in The Sound Of Music, except the singing was tax evasion and everyone was an asshole. So the monks were the only people who were able to spread the word to the rest of the world about Tibet, and not surprisingly, they thought quite highly of it.
Zachary Frey is going to be a freshman at Cornell University this August. You can (and should) read some of his other awesome articles here.
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