5 Awkward Footnotes Hidden In History's Biggest Moments
For simplicity's sake, historians economize. That's a nice way of saying they trim to make history readily adaptable for a Mel Gibson movie where he roundhouse kicks an English dude while waving an American flag or painting his face blue.
And if you had to condense a complex socio-political phenomenon into two paragraphs inside a third grader's history book, you'd do it too. However, those weird details are typically unveiling a more nuanced picture of our past. Like would you believe ...
When it Was Passed, Prohibition Was Insanely Popular
Prohibition is now considered such a dumb, ill-fated idea that it is an oft-used example of state paternalism gone awry, a disastrous scheme imposed on the American people against their will. We have entire shows and movies dedicated to the idea of bootleggers immediately doing a public service to the thirsty masses.
In truth, the vast majority cheered the 18th Amendment's ratification. Congress wasn't mad with power; they kowtowed to popular opinion. Esteemed, invincible career politicians who merely dared water down temperance legislature were dunked on like *insert today's Twitter villain*. Opposing the booze ban was tantamount to admitting you worshipped Satan or wanted to kiss the Kaiser.
It comically united disparate segments of the population, making strange bedfellows of Booker T. Washington, the K.K.K., social reformers, industrialists, suffragettes, fundamentalists, and secular thinkers.
Call it hypocrisy, but it brought the nation together, unlike any other political movement ever has or probably ever will. When the social experiment failed horribly, everyone got hammered and pretended like it was out-of-touch bureaucrats' fault all along.
The Chinese Government Milked the Tiananmen Square "Tank-Man" Footage For Their Own Propaganda Purposes
The image of one man standing firm in front of a Chinese tank has come to encapsulate the struggle for democracy in China. That short-lived protest got memory-holed, along with any mention of the 10,000 deaths. The mere thought of it being shown on TV in China is preposterous, right?
Nope. In 1989 the Chinese Communist Party showed the Tiananmen Square confrontation on state-run TV, gloating, covering the event like a sports segment where the home team squashes a hapless rival:
Like a Harlem Globetrotters game, except The Generals won.
When gossip can no longer be suppressed, it can still be mitigated. Rather than continue denying it, China's leaders leaned into it. The column of tanks weaving around the lone dude reframed as the C.C.P.'s gentle-touch dealing with "scoundrel" protesters, breaking up the pitifully small and trivial protest, countering "Western propaganda."
Without an unbiased media to point out what viewers were actually seeing on their TVs in 1989, the ruse worked. The student uprising didn't die in a vacuum of information, but rather a tsunami of bullshit.
America's Founding Fathers Thought Independence Was a Blunder
Most Americans stop an inch short of worshiping the men responsible for the Revolutionary War as modern-day deities (Uh, not us though ...) George Washington would eject his teeth out in a spit take if he heard that.
The essential early figures responsible for independence had zero faith in the average American voter. John Adams suspected America would devolve into a drunken orgy and harbored hopes in a defeat as a chance to start over, humbling the "vicious, effeminate appetites" of Americans. It was an opinion shared by future Chief Justice John Jay, Samuel Adams, and the ever-so chic Alexander Hamilton.
And George Washington? He toasted the King regularly until he was appointed general of the Continental Army in 1775. That was around the same time as the Olive Branch Petition, in which 49 Founding Fathers begged for forgiveness from the King after the Battle of Bunker Hill. And, yes, that's John Hancock's John Hancock. There's Adams', Jefferson's, and Benjamin Harrison's. Ben Franklin scribbled his on the document as he peed his pants, too:
There were valid reasons they thought hope was lost, as early attempts at democracy were flat-out embarrassing. George Washington jump-started his career by bribing voters with free rum at a polling station, a practice so common it had to be banned. The aristocratic Founding Fathers viewed its constituents as lewd, gullible, binge-drinking ignoramuses. One of the reasons they invented the electoral college was to circumvent having to acquiesce to the voters' depraved whims.
Dreams of groveling at King George III's feet quashed, the genie was already sprung loose from the bottle, and a tarring and feathering meted out to loyalist traitors. Luckily for them, the King never read the Olive Branch Petition. Independence celebrated just as Adams would have desired: by drunks blowing off their fingers with gas-station fireworks.
Abraham Lincoln's Life Was Shaped By Prostitutes
Abraham Lincoln, self-made lawyer and man of the people, made his bones out-arguing people who were much better educated. If his law partners and friends are to be trusted, the 16th President honed those skills haggling with hoes. (You don't wanna know how he got the nickname "Rail Splitter.")
An aspiring gentleman, Lincoln maintained a thrifty side. When a sex worker told him her price was $5, and he told her he only had $3, she offered to front him two bucks credit. But Lincoln admitted that he was so poor at the time that he didn't know when he'd see his next dollar. The woman thanked Abe for his honesty, saying, "You are the most conscientious man I ever saw."
For what it's worth, his buddy William Herndon did keep his mouth shut about all the whore-mongering until after Abe died. But biographers were careful to not expose Lincoln's syphilis or chronic reliance on mercury. Mary Todd Lincoln also took mercury and suffered from symptoms of the advanced stages, very likely syphilitic. Wanting to spare her scrutiny, physicians did the polite thing and called her a schizophrenic instead.
The precise facts behind Lincoln's family's move from his native Kentucky to Illinois have always been murky. As early as 1920, there accusations questioning Lincoln's paternity and that of his mother, and, more specifically, allegations that Lincoln's mother was a prostitute herself. According to locals and acquaintances in Indiana, Lincoln was painfully aware of the rumors and casually referred to his own grandmother as that "halfway prostitute."
Every Defining Moment in the History of the Roman Empire Was Decided By a Magic Birds
In the Roman era, magnificent victory and stupefying defeat alike were determined by supernatural birds. Conquering Britain, Carthage, Gaul, and Jerusalem are all foreshadowed by the most powerful men in the ancient world gawking at a chicken, trying to keep a straight face.
Augurs were priests that would interpret the gods' wishes via the goddamn birds and arguably had as much control over battles as generals. Leading the army was a priestly figure toting around a birdcage and a hand full of feed, a title known as the pullarius. The chicken a juju detector to sniff out bad vibes. The robed gurus watched their psychic birds and interpreted their movement for signs of divine significance. A single bad omen and the campaign was called off.
The same applied to construction projects, business ventures, marriages, etc. As logical as they were, the Romans were still pagans. According to the historian Livy, "No action was ever undertaken, in the field or at home, unless the auspices had been consulted [...] all would be put off if the birds withheld their approval." Who better to consult about finance or aqueduct drainage than this hippie and his pet bird:
If you don't think that was a big deal, Cicero recounts a man put on trial for blasphemy for defying the chickens, spending the rest of his life a pariah. Marrying your sister? Meh. Urine mouthwash? Cool. But no one disrespects the mystic fowl and gets away with it.