4 Eyebrow-Arching U.S. History Stories Left Out Of Textbooks
Happy Fourth of July, fellow Yankees! It's time to scare our dogs with colorful explosions and watch Joey Chestnut eat 70+ hotdogs. It is a loud and weird holiday perfectly fitting for a loud and weird country, with bizarre pieces of history ...
There Were 14 Presidents Before George Washington
Everyone knows that the first president of the United States was George Washington. That is, unless you count every president from the Continental Congress and Articles of Confederation, in which case, Washington was number 15.
The First Continental Congress began meeting on September 5, 1774, before the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain. To watch over the proceedings of the Continental Congress, the delegates involved elected a president, and the first person to hold the new office was Peyton Randolph.
This office of president of the Continental Congress carried on during the American Revolution and afterward too. When the first attempt at a constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was ratified, the young United States continued to have a president until the Articles were replaced by the Constitution of the United States. This replaced the old government and created a new executive branch led by the president of the United States. George Washington was elected to this new position, and the presidents of old were forgotten.
Why don't we ever hear about the old presidents, then? The biggest reason for this is that the president of the Congress really didn't do anything. It was a largely ceremonial position that served to preside over debates and do little else. Even though the president before the Constitution and under the Constitution both carried the title of "president," the two roles have little in common, which is why the office of the president of the United States is not viewed as a continuation of the old position.
The length of a term as president of the Congress was all over the place, which is why there were so many of them in a relatively short time. When the Articles of Confederation were put in place, the president was given a term of a year. Before that, though, presidents just kinda hung around until someone decided to make a change. For example, Peyton Randolph spent 47 days in the position before having to step down for health reasons, and Henry Middleton was elected to replace him. Middleton ending up spending just four days in the position before Randolph came back. Henry Laurens served as president for more than two years, but he was replaced without his knowledge while on a leave of absence. The early U.S. was just winging it.
Still, though, let's take a moment to appreciate these early presidents. Sure, maybe they did next to nothing, but they were part of that messy beginning that eventually led to the country we have today. Plus, some big names held the title of president of the Continental Congress, including Founding Fathers John Jay and John Hancock.
The Years Of Bleeding Kansas
Risking life and limb for a shot at land in Kansas doesn't sound like a smart way to spend one's time, but between 1854 and 1859, that is exactly what happened. This was not simple violence for land, though. Bleeding Kansas is the story of a precursor to the American Civil War, a continuous mess that helped shape the direction of the country as it tackled the issue of slavery. And the winner got ... Kansas. What a prize.
The battle for Kansas began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act created the territories of, naturally, Kansas and Nebraska, and used the idea of popular sovereignty to establish whether or not slavery would be permitted in the new territories. Popular sovereignty meant that those who settled in these territories would vote on the issue of slavery, which was becoming more contentious in the U.S.
Settlers set their sights on Kansas not because they wanted to live in Kansas (Outside of Superman, who would want that?) but because they could help swing the vote one way or another. Plenty of people from Missouri claimed territory in Kansas just so they could vote on the status of slavery. This might have been described as voter fraud, but it was nothing compared to the actual mini civil war that would follow.
Small acts of violence had occurred earlier between settlers in Kansas, but one of the first major acts was the Sacking of Lawrence of May 21, 1856. Lawrence was a town established by free-staters who wanted Kansas to be an anti-slavery state, and pro-slavery aggressors attacked the town. They burned the Free State Hotel and halted the production of free-state newspapers. Only one person died during this attack, but it demonstrated that the war for Kansas was one that people would resort to violence for.
After the Sacking of Lawrence, the world became introduced to one of the biggest badasses in American history, John "Kill All The Slaveowners" Brown. A radical abolitionist, Brown led the Pottawatomie Massacre, in which his band killed five proslavery Kansas settlers. After this, Brown remained a key anti-slavery figure in Bleeding Kansas and led anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack and Battle of Osawatomie. Oh yeah, because open warfare was a thing people were willing to do for control of Kansas.
In the end, Kansas joined the United States as a free state. John Brown went on to wage guerilla attacks against slavery elsewhere before being captured and hanged in Virginia. As for the country as a whole, the violence that fueled the settlement of Kansas continued as the Civil War took over the country in 1860. And as for Kansas, you can now buy a nice house in the middle of nowhere for about five dollars, and you don't even have to kill anyone for it anymore.
Alaska: The Not-So-Dumb Purchase
There is nothing more American than getting one over on the Russians, and in 1867, the U.S. got to do just that with the purchase of Alaska.
Russia first landed in Alaska in 1725 in the early stages of expanding its empire. However, by the time that they sold the territory to the United States, Russia was trying to scale things back. After losing the Crimean War in 1856, a territory so far away from the Russian mainland seemed less appealing as it would be difficult to protect in the event of a conflict.
When Russia opted to sell the frozen territory, they negotiated with U.S. Secretary of State William Seward. For $7.2 million, the United States would receive 586,412 square miles of land. Even when adjusted for inflation, that is still an extraordinarily good deal. Despite this seemingly good deal, this was not universally loved at the time, and some began calling it Seward's Folly. Regardless, the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia on October 18, 1867.
Seward's critics initially had a point. Alaska was big, but there didn't seem to be much use for it beyond owning land for the sake of owning land. That changed with the discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1896. This was the start of a boom in the region where tens of thousands of prospectors migrated to dig for their fortunes. Most people didn't become rich, but the rush of people and associated boom towns demonstrated the potential that the vast territory had.
Today, Alaska is a treasure trove of natural resources. For better or worse, 457,000 barrels of oil are produced there daily. Alaska has also been a major strategic point in world politics, and the U.S. currently has five military bases in Alaska. Whether Seward saw the potential of the region or if that much land for just over $7 million was too hard to pass up, the deal ultimately worked out in America's favor.
The Great Molasses Flood
When Americans face a natural disaster, they come together to rebuild and heal. When Americans faced a molasses disaster, they collectively asked, "What?" Now, molasses may seem harmless, but on January 15, 1919, the city of Boston learned that the sugary syrup could do a lot of damage if the conditions were just right.
The Great Molasses Flood sounds like a pseudo-mythical event from the Middle Ages, but no, it was a real, horrific thing that happened. This disaster wasn't molasses casually flowing through a commercial district of Boston. 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst from a tank, and the almost-biblical flood rushed through the streets at a disturbing 35 miles per hour. The terrifying substance tossed and swallowed everyone and everything in its path, and when the dust -- or, molasses -- had settled, 21 people were dead and 150 were injured.
For an explanation of how this happened, in short, lax industrial standards can be blamed. The monstrous molasses was the property of United States Industrial Alcohol, who built the molasses tank in 1915. World War I increased the demand for molasses, and USIA hastily constructed the molasses tank to meet this need. Before the tank burst, there were concerns about it being unstable, but no one did anything to fix it. The tank was a powder keg primed for disaster, and on that fateful day in January 1919, that disaster came.
The rescue effort involved police, firefighters, and even sailors from the U.S. Navy. Challenges with rescuing those trapped were just as unique as the disaster itself, with the sticky flood serving as an obstacle that was difficult to navigate. The molasses didn't simply trap people. It destroyed buildings and carved out a path of destruction.
For a slightly bright conclusion, after a long legal process, USIA was ordered to pay the victims of the molasses incident. To prevent future disasters, more regulations were added for massive tanks like the one that caused the molasses flood. For a stranger conclusion, Boston apparently smelled like molasses for years after the flood.
Top Image: John Steuart Curry