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Guest Blog-star: Meet Michael Stusser, Take 2

Good day! Michael Stusser, here, with another This Day in Blogstery!

Washington_Monument.jpgOn October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument opened to the public. It seems appropriate, then, that we'd give you a little bit of our Dead Guy Interview with the fabulous George Washington. First, though, a little background on the monument itself.

The Continental Congress started chatting about a monument to honor Georgie Boy in 1783 while the POTUS was alive and well and might enjoy the view himself. By 1847, they'd collected $87,000 for the project (mostly in pennies), and picked Robert Mills to draw something up. The architect's design was truly beautiful "“ a lot better, in fact, than the giant tower we've got now. It had a decorated obelisk that rose 600 feet, surrounded by a gorgeous circular structure full of columns that would house busts of all the Presidents and national heroes.

A cornerstone for a much less elaborate monument was laid on July 4, 1848, and things progressed nicely until they ran into political opposition "“ and out of dough - in 1854. This was Washington D.C., remember. Nothing goes according to plan. Oh, and the Civil War kinda slowed things down, too.

President Grant got things moving again in 1876, and the monument was dedicated in 1885, and finally opened to we citizens on October 9, 1888. It cost $1,187,710 to build "“ chump change, really, when you think about all the golden toilets we're paying for these days"¦. You can take the stairs (50 landings and 897 steps) to the top, or the elevator which makes the trip in 70 seconds. Me? I'll do my walking at the top (555 feet above ground). Sweet view!

And with that, I give you "“ a condensed "“ conversation with President Washington from The Dead Guy Interviews. For the full, in-depth interview with Mr. Washington, you'll have to buy my book - but it'll be worth it: I cannot tell a lie!

Click below to read Michael's terrific interview with the very dead George Washington.

George Washington (February 22, 1732-December 14, 1799)

51hxFy7FRnL._SS500_1.jpgGeorge is our first and most famous President, as well as our toothless poster-boy, adorning the one-dollar bill, Mt. Rushmore, postage stamps, the quarter, a State, and about 1,000 biographies. He's also America's first true hero.

Young Georgie was raised in Virginia, and, strangely enough, wanted nothing more than to be an officer in the British army when he grew up. (He liked their crisp red suits and tight formations, and fought with the British in the French and Indian War "“ 1754-58.) Instead, his experience and reputation as a level-headed soldier made him the perfect choice to lead the Colonial army, and, thus, General George wound up fighting against the Brits in the Revolutionary War. Over eight long years, Washington led a rag-tag crew to victory and independence. (GW actually lost more battles than he won, but was a helluva inspiration to his men and "“ most importantly - victorious in the end.)

Though a fierce commander on the battlefield, he really was "gentle George" off it "“ showing a more sensitive side once the war was over, even pardoning some opponents with whom he had direct clashes.

Washington's early work surveying land in Virginia gave him what he later needed as President - common sense, resourcefulness, a firm handshake, and the understanding that he didn't know everything; surrounding himself with great minds (Jefferson, Adams, et al.), he was our nation's first team-builder.

On April 30, 1789, G-Dub was unanimously elected by Congress as our first commander-in-chief. Being first is never easy, and George had to figure out everything from how taxes would be collected to where the capital should be located (Washington D.C. of course). As it turned out, he could have stayed for as many terms as he could handle, but bowed out after 8 great years.

He retired in 1797 to Mt. Vernon where he walked daily with wife Martha, tended to his 8000 acres, and passed away after some lousy medical treatments for a cold on December 14, 1799.

THE INTERVIEW

MS: Gotta ask about the whole cherry-tree episode.GW: Never happened.

MS: What?! So you lied about cutting down your father's cherry tree! You can tell a lie!

GW: No, you see, the story you're referring to was written after I was gone.

MS: How do I know you're not lying about this?

GW: Listen, Mason Locke Weems made the story up in a biography about me the year after I died. (The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.) But let's not be too hard on him, here "“ Mr. Weems was simply spinning a little yarn to give the youngsters some moral guidance. No harm done.

MS: At least you didn't lie about it. Now, tell us about the ol' wooden dentures.

GW: They weren't actually wooden.

MS: Oh boy.

GW: I had a bunch of sets made to fit around the only tooth left in my head, see? One was fashioned out of iron, we tried cow teeth, another from hippo tusks "“

MS: Whoa!

GW: Yeah, they smelled to high heaven though, so I moved on to a set made from human teeth.

MS: How'd Martha like those?

GW: She was happy I didn't gum her to death.

MS: Martha was loaded. Bet marrying the colonies' wealthiest widow had its advantages, huh?

GW: Young man, if you're implying"¦

MS: Well she wasn't exactly a beauty.

GW: At ease, soldier! I loved Martha. She was a good housewife, we were married for forty wonderful years, and I will not hear of this!

MS: As a kid, you wanted to join the British Army. By the time you were in the Virginia legislature you were their toughest critic. What happened?

GW: Tell you the truth "“

MS: You cannot tell a lie!

GW: I applied for a commission in the British army in "˜54 "“ and got rejected. Then I started paying attention to what the Brits were doing in the 1760's "“ taking away our rights and taxing everything from tools to playing cards.

MS: At what point did you realize you'd have to fight them?

GW: I think it was 1768 or thereabout when I told George Mason I'd take my musket on my shoulder whenever my country called.
Once the parliament passed the Tea Act (1773) and our boys dressed like Indians and dumped tea into Boston Harbor, I knew it was going to get ugly.

MS: Still, you didn't support colonial independence till 1776.

GW: That's correct. Took Thomas Paine's Common Sense to knock some sense into me.

MS: The British forces were better trained, better funded, better organized. What was your strategy for beating "˜em?

GW: Stall tactics, really. We felt like the longer the war went, the sicker the Brits would be of the whole bloody mess.

MS: Anything else?

GW: Well, we took a page from the Indian's handbook and fought them from behind rocks and trees "“ stayed out of the cities whenever we could so the redcoats couldn't thump us too bad. I also paid our troops with my own money. Kept them from mass desertions and mutiny.

MS: One of the lasting images of you is a painting of your Christmas crossing of the Delaware.

GW: Never saw it. Was dead fifty years on.

MS: Oh. Right. Well, here's a copy.

Washington is shown a copy of artist Emanuel Leutze's painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851)

GW: Goodness. That boat looks like a sardine can.

MS: So, it wasn't exactly like that?

GW: What am I doing standing up in this painting? Makes me look like an idiot. And, though I love the sentiment, we weren't flying a flag - we were on an undercover mission "“ in the pitch dark! In fact "“ let me see that again "“ that looks like James Monroe holding the flag "“ he wasn't even in my boat. And is that a woman rowing at the stern? Pretty sure all aboard were male soldiers.

MS: Most people think of you as a great soldier, but you bungled plenty of missions.

GW: And I thank you for pointing that out, son. You ever served?

MS: No sir.

GW: OK then. It's damn hard, let me tell you. Remember, we were greatly outnumbered, and our gents didn't want to fight if they didn't have to. My job was to keep the crew together, then pick and choose the right battles. And lest you forget, we won the thing.

MS: The US and Great Britain signed a peace treaty in 1783 that recognized American Independence, and you "retired."

GW: Yep, that was the idea "“ head back to Mt. Vernon, do a little fox hunting, put my feet up.

MS: Good plan. What happened?

GW: The States started going in different directions, see, and the Articles (of Confederation) didn't seem like they'd keep everybody together. So James (Madison) and Alexander (Hamilton) decided to put together a meeting in Philly to tweak "˜em a bit.

MS: You're talking about the Constitutional Convention (1787).

GW: What? Yeah. So the delegates there picked me to chair the little pow-wow and we wrote up the document.

MS: The Constitution of the United States.

GW: Huh? Oh, yeah. Long story short, I was going to retire "“ once more "“ but the darn delegates picked me again.

MS: The Electoral College. For President.

GW: Huh? Yeah, right, and so I did that for a while"¦.then I, uh, retired again.

MS: No offense, sir, but you seem disinterested in our little chat.

GW: Huh? Oh, you still talking?

MS: Yes, sir, I was saying you seem a bit bored with our interview.

GW: Oh, no. No, see, I'm a bit hard of hearing. Blasted influenza hit me during my second term, plus my vision was shot to hell. I'm sorry. I'll pay more attention. Where were we?

MS: If you wanted to retire, you could have gone home after your first term.

GW: Yeah, guess that's true, it's just that in 1792 we were still a real young country. It was dicey "“ hit n' miss if we'd pull the experiment off.

MS: Democracy.

GW: Mmm hmm. The other reason I may have stayed was that they didn't run anybody against me, see, so I didn't have to campaign. I was OK with the business, though I preferred agriculture, to be honest.

MS: You can not tell a lie!

GW: Yeah. We get it.

MS: The phrase, "Washington Slept Here." How'd that come to pass?

GW: I felt like, as the first President, I should go to as many inns and houses as possible. Meet n' greet, press the flesh. I hauled all up and down the union, north and south, and people just started using that phrase, I guess.

MS: So it wasn't because of your rumored promiscuity?

GW: No.

MS: Remember, you can not tell a "“

GW: I said no!

MS: You owned slaves. That's not so PC these days.

GW: Guilty as charged on that account, and I'm not proud. I will say that I had good intentions. In 1786 I wrote that I hoped we could adopt some plan, by which slavery would be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.

MS: Yeah, like that was gonna happen. What changed your mind on the issue?

GW: After commanding multi-racial troops in the Revolutionary War, I got to know the men, and realized slavery was a massive American anomaly. I also felt bad breaking up families when I purchased slaves in a lottery. You know, I did free half my slaves in my will. (Though George ordered his slaves freed upon Martha's death, she freed them all in 1800.)

MS: I'm sure the other half were thrilled. How would you describe your leadership style?

GW: Surround yourself with people smarter than you. It was my idea to create the presidential cabinet "“ more heads in the room. I had Tommy Jefferson as my Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton running the treasury "“ pretty good crew.

MS: Wish those guys were running the show now, actually. You had an early warning about political parties.

GW: Factions, I called "˜em. Point was that we needed as much cooperation as we could get just to survive. Too many selfish parties divide the country along partisan lines and that's just no good. But I'm sure democracy has solved those problems in the last two-hundred plus years.

MS: You have no idea, sir. Have you seen the Washington Monument?

GW: Yes, it's"¦well"¦.

MS: Phallic! Five hundred and fifty five feet of manliness!

GW: That's a bit much. I'm humbled.

MS: Well then you gotta see Mt. Rushmore, sir. Your head is 60 feet tall. Then go visit Washington State, and after that "“

GW: You know, son, I think I'll pass for the time being.

MS: Bet you didn't know that we all get to take your birthday off from work!

GW: Speaking of time off, young man, I'd like to spend some time in Mt. Vernon with Martha. Maybe take a nap.

MS: Oh, one of my favorite quotes from you is, "Far better to be alone, than to be in bad company!" So profound, sir!

GW: No lie. So if you'll excuse me"¦.

END of INTERVIEW.

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How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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