Weird History
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Historians Answer The Burning History Questions We Wish We'd Asked

Updated November 9, 2020 11.5k votes 3.9k voters 1.0m views15 items

List RulesVote up the questions you never realized you wanted to ask.

History teachers, we salute you for regaling us with facts, figures, and analysis of the people, places, movements, governments, and ideas (and the occasional video on a Friday) that got us where we are today. But really, some of the most interesting historical quandaries never get addressed in school, like why the Statue of Liberty is perpetually green instead of copper-colored.

Curious people with historical queries both serious and slightly silly turn to one of their favorite places for seeking experts with answers to life's seemingly unanswered questions: Reddit's AskHistorians community. And those who answer are usually incredibly smart, knowledgeable, and entertaining, providing legitimate answers they've researched extensively using personal knowledge, or sources gleaned from somewhere other than the not-always-academically-stellar Wikipedia.

Praise both the Redditors who came up with thoughtful queries, and the historians who diligently answer them.  

  • 1

    Why Didn't Abe Lincoln Have Any Personal Security When He Was Slain?

    From Redditor /u/dhmontgomery:

    The Warren Commission formed after the [slaying] of President [John F.] Kennedy produced this appendix on the history of presidential protection. They note that before Lincoln, "there was remarkably little concern about the safety of presidents and few measures were taken to protect them." This persisted even after President [Andrew] Jackson survived [a slaying] attempt due to a misfiring [device]. In the 1840s Congress did assign a guard to the White House - but apparently with more of an aim to protect the building and grounds than its primary occupant.

    During the [conflict between North and South], Lincoln was guarded irregularly - sometimes by Washington, DC, [police], and sometimes by Army units. Lincoln "was reluctant to surround himself with guards and often rejected protection or sought to slip away from it." This, the report notes, "has been characteristic of almost all American presidents."

    The congressional report after Lincoln's [slaying], "with traditional reluctance, called for no action to provide better protection for the president in the future." The Warren Commission notes that some people at the time saw Lincoln's [slaying] as a unique reflection of the Civil [conflict], which was [then] over, and not something indicative of a need for broader protections. Indeed, for more than a decade after [John Wilkes] Booth, presidents continued to walk about in public alone and unguarded...

    After President [James] Garfield was [slain], the New York Tribune contrasted "the simple republican manner of life which the custom of nearly a century has prescribed for the chief magistrate of the United States" with "the forms and safeguards of courts" - implying that bodyguards were seen as a courtly, monarchical affectation, where as a republican president should be open and accessible to the people (July 3, 1881, quoted in Warren Commission report). Surprisingly or not, despite the second [slaying] of a president in two decades, Congress "took no steps to provide the president with personal protection."

    The Secret Service, initially a group for combating counterfeiters and financial [misdeeds], first began providing part-time presidential protection in 1894 - apparently a coincidence because a group of Colorado gamblers were suspected of plotting to [slay] President [Grover] Cleveland. President [William] McKinley actually had Secret Service protection when he was [slain], but it was his [demise] that finally spurred Congress to give the Secret Service "full-time responsibility for the safety of the president."

    Returning to Lincoln, he was certainly aware that many people wanted to [slay] him. President Theodore Roosevelt later quoted Lincoln saying, "Though it would be safer for a president to live in a cage, it would interfere with his business." He had sporadic guards but no formal protection.

    Fascinatingly, General Ulysses Grant was originally invited to attend Ford's [Theatre] with Lincoln on that fatal night. He begged off with an excuse about needing to be with his children, but possibly because Julia Grant and Mary Todd Lincoln hated each other.

    From a [2017] biographical article on Grant:

    Grant would never forgive himself for begging off, certain that had he accepted the invitation, his bodyguards stationed outside the door would have stopped Booth. As lieutenant general of the US Army he was entitled to armed protection around the clock. The president in those days was not.

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  • 2

    Do We Know What Happened To Thomas Jefferson's Enslaved Daughter, Harriet, After He Sent Her North?

    From Redditor /u/Georgy_K_Zhukov:

    Well, the answer is unfortunately not that satisfying... To provide a little background, Sally Hemings had a number of children, some of whom [perished] in infancy, [and who] are generally accepted as being fathered by Thomas Jefferson (I would direct to here for more discussion, broadly, of the [intimate] relationships between masters and [enslaved people] in the antebellum South). Whether or not this was fact has been debated since before Jefferson himself [perished]... but it is pretty much now the consensus...

    [Hemings and Jefferson's daughter] Harriet [Hemings], described as "nearly as white as anybody and very beautiful," had no trouble passing for white, and... made use of this. She was freed in 1822 at the age of 21, apparently on a promise Jefferson had made to Sally Hemings to do so when the children reached that age. The documentation of Harriet's liberation is almost next to nothing. Edmund Bacon, who worked as an overseer at Monticello, described her departure; [he] gave her... $50... and [stated] she had been headed for Philadelphia. And as for her life after she headed north, we only have one account [that] we can give any real credence to,... from her brother Madison, who wrote in 1873:

    Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City, whose name I could give, but will not, for prudential reason. She raised a family of children, and so far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lived or lives. I have not heard from her for 10 years, and do not know whether she is... alive. She thought it to her interest, on going to Washington, to assume the role of a white woman, and but her dress and conduct as such I am not aware that her identity as Harriet Hemings of Monticello has ever been discovered.

    Washington City in this case refers to the District of Columbia as it was then known, and it would appear that while she kept a low profile, she did not choose to cut all ties with her family, at least immediately, as Madison claims to have remained in contact with her through the 1860s... He also gives us reason to believe [it's]... possible that she has living descendants, but of course was much [too] guarded to allow any information to get out [that] could give much of a thread to follow. What the end of communications even meant is up in the air - perhaps she decided to cut her final tie to nonwhite society, or perhaps she simply [perished]. We can only speculate. But in any case, Madison's account is the lone source we can rely on to reconstruct any sense of her post-emancipation life.

    She was not the only child of Jefferson and Hemmings to follow such a route. While [her siblings] Madison and Eston both left records, writings, and known descendants, their brother Beverly was similarly allowed to leave Monticello for the North, and seems even less sure about his fate then his sister, doing a similar disappearing act but without... the record of correspondence that Harriet left. He was briefly in contact, long enough to communicate back that he had married a white woman and.. they had a daughter, living in Washington City, but that seems to be the end of it.

    In... the case of Beverly and Harriet, it should be noted, Jefferson officially recorded them as being escaped [enslaved people]... but it was quite clearly allowed with his approval as a means of sending them North in technical compliance with the aforementioned agreement he had made with Sally. The backhanded means of liberation is thought to have been a means of following through without providing ammunition for those looking to prove the parentage.

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  • 3

    How Did Americans Actually Transfer Money To France For The Louisiana Purchase?

    From Redditor /u/stravadarius:

    In 1801, James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston (the R. also stood for Robert, oddly enough) were sent to Paris not to buy the enormous swath of land subsequently called the Louisiana Purchase, but to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, thereby securing the lucrative Mississippi River shipping route. Negotiations fell through, and it wasn't until Livingston returned in 1803, [when] Napoleon was so hard up on cash due to the continent-wide... conquest he was waging, that he was willing to make a deal with the Americans.

    At the time, Livingston was authorized by [President Thomas] Jefferson to spend up to $9 million... to purchase New Orleans and the rights to the Mississippi. Since the US was planning on making a significant purchase from France, the delegation (Monroe rejoined Livingston in Paris shortly thereafter) traveled to Paris with $3 million in gold. In 1803, gold was worth just under $20 an ounce, which means they were traveling with almost 10,000 [pounds] of gold. This wasn't even remotely close to the carrying capacity of freighters of the time. "Tea Clipper" frigates of the time could carry [far more than that: 1,200 tons]...

    The negotiations took a turn when Napoleon decided he needed more money and offered the whole Louisiana Purchase for $15 million. Livingston and Monroe were authorized by Jefferson to spend up to $9 million... so when given this offer, they had to make a decision without the president's approval, and just couldn't pass up the deal.

    Oddly enough, I just read the chapter describing the negotiations in Stephen Clarke's very entertaining 1000 Years of Annoying the French. According to Clarke, the purchase was paid for with the above-mentioned $3 million in gold as a down payment, with the canceling of $3.75 million in debt that France owed to the US for French piracy on American ships since the Revolution, and the rest was issued in bonds. Again from Clarke:

    French banks were too nervous to accept the bonds, and two foreign banks had to step in to provide the cash. The first was Hope and Company, a bank based in Amsterdam but set up by Scotsmen. The second was a London bank, Barings. Napoleon was in such dire straits that he agreed to sell the bonds to the banks at a 12.5% discount.

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  • 4

    What Made 82% Of The US Population Vote In The 1876 Presidential Election (The Highest Voter Turnout In US History)?

    From Redditor /u/Georgy_K_Zhukjov:

    Although I'll swing back to the circumstances around 1876, to start off, I'm going to turn this question on its head and look at why voter turnout declined in the elections following. If you look at this chart you can see that while 1876 was the high point, it wasn't exactly an anomaly, and voter turnout was consistently high in the elections preceding it. It sticks out because, although the drop wasn't immediately afterwards, it certainly preceded the continuing decline in voter turnout that would mark the next half-century.

    So why did voting decline in that period? Well, one of the most simple reasons to look at is Jim Crow. While under Reconstruction, Black men (women being generally deprived of the vote) could, for the most part, go to the polls and exercise their right to vote. This began to change after Reconstruction... ended (not to say it didn't happen before, just not as effectively), and the Redeemer governments worked through various means to disenfranchise vast swaths of voters in the American South.

    The effect of this can't be underrated. While in the 1876 election the South saw turnout roughly comparable to the rest of the country, at 75%, vote suppression methods such as literacy tests, not to mention outright [illicit trickery], saw the turnout decline to 46% at the turn of the century.

    By the 1924 election, 19% of those theoretically eligible to vote were actually showing up at the polls. And to be sure, while the primary target was Black voters, many poorer, illiterate whites were disenfranchised too, despite "loopholes" to grandfather many of them in. In Louisiana, for instance, while 90% of Black voters were barred from the polls, 60% of whites were as well. While Jim Crow should absolutely be understood as primarily a [race-based] regime, it was quite oligarchical as well, with power being concentrated in the hands mostly of upper-class whites, who wanted to share it with no one.

    This allows us to circle back somewhat though to look at 1876, and why it would be slightly above the average of the time... During the Reconstruction era, there were real efforts to mobilize poor voters of both races by the... Republicans. The example I'm most familiar with was that led by [William] Mahone [of] Virginia, whose Readjuster movement controlled the state for a brief time in the late 1870s to early '80s, propelled by populist support from a coalition of Black voters and poor whites...

    [B]efore Jim Crow laws took hold, we can see a lot of political agitation that struck at the white Democratic establishment in the South... attempting to reclaim power, and... for a time they enjoyed some successes. The 1876 election in particular we can look at as a watershed, with both sides of the argument over Reconstruction seeing heavy stakes. And of course [Samuel J.] Tilden won the popular vote, but lost anyway, as part of a deal that did end Reconstruction... That cessation meant the evaporation of the federal protections that allowed those insurgent political movements to compete on a roughly level playing field.

    Changes weren't immediate, and varied state by state - in Virginia, for instance, the Readjusters remained in power until 1883, when race riots days before the election were used by the Democrats to stoke voter fears - but it nevertheless meant that the suppression of the Black vote and the poor white vote was able to start, a process [that] wasn't immediate, and took time to take full effect.

    It can also be said that while Jim Crow was unique to the American South, similar political tactics were not unknown throughout the country, just in different ways. In the Northern and Western states, turnout had dropped to 55% by the 1920 election, after all, and while it cannot be blamed on institutional barriers such as those in the South, responses to political mobilization by immigrants and lower-class groups outside the South by political elites saw attempts... to dissuade them from showing up...

    In short, voter turnout in the United States was consistently fairly high up until the 1880s. The apex of turnout in 1876 isn't exactly an anomaly if we look at the turnouts in votes around it, such as 1868 at 78.1%, or 1880 at 79.4%, but it does coincide with a period in American history rife with political upheaval: not just the American South, still on the tail end of Reconstruction, but nationwide, with populist movements in the ascendant. The end of the century, and the early 1900s, thus provided a stark contrast, as attempts both at institutional vote suppression, as well as simple "demobilization" of cohorts of voters, led to a decline in turnout nationwide.

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