Greetings! You are reading an article from The Mudville Gazette. To reach the front page, with all the latest news and views, click the logo above or "main" below. Thanks for stopping by!
July 31, 2011
Who was our first president?By Greyhawk
A parallel discussion to The Vanishing General, begun here. Much - not all - of what follows is a reexamination of generally accepted historical theories on changes to American cultural perceptions over the years - more specifically, how we viewed our nation as revealed in what we wrote about it. What's new is the developing (Google's caveat: Ngram Viewer currently operates on a database of 10% of published works) capability to generate more objective, quantifiable evidence supporting (or refuting) any such theories...
Ignoring trivia, who was our first president? Depends on who you ask, of course. Ask an American from before 1850 and he's likely to tell you it was General Washington...
...though his great-great-grandson (and certainly I and probably you) would be more likely to say George Washington.
We're all right, of course, we just think differently.
Whatever the answer, I found it odd that President Washington was the rarest reference of all.
So along those lines, who was our 16th president? I wondered. Click, click, click... turns out it was Abraham Lincoln.
Though President Lincoln was right there with him - at least, for a while. In the 20th century, Abraham - like George, became the more common reference. I note also that nicknames - Abe is the obvious example here (though I ran Honest Abe and the father of our country, too) rarely make more than a blip when compared to full names. (Common sense tells me just "Washington" and "Lincoln" would be even more frequent, but it would also be impossible to sort references to the men from references to other people, places and things - most of which were named for one or the other.)
But the frequency of occurrence of President Lincoln compared to President Washington led me to wonder whether I'd detected a previously unnoticed cultural shift - a subtle change in American thought. (At least as it was expressed in books.) A few more clicks and I had the answer - could be. (And there's nothing subtle about it.)
Above - "President Lincoln" compared to the first six chief executives (ignore a bogus Lincoln spike around 1800 caused by mis-reads of later books), and below to the next nine. Andrew Jackson rises above the pack a bit, but though a clear second he's still not even close. And while the second chart above shows George Washington remains ahead of Abraham Lincoln as far as being first in the words of his countrymen, to this day references to President Lincoln exceed those of all his predecessors - including President Washington, combined.
The power of the Lincoln effect even pulled his immediate predecessor along; references to President Buchanan as such only rose above the mass during Lincoln's term.
There's a seemingly obvious explanation for this, that during - and because of - the Civil War there were simply more publications that mentioned the president, pro and con. That's true - they doubled (Ngram Viewer is case-sensitive; as a side note it's interesting to see the capitalization trend here)...
...but that doubling is hardly surprising for a time when two Americans claimed the title (and President Davis was the man second-most frequently referenced as president during the first century+ of American history).
...and even that increase (even acknowledging that references to presidents of garden clubs and other organizations contribute to the total, but probably not the Civil War spike) doesn't explain the magnitude of the change between Lincoln and his predecessors. What could is simply the fact that for the first time in history it was thought necessary to remind people who the president was, as frequently as possible - but there's more. Before who the president was could matter, perception of what the president was had to change too, and in Lincoln's term the "power of the president" rose significantly. Much of that was temporary (call it "war powers" or crisis response) and none of it was without opposition (and controversy = more references), but even when the crisis passed the office mattered more because the concept of the Union over which the office holder presided mattered more.
Or, as can now be demonstrated as never before, in post-Civil War America the concept of the United States as a singular entity rather than plural became dominant in American thought. (Another side note: a steady post-World War Two decline in frequency of occurrence is very evident here, too.)
Posted by Greyhawk / July 31, 2011 11:00 AM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
I like having visitors to my house. I hope you are entertained. I fight for your right to free speech, and am thrilled when you exercise said rights here. Comments and e-mails are welcome, but all such communication is to be assumed to be 1)the original work of any who initiate said communication and 2)the property of the Mudville Gazette, with free use granted thereto for publication in electronic or written form. If you do NOT wish to have your message posted, write "CONFIDENTIAL" in the subject line of your email.
Original content copyright © 2003 - 2011 by Greyhawk. Fair, not-for-profit use of said material by others is encouraged, as long as acknowledgement and credit is given, to include the url of the original source post. Other arrangements can be made as needed.
Contact: greyhawk at mudvillegazette dot com