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Inside the Vaults: George Washington and the Paparazzi

America is a celebrity-crazed nation, a place where movie stars, musicians, and even politicians are relentlessly pursued by the paparazzi. But you may be surprised to learn that our national fascination with fame predates Hollywood and the modern media.

The proof is in an original letter written by President Washington to his friend, Gov. Henry Lee of Virginia, on July 3, 1792.

In the letter, which is currently on display in the Public Vaults exhibition at the National Archives, President Washington complains about the persistent inquiries of portrait artists: “I am so heartily tired of these kinds of people that it is now more than two years since I have resolved to sit no more for any of them.” As National Archives curator Alice Kamps explains in the video below, 18th-century artists were the equivalent of the modern paparazzi.

In celebration of the 280th birthday of America’s first President, the National Archives has released this short documentary video, “George Washington and the Paparazzi.” The three-minute video is part of the ongoing “Inside the Vaults” series on our YouTube channel.… [ Read all ]

Football Friday: Presidents and the Pigskin

New York Giants football player Harry Carson dumping Gatorade (popcorn) on President Reagan with Nancy Reagan watching at the White House Diplomatic entrance, 2/13/87, C39093-5, Reagan Presidential Library via ourpresidents.tumblr.com

With Super Bowl Sunday just two days away, we’ve decided to call an audible and make today’s “Facial Hair Friday” into a “Football Friday.”

When the New England Patriots and New York Giants collide in this year’s Super Bowl, the two teams will be competing for more than just a National Football League championship. The winner will also receive a trip to the White House, a place that many gridiron greats have called home.

Football has a rich history at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

President Eisenhower was a standout halfback at West Point. Similarly, President Ford was a star at the University of Michigan, ultimately earning contract offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. As for President Reagan, he earned the nickname “the Gipper” after staring as Notre Dame’s George Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American.

Several Presidents have also remained loyal fans even after their playing days.

Gerald R. Ford, Jr., centers a football during practice at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, 1933. (Ford Presidential Library)

President Kennedy, who went out for the team at Harvard, once called legendary coach Vince Lombardi to ask if he would “come … [ Read all ]

Four Patriots from Baseball’s Hall of Fame

World War I Draft Registration Card for Tyrus R. Cobb (ARC 641757)

Each January, as frost and snow cover baseball fields across America, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum provides heartwarming news for fans of our national pastime. This is the season when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America elects new members from the ranks of retired ballplayers.

When the Hall of Fame was first established in 1936, its inaugural class of inductees included legendary ballplayers Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Babe Ruth. These were four of the most talented stars of the early 20th century—a collection of hitters and pitchers worthy of Major League Baseball’s highest honor.

And while all four ballplayers are best known for their statistics and individual accomplishments, they also distinguished themselves for patriotic actions off the field.

As World War I drew to a close in 1918, both Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson served in France as part of the Chemical Warfare Service. Commonly referred to as the “Gas and Flame Division,” the unit  combated the virulent effects of German gas attacks.

Throughout the final months of the war, the two ballplayers took part in several dangerous training exercises. “Men screamed . . . when they got a whiff of the sweet death in the air, they went crazy with fear,” Cobb recalled in his 1961 autobiography. The … [ Read all ]

Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster

Mug shots of the conspirators with vital statistics, 04/24/1929 (Department of Justice. Bureau of Prohibition. Seattle Office. ARC#298444)

As Prohibition commenced in 1920, progressives and temperance activists envisioned an age of moral and social reform. But over the next decade, the “noble experiment” produced crime, violence, and a flourishing illegal liquor trade.

The roots of Prohibition date back to the mid-19th century, when the American Temperance Society and the Women’s Christian Temperance League initiated the “dry” movement. In 1917, Congress passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to implement nationwide Prohibition.

After the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, Congress followed with the National Prohibition Act. Commonly referred to as the Volstead Act, the legislation outlawed the production, distribution, and transportation of alcohol. Prohibition officially went into effect on January 16, 1920.

But while reformers rejoiced, famous gangsters such as Al Capone capitalized and profited from the illegal alcohol market.

From Los Angeles to Chicago to  New York, organized crime syndicates supplied speakeasies and underground establishments with large quantities of beer and liquor. These complex bootlegging operations used rivers and waterways to smuggle alcohol across state lines. Eventually, other criminal enterprises expanded and diversified from the bootlegging profits.

As organized crime syndicates grew throughout the Prohibition era, territorial disputes often transformed America’s cities into violent battlegrounds. Homicides, burglaries, and assaults consequently increased significantly between 1920 and 1933.… [ Read all ]

Secession, Congress, and a Civil War Awakening at the Archives

The U.S. Capitol under construction, 1860 (National Archives Identifier 530494)

As a new year begins, the 112th Congress reconvenes for a second session of legislative activity. Representatives and senators from across the country are again descending upon the Capitol, ready to commence debates, proceedings, and hearings. This is how the legislative branch of the Federal Government always functions, right? Well, not always.

On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, the 36th Congress consisted of 66 senators and 234 representatives. There was a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and every state in the Union was effectively represented.

But once South Carolina issued its ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860, a surge of southern legislators began withdrawing and retiring from Congress.

By the time the 37th Congress convened in March of 1861, six states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—had already joined South Carolina and left the Union. This prompted Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina to follow.

When the torrent of secession finally concluded, vacancies existed in both chambers of Congress. The mass exodus of southern Democrats, coupled with the commencement of Union-Confederate hostilities, shrank the Federal legislature to 50 senators and 180 representatives by the beginning of 1863.

Southern secession transformed Congress in many ways. The dozens of unfilled vacancies in the Senate and the … [ Read all ]