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A temporarily insane Congressman

General Daniel Sickles, a temporarily insane man (111-B-4678)

Gen. Daniel Sickles, a temporarily insane man (111-B-4678)

The first use of the temporary insanity plea to beat a murder charge happened in 1859 and was employed in the defense of a man named Dan Sickles, who had killed his wife’s lover. A story such as this might be relegated to the footnotes of law review books were it not for the fact that Sickles was a Congressman, that the man he killed was the son of Francis Scott Key, and that one of his defense lawyers was future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

While publicly scorned for his defense at the outset, the public was soon enraptured by the sensational trial, and by the equally sensational Sickles. When Sickles was acquitted of the charges,  even President Buchanan weighed in, saying he was “delighted.”

As for Sickles himself, when asked if he meant to kill Key, he simply replied, “Of course I intended to kill him. He deserved it.”

Sickles went on to serve as a general in the Union Army, where he lost his leg, an infliction far less temporary than losing one’s mind.… [ Read all ]

Four paragraphs, five years of war

Infantry on parade (111-B-298)

Infantry on parade (111-B-298)

Today in 1860, 169 delegates convened in Columbia, South Carolina, to discuss the fate of their state. The decision was unanimous: South Carolina would secede from the Union.

Declared in a terse four paragraphs, the Declaration of Secession set out that the question of slavery would not be decided in Congress, but in combat.

We, the People of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled do declare and ordain . . . that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of “The United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.

Days later, on Christmas Eve, this same convention would reveal its causes. The “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” laid out a simple argument: South Carolina, as an independent country, had adopted the Constitution as an agreement between itself and other independent countries. South Carolina felt other states had violated portions of this compact—particularly Article IV, section 2, which dealt with the return of fugitive slaves—and that because they had violated the agreement, South Carolina was no longer bound by it.

We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement,

[ Read all ]

FHF: Merry Christmas … Or else

new-years-safetyWhile the holiday season is a time for togetherness and reflection, some holiday posters leave you wondering, “did Santa just threaten me?”

Yes, even bearded Old St Nick was recruited during World War II to keep the war factories churning, but what was intended as a rallying cry for safety instead appears like a masked threat: If you don’t celebrate Christmas the way Santa intended, then (wink, wink) “you’d better watch out.”

And what exactly is intended anyway? Are we to spend Christmas and New Years schmoozing with young metaphoric years and footless St. Nicks passing out safety flyers?

Then again, the War Production Board was never one to pull punches when it came to encouraging people to work. They would threaten, cajole, guilt, or resort to arming Santa Claus to ensure war production stayed top priority. Below are just a few of the thousand-plus war posters that prove war production—cartoons, facial hair or no—was no laughing matter.

collage[ Read all ]

Thursday’s Photo Caption Contest

Introducing the iPole

Introducing the iPole

Carolyn Grey, you hit our funny bone hardest last week, when you added a snappy caption to a Civil War telegraph snipper. While we’re not sure whether Apple will be rolling out the iPole anytime soon (though ostensibly it would have fewer ‘dropped’ calls than the iPhone, har har).

The real story behind this photo has everything to do with dropped calls. “Cutting telegraph wire and connecting the ends, so that the point at which the connection is broken cannot be seen from the ground.” Yes, the Civil War saw the advent of the telegraph, and the advent of the telegraph saw new ways to spy and disrupt communications.

But enough of the drab war-talk. It’s the holiday season, and this is the last photo caption contest of 2010. So, sharpen your pencils and your wit to come up with the funniest caption you can. We’ll give the winner 30% off at the National Archives eStore.

For all those who have played across 2010 and for all those who have made Pieces of History such a success, thank you and Happy Holidays!

Insert your caption!

Insert your caption!

[ Read all ]

Inside the Vaults – The Bill of Rights

After more than 40 years of research and more than 14,000 documents, new discoveries are being made as scholars at the George Washington University continue to collect every scrap of paper associated with the First Congress of the United States.

The First Congress adopted the Constitutional amendments that are known today as the Bill of Rights. To mark the 2010 Bill of Rights Day, “Inside the Vaults” looks at the work of the First Federal Congress Project. Seventeen volumes of letters, debate records, newspaper articles, petitions, and other documents have been printed thus far—and there are still five volumes to go.

The First Federal Congress Project is funded in part by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making entity within the National Archives and Records Administration.

[ Read all ]