Modern headlines often carry news of scandals, crimes, corruption, and violence. When historians study this darker side of life, they hope to use the events as windows on a particular era, shedding light on its cultural and religious values, its social tensions, and its political and diplomatic struggles. In this issue of History Now, four noted scholars examine a wide range of events, from the witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century to the twentieth century political scandals of the Harding era. Each of these unique events can be used in the classroom to begin a discussion of the larger historical context in which they occurred. In this way, they cease to be simply sensational stories and become the starting point for interesting historical investigation.
In “The Years of Magical Thinking: Explaining the Salem Witchcraft Crisis,” Professor Mary Beth Norton helps us deconstruct the popular myths that surround this episode in New England life. Through Norton’s close study of the local, longstanding tensions surrounding the “outbreak” of witchcraft, the religious beliefs that made witchcraft seem both plausible and likely, and the perceived connection between an external danger—Indian enemies—and internal danger—practicing witches, we are able to see the reality shrouded by the myths. In “Avast! How the US Built a Navy, Sent in the Marines, and Faced Down the Barbary Pirates,” Professor Christopher Miller takes us back to America’s first encounter with Mediterranean pirates. He reminds us that the US was once a young and struggling nation, concerned about its international reputation, and eager to prove its ability to defend its citizens and its honor. In “The Filibuster King: The Strange Career of William Walker, the Most Dangerous International Criminal of the Nineteenth Century,” author T.J. Stiles takes us back to ante bellum America, when Manifest Destiny and the recklessness and lawlessness it often created spread not simply across what became the continental United States but south into Mexico, Nicaragua and other Latin American lands. As the nineteenth century’s leading filibuster, or independent adventurer, Walker was hailed as a hero by many for his take over of a divided Nicaragua. But the upshot was a conflict that eventually drew neighboring nations, the British royal navy, and the US government into the fray, and endangered the shipping route from America’s Atlantic to its Pacific coast. Stiles uses Walker’s colorful life story to illuminate an era of uncontrolled economic competition and territorial expansion that flowed into the Civil War. Finally, in “Graft and Oil: How Teapot Dome Became the Greatest Political Scandal of Its Time,” Professor Robert Cherny reexamines the scandal that became the symbol of government corruption during the years of the Harding administration. The abuse of natural resources including national forests, oil and coal reserves reflected not simply corruption in government but a failure to recognize the value of conservationist policies. The investigation of the scandal proved as significant as the scandal itself for it led to important precedents, both legal and political, and, Cherny notes, the hearings led to a broader understanding of the role of Congress as an investigatory body.
As always, History Now offers readers a series of suggested lesson plans for elementary, middle and high school teachers and our archivist, Mary-Jo Kline provides rich additional resources for your use in designing your own classroom assignments. Our interactive feature is a slide show of William Walker’s exploits, entitled “Filibusters in Nicaragua,” drawn from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
We at History Now hope you have a wonderful summer.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.