History Slam Episode Eighty-Nine: Amiable Scoundrel

By Sean Graham

ScoundrelOne of the things that I often joke about when talking about finding new historical material to study is that you can always revisit an old topic – after all, there’s a new book about the American Civil War published every hour. Of course that isn’t literally true, but there does always seem to be new material written about the Civil War. Given the vaunted place of the Civil War in American mythology, this is not surprising. Another reason for this, as explained by today’s guest, is that the Civil War produced a treasure trove of archival material that historians are still combing through 150 years later.

One such example is Paul Kahan’s new book Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War. The book traces Cameron’s career from mastering Pennsylvania’s political machine to serving in the Senate to representing the United States as a foreign diplomat. Despite this impressive resume, he is best remembered for his short stint as Lincoln’s Secretary of War and the scandals that marked his time in that office. Having lived from 1799 to 1889, Cameron’s career spanned a good deal of the 18th century and he came to be representative of his era’s political culture.

In this episode of the History Slam, I welcome Paul Kahan back to the show to talk about the new book. We chat about researching the Civil War, Cameron’s personal character, and the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Lincoln administration. We also examine 19th century American political culture and the separation between politics and personal relationships.

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History on TV: Political Drama in the 2010s

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Still from Borgen, 2010.

Still from Borgen, 2010.

In recent years, serial political dramas such as House of Cards and the Danish series Borgen have enjoyed quite a bit of success in North America. Although one might argue that the genre is more of a child of the 1990s, since the original House of Cards trilogy (set in a fictional post-Thatcher Britain) came out in 1991, and The West Wing ran from 1999 to 2006, the four series that I intend to examine in this post are all products of the 2010s. A comparison of Borgen (“The Castle,” Denmark, 2010-13), Les Hommes de l’ombre (“The Shadow Men,” France, 2012), House of Cards (USA, 2013-present), and Okkupert (“Occupied,” Norway, 2015) is not only useful in providing an overview of how western European and American politics are being imagined (even fantasized about) in our day and age, but also yields precious information of a historical nature. In their own way, each of these series tries to make sense of a different political history. Of course, it should be acknowledged that these four series reflect the views of the writers, directors, consultants and producers who created and shaped them. Nonetheless, the commercial and critical success that they have garnered as well as the themes they address raise several questions about the ways western democracies and their histories are perceived today.

SPOILER ALERT: be warned that plot points will be given away. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Seventy-Seven: Prime Minister’s Row

By Sean Graham

Laurier Ave E in Ottawa

Google Map of Laurier Ave E in Ottawa

Before I moved to Ottawa, my only experience with the city was a brief research trip, during which I heard about the nation’s capital radius rule. The rule holds that if you’re standing on Parliament Hill you can walk 15 blocks in any direction and still feel like you are in a national capital. That radius includes the Supreme Court, Library and Archives Canada, several museums, a variety of embassies, high commissions, and consulates, and the core of the city’s ‘business district.’ Once you wander outside that radius, however, Ottawa feels like any other town in this country, with its mix of suburban housing, strange traffic patterns, and chain restaurants.

When I first got to Ottawa in 2009, I lived inside that radius and rarely left – mostly because every time I ventured further afield, I was reminded that the radius was a pretty accurate description. More recently, however, the city has undergone a bit of a revitalization that, in my opinion, has either expanded the radius or made it an obsolete concept. The completion of Lansdowne Park, the construction of light rail, and the redevelopment of Lebreton Flatts are a couple examples of Ottawa’s newly found penchant for growth. There is work to be done, of course, as Tim Harper in the Toronto Star recently asked “Why is our Nation’s Capital so drab?

In addition to the major projects spearheaded by the municipal government, there are plenty of grassroots groups working on improving the city’s cultural reputation. One of these is Prime Minister’s Row, a group which is conducting research on the many historical figures that lived on Laurier Avenue East in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood. Their goal is to take advantage of the city’s built heritage to create Ottawa’s first street museum. By including both cultural and political figures in their research, the group hopes to attract a diverse audience to a part of the city that isn’t on the radar of many tourists.
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Can “The Donald” Trump History as a Third Party Candidate?

By Oscar Winberg

Donald Trump, August 2015. Michael Vadon/Wikipedia Commons.

Donald Trump, August 2015. Michael Vadon/Wikipedia Commons.

The U.S. presidential campaign is already in full swing, even though it is roughly five months before the first ballot will be cast in the primaries and caucuses that select the major party nominees, and over a year until the people will actually elect the 45th president. This summer much of the coverage has been reserved for a candidate more familiar from reality television than electoral politics; Donald Trump. Polls show Trump leading the considerable line-up of candidates the Republican Party presents, and on account of the polls – and to the despair of political scientists – the media is considering him something of a favorite. If one disregards the polls, or looks beyond the main numbers to focus on favorability ratings and other more relevant information that does not correlate so closely with name recognition and media coverage, there is really nothing that points to Trump having any serious chance of capturing the Republican nomination. Historians might come up with spectacular political surprises from yesteryear, but the influential political science monograph The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (2008) makes it clear that Trump will not find any encouragement in recent political history.

Instead, Trump’s influence in 2016 might come as a third party candidate. Continue reading

New Paper: Debating Canada’s Future: A Night at Montreal’s Sohmer Park, 1892

England_-_Scotland_border_-_geograph.org.uk_-_477405As the media has made clear over the past several weeks, what took place in Scotland yesterday resonates strongly with past independence movements in Canada. What has been less apparent in these discussions, which usually focus solely on the Quebec referendums in 1980 and 1995, are the deep roots in which Canada’s political future was debated. One of those lesser known moments in this history occurred at the tail end of the nineteenth century when Canadians debated whether to stay the course as a Dominion within the British empire, acquire greater independence from Britain, or amalgamate with the United States. In recognition of yesterday’s “no” victory, ActiveHistory.ca is proud to publish Aaron Boyes paper “Debating Canada’s Future: A Night at Montreal’s Sohmer Park, 1892.”

Sohmer Park Pavilion

Sohmer Park Pavilion

On July 1 2017, we, the people of Canada, will celebrate our country’s 150th birthday. Over the past several years federal, provincial, and municipal governments have been gearing up for this historic event by planning elaborate celebrations to mark the triumphs of our great nation. Yet this confidence and pride in Canada was not always evident. In fact, in the 1880s and 1890s, a mere twenty years after Confederation, there emerged serious discussions concerning the country’s political future. The country was stuck in a prolonged and seemingly unending economic depression despite numerous attempts to solve it.[1] Linguistic strife, which had been decreasing in the first two decades after Confederation, once again became a national issue, thanks in large part to the execution of Louis Riel in 1885. On top of these issues, a unique and distinct Canadian nationalism was struggling to develop, which enabled regionalism to dominate Canadian identity. At the same time, Canada was faced with several international dilemmas with the United States, based largely on the rights of fishermen in and around Canadian waters. These internal and external pressures led some people to determine that Confederation was a failure. This article explores one of the more forgotten episodes in Canadian history. On November 28 1892, a sizeable crowd attended a political conference at Sohmer Park in Montreal. The topic of this conference: Canada’s future. If Confederation was a failure, as many had come to believe, what was the best option for the young Dominion moving forward? [read more]

In addition to our group blog, ActiveHistory.ca strives to provide timely, well-written and researched papers on a variety of history-related topics. If you have a paper that resonates well with our mandate please consider submitting it to us.  For more information visit our Papers Section or contact papers@activehistory.ca. All of our papers are peer reviewed to ensure that they are accurate and up-to-date.

History Slam Episode Nine: Prime Minister Fantasy Draft

By Sean Graham

When I was an MA student in Regina, I was talking to somebody about how great it would be if there could be a historical figures fantasy league. With the success of fantasy football and fantasy hockey, I figured that some sort of fantasy league could really boost the interest in history. The biggest problem was trying to figure out how points would be scored – where football and hockey players continue to score goals and touchdowns, a lot of historical figures suffer from the unfortunate medical condition of being deceased. As such, it would be hard to accumulate points. Given that one of the best parts of fantasy sports is the draft, however, we decided that we could do the draft and let the listeners decide who has the best team.

Canada has had twenty-two people serve as Prime Minister and in this podcast Aaron Boyes, Patrick Fournier, Mike Thompson, and I sit down and each draft teams of four. Our rationale for our picks is laid out in the podcast (and each of us provide a brief recap below) and now it’s up to you to determine whose team is best. You can vote in this poll or via email at historyslam@gmail.com or send your vote to me on Twitter @drseannysfever . We’ll be back in a few weeks to recap the draft and announce the winner.

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Communities of Interest and Electoral Redistricting

By David Zylberberg

Following the census, Canada’s federal electoral districts are redrawn every decade. On Monday, Ontario’s proposed new ridings were announced, the last province to do so. You can look at the details of the proposed new ridings or the process of consultation, here. The proposed changes have led me to think about the origins and rationale for electoral districts. In particular, I will be discussing the importance of communities of interest for designing effective ridings in our particular system and how these priorities are reflected in proposed ridings for Saskatchewan and northeastern Ontario. Continue reading

Was the Past a Happy Place?

As an example, taking Stephen Harper's 2012 Throne Speech, cutting it into 20 pieces, and plotting several emotions. Bad news (i.e. austerity) bookended between joy, hope.

By Ian Milligan

Was the past a happy place? Could we take a large array of information and learn whether there was an emotional content to it? I’ve been increasingly curious about how we can apply a host of tools that data miners are using on contemporary information to large repositories of historical information: could we learn something new from a distant emotional reading of the past? In this post, let’s briefly chat about sentiment analysis, or the extraction of the overall emotional state of an author. It’s all very new and introductory, but I hope to pique your interest and explore some of these ideas myself. Continue reading

Charitable Tax Credits – Who Gives?

By Cate Prichard

“Ottawa looks at rewriting rules on charitable giving,” the Globe and Mail announced last Friday, kicking off a running series on the evolution of philanthropy in Canada and abroad. Federal charities policy is front page news. According to the Globe’s reporting, the federal government is proposing, among other reforms, to make changes to the tax rules governing charities in order to increase the personal tax credit for charitable giving. According to a follow-up article, the House of Commons finance committee has approved “a study of whether to change Canada’s charitable tax credits to encourage more giving […which is] expected to take a broad look at expanding the tax credit.” I believe that any discussion of changes to charitable tax policy in Canada would be the poorer for failing to consider the history of that policy. Continue reading