The Historical Spectator.

History as seen by the people who lived through it.

H. L. Mencken on Lynching

In 1935, the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, was asked to testify before a Senate subcommittee considering a bill to discourage, prevent, and punish the crime of lynching. Here is what he had to say.

From Pittsburgh to Harmony in the Early 1800s

John Melish, a traveler in the United States, wrote a detailed and enthusiastic description of the Harmonist settlement at Harmony in Pennsylvania. It is certainly worth reading. What interests us here, however, is the trip to Harmony from Pittsburgh. Today it would be a short drive out into the suburbs. In the early 1800s, it was an all-day ordeal, made possible only by stopping for beer or whiskey at least three times. The route taken by our travelers is probably close to the route of the Perry Highway (U.S. 19) today.

Social Media in 1810

A husband places an advertisement against his absconded wife on the front page of the Kentucky Gazette; his wife responds in the same forum. Their argument is now public knowledge in Lexington and wheresoever else the Gazette penetrates. This is Facebook, 1810 style.

A Midnight Tour Amongst the Common Lodging Houses in the Borough of Wakefield

In 1870, an anonymous writer (identified by a librarian’s penciled note as Alfred W. Stanfield) went with the mayor and chief constable on a tour of the lodging-houses of Wake­field in Yorkshire. He recorded his observations in a pamphlet. This is an incalculably rich source of detail for any student of working-class conditions, or any writer of historical novels.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge on the Right of the Judiciary Power to Judge of the Constitutionality of a Law

Hugh Henry Brackenridge was a judge in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He was also the first great literary figure of Pittsburgh, where he moved in 1781 and singlehandedly founded a literary culture that continues to this day (one of his foundations being the Pittsburgh Gazette, whose descendant, the Post-Gazette, still straggles on as the second-oldest metropolitan newspaper in America). In this 1804 article, he considers the question of whether a Pennsylvania court can declare a law unconstitutional and therefore void.

What an American House Sounded Like in 1860

From a very amusing piece in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine. The premise is simple: two editors have sat down to sift through the slush pile of manuscripts submitted to their magazine. In this submission, as the writer explains, she has recorded everything that was said in her vicinity while she was writing.

Slaves Escaping Up the Hudson

In 1841, an English abolitionist named Joseph Sturge came to the United States to report on the state of slavery there. On his way up the Hudson to Albany, he met a couple who were escaping from slavery in the South. Striking up a conversation with them, he found out how they did it.

A Great Jealousy of Corporations

A summary of the activity of the Illinois legislature in 1833 mentions that bills for incorporating companies always face stiff oppo­sition. The economic theories on which that oppo­sition is based are so foreign to our modern thinking that it would be diffi­cult to find any legislator of either party who would sub­scribe to them today. If, dear reader, you hear someone spouting that America has always been the land of free-market capi­talism, you may now smugly assert that you know better.

The Revolutions of 1776 and 1861 Contrasted

It is hard to express how radically dif­ferent the thinking of many Southerners was during the Civil War from anything we would recognize in the United States today. We may point, however, to this 1863 article by George Fitzhugh. Fitzhugh com­pletely repudiates the Declaration of Independence and all the prin­ciples embodied in it, and lays down a doctrine of absolute tyranny. Down with bills of rights; down with religious toleration; down with the consent of the governed; down with human equality; it would have been better had those ideas never been formed.

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