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Second Decade

A historical show examining the fascinating events and people of the second decade of the 19th century (the 1810s), hosted by historian Sean Munger.
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Now displaying: December, 2016
Dec 21, 2016

Second Decade wishes you happy holidays with this Christmas-themed episode. Of all the Christmases of the 1810s, the year 1814 stands out as especially significant. The world was celebrating its first holiday season in over two decades in the midst of general peace, except for one last pesky war that wouldn’t quite die. While the crowned heads at the Congress of Vienna—supposedly working for world peace but in reality boozing and partying like there was no tomorrow—were exposed to the highly flammable new holiday tradition known as the Christmas tree, a team of diplomats including future U.S. President John Quincy Adams were actually putting the Yuletide greeting “peace on earth” into practice. A convoluted and sometimes disheartening round of negotiations between two unequally-matched teams of statesmen yielded the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 despite consciously avoiding resolution of all the major issues that caused the war in the first place. Now that’s diplomacy!

Historian Sean Munger begins this episode with a colorful look at the Christmas traditions being practiced in 1814, from a special kind of Christmas meat made from some very uncomfortable pigs, to the horrifying pyromaniacal English drinking game known as “Snapdragon.” Then he segues into the fascinating story of the Treaty of Ghent, why it almost didn’t happen and how the chrome-domed, short-tempered John Quincy Adams earned his chops as one of America’s most gifted diplomats.

Dec 12, 2016

On the island of Sumbawa, in what is now Indonesia but was previously called the East Indies, there is a collapsed, sunken shell of a volcano that was once a mighty peak taller than Mt. Fuji in Japan. On a warm spring night in 1815 this mountain, Tambora, exploded with a force so powerful that it can scarcely be measured in terms intelligible to humans. In addition to being an environmental disaster of staggering proportions that killed over 100,000 people and changed the world’s climate, the eruption of Mt. Tambora occurred at an unusual moment of transition for the people of the East Indies. The British, having brieftly wrested the spice-rich Indies from the control of French-allied Holland during the Napoleonic Wars, were struggling to leave a permanent political and strategic mark on the islands before returning them to Dutch rule. Lost in the geopolitical shuffle for colonial possessions were the people of the islands themselves, at once opaque to history but who also left behind haunting clues of their lives that were cut short by this incredible disaster.

Armed with numerous eyewitness accounts of the Tambora disaster and its aftermath, Sean Munger tries to put you on the ground at the epicenter of one of the most dramatic and powerful events in environmental history. Additionally, you’ll get a taste of old-school European colonialism in Southeast Asia, a profile of British Java’s quirky governor Thomas Stamford Raffles, and a look at the hidden history that was buried ten feet under volcanic rock and only rediscovered in the 21st century.

Subscribers to Sean’s Patreon campaign will get access to a members-only video, a companion piece to this episode, that explains why Tambora is much less well-known than the similar 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and how the two disasters are linked.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Dec 5, 2016

When Thomas Jefferson retired from public life in 1809 after serving two terms as U.S. President, he thought his retirement years at Monticello, his Virginia plantation, would be peaceful, quiet and relaxing. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Utterly broke as a result of his out-of-control spending sprees while in the White House, Jefferson returned home to his farm just as a series of environmental disasters made it almost impossible to earn a living from his sole remaining source of income: farming. What was more, Jefferson suddenly had to support his grown daughter, her alcoholic husband and their eleven children as well as lay out the red carpet for the steady streams of visitors and well-wishers who descended on Monticello. And that’s to say nothing of Jefferson’s own unacknowledged children by his slave mistress Sally Hemings. Add to this a war, a crippling drought and a boneheaded financial move, the 1810s proved to be nothing less than the very long winter(s) of Jefferson’s discontent.

Sean Munger not only tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s difficult retirement during the decade of the 1810s, but also provides some historical context for understanding one of the most contradictory and controversial figures of Early America. Unpacking Jefferson’s challenges at Monticello involves everything from volcanoes in Indonesia to the passionate desires that led him into one of history’s most famous and scandalous love affairs. While we cannot hope to “solve” the enigma of Thomas Jefferson, the story of how the vaunted Sage of Monticello descended into the tragedy of his twilight years might just help us understand some of the challenges and preoccupations that shaped the personality of this extraordinary man.

(Background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

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