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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Jul 9, 2017

You may not have heard of David Ramsay, but if you lived in Charleston, South Carolina in the second decade, you would probably know him—if you were part of the city’s rich white elite, that is. Ramsay, born in Pennsylvania, Princeton-educated, served in the South Carolina State Legislature and the Confederation Congress, was a protegé of revolutionary doctor Benjamin Rush—a signer of the Declaration of Independence—and tried to rid Charleston’s steamy streets of yellow fever by predicting the weather. His life was tragically ended by a deranged assassin, convinced Ramsay (and everybody else) was out to get him, who blew away the good doctor with a “horseman’s pistol” in broad daylight on one of Charleston’s busiest streets in full view of hordes of witnesses. This odd story from the 1810s shines a fascinating light on Ramsay’s life and personality, and also on the precarious world of Charleston in which he lived, which was built on the backs and the labor of the city’s enslaved African-American population.

Dr. Sean Munger presents the fascinating life of Dr. Ramsay, and his unusual death, in a colorful manner that illuminates various broader themes of the Second Decade era. In this episode you’ll rub shoulders with Charleston’s elite, and perhaps share their thinly-veiled discomfort at the monstrous injustice upon which it depended. This is a picture of a city—and a country—split down the middle, foreshadowing the terrible divisions that gave rise to the Civil War.

This is the last episode in Season 1 of Second Decade. The show will return in fall 2017 with brand-new episodes.

Additional materials on this episode available at the website!

Dr. Munger is offering online classes to the general public. The next one (July 23) is "A Brief History of Climate Change." You can sign up here!

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

May 14, 2017

The early months of the War of 1812 served up a relentless drumbeat of bad news for the United States: our untrained and ill-equipped forces, fighting a war they were unprepared for in the first place, suffered reverse after reverse on the battlefield. But on the high seas, the exploits of one remarkable ship, the USS Constitution, provided the only bright spot in the gloom and demonstrated that the new republic could, when circumstances called for it, compete militarily even with the greatest naval power on Earth. Sent to patrol the Atlantic coast, the Constitution and her captain quickly found themselves tangling with the overconfident British commander James Dacres, who went so far as to capture an American vessel and write a literal taunt into her log daring an American frigate to come out and fight him. The result was a thrilling real-life adventure involving a desperate chase, booming cannons, crackling muskets and every cliché you’ve ever seen in a nautical adventure film from the Age of Sail—except in this case it really happened.

Sean Munger takes you into the thick of naval warfare in the War of 1812 with the story of the USS Constitution, her commanders, officers and the Royal Navy captains who found themselves surprisingly shaken at staring down her 44 guns. In this episode you’ll understand exactly why the Constitution was created in the first place, you’ll learn what “kedging” is, you’ll understand how the Constitution got her nickname “Old Ironsides,” and you’ll gain a glimpse as to why the British were so surprised at the naval prowess of the upstart Americans. This episode is pure adventure—all the stuff of a Patrick O’Brian novel, with the added benefit of being true.

Additional materials and photos available at the website for this episode.

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

May 8, 2017

The image and concept of Frankenstein’s monster—most notably personified by Boris Karloff in the 1931 Universal horror film—are indelible in literature, cinema and popular culture. Far more than just an 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein is a philosophical journey as well as a cultural phenomenon. But how did it come about? The idea for the novel was famously hatched at a lakeside chateau in Switzerland, the Villa Diodati, in the late spring and early summer of 1816 by Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin), her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron (who was then having an affair with Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont), and his doctor John Polidori, who went on to write The Vampyr. A nightmare summer of inclement climate-changed weather, haunting visions of dead children and monstrous women, endless cycles of personal and sexual jealousy, and the toxic personality of Lord Byron all contributed to Mary’s flash of genius. The story of Frankenstein’s origin is wrapped up in the broader story of the 1810s as a whole, and is intimately connected to the environmental disaster of that decade.

In this episode, historian Sean Munger presents the complicated and fascinating personal stories of Mary Shelley and the literary circle that gathered in Geneva that summer, as well as their tragic ends in the years following. You’ll learn why Lord Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” why the neighbors of the Villa Diodati set up a telescope on the lawn to spy on the scandalous goings-on, and you’ll meet the horrifying midnight vision that frightened Percy Shelley so much Polidori had to give him ether. This extravaganza of Gothic terror sounds like a bad horror film (and has provided the basis for more than one), but it’s real, actual history—like you’ve never heard it before.

Visit the website for this episode for show notes, pictures of the people discussed, and a trailer for the 1931 Frankenstein film!

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


Apr 23, 2017

Since the beginning of film as a narrative and artistic medium, historical events and eras have been popular subjects for filmmakers. The decade of the 1810s, however, has not tended to show up in movies or on TV as frequently or consistently as other eras—but there are still plenty of examples of the second decade on film. Beginning in the 1920s with French filmmaker Abel Gance, depictions of the 1810s, many involving Napoleon or adaptations of popular and classic novels, have woven their way through the history of visual media with varying results. From Miriam Hopkins’s Technicolor turn as Becky Sharp in 1935 to Paul Dano as Pierre Bezhukov in the 2016 miniseries War and Peace, the analysis of the second decade in film covers a lot of fun and interesting ground.

In this episode, a slight departure from the usual emphasis on factual events, historian Sean Munger takes you on a brief tour of the 1810s as they appear on the screen. Films and shows discussed include Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, the 2002 European-made Napoleon miniseries, the classic 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, as well as lesser-known (and less historically serious) efforts like Woody Allen’s Love and Death or the whimsical sendup Lost in Austen. If you’re a fan of the period and you’d like to see it on screen, this episode may give you some new items to add to your Netflix list!

At the website for this episode, you can view YouTube videos for trailers and/or scenes from all the films and shows discussed here.

Correction: in the episode, actress Jennifer Ehle is incorrectly identified as “Elizabeth Ehle.” My apologies to Ms. Ehle.

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

Apr 9, 2017

Despite being one of the longest-reigning British monarchs as well as wildly popular among his own people, King George III gets a bad rap as the “mad king who lost America.” In truth the story of George’s life is touching and sad. After dealing with not one but two world wars that occurred on his watch, as well as two world-shaking revolutions in America and France, George was ultimately felled by a mysterious illness that affected his body as well as his mind. Signs of his recurring malady appeared as early as 1765, but in 1810, the beginning of the second decade, the King was finally unable to discharge his royal duties. Supplanted by his son (the future King George IV) as regent, George’s illness ended an entire era of British history, the Georgian Era, and began another, the Regency. But this is more than a story of politics and power. It’s a story of a family, struggling to deal with the far-reaching effects of a difficult and ultimately tragic illness whose nature and origin is still debated more than 200 years later.

Historian Sean Munger shines a light on the personal and family stories of King George and the British royals during the 1810s, including eyewitness accounts of the King’s condition and his often curious behavior. In this episode you’ll be thrust into the midst of several acrimonious royal family disputes, you’ll learn to fear the King’s doctors and their straitjackets, and you’ll find out why a blue-stained chamber pot is such a contentious historical artifact. At the end of it you may even have a bit of sympathy for old George and his long-suffering family. Far from being “the mad king,” George III emerges as a historical personality who must be judged on his own terms.

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

For additional materials about this episode, visit the website!

Mar 26, 2017

Despite seeming to the West as if it was “sleeping,” China in the 1810s was in fact experiencing the crucial transition of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty from its cultural and political zenith under the Qianlong Emperor to the ruin and chaos that would ramp up in the later 19th century. Ruled at this time by Aisin Gioro Yongyan, also known as the Jiaqing Emperor, China rebuffed not one but two British diplomatic missions and continued its policy of isolation and indifference to the West. But at the same time dangerous and dramatic events were brewing, including a rebellion in 1813 that almost toppled the dynasty, and a nefarious plan by British merchants to introduce addictive drugs into Chinese society. Overshadowed by his illustrious father, Yongyan was unable to arrest the cancers that were just beginning to eat away at the foundations of his country—but the evidence indicates he was fully aware of them. China, in fact, was not “sleeping” at all.

In this episode, historian Sean Munger takes you into one of the most mysterious places on the planet in the 1810s, right into the gilded halls and Alice in Wonderland surrealism of the Forbidden City where the “Lord of 10,000 Years” and a tiny elite ruled over nearly a third of the world’s population. You’ll meet some members of the mysterious “White Lotus Society,” rub shoulders with China’s most notorious embezzler, and learn how a British diplomat’s refusal to get down on his knees may have doomed millions of Chinese to a vicious cycle of drug addiction. You may not know much about the history of China, but after hearing this episode you may well come to understand some of the powerful forces that would eventually transform the world’s most populous nation into what it has become in modern times.

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

Go to the website for this episode for additional materials, including pictures!

Mar 19, 2017

The year 1814 was one of the bleakest in American history. It opened with the country embroiled in war, with most of its coast blockaded by the British Navy, the economy collapsing, the frontiers aflame with violence, and the government teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. And now that Britain’s war with Napoleon was effectively over, things were bound to get even worse for the United States. American troops scored a few victories in the field, some of them surprising, but the capture and burning of Washington, D.C. by British forces in August vividly demonstrated America’s disadvantages. Yet throughout this dark period the seeds of a more or less honorable peace had already been planted, with negotiations going on in Europe and a growing desire on both sides to simply end the conflict. Of all the participants, the Native Americans paid the steepest price in the War of 1812.

Historian Sean Munger completes this three-part series on America’s most obscure war, although there are still many more stories from this conflict to tell. In this episode you’ll drop in on battles at distant frontier forts and the swamps surrounding New Orleans; you’ll learn what a Baratarian is, how West Point cadets got their funky uniforms and why Presidents don’t make very good field commanders. This is definitely stuff you did not get in history class!

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

Go to the website page on this episode for additional materials, including pictures!

Mar 12, 2017

Having declared war at a time it was woefully unprepared to face the world’s most powerful country on the battlefield, the United States spent the first phase of the War of 1812—at least on land—lurching from disaster to disaster, with most efforts aimed at the theoretically achievable goal of conquering Canada. Unable at first even to feed or supply its troops competently, and with serious doubts about the objects of the war still lingering in the public mind and the halls of Congress, the administration of James Madison muddled through as best it could, buoyed slightly by a string of surprising naval victories. But in 1813, with a politically and physically weakened Madison reeling from an unexpectedly difficult re-election and a serious illness that almost killed him, two developments, one on the Native American frontier and the other in Europe, forever ended the chances of the U.S. taking Canada and would soon open a new and darker phase of the conflict.

Historian Sean Munger presents the mysterious War of 1812 from both a bird’s-eye and a ground-level view, trying to break through the imagery and mythology that’s grown up around the war to appreciate what it really meant at the time. In this episode you’ll meet a blundering general (William Hull) and an unexpectedly brilliant naval officer (Oliver Hazard Perry), you’ll learn why it was dangerous to drink a glass of water at the White House, and you’ll learn what a “Red Stick” is. Several colorful characters, from the cleverly duplicitous British General Isaac Brock to the gun-toting, Indian-hating, profusely bleeding Andrew Jackson, drift, blunder, sail or shoot our way into our story. This is the second of a three-part series on the war.

Note: in the episode I identify Oliver Hazard Perry as an admiral. He was actually a commodore.

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

Mar 6, 2017

What was the War of 1812? Which countries were involved? What were the stakes? Why is it so obscure? Why does it have such a funny name? How come you were never taught much about it in school? These questions, and many more, lie at the heart of understanding the first military conflict fought by the United States since the founding of the Constitution. The causes of the war are surprisingly murky and confusing, everything from a mutual misunderstanding between the U.S. and Great Britain as to the meaning and scope of national citizenship, to a desire to cement political unity by a Congress and a Presidency drifting toward entropy. The picture involves more than just maritime issues and border tensions with British-held Canada. It also includes Native Americans, caught in the middle between two essentially hostile powers, and a broad roster of unfinished business left over from the American Revolution.

In this, the first of a series dealing with the broad issues of the War of 1812, historian Sean Munger will attempt to ground you in the issues and context surrounding this difficult period of American, British, Native American and world history. You’ll learn what “impressment” is and why speaking with a Cockney accent was dangerous on the high seas in 1811; you’ll meet the visionary Shawnee prophet, Tenskwatawa, who met his Waterloo (or Tippecanoe) in the Indiana wilderness; you’ll go into the halls of Congress and butt heads with the stubborn “War Hawks”; and you’ll cringe at the cosmic irony of the tragic miscommunication that eventually triggered the war. You’re in for a bumpy ride!

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

Feb 20, 2017

Harvard, America’s first college, is thought of as a bastion of privileged patricians, a place filled with old brick buildings, ivy-covered walls and inscrutable ancient traditions. But it’s also a real college where real young people live, learn, struggle and try to find themselves. In 1813 two boys, Stephen Salisbury and Aaron White, fifteen and sixteen, respectively, left their homes in Massachusetts to become freshmen in the Harvard College class of 1817. The remarkable personal day-to-day accounts both of them left behind illustrate in vivid and sometimes amusing detail what it was really like to go to college in the 1810s. Stephen engages in endless battles with his parents over pocket money and dirty laundry; Aaron in the meantime struggles against depression, feelings of guilt and unworthiness, and his own temptations. Both somehow manage to graduate, but one senses it wasn't easy!

Historian Sean Munger takes a personal and often humorous look at college in the 1810s, and tries to break down the ivory walls that separated 19th century Harvard from the real world. In this episode you’ll figure out why curtains are so essential in an 1810s dorm room, cross swords with Stephen’s insufferable nagging mother, endure Aaron’s seasonal affective disorder, and you’ll learn what a ‘Sulkey Bagg’ is. This could be the most fun episode of Second Decade yet.

Special permission was granted by, and thanks is given to, the Massachusetts Historical Society to quote from the unpublished Aaron White Diaries, 1815-1880.

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

Feb 13, 2017

Most of us were taught in school about Abraham Lincoln’s humble origins: the log cabin on the Kentucky frontier, his lack of formal education, and colorful tales of rail splitting and backwoods adventures. But the traditional American mythology leaves out a lot about Lincoln’s formative years. Lincoln was born at the beginning of the Second Decade into a complex and deeply contested environment, shaped by economic hardship, conflict with Native Americans, and simmering resentments over slavery and land ownership. Add to this the ravages of disease and environmental hazards, such as the dreaded “milk sickness” that almost wiped out his family, and a picture of Lincoln’s childhood emerges that you may not have thought about. Furthermore, only recent (21st century) scholarship has discovered a previously unknown aspect of Lincoln: the rare genetic disorder, called MEN2B, from which he suffered, and which may well have strongly influenced one of the most significant events in all of American history.

In this episode, historian Sean Munger pierces through the “log cabin mythology” surrounding Lincoln in an attempt to understand his origins and the challenges he faced while growing up. You’ll not only learn what life in a log cabin was really like, but you’ll also meet Lincoln’s colorful family (and step-family), discover why trembling cows are terrifying, and you’ll get a thought-provoking look at how genetics can affect history. This episode may cause you to rethink everything you thought you knew about America’s 16th President.

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

Feb 5, 2017

Why did Napoleon, with the largest army the world had ever seen up until that time, lose his war with Russia so badly and so tragically? You may have heard that it’s because he didn’t take the threat of the cold Russian climate seriously enough, and his army froze to death on the retreat from ruined, burnt-out Moscow. This is at best a half-truth. The French Army was already disintegrating even before Napoleon occupied Moscow, and despite the “alternative facts” that Bonaparte desperately spun as to why the retreat was so disastrous, the roots of his ultimate defeat had less to do with ice and snow than it did with Napoleon’s own willful blindness. But even this debate obscures the real story of the 1812 retreat from Moscow and the almost unfathomable suffering it inflicted on the hundreds of thousands of real people—not just soldiers—who lived through it. This episode presents that story, in graphic and sometimes unsettling detail.

Historian Sean Munger tries to cut through the veil of half-truths and misconceptions surrounding the greatest military disaster of the 19th century and get to the real on-the-ground story of what happened. In this episode you’ll definitely encounter a lot of hungry and freezing soldiers, but you’ll also learn what happens when horses have the wrong kind of shoes, how to season horse meat so it tastes less disgusting, and what not to do in –10 degree weather if you want to keep your toes. You’ll also gain a curious insight into Napoleon’s own self-deception, the conflicting stories he told different people about why he lost the Russian campaign, and how he finally sold himself on a lie he evidently continued to believe until the very end of his life—after perhaps as many as a million people paid the ultimate price for his errors of judgment.

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

Jan 23, 2017

Despite being warned repeatedly—by his enemy, Tsar Alexander, and even by some of his own generals—Napoleon Bonaparte, the self-proclaimed Emperor of France, made one of the costliest and most lethal mistakes in the history of warfare by invading Russia in the summer of 1812. Though it’s usually the harsh Russian winter that’s credited with crushing the French Army, in reality Napoleon and his troops were in deep trouble long before that, from literally the moment they crossed the Niemen River in Poland. It almost didn’t matter that the Russian Army kept retreating and refusing, for the most part, to fight. The half-million men of the Grand Armée had to fight dusty roads, sticky marshes full of mud, freezing rain in June, blazing heat in July, mosquitoes, dysentery, starvation and dehydration without having to worry about tangling with the Russians in battle. When the inevitable clash did finally occur at a town called Borodino, it led to an even more epic disaster: a man-made firestorm that virtually wiped Moscow off the map.

Historian Sean Munger seeks to dispel the myths and misconceptions of Napoleon’s Russian boondoggle, and to get inside the heads of the people who made it happen. In this episode you’ll learn about the man who burned down Moscow (and why he did it), how Napoleon’s badly-timed cold and bladder infection affected the course of world history, and you’ll learn just how desperate a man has to be to willingly drink horse urine. You may have heard the story of the French invasion of Russia before, but you’ve probably never heard it told quite like this.

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

Jan 16, 2017

In the summer of 1812 Napoleon’s France invaded Russia, ruled by Tsar Alexander I, with the largest army ever assembled in pre-modern times. Leo Tolstoy famously called this conflict “an event opposed to human reason and human nature.” How and why did it happen? In the first of three parts, the complicated political backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars comes into focus through an examination of the lives and personalities of the two men most responsible for it, Napoleon and Alexander. After becoming unlikely friends at an intimate summit meeting on a river raft in the summer of 1807, a series of missteps, misunderstandings and divergent destinies eventually brought these two fascinating people into direct conflict with each other—with millions of their citizens’ lives at stake. The result was world-shaking history with far-reaching consequences.

In this series, Sean Munger cuts through the usual historians’ clutter of maps and army formations with a close look at the actual people behind this incredible event. In this episode you’ll come to appreciate Napoleon’s humble origins, learn why he divorced the woman he still loved, and how and why his mind just wasn’t as sharp in 1812 as it had been at the height of his power. You’ll also become familiar with Alexander’s insecurities, his bold but unrequited dreams and his receding hairline. Sean will also take you on a rather unpleasant march with Napoleon’s Grand Armée, already sinking into a hopeless fiasco of bloated horses, hungry soldiers and broken wagon wheels even before they ever caught sight of a single Russian soldier. This is history as it should be: the real story of real people.

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

Jan 9, 2017

On New Year’s Eve, 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston, First Lady of South Carolina and daughter of former U.S. Vice-President Aaron Burr, boarded a ship bound for New York City and was never seen alive again. More than 50 years later, in Nag’s Head, North Carolina, an old woman gave a doctor a painting, as payment for medical services, that the doctor came to believe was a portrait of Theodosia. But was it, and if so, how did it get there? These two unsolved mysteries bookend the unusual life and personality of Theodosia Burr Alston, an educated, talented woman, outspoken feminist, who was utterly devoted to her father Aaron Burr, the “gadfly” of the Early Republic, a controversial man accused of murder and treason, who ultimately lost both of the women he held most dear in his life.

In drilling down into the twin mysteries of Theodosia Burr, historian Sean Munger sets the stage with colorful examples from her life and her father’s. In this episode you’ll not only meet various members of the Burr family, but you’ll encounter coastal pirates and unscrupulous beachcombers, two unidentified women buried in different places along the Atlantic coast who may or may not have been the real Theodosia, and follow in the footsteps of New England maritime historian Edward Rowe Snow as he tries (not entirely successfully) to solve the mystery in the 1940s. You can be the judge of whether the woman in the “Nag’s Head Portrait”—she is pictured on the far right of the image collage header for Second Decade podcast—really is Theodosia Burr Alston.

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