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: February, 2017
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Special permission was granted by, and thanks is given to, the Massachusetts Historical Society to quote from the unpublished Aaron White Diaries, 1815-1880.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).