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: March, 2017
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).