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Hamilton’s Mobile Home Moves Again

The Grange, a turn-of-the-19th-century house Alexander Hamilton built overlooking the Hudson and Harlem rivers in New York, is on the move again. Manhattan swallowed up Hamilton’s 32-acre country estate in the decades after he was killed in 1804 in a duel with Aaron Burr, and the Grange was transported a couple of city blocks in 1889 to make room for a residential development.

The two-story, wood-frame house lost its porches and original room configuration in the first move and served as the rectory for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church before becoming a National Park Services site in the early 1960s. An $8.4 million restoration and reconstruction, expected to be complete by the fall of 2009, began in June, with the relocation of the 298- ton structure to the northwest corner of St. Nicholas Park, about a block away.

Workers used hydraulics to lift the structure, eight to 12 inches at a time, onto a 40-foot-high temporary foundation before shifting it onto nine eight-wheeled dollies. Moving at less than 5 mph, the 72-wheeler deposited the house at its third—and perhaps final—resting place.

Before the Grange opens to the public, workers will remake its porches, grand staircase and distinctive octagonal shaped parlor and dining room. Said Stephen Spaulding, chief of the architectural-preservation division in the National Park Service’s northeast region, “We couldn’t understand the architecture of the house, and what Hamilton was trying to create without moving the building and restoring it.”

Lincoln’s Absentee Vote System Shows Signs of Disrepair

If you’re old enough to fight for your country, the argument goes, you’re old enough to vote. But if you’re fighting for your country overseas, there’s a good chance that your ballot won’t get to the polls on time. A 2008 study by the nonpartisan Election Assistance Center found that only one-third of the 1 million ballots requested by overseas and military voters in 2004 actually were cast and tallied. Frequent redeployments and the almost universal practice of using standard mail service make it very difficult for a soldier stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan or other foreign lands to request a ballot, have his or her identity verified by a local election official, receive a ballot from home, fill it out and mail it back in time. The Department of Defense spent $830,000 to set up a pilot Web-based voting system, but during the last election, officials in only nine states used it, for a total of 63 votes.

Absentee voting originated during the 1864 election, and the process was much simpler. Because Union troops were organized geographically, polling for a particular state could take place efficiently, bivouac by bivouac. For those states that did not allow absentee votes, President Abraham Lincoln furloughed soldiers so they could go home to cast their ballots. Although soldiers made up only 4 percent of the total votes cast, they broke overwhelmingly for Lincoln—78 percent to 22 percent for his opponent George McClellan. Military voting was a factor in close House elections where 31 seats were decided by less than 1,000 ballots. Eight seats went to Democrats and 23 to Republicans.

Absentee ballots from military personnel and their families may have been a deciding factor in the 2000 presidential election. Extending the deadline for absentee votes in Florida helped give George W. Bush enough votes to carry the state and the nation. In the event of a close presidential contest this year, electoral history may repeat itself.

Treasure Hunters Leave Revolutionary Warship Intact

Call it the shipwreck equivalent of catch and release. Two New York state electrical engineers found the wreck of HMS Ontario, a 1780 British war sloop, earlier this year off the southern shore of Lake Ontario. And they plan to leave the ship—virtually intact—and its inhabitants—88 British and some 30 American prisoners—undisturbed.

“It’s a war grave,” said Jim Kennard, who found the ship along with Dan Scoville. “Out of respect to people who died on the ship, let them die in peace.”

Ontario sank in a storm on October 31, 1780, and only six bodies and some debris ever surfaced. Kennard, who has found about 200 wrecks over four decades, first looked for the 80-foot sloop 35 years ago. The search intensified after Scoville joined the quest in 2002. Kennard estimates that they’ve spent more than $100,000 on equipment and won’t come close to recouping that from video footage or from presentations.

“It’s not a moneymaking situation,” said Kennard. “It’s the adventure of being the first one to discover the ship.”

Old Glory Gets Star Treatment at Smithsonian

The Star-Spangled Banner will not be waving, but it will have its own climate-controlled room, illuminated by the equivalent of “dawn’s early light,” when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History reopens this fall after a two-year, $85 million renovation. This was the 30-by-42-foot flag hoisted at Fort McHenry on the morning of September 14, 1814, when the British assault on the Baltimore outpost during the War of 1812 had failed. Inspired by the sight, attorney Francis Scott Key wrote a poem that was set to music, and the song became the national anthem in 1931.

Tall Order: Does Obama Measure Up?

Like many presidential candidates before him, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama likes to portray himself as carrying on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. The Illinois senator even launched his campaign last year at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, where Lincoln made his famous “House Divided” speech, by proclaiming, “The life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.” Whether or not Obama proves to be a true heir to Lincoln remains to be seen, but a quick check reveals that he does have a number of things in common with the 16th president—in addition to height, weight, profession and Springfield.

John Brown Incites Renewed Passions in Kansas

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City raised the rafters recently with a production of Kirke Mechem’s John Brown, a full-throated homage to the abolitionist that climaxes with his hanging in December 1859 following a murderous antislavery raid on Harpers Ferry, Va. Mechem took much of his libretto from Brown’s actual speeches and writings with the express intention of helping a modern audience understand the moral underpinnings of his violent actions. “It always bothered me when people call him a terrorist,” said Mechem.

A critic for the Opera Today Web site expressed “astonishment…at the contemporary relevance—indeed, the urgency—of the story of the man determined to end slavery in this country—even by force, if necessary.” And Mechem was thrilled by the reaction of opera goers in Kansas City, which during the buildup to the Civil War was caught between Missouri, a slave state, and Kansas Territory, where Brown launched his antislavery campaign. “The events took place right there,” said Mechem. “At one point early on I was afraid that fistfights would break out in the lobby, but I didn’t hear any harsh words from the Missourians.”

Political Party Time Is Here Again

Once upon a time, national political conventions were much different than the made-for-television donkey and elephant shows in 2008. Important stuff actually happened during those earlier get-togethers. At the first national nominating convention, in September 1831, for example, the Anti-Masonic Party tapped a former attorney general, William Wirt, to oppose Freemasons in general and President Andrew Jackson in particular. Wirt became the first minor-party candidate to carry a state: Vermont. That started a tradition that has given us some great candidates, some awful candidates, some bare-knuckled politicking and some smoke-filled chicanery.


Originally published in the October 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.