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Saturday, 22 July 2017
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: THE SAGE OF AMERICA
Topic: America

 

My introduction to Benjamin Franklin was very organic, and took place amidst the backdrop of a farming and ranching community in West Texas.  I can remember very clearly reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin when I was about ten or eleven.  My late grandmother, Evelyn “Mimmy” Martin, had a vast library and I made good use of it.  On Sundays after church, we would go over to Mimmy’s to eat lunch.  After she’d fed us all like kings, most of the adults talked at the table and the kids were on their own for a couple of hours.  Generally, playing of some sort was in order, but I had been bitten by the reading bug.  One afternoon I spied an aging copy of Franklin’s testimony.  Those yellowing pages seemed to call out to me—not only had Franklin been a prominent figure in my Social Studies classes, but my father and Mimmy had spoken of him in the context of our founding, and of course, in our little town there was a chain of the small department store Ben Franklin’s, complete with its key symbol (an homage to Franklin’s famous electric experiment).  So, over the course of several Sundays, I would find a quiet spot and read Franklin’s story.  Needless to say, I was hooked, impressed, and inspired.  I still have that old copy, and read from it periodically.

 

Now, again, my aim in these essays is not to be wholly biographical, but rather to convey some observations that I have gained over the years against the backdrop of the lives of Founding Fathers.  In this case, the Elder Sage of the founders, teaches us almost at every turn of his life, and hence I must be selective.  From his childhood to the end of his life, Franklin has something to say on a myriad of subjects.

 

Benjamin Franklin was born to Josiah and Abiah Franklin on January 17, 1706 in Boston.  He had a New England Puritan upbringing.  His father indeed, had hoped he might apply his talents to the ministry.  He gave him a collection of sermons from Cotton Mather, renowned minister whom young Ben would eventually meet.  Ben was apprenticed to his brother as a printer, learning the trade of typesetting and publication, but ever a victim of his brother’s overbearing discipline.  During this time young Ben polished off his education by reading everything he could.  Perhaps his most cunning achievement while in Boston was that of the Silence Dogood Letters, in which young Franklin wrote a series of editorials as an older woman arguing for the expanded rights and freedoms of women.  When his brother discovered the source, he once again beat Ben, which convinced him he had to leave, and leave he did to Philadelphia.

 

Young Ben quickly put his talents to work in the printing trade, working first for an established operation, and eventually for himself.  He also established the junto, and organization of entrepreneuring tradesmen.  To say he was a prominent printer is a gross understatement.  His publications such as the newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette and especially Poor Richards Almanac made him both famous and wealthy.  Franklin was a self-made man, exemplifying the value of industry for generations of American entrepreneurs.

 

Franklin’s curiosity about the natural world was a reflection of the Enlightenment movement of which he was a part.  His trade may have been printing, but science was his passion.  His experiments in electricity are well-known, from the famous kite experiment to his development of the lightning rod.  His work on the Atlantic currents revolutionized Trans-Atlantic travel.  Population demography, meteorology, music, hydrodynamics, and much more all fell within the spectrum of his work and interest.

 

By the middle of the eighteenth century, Franklin like many other people in the colonies thought of the American colonies as British, but simultaneously unique.  With the advent of the French and Indian War, a testing ground of this ideology presented itself.  Franklin himself had proposed the Albany Plan of Union as a sort of mutual defensive league, but also to create a confederation.  The British government rejected it, but its proposal marked the articulation of a growing idea that the colonies were something other than what Britain considered them to be: an American nation.

 

From the mid-1750s to the mid-1770s, Ben Franklin spent much of his time in London, England, and also visiting various places in Europe.  He was a colonial agent of a kind, acting as a voice for the colonies, and conversely, a conduit for British policy conveyance to the colonies.  While in Britain, he continued his scientific work and travelled Europe with his son William.  Both the University of St. Andrews and Oxford University granted Franklin honorary doctorates in light of his scientific achievements.  He was quite the celebrity in Britain, and became known as “Dr. Franklin.”  However, the warm embrace of Britain would grow colder with Franklin’s gradual disenchantment with laws such as the Sugar Act and Stamp Act, ill-conceived measures for covering the costs of the French and Indian War.  While trying to convey the concerns of the colonies, Franklin was dressed down by an indignant parliament for his appeal to repeal the latter act.  At this point, Franklin was not only aggravated with the British system, but had come to the conclusion that Britain was growing increasingly more difficult to count on for rational governance of the colonies.  As such, he returned to the colonies from Britain in 1775, altogether giving up his office as colonial agent.

 

After the fiasco in Britain, and upon hearing more on the Patriot cause, Franklin had little moral or logical recourse than to throw his lot in with the fledgling movement.  His voice as a delegate from Pennsylvania to the meetings of the Continental Congress carried immeasurable weight.  He took his place amongst the philosophers of the American Revolution alongside Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  The work of those three in fact produced The Declaration of Independence in 1776, an amalgamation of Enlightenment ideas and grievances with the British government, and the product of correspondence between the three.  He was also the first postmaster general, and for the duration of Revolutionary War, plied American interests as ambassador to France, from 1776 to 1785.  Returning to America, he participated in the Constitutional Convention and the partisan debate that ensued, ultimately culminating in the creation of the Constitution.

 

Franklin, like Jefferson, seems to have been a man of his own religious persuasion, with Christianity being the basis.  He undeniably was a Deist, praying to a creator, and even extolling the moral system of Jesus as the best, but speculating on the nature of Jesus in relation to the creator.  Nonetheless, despite his tendency toward libertinism, he was a proponent of religion, and its various practices.  He was also a Freemason and a Grandmaster, and at least in the years leading up to the Revolution, seems to have been moderately active.

 


Posted by anthrojudd at 11:59 PM EDT
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Friday, 14 July 2017
THOMAS JEFFERSON: THE MONIICELLO SPHINX
Topic: America

Historian Joseph Ellis called Thomas Jefferson “the American Sphinx” in his biography of the same name.  Behind that subtle smile—a riddle to the rest of us—lay the intricate cloud of knowing and curiosity, and the wisdom garnered from triumphs and hardships.  The author of our Declaration of Independence and the architect of our society, Jefferson remains an inspiration, and a mystery to this day.

 

Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia on April 13, 1743 to Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson.  He was born to the Virginia planter aristocracy.  His parents saw to it that Jefferson was classically educated with a round of tutors and church schools.  Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, distracting himself as many young men do at college, with all manner of extra-curricular activities.  After the first year in a moment of clarity, he was appalled at how much time he had wasted.  From then on, he was said to be at his books 15 of the 24 hours in a day.  I routinely remind my students of this Jeffersonian habit when they whine.  Jefferson’s capacity to absorb and master information from a broad array of disciplines is nothing short of intimidating.  Yet, he put in the time to master them, classics: romance languages, history, calculus, architecture, philosophy, politics, and the law.  Jefferson eventually read the law with prominent lawyer George Wythe and became a lawyer himself.

 

We professors of history often speak too lightly of the influence of the classics on the Founding Fathers.  It was more than mere influence—it was direction.  The literature of Greeks, Romans, and Jews proved to be a marked one, and perhaps no better illustrated than in Jefferson himself, who could read both Latin and Greek.  He made regular allusions to Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic, and his favorite pastime was to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey….in Greek.  How many of our politicians today can say that they are read in the classics, much less have the ability to read them in the original languages?  Perhaps that is part of the problem.

 

After college Jefferson returned to his recently acquired plantation, which included Monticello.  There were scant buildings on the premises of the estate initially, but Jefferson’s vision of a grand scientific plantation slowly took shape.  He practiced law and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, while he gradually expanded his classically-inspired Monitcello.  In 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton.  While Jefferson had a substantial number of slaves himself, he took a number of cases from slaves with the intent of acquiring their manumission.  He argued again and again against it, but Jefferson—in a world of slave-owning planters—could find no traction, and when the American Independence movement became a reality, he put emancipation on the back burner (to revisit), fearing he would lose his political voice with regard to independence if he pressed the issue.

 

With the passage of the Intolerable Acts, Jefferson’s sympathies with the Patriotic cause became increasingly clear with the publication of his “resolution for prayer and fasting” and a call for boycotting British goods.  This resolution later became known as A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In 1775 he became a Colonel and Commander of the Albemarle Country Militia, while continuing his service as a legislator.  Jefferson’s writing acumen quickly became recognized and revered by all, and he soon became the articulating voice of the Patriot movement.  He enumerated the sentiments of American independence from Britain in The Declaration of Independence, written by him, but with the help of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.  From 1779 to 1781 he was the wartime governor of Virginia.  All of Jefferson’s accomplishments must surely have been brought low when his wife of 10 years, Martha, died in September of 1782.  His loyalties and sense of duty pulled him away from home so often, it must have been a difficult sacrifice, because it is clear the two loved each other.  Martha, weakened by diabetes and host of other ailments, succumbed to them, and it devastated Jefferson.  His headaches and grief were so bad that he locked himself away for weeks.  He occasionally went for rides on the grounds, and burst into tears at the slightest thought of Martha.  This era of great achievement—America’s Independence, statesmanship, militia command—must have been cruelly tempered by the loss of his wife.

 

With the Treaty of Paris signed, and the new United States firmly underway, its infant government would need representatives abroad.  Congress chose Jefferson to be the Minister to France (and by proxy, Europe).  Jefferson’s time in France benefitted the fledgling United States.  He both admitted and loathed French society—though he reveled in the parlor culture, his disdain for the monarchy and gross overspending was immeasurable.  Jefferson travelled, purchased books, maintained a house in Paris, and through himself into his work at this time.  Jefferson was also a widower, and no doubt feeling the sting of Martha’s absence.  He had promised her on her deathbed that he would never remarry.  Be that as it may, when Maria Cosway entered his life, the absence was less felt.  Cosway was the Italian wife of an English aristocrat, a painter, musician, wit, and regular on the Paris scene.  Jefferson was helpless, and fell in love with her, though it must have been only a courtly romance.  The two remained friends throughout their lives, though they never saw one another again.  Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Jefferson’s stay in Paris was the presence of one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings.  To the critics who say that she was simply his property and that he raped her, I would say the following.  It was not in Jefferson’s character to force himself on any woman, even a slave.  Furthermore, it was a romance of circumstance.  I would add this for the critics as well:  if you think Jefferson’s intimacy with Sally Hemmings in Paris and later is one of insincerity and convenience, then I would say you have never felt the desolation and loneliness that comes in the wake of being permanently removed from a spouse.  I have, madams and sirs, and I can tell you from experience that melancholy hardly describes the effects.  Go through that and then see if you can judge Mr. Jefferson as harshly as you do, as you falsely assume the moral high ground to further your political and personal stances.  Thomas Jefferson was—thank God—a human being.

 

Thomas Jefferson’s return to the United States coincided with the birth of the Constitution.  All his heart desired was to return to Momticello and his books, but the new Washington administration would call on his expertise, and he would serve Washington as the first Secretary of State, until 1793, when his patience thinned after year of verbal sparring with his nemesis, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.  Jefferson became the posterboy for the Democratic Republicans, and likewise, Hamilton that of the Federalists.  It seems every time Jefferson thought he was done with politics, his country called on him again.  He was John Adam’s Vice President, and in 1800, became president himself for two terms.  During his time in the White House he balanced the budget (a worry since the Early Republic years), purchased Louisiana Territory, and became the first president to take on Islamic radicals—namely the Barbary Pirates of North Africa during the Barbary War.

 

Jefferson’s attainment of the presidency allowed him to more fully indulge his scientific curiosity.  In many ways, Jefferson had been the consummate anthropologist, interested in every aspect of human life and its environments.  His interest in Native culture stretches back to his childhood, and his first encounters with Cherokee as a youngster.  Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, whose research began in 1780, was a complete ethnological study of Virginia, its history, and people up to the point of its publication in 1787.  In 1787, he also excavated an Indian mound on Monticello, keeping accurate records of strata and finds, making Jefferson the first scientific archaeologist.  During the Early Republic, it had been Jefferson’s wish to send scientific expeditions into the interior of the continent, even with so many competing claims on the region.  In 1803, when he was president, he bought the great expanse of Louisiana from Napoleon Bonaparte for 15 million dollars.  Now Jefferson need not worry about claims, so he sent three major expeditions to explore the various reaches of the land:  Lewis and Clark to survey the north (1804-06), Freeman and Custis to survey the south along Texas (1806), and Zebulon Pike to survey the middle region (1807).  Each troop had the same standing orders:  map the regions into which you enter, study and treat with the natives, collect biological and geological specimens, and make other significant notations and observations.  Even beyond the presidency, Jefferson’s scientific curiosity was insatiable, with perhaps the most visible expression of his philosophy found in the University of Virginia. 

If his scholarly zeal was much to the fore, his religious beliefs were less so.  Jefferson does seem to have been more of a Deist than some of his compatriots.  He maintained membership in the Anglican church, but it is clear that his ideas about Biblical theology diverged from the norm.  While he still felt there was no better place to learn morality than in the church,   Such exercises like The Jefferson Bible, which removed the supernatural elements of the story of Jesus and left only the moral and philosophical, give us some insight into his religious views.  Although rooted firmly in the Judeo-Christian tradition, In the end, Jefferson seems to have been a man of his own spirituality, embodying the ultimate expression of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and an author of our laws and way of life.  Yet for all his achievements as a polymath, he remained something of a contradiction.  He articulated American sovereignty with the Declaration of Independence, yet owned human beings as property.  He was fascinated by and spoke amiably to Native Americans, yet gradually created policies that would ultimately result in their removal.  He was born to Virginia planter aristocracy, but devoted his politics to the common man.  The easy thing to do is right him off as oppressor, racist, rapist, hypocrite, and heretic as recent critics have.  The more difficult and necessary analysis involves an appreciation for context, one not obscured by forcing 21st century mores and ideas on an 18th century world.  In doing so we find a Thomas Jefferson whose significant and contributions for the good are not overshadowed by any shortcomings he had as a human.  And so he remained “The American Sphinx” until the day he died, July 4, 1826 (fitting), and beyond.


Posted by anthrojudd at 8:01 PM EDT
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Friday, 7 July 2017
GEORGE WASHINTON: AMERICAN CINCINNATUS
Topic: America

George Washington was born February 22, 1732 to tobacco planter Augustine and Mary Washington.  His role in the foundation of this country is unmistakable.  He led in politics, economics, and in the military, steering the course which America took in the early days.  Rightly so, he is remembered as “the Father of a Country.”

 

The Washingtons were not part of the upper echelons of Virginia aristocracy.  They were not yeomen as such, but more a kind of second tier gentry.  Nonetheless, the Washingtons were industrious and respected, and prospered.  Augustine Washington felt his sons deserved an education befitting their station.  While George’s brothers, including Lawrence, did receive such education, young George’s was cut short by the death of his father in 1743.  However, George saw this not as dissuasion, but only fueled his zeal to learn.  Having learned his basics through tutors and the Anglican school in Fredericksburg, he read everything he could get his hands on, notably translations of the classics.  He relied on his brother Lawrence, neighbors, and notably George and Sally Fairfax to help refine his behavior.  As the consummate autodidact, he also taught himself to use his father’s surveying equipment, which not only gave him a trade with which to earn a living, but also put him in a position to begin to stake land claims of his own and gain an ever-growing knowledge of the geography of the frontier.

 

As young George Washington was coming of age, Britain and France became embroiled in a conflict over the Ohio Country in the 1740s.  The Ohio Country was a great swath of territory between French Canada and British Colonies, appealing to the French trapping and British planter interests.  By the 1750s the two sides were in open war, The French and Indian War, as it came to be called (because the French had many Algonquin Indian allies).  Lt. George Washington, in command of a contingent of Virginia militia, was uniquely qualified to probe the region and engage the French, given his experience in the region as a surveyor.  While his engagement with the French was mixed at best, he did earn the respect of his fellow Virginians in his willingness to defend their homes.  Washington became senior aide to British General Edward Braddock, who became a mentor of sorts to Washington.  Braddock died in 1755, which made Washington’s ultimate goal a challenge.  He desired greatly to become an officer in the British Army, but despite his rise through the militia ranks to Colonel, the British refused Washington’s commission at every turn.  Washington stopped trying and retired his Virginia Regiment command in 1758.  However he learned some valuable lessons.  The British infrastructure tended to view the colonials as second-class British citizens.  He also learned much about the nature of African Americans and their nobility in military service.  Washington served alongside them in the French and Indian War, and watched closely—this was an experience that changed his views about race.  He was one of the few planters to make arrangements for the manumiision of substantial numbers of slaves, and he also later invited Phillis Wheatley, an African American poet, to his 1776 headquarters in Massachusetts (a gesture unheard of in those days).  Perhaps most amazingly, Washington was certainly fired upon (his trench coat was riddled), but was never hit, a fact which made him “big medicine’ among the Indians, and perhaps in no small part, reinforced his belief in God.  Altogether, the experience made Washington a different kind of Virginian than his peers like Jefferson and Patrick Henry.  While they were attending masquerade balls in Williamsburg, Washington was dodging musket balls on the Ohio frontier.

 

In 1759, Washington married Martha Custis (a top tier family), and returned to his farm, Mt. Vernon, to take up the life of planter and local politician.  Washington returned,convinced that the British system was inferior to that which existed in the colonies, and that if a man was industrious, he could be successful in his enterprises.  One of the problems staring Washington in the face was a mountain of debt.  Ever resourceful, instead of growing tobacco which depleted the soil quickly, he diversified operations at Mt. Vernon.   He began growing more grains, opened a flour mill, bred horses, entered into hog production, weaving, and opened a whiskey distillery that produced more than 1,000 gallons per month.  Though a Virginia aristocrat and legislator, Washington was famed for keeping his emotions in Stoic control (as evinced by his Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation).  In an age when some men still carried swords as part of their dress and duels—though illegal—could still easily happen, Washington was a master of speech and restraint—the consummate gentleman.  It was with this gentlemanly comportment that he took such offense at the parade of British taxes levied against colonists such as the Sugar and Stamp Acts.  They sought to pay for a war that the colonists themselves largely fought, and threaten the very system that had allowed Washington arrive at his current position.

 

The Boston Massacre of 1770, the Intolerable Acts, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 had all but solidified an armed response against Britain.  Washington sympathized with the patriot cause but remained cautious until the actual battles in New England.  He strode into the early meetings of the Continental Congress in full military dress and sword.  Even with other capable leaders, his reputation virtually guaranteed his appointment by John Adams, and subsequent approval as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.  This man threw his own money into financing early campaigns, coming to the aid of the New Englanders.  He continued to do so when Congress could not allocate proper resources to the army.  Washington also proved to be an unorthodox commander, utilizing the Continentals and militia, who used guerilla tactics.  He was also fond of espionage and was able on a number of occasions to use his geographical knowledge against the British.  Washington was also fighting another American Revolution at his various headquarters along the Hudson.  At intervals he would bring up slaves to staff the headquarters (often families), and would conveniently “”forget to return them to Mt. Vernon when he resumed march.  When Washington’s army converged with the rest of the Continentals and the French at Yorktown, it was less than a month (in October) when Cornwallis was defeated.  Cornwallis had his aide surrender his sword, which he offered to Rochambeau.  The French General shook his head and pointed to Washington.  Now, Cornwallis had obviously hoped to get one last slight in on Washington, but Washington refused, pointing to General Benjamin Lincoln, who had defended Charleston.  Washington’s second in command would eventually accept Cornwallis’ sword, but Washington refused to grant honors to a man bereft of them.

 

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, commonly just Cincinnatus, was a Roman patrician general, and statesman who lived during the fifth century B.C. in the early days of the Roman Republic.  The historian Livy relates that he left his farm, and answered the call to defend Rome and lead the army, even in his old age.  Cincinnatus came to embody civic virtue, Roman manliness, and devotion to Rome.  In like manner, Washington left his plantation to answer the call to lead the Continental Army, and as such was seen as a kind of Cincinnatus.  When the Revolution came to an end in 1783, and the Treaty of Paris solidified our sovereignty, Washington went back to Mt. Vernon, thinking his duty to country was complete.  However, the Articles of Confederation had outlived their usefulness, and it was clear that a new set of flexible and better-articulated laws was needed.  Washington once again answered the call of his country to preside over the Constitutional debates.  Ultimately, Washington would be elected as the first president of this new system under the Constitution in 1789.  Much to his chagrin, the debates and the Early Republic period only seemed to polarize the nation.  To his credit, he refused monarchial sentiment, insisting on being called Mr. President.  When his second term was complete, he stepped down, resolved that the mark of power in a republic was the refusal of power, and not its executive expansion.  Cincinnatus indeed.

 

Washington’s faith has been a subject of some contention, mostly unnecessary I might add.  He is generally painted as a Deist in the period.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, as his actions spoke volumes about his faith in Christ.  He was a member of the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, an avid attendee of several churches, and also subsidized the founding of Pohick Church near Mt. Vernon.  In a 1779 speech he gave to the Delaware, he encouraged them to “above all…learn the religion of Jesus Christ.”  While his public language was laced with Deistic parlance, his actions told the story.  The man again was never hit by musket in the Revolution, survived disease in the field, and all the horrors of war—how could you doubt God was looking out for him, or that his faith in the God of the Bible did not sustain him through it?  Most detractors will point to his membership in the Freemasons as proof that he was a Deist and only nominally Christian.  Washington became a Mason in 1752, and was later offered Master of Grand Lodge of Virginia, which he declined.  In all his years as a Freemason, we have record of four attendances—how much of a Mason could he have been?  He praised elements of the order he admired, namely those that reflected Enlightenment sentiment.  Washington must have been aware of the work of darker secret societies at work even in his own day.  Namely, he warned in a 1798 letter, that no less than the Illuminati had infiltrated American government and were at that time corrupting the embryonic political institution.  He referred to the Illuminati as “diabolical” and further stated: “That Individuals of them may have done it, and that the founder, or instrument employed to found, the Democratic Societies in the United States, may have had these objects—and actually had a seperation of the People from their Government in view, is too evident to be questioned.”  Given that he had watched the bifurcation of American politics with his own eyes, he was in a unique position to observe and confirm.  Arguments firmly tying Washington to the Freemasons or the Illuminati as some conspiracy to set up some Satanic New Atlantis is simply, historiographically absurd.  Washington loved God—it was later individuals who tried to make him a god.

 

It seems that the great statesman could only find but a few years of respite from the cares of his profession.  He did come back to his beloved Mt. Vernon to enjoy his twilight years with Martha.  On December 12, 1799 Washington took a ride to inspect his plantation.  He was caught in a sudden storm of snow and freezing rain.  The next day he awoke with a severe sore throat, which eventually made it difficult to swallow.  According to the conventions of the day, doctors bled him.  It may have been less the severe cold and more the hypervolemic shock caused by the bloodletting that finally did him in.  Washington died on December 14, 1799.


Posted by anthrojudd at 2:15 AM EDT
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Wednesday, 5 July 2017
FOUNDING FATHERS: THE ORIGINAL JUSTICE LEAGUE
Topic: America

In the past I’ve taught a lesson on the Founding Fathers comparing them to the Justice League.  The students tend to love it, given that most of them at least like superhero movies, and some of them are die hard comic fans.  It helps to anchor the lesson, and it’s fun for me too.  As the buildup crescendos in the movies, with Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Wonderwoman, Batman is building the Justice League to defend against a looming threat to earth.  For me, because of my pedagogical style, it brings to mind the Founding Fathers, and the looming threat they faced.

 

In beginning this series, I thought to do something a little different.  Tome upon tome about the Founding Fathers has been written—a veritable endless stream of biographies have proceeded from the time of the Early Republic.  I thought, what I would do, is yes—give some basic biographical information—but share some things that I have observed about the Founding Fathers over a career of teaching history and the humanities that spans 17 years, but also as a human being and citizen of the United States..

 

Typically, the term “Founding Fathers” is a fluid one, applying generally to those who were most active in the foundations of American politics and society.  Traditionally, there have been a core seven, to which scholars have referred repeatedly in relevant literature.  These are—in no particular order—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.  To this list we could add any number of names of patriots during the period, including the likes of Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, James Monroe, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, and hosts of others.  You get the idea.

 

Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers have come under some fire over the last several decades.  While most historians recognize their contributions, it has become increasingly common to relegate their pivotal accomplishments to the feats of self-interested “dead white guys.”  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that phrase applied to the Founders but also other important figures in Western and American history, simply because the color of the skin happened to be white, and they were fallible human beings.  It is a regrettable consequence of postmodernism, I’m afraid.

 

Were many of them wealthy?  Yes.  Did some of them own slaves? Yes.  Were some of them arrogant? Some, yes.  However, as I have told my students for years, you cannot jettison the contributions of a historical figure who has been a force for good simply because he or she has made mistakes.  In essence, you have to take them as they were—extraordinary human beings under extraordinary circumstances—the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Critics of the Founders who place all manner of imperialistic and colonial sins on their shoulders are largely guilty of presentism, one of the cardinal sins of the historian’s trade.  Placing current ideologies onto the socio-cultural settings of the past obscures the understanding of the events that transpired in and the persons who lived in the period under question.  To those critics I would say “shame on you—you besmirch and sully an honor to which you could never aspire.”

 

Consider the abilities of these men.  Washington, the capable military commander and largely self-made planter; Jefferson, the lawyer, philosopher, architect, musician, anthropologist; Franklin, self-made printer and renowned wit and scientist in his own day; the mental faculties of these men could be matched only by the sizes of their hearts.  All of them were intensely influenced by classical Greek and Roman literature and figures.  They realized the ancient regime of the old world had oppressed people for millennia and had outlived its usefulness.  These men made the society they wanted:  a more just version of the world.  At a time when absolutist monarchs ruled the nations of Europe, a Tsarina the Russian Empire, a Sultan the Ottoman Empire, and divinely invested Emperors China and Japan, these men did something that was, in a word, “revolutionary.”

 

For all of their faults, I would like to draw attention to Founders’ virtues, and the feat of mind and arms that it took to build the United States.  I think of these men, and I am reminded of not only their sacrifice but that of the Minute Man, and the militia, and the citizen soldier.  I’m reminded of my maternal grandfather who served in the U.S. Army, my paternal grandfather who fought in WWII and spent three and half years in Japanese prison camps, my father who served in the Army in Thailand during the Vietnam War, and my late friend Matthew Cravens, who served in the National Guard and did two tours in Bosnia.  I’m reminded of the commitment to an idea, to the American idea, and the gravity that such commitment engenders.

 

These men did not insist on apotheosis, as part of some pantheon of American gods.  That came in the years and generations after them, the work of artists, painters, authors, journalists, and politicians.  Any attempt to enshrine them as such, does them a disservice.  They themselves would have eschewed it.  However we might define their faith, they knew they were no gods, and that their place lay below the Creator, not as His equal.  So to the critics, I would say, we do not honor these men as gods, we honor them as founders, as the singular individuals who thought this country into being.

 

We live in an age when Thomas Jefferson is being taken out of discussions of the intellectual history of America in textbooks.  George Washington is written off as a slave-holding, ambitious planter.  History is being subtly rewritten under our very noses, by politicians and those who would obfuscate the truth in our educational system.   If it’s an act of defiance to teach the virtue of these men, then so be it.  I owe them, and this nation, no less.  I pray that there are enough of us who can remember and preserve the lessons and contributions of these great men, so that the present and future generations may benefit from their wisdom.

 

God Bless America, and indeed, the community of nations to which she is neighbor

Judd H. Burton, July 4, 2017


Posted by anthrojudd at 5:29 PM EDT
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Monday, 26 June 2017
AMERICAN REVOLUTIONS
Topic: America

 

As I listen to the album Waiting For the Punchline by the ever incredible Extreme, I’m reminded a little of the fact that many these days are waiting for a punchline for the joke that has become American politics.  Next week we will (hopefully) all be celebrating Independence Day.  We’ll fire up the grill, munch a burger, raise a cold one to Lady Liberty, and shoot off some fireworks, with perhaps a semi-nostalgic feeling or two about the founding of the country—Yeah ‘Murica!

 

What are we celebrating though?  Sure we pay homage to the Founding Fathers and those who have served our nation in civil and military duty.  But the America they built is passing away.  Virtually every institution of our society has eroded: education, political process, medicine, industry, popular culture, religion, economy—all of them have suffered detriment.  It’s what happens when people exchange freedom for license, liberty for libertinism.

 

Edward Gibbon, in his seminal The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, outlined five major reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire (and protracted, ostensibly other civilizations).  They are as follows:

1) Destruction of the sanctity of the home, accompanied by the rapid increase in divorce. The family was seen as the basis for the Roman state, and was sacred, despite what Hollywood portrays.

2) Increasingly higher taxes and the spending of public monies on “bread and circus.”  Currency issues and mismanaged funds caused the former, resulting in the latter—public distractions and abused welfare could not continue.

3) The “mad craze” for pleasure and sport, with sport becoming more brutal every year.  Generally more people, but especially the wealthy, sought all manner of gratification.  Gladiatorial matches became more elaborate and bloody spectacles of all kinds were held.

4) The building of gigantic armaments and increasing militarization of the state, while the enemy is within—the decadence of the people.  The Roman army expanded in an attempt to protect its borders, now taking on more foreign conscripts.  More Romans expected the Empire to meet their needs.  Christians were killed for spectacle in the coliseum.

5) Decay of religious faith deteriorating into form without substance.  More people sought initiation in mystery cults with exotic gods, many of which had orgiastic and debauched rites.

Now, much of this is based on the state of Rome during the crisis of the third century.  The western empire only survived until 476 because of the aforementioned reasons.  It created circumstances for the weakening of the west and its vulnerability to “barbarians,” many of whom had served in the Roman army.  Still many others had been given “refuge” and citizenship in an empire that could not subsidize them.

 

Now, does any of this sound familiar?  It should.  We’re a much younger nation that Rome was when it fell, and yet we approach these criteria with light speed.  Doubt me?  Consider how America shapes up:

1) Traditional definitions of marriage and family are being reshaped before us.  The divorce rate is roughly 55% and climbing.

2) It goes without saying taxes have steadily risen, with small businesses paying as much as 30% and more of their profit.  The average middle class professional pays up to 25% of his or her income in taxes.  Our welfare and social security systems are being abused daily with many people utilizing them who are more than capable of holding down on a job, but have learned to work the system.

3) We live in a society increasingly bent on instant gratification and what makes us “feel good,” not to mention that we crave our brutal sports (football, MMA).

4) For all the respect I have for the military, few will dispute that the DOD and Pentagon have expanded “discretionary” military spending, nor deny that we have been in an “ever-war” in the Middle East since 2003.  And yet, the real enemies seem to be members of the so-called “deep state,” many of whom are our elected officials.  Add to that growing apathy and decadence in our own populus and you begin to see the pieces of the frightening puzzle.

5) The decay of religious faith in American society is demonstrable on a number of fronts.  We have moved so far from the religious roots and foundations of this country that it is no longer the defining philosophy.  Where once the classical paradigms prevailed, a spiritual buffet of dizzying assortment sits in its place.  Even most churches have traded solid doctrine and theology for bands, light shows, and pithy homily. 

 

How do we avert the destruction of American civilization?   I give to you Alexis deTocqueville’s observations on America in 1831 from Democracy in America to consider:

 

“I sought for the key to the greatness and genius of America in her harbors...; in her fertile fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in her democratic Congress and in her matchless Constitution. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.  The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law as well as the surest pledge of freedom.  The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.”

 

It will take a revolution of sorts, one of the heart, not one of arms.

 


Posted by anthrojudd at 2:59 AM EDT
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