FOUNDERS When we pause once a year to remember 1776, we invoke the names of wise aristocrats, learned in political theory -- Jefferson, Adams, Madison. Or we toast the likes of Franklin, Hancock, Washington; practical men of business and wealth who set the country running. The historian Gordon Wood has pointed out how this remarkable oligarchy created a nation where, whether they knew it or not, the power would pass down after them in such a way that men like them would rarely if ever rise to rule. And they have not, and we marvel, today, at why such an American generation has not come again. But they were not the whole revolution. The people -- at least the third or so among them who supported the idea -- made the revolution. This is as much their day as Jefferson's. Their political theory may have been wanting, their views on race certainly were deplorable by modern standards, but neither were they sitting passively at home in June 1776 while the great minds pared Tom's prose in Philadelphia. If they did not hear the Declaration read aloud that day, it was because they were too busy, about and doing. Every July 4 I make a silent toast to one cluster of them, in the county just west of Philadelphia. I'll share them with you this year. They are a knot of families named Hannum, Gibbons, Harper, Cheyney, and Vernon that I once untangled in the course of researching a book. There was so little of them left; not enough material to make a book of its own, Perhaps just enough for a long blog post. The moths have eaten the rest, if it ever was written down, and what's left mostly are a few family stories that break through the silence like a glimpse of landscape on a fog-bound day. This was barren soil to sow a revolution. It was a Quaker county, but the ranting religious immigrant families long had settled into a conservative hierarchy fond of the king. The Revolution's few friends arose among the families that had been read out of the Quaker meetings for being too obstreperous and witty, for playing fiddles or arguing about theology like the Scots-Irish men they tended to marry. They had known from birth what it means to live true to yourself in a monolithic culture that held other principles. They had found each other, and woven their families together in two or three generations of marriage. Persifor Frazer and Polly Taylor married in 1766 and lived a decade later with their four young children on a farm in a hilly district a few miles from a lazy creek called the Brandywine. The land had come through her family, but it was Persifor who farmed it and who mixed in local politics, in the perpetual minority party in the county, headed by Anthony Wayne, that resisted a growning Crown power. When Pennsylvania formed its troops for the Continental Army in early 1776, Frazer was elected captain of a company in the Fourth Battalion, which had Wayne for its colonel. He already was in uniform when the Declaration was signed. The war came home for these people on Sept. 11, 1777, when the British marched up from Delaware bound for Philadelphia, and George Washington tried to stop them at the Brandywine. "September 11th" always was Brandywine day when I was growing up there, and Chris Sanderson the old fiddler came to our elementary school and told the stories. I suppose that's changed now. The little Frazer girls were at school in Thornbury that day. They heard the gunshots and cannon firing on the hot fall day. Sally, the oldest, was 8 then. The teacher went out and listened for a while, then returned and said, "There is a battle not far off, children; you may go home." "As we returned, we met our mother on horseback," Sally wrote years later, "going over towards the place of action, knowing that ... our father must be in the midst of the affray." The Americans held the river crossing, but the British pulled off a daring move and, relying on loyalist guides to take them over the up-stream fords, dropped a third of their army on Washington's right and caved in the rebels' flank. Washington had had confused reports all day from this quarter, some saying the British had a force headed in that direction. But the most authoritative reports from his officers reported no enemy in front of them. At one point a local farmer, one of the Cheyneys in the extended clan, rode in and insisted a large redcoat attack loomed on the right. Washington took the reports of his own officers, naturally, as more reliable than that of a local farmer, but Cheyney broke into an impassioned insistence: "If you doubt my word, put me under guard until you can ask Anthony Wayne or Persie Frazer if I am a man to be believed." Then he turned on the staff officers, who perhaps hads been snickering at the clodhopper, and fulminated, "I would have you know that I have this day's work as much at heart as e'er a blood of you." The names of Frazer and Wayne evidently moved Washington to send reinforcements to his right, just in case. Washington knew the value of such men, though they lacked the polish of staff officers. The reinforcements arrived in time to help hold off the heavy British attack, which did come after all, long enough for most of Washington's army to escape the trap. The British moved on after them, but they took time to smoke out the rebels they knew lived in the neighborhood. History books may have forgotten their names, but the British army knew them. And they knew there was a chance they could catch the troublemakers at home, or at least harrass their families. Two days after the battle, a British detachment showed up at Frazer's home. Polly Frazer, hearing the approaching hoofbeats, chased her children, along with an aged aunt, some servants, and a wounded American soldier, into the woods and stayed to face the British alone. A British officer confronted her: "Where are the damned Rebels?'' She told him there were none about. He cursed her, while soldiers pushed into the house and stripped the barn, looking for stores of weapons, and incidentally taking as plunder anything that could be sold or eaten. They carried off the family's wheat stores and its horses. The British officer in charge then tried a more logical approach with Polly Frazer. He told her how American military leaders who joined the British were well rewarded for their loyalty. No doubt Polly knew it was true, but she laughed him off. "You do not know Colonel Frazer," she said, "or you would not suggest such a thing, nor would he listen to me were I to propose it." Furthermore, she said, if her husband did take sides with the British, she would "never consent to have anything more to do with him." Before they left, the officer told Polly he had orders to arrest Frazer and burn the house and barn. "But," he said, in a generous gesture, "I give them to you." Polly didn't buy it. "I cannot thank you, sir, for what is my own, and if you had such orders you would not dare to disobey them." After the American defeat Frazer had been sent out to scout the local roads to watch the movements of the main British army and report them to Wayne. In fact, he had left his farm just a few hours before the British arrived. He was captured spying two days later and sent to the notorious Walnut Street prison in Philadelphia. There, contrary to British military regulations, the provost, a loyalist horse-breaker named Cunningham whose name once was despised and feared, kept the prisoners in misery, torment, and starvation. Cunningham and his immediate superior made sure word of conditions in the prison never reached higher authorities. But Polly Frazer and Jane Gibbons arranged to smuggle out a letter written by the prisoners. They visited their husbands with permission from the authorities. While they were leaving, the provost ordered them searched. Polly meekly submitted, while Jane raised a royal row about it and tried to flee. The guards grabbed her and Tory women were brought in to subject her to a scrupulous strip search. The unoffending Polly got out with a cursory examination, but it was she who had the prisoners' letter in her petticoat, along with a sample of the mouldy bread they were fed. They left the city and dashed up to Washington at Valley Forge, who appealed to Howe's sense of military honor with the result that conditions in the prison improved. Persie and Polly are buried in the old graveyard at Middletown Presbyterian Church. Their house was abandoned after a fire gutted it in 1926. A chimney and a wall are all that remain. I can't even find a picture of them to break up the text of this long story. Below the pantheon of the Founders were the practical operators like Anthony Wayne, who also tend to get into the history books in a few places. But below them were the Frazers and thousands like them. And below them still were a class of young families who didn't even own land and whose very names are too smudged to read on the muster rolls anymore, but who pitched into the cause such fortunes as they had, along with their lives and sacred honor. Never forget that had "this day's work as much at heart as e'er a blood of you." INDEX - AUTHOR


ALLURE This article hits an answer right on the head without realizing it. The author then moves on, still looking for it: For Him Magazine, and the other lad mags like Maxim and Umm, occupy a strange, liminal place in the territory of contemporary male desire. They exist to allow men to look at women's bodies sexually but not pornographically. With the emphasis on suggestion rather than revelation, the women in their pages are slick materialistic ideals, as current in their smooth plastic forms as the Prius or iPhone. OK, to really see the answer, as it struck me when reading it, you have to tweak that sentence a bit to read, "The emphasis is on suggestion rather than revelation, yet the women in their pages are slick materialistic ideals." I've been lucky, as a man, because I've always found sensual suggestion far more arousing than explicit display. If it sounds like a brag, it's not. I had nothing to do with it. I just was put together that way. A half-concealed woman is a powerful thing, if she chooses how to display herself and does so with an eye to drawing my eye. A naked woman's body is a biological fact. A woman dressed to seduce is an inhabited beauty, a promise of pleasure, a flame from Heaven. It's the person inside all that flesh and fabric that is the goal of sexual desire. Sex, along with love but not identical with it, bridges the awful gap of solitude that the skull binds us into. I still much prefer looking at the photo spreads in old Playboys, pre-1974 or so, to anything since. The removal of the taboo against pubic hair and the descent into full-frontal made a difference in that publication. It's not that the thing itself offends me [and the article cited above closes with a repetition of the old Ruskin story, which many scholars now think to be wrong: it probably was menstruation, not pubic hair, that shocked him]. But the nakedness of the models simply changed the nature of what was being done. And ultimately it changed the models. Before, you had very different young women with very different body types. If she had a full bosom, chances are she had curves everywhere. If she was long and leggy, she had small breasts. The photographers played with this, dressed the models and turned and posed them to present interesting angles. It was a flamenco; afterward, it was just a dull strip. And it's probably no coincidence that the silicon and shellac look began to dominate the centerfolds about the same time. Allure is the woman's art of making real flesh appear divine. It is not surgical. "Explicit" and "naked" are its poisons. And there's the reason magazines like "Maxim" fail for me. They take the methodology and visual language of allure, and they use it to describe women who have been manufactured to be seen naked, not those to whom it properly belongs. They use poetic diction to write user manuals. INDEX - AUTHOR


When I'm restless or bored and want to get lost in time, I reach for Pausanias">Pausanias. He was a citizen of the Roman Empire (apparently he wrote in the 140s to 160s of our era) who travelled all around Greece, visiting the shrines and temples and cities, and wrote what is arguably the first tourist guide in history ["Periegesis Hellados"]. It didn't make him rich. But nowadays it is regarded by scholars as a priceless sourcebook for archaeologists and historians trying to make sense of ancient ruins and records. Pausanias begins his description of each city with a synopsis of its history followed by an account of the monuments in topographical order. He also discusses local daily life, ceremonial rituals, legend and folklore. His main concentration is on artistic works from the glories of classical Greece, especially religious art and architecture. That he can be relied on for building and works which have since disappeared is shown by the accuracy of his descriptions of buildings which do survive.As another introduction puts it: A careful, pedestrian writer, he is interested not only in the grandiose or the exquisite but in unusual sights and obscure ritual. He is occasionally careless, or makes unwarranted inferences, and his guides or even his own notes sometimes mislead him; yet his honesty is unquestionable, and his value without par.Pausanias' descriptions are so reliable that, when he writes of some gigantic bones offered up as the remains of Ajax, his measurements are good enough that modern paleontologists can guess which gigantic Ice Age mammal they really came from. But it isn't his accuracy that makes me lose myself in his prose. What I find delightful in Pausanias is that it's history preserved in history. On several levels. The man himself, conventional and a touch pedantic, is a figure from history. In reading him, I get to know him, I feel like I travel with him. It's like making a friend in ancient Rome. He was the first of us, the historial tourist, and he gazed as we gaze, noticing what we would notice. Not just monuments and heroes, but the details: pines that rose in dark spires from the seacoast of Elis, the deer, the wild boar, the crows. Live oaks and wild strawberries. Tortoises. Read enough of it and you will be there. But more. His text is a telescope to look deeper into history than we ever could see unaided. Scattered throughout it are names of cults, local deities, whole towns, small rivers -- now all lost save in his text. No one now knows where the towns are, under what modern hill's thistle-grass and shrub, or beneath what silted-up rivermouth. No one would have remembered these cult goddesses -- two in one paragraph from Sparta, for instance, "Mouse Artemis" and "Athene of the Cheeks" -- but for his casual mention of them. Mouse Artemis. Delightful! Was this for the little girls? The Brownie troops, the Mousketeers? Whatever, it had its rituals and its followers and its annual devotions and processions. All lost now. All lost but the name. It is like a complex and colorful feather somehow preserved in Jurassic amber, startling in its glimpse of a past we hitherto had constructed out of thick gray bones. No matter how carefully we rebuild ancient Greece from archaeology, we will never do more than accomplish a blocky and pixilated rendition of the real life there. History caught in history. Pausanias was describing the temples of the ancient Greeks in their state of decay as of Roman times -- sun-bleached and moss-stained stones, cracked and spalled, stacked up around wooden goddesses black with age. Now, when we look for those places, we only find a few unmovable slabs of marble scattered across a sheep meadow. It's a difference of 500 years instead of 2,500. He toured Greek pagan culture in its decline -- one gets a strong sense of superstition, but no sense of a vibrant relationship of the people with their gods, and Pausanias himself, a scrupulous and superstitious man of conventional religion, seems more devout than many of those he encounters. The priests, so far from being guides to the community, often are ignorant old yokels who can't even tell an ungarbled version of their own temple's myth. It was doomed, this pagan Greece: If there had been no Christianity, which swept over this region like wildfire, some other robust faith would have done the same. Greek pagan culture was in effect as much a relic to Pausanias as it is to us; it had reached that extreme of decadence where the culture is as good as dead but doesn't realize it yet. With one signal difference: He could visit standing temples and speak with living priests; in Thebes he saw not only the temple stones but the honored shields of those who died at Leuctra. He could visit the Greek world on its sickbed. We only can gaze at its mute tomb. There is a trick those of us who love history forever attempt. To peer as far back into the past as our sight will carry our imaginations, seeking some glimpse of a beginning, the origin. We forget how really far off we are from our object and how limited are our powers of sight. As though we stood on Plymouth Rock and, staring hard to the east out over the ocean, believed we could somehow glimpse Europe. Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs Always wrong to the light, so never seeing Deeper down in the well than where the water Gives me back in a shining surface picture My myself in the summer heaven, godlike Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs. Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb, I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture, Through the picture, a something white, uncertain, Something more of the depths-and then I lost it. Water came to rebuke the too clear water. One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom, Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness? Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something. Robert Frost, "For Once, Then, Something"


BORING POSTCARDS: I still don't know any more about these postcards than what they show and tell. I couldn't tell you the history of the various printers, or the hallmarks of collectibility. And I love it like that. ... more ... ALLURE: A half-concealed woman is a power, if she chooses how to display herself and does so with an eye to drawing my eye. A naked woman's body is a biological fact. A woman dressed to seduce is an inhabited beauty, a promise of pleasure, a flame from Heaven. ... more ... MOTHER TONGUES: A dictionary half in an unknown language is a fountain of inspiration. Delightful connections are expressed there, along with conceptions that convince me that, in ancient India, the world had a civilization that has hardly been matched in subtlety and sophistication. ... more ... TIME TRAVEL: Yeats and Pound wrote about "the Nineties," meaning the 1890s. Those Nineties persisted in popular memory into the 1960s. But say "The Nineties," today, and you will be taken to mean something entirely different. Gulf War, grunge, Bill Gates. When did the change happen? ... more ... HERACLITUS: We painted and planted peas and sewed and sang. Impossibly ancient: Those people were six times more distant from ancient Mycenae than ancient Mycenae is from us. And we live yet within the echo of their voices. ... more ... VIRTUE: Classical virtue was not meek. It strove to be first in doing good for one's country and coveted the glory that comes with unrelenting devotion to the good of the people. It expressed itself in endurance, industry, frugality, and probity -- "the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private." ... more ... TURNING POINT: I had been instinctively opposed to an invasion of Iraq until then. But I began to be persuaded. This is an archival record of a mind being changed. ... more ... WMD: None of us knew at the time what weaponry Saddam had up his sleeve. Probably not even Saddam knew. We all chose — overthrow him or leave him alone — based not on our wisdom or our ignorance but on the gap between them, the fog of uncertainty. ... more ... MARATHON MAN: It's part of being a "liberal," in the old, good sense of that word -- the only sense of it I can still claim -- to believe in the consistency of the human experience. ... more ... HEROES: These are the honorable dead of a new war. Not all of them are soldiers, but the new war sweeps up more than soldiers in its causes. And all believed in something. They believed in it enough to get up and do something about it, at peril of their lives. They went to the war to do something about it. ... more ... EARTH DAY: Environmentalists often share with creationists the utterly unscientific view that the world was set spinning in one complete, harmonious form, until evil Anglo-American corporations come along and destroy it. ... more ... OUR GEORGE: George Washington was the steady hand on the tiller when we set sail as a nation. Steadiness, not reckless innovation, was the thing America needed at the time. It's to his credit that we forget the serpents of tyranny and mob rule that slithered about the American cradle. ... more ... 'WASHINGTON'S CROSSING': Hessian prisoners were so well treated that, once they had got over the shock of it, they could be sent from one holding place to the next without an armed escort. ... more ... UNDER the GRASS: Memorial Day began not in one place but in many. Hilltop cemeteries across the North, behind old stone churches and meetings, with long views across the farms. On the grass where fathers and mothers -- the ones who could find the corpse among the slain -- laid their boys. ... more ... SNAKEHIPS: She cued the tape, and the music swelled and she just lit up, improvising every move. I have seen nothing so stunning and powerful in decades. She wasn't a dancer, and it wasn't music. She was an elemental force that pulled music into her body and merged both into something more than human. ... more ... The LAST FARMER: "I've been offered several million dollars by developers. But I'm almost 80; what good's that money going to do me? I don't need it. I wouldn't know what to do with it. And I know what to do with a farm." ... more ... GROUND ZERO: Down each street, through the reek of smoke and steam, we saw wilted girders droop from broken foundations or the black box of a ruined building with banks of windows like dead men's mouths. The wrecked buildings looked organic; like melted candles or rotting chunks of flesh. ... more ... LOLA AND BOB: She was old enough to be mother to many of them. She crooned "Lili Marleen" to the boys as the snow drifted down in Luxemburg. None of them ever forgot it. She was fearless; she wore a GI's uniform and stayed so close to the front lines she almost got caught up in the German push when the Battle of the Bulge began. ... more ... FAITH HEELER: America is a Christian nation. Yet it's no more unified in its religion than ancient Rome was in its faiths. Or modern India. They are a collective tradition of individualist faiths. ... more ... LUSH LIFE: Coltrane and his quartet already had taken their tools to tonal music and drilled through it, sawed it open. But here they went back to the studio, with a very conventional crooner, to draw a map for listeners to follow them. ... more ... PAUSANIAS: He was the first of us, the historial tourist, and he gazed as we gaze, noticing what we would notice. Not just monuments and heroes, but the details: dark spires of pines that rose from the seacoast of Elis, the deer, the wild boar, the crows. ... more ... OLD ENGLISH: It was an English without all the cobweb words. It was an English with far more strong verbs, with their juicy evolutions. It was an English that had far more plurals of the "man-men" type, and more possessives with a suffix -an rather than the hiss that's now tacked on to the end of words in both cases. ... more ... ODD WORDS: English is typical of languages in that some of its most common words are some of its oddest and have convoluted histories. "Do," "be," and "you" are among them. ... more ... ROBERT G. INGERSOLL: "God cannot send to eternal pain a man who has done something toward improving the condition of his fellow-man. If he can, I had rather go to hell than to heaven and keep company with such a god." ... more ... GREATEST GENERATION: America was supremely gifted in the generation of administrators and bureaucrats -- the middle men of the federal government -- it had from roughly 1940 to 1960. We haven't been so lucky since the Founders in any one generation having just the right skills the times demanded. ... more ... COLD WAR NIGHTMARES: We grew up thinking there was a pretty good chance, maybe 50:50 or worse, that the whole world was going to go up in a nuclear fireball holocaust some day in the near future, without any warning to any of us. ... more ... LONE RUNNER: Individualism is the dynamo that drives Western culture, from eco-feminist performance art to plutocratic wealth-hoarding. Separation of church and state, the rule of law, social pluralism, representative government, all these hallmarks of Western civilization either define or protect the individual's autonomy from collective power. ... more ... WITCHES: Men stopped burning witches not because they stopped fearing them, but because they stopped believing in them. ... more ... MASTERS and DEATH: We tend to think of death as a country for the old. It was not so then. People of all ages were vulnerable, the cold calculus of contagion meant that if a bacterium got into a household parents could lose some or all of their children in a matter of days. ... more ... FRENCH SLAVERY: The French turned four times as many Africans into slaves as the Americans did, they used them far more brutally, and French slavers continued the trade -- legally -- until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had given it up. ... more ... FOUNDERS: The people made the revolution. Their political theory may have been wanting, their views on race certainly were deplorable by modern standards, but neither were they sitting passively at home in June 1776. If they did not hear the Declaration read aloud that day, it was because they were too busy, about and doing. ... more ... GEORGE W. BUSH: The chance I had been waiting all my adult life for: To see America use its power and good will to clear a path for millions of people who had done nothing to earn the suffering that had been visited on them as a side-effect of the Cold War. To give them a chance to take hold of part of our lucky legacy of wealth of freedom. ... more ... SOUND FAMILIAR?: He was an egotist and a pain in the ass, but he could wield the rhetorical whip. Jefferson, the infidel, did heed advice like this and buy Louisiana away from France the next year. I haven't done enough research to know whether Cobbett praised him for this, but I rather doubt it. ... more ... GUY DAVENPORT (1927-2005): Davenport was one of the last living disciples of Ezra Pound. He was a brilliant and learned man, but with a warm, salt-of-the-earth, Southern sensibility. Think Pound without the prickly aestheticism and the Ivy League snobbery, without the fascism. ... more ... ENTREPRENEURS: That in seeking private gain, the Englishman also would seek the common good of England, Hakluyt presents as an obvious matter. ... more ... PRINCE KROPOTKIN: Peter Kropotkin lived through the crashing collapse of the Russian Empire and the opening of the nightmare that came after. "Revolutionaries have had ideals," he said. "Lenin has none." ... more ... WAR and PACIFISTS: Peace movements in Britain began to take shape only gradually, after the 1730s. They were children of the British Enlightenment, with its remarkable marriage of evangelical Christian values and rational humanist ones. ... more ... EZRA POUND: He lived among a literary public so revolted by carnage that it turned its back on the heritage of Western Civilization. He arrived at maturity with the skills of a great poet, only to find his audience half-slaughtered, half-disgusted. So he wrote for the dead. ... more ... The ENEMIES WE MAKE: When Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall approached him with the idea, he demurred, saying he'd never made a documentary before. Marshall told him, "Capra, I have never been Chief of Staff before. Thousands of young Americans have never had their legs shot off before. Boys are commanding ships today who a year ago had never seen the ocean before." Capra apologized and signed on to make "the best damned documentary films ever made." ... more ... J.R.R. TOLKIEN: Tolkien was a devout Catholic. But as a scholar Tolkien was deeply immersed in the pessimistic, pagan world that he studied and taught every day. Look at Middle Earth: there is good, but it is not sure as the strongest thing going. Its durance depends on heart and wit and luck. And there is evil, limned and solid and vastly strong. ... more ... SUPPORT the TROOPS; OPPOSE TORTURE: The troops now fighting on our behalf in Iraq and Afghanistan need to see that the criminals in their ranks will be found and purged. They need to see that we at home don’t make excuses for bad behavior. ... more ... BERLIN MEMORIES: West Berlin was an artificial child of the Cold War. You take a big, sprawling capital, smash it flat in a war, then split it in two, and isolate one of the halves -- cut it off from its outer suburbs and garden farms. Then you build a huge concrete wall around that half. ... more ... ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN (1918-2008): He lived in Vermont, and his heart never left Mother Russia. His courtesy to us, his gift to us in exchange for our hospitality, was to look at America as a patriotic dissident would, and say the things about it a dissident nationalist would say about us, if we had one. ... more ... 'IN the RUINS of EMPIRE': It's convenient for the organizers of curricula and the writers of textbooks to break up the world like that. So 1945 joins other convenient "zero" dates that punctuate history: 1914, 1815, 1776, 1492, 1215, 476. ... more ... WARSAW: On January 17, 1945, Warsaw's war was over. Or was it? The war in Europe began when Germany attacked Poland, followed soon, by agreement, by a Soviet stab in the back. In 1945, one of the two conquerors pushed the other out of Poland and settled down to own it. ... more ... LEFT BEHIND: The liberals I know have no interest in the Kurds, because the Kurds made the unforgivable mistake of liberating themselves with the help of American military power. The only indigenous people a modern liberal approves are those that burn American flags. ... more ... AMATEUR HISTORIAN: The academics succeeded. They turned out the amateurs, imposed objectivity, and turned a craft into a profession. They banished the author from the text and the values-booster from the national history. ... more ... NECESSARY WARS: I'll give you my version of a necessary war: The brief 1936 conflict between Germany, alone, and France, Britain, and Czechoslovakia. ... more ... HALLIBURTON: The "Catcher in the Rye" style inverts him entirely. You need that, too. You need both to achieve full maturity. But we've lost too much in collapsing the space between childhood and adulthood. The transition of adolescence needs open rooms to linger in. People mature at different paces. ... more ... ERNIE PYLE: Pyle said he wanted "to make people see what I see." But Arthur Miller wrote that Pyle "told as much of what he saw as people could read without vomiting," which is probably closer to the truth. ... more ... DEUTSCHLAND über ALLES: The official name of the German National Anthem is Das Lied der Deutschen "the Song of the Germans," though it is popularly known also as Das Deutschlandlied "the Germany Song." But most Americans, if they know it at all, would call it Deutschland über Alles, which are the opening words of the first stanza. ... more ... YANKEE at OTAKON: We sat on a restaurant balcony and heard the passing remarks by the "normal" people about the oddballs and the freak show. That's when I realized where my instinctive sympathies lay. ... more ... LIES and SPIES: In World War II, the British had the best-balanced espionage. Americans had decent intelligence-gathering (especially as a result of code-cracking), but iffy analysis. The French, before they got knocked out, had superb espionage in Nazi Germany, but they lacked the political will to act on it. The Soviets also had a vast network of spies -- in the capitals of their nominal allies Britain and America. ... more ... SEPTEMBER 11 and AFTER: So I sat down in my bathrobe at the computer. And I kept looking at the pictures, and the words, and thinking, "That can't be right. That can't be right." ... more ... 9/11 PLUS FIVE: "Tuesday" is as much a part of 9-11 as the date or the month. It was a workday. The people who died almost entirely died at their jobs, or commuting on work-related matters. And every workday is different. ... more ... 'AMONG the DEAD CITIES': Did bombing civilians hasten the end of the war and thus spare the Allies greater battlefield casualties? Some say so. But saving military lives by substituting civilian ones is, Grayling says, like using civilians as human shields on the battlefield. ... more ... ORIGINAL ZINN: Howard Zinn's vew is the new triumphalism -- the triumph of negativity. America is left with a history without heroes. Only the ones who fought against whatever prevailed in America at the time can claim the heroic mantle, and then only if they were some sort of approved minority. ... more ... GUNS: I came of age associating firearms with Christian enthusiasm, flag-waving patriotism, fondness for the military, and other irrational fixations of the right-wing loonies in this country. ... more ... WHY IS THERE A CIA?: Is there any entity in modern America that has eaten up more money, wasted more lives, and done less good to the American people? Is there any group representative of America in the world that has brought more humiliation to our friends and more delight to our enemies? ... more ... MISSING PIECES: I appreciate being able to lock or unlock the entire vehicle with a click of a button on my keychain from 30 yards away in the pouring rain. On the other hand, having to turn the key in the ignition just to crack a damn window drives me nuts, in a crotchety old man kind of way. ... more ... OLD MONEY: When I was in West Berlin in the '70s, I bought in an antique shop a stack of old German World War I-era currency. You could get it by the fistful, out of a cardboard box, for, I think, 5 for the Mark. ... more ... PATRIOTISM: "He is not a citizen who is not disposed to respect the laws and to obey the civil magistrate; and he is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow-citizens." ... more ... OCCUPATION: West Germany was a faithful American ally through the Cold War, and the united Germany is a rock of stability in the center of Europe. Yet almost all the things cited as American mistakes in Iraq also were done in Germany. ... more ... NEW TIMES: "Neue Zeitung, like a chameleon, continually changed its color. It represents the often confused, reluctant, and incoherent course of U.S. policy in postwar Germany." ... more ... COLUMBIA TRAGEDY: She was a double-wide trailer fitted with angel wings. She could heft 4 million pounds into space and fly 17,000 mph and pass unscathed through a blast furnace that would pulverize a solid block of concrete and melt battlefield armor. ... more ... KEYS VACATION 2002: I didn't realize that Key Largo was named for the movie, not the other way around. The good citizens, seeing the film's popularity, got the bright idea of rechristening the place, which they did in 1952. Whoring after tourist bucks, but the name was much improved by the change. ... more ... TRISKELION: He told her of his great sudden passion. She told him forget it, cast it away, there is no use in hoping for fulfillment. But he asked her name, and she told him: Halwa, that is, "Solitude." ... more ... DEMOCRACY: To understand the founders of American democracy, and the system of government they devised, you have to stand where the founders stood, and then look back, from there, at the past they knew. ... more ... HIGH ENOUGH TO SEE THE WORLD: I lived from ages 2 to 11 in a bedroom community along a west-running wooded ridge. We moved there when suburban development had just begun to crowd out the farms. ... more ... HEARTS and MINDS: The Paris peace agreement reserved the U.S. right to oppose Hanoi if it broke the accord. But any remaining U.S. will to defend South Vietnam was dragged down by the rising malaise in America, the domestic political scandals, and the media war against all things Nixon. ... more ... KIDS MENU: And I know he has to grow and I would never hold him back, but I'm going to miss the child that he is. I'm going to have to say good-bye to that kid. It puts the seal on a lot of "somedays" that will now never happen. ... more ... VOTING 2004: At this moment in history, it's absurd to vote for a man who doesn't have a single good word to say for millions of Iraqis looking to America to guide them out of political squalor, and for hundreds of thousands of Americans who are risking their lives to do it. ... more ... WILSONIANS: The Statue of Liberty has no wings; she is not an angel. The nation that reveres her often does things unwise or unjust. Like Athens, like Rome, like America. ... more ... 'The END': Yet however close we get to those lost lives, and we try and try, they have crossed over -- gone under. No traveller returns to tell what they felt, falling, burning, crashing down. ... more ... JOURNALISM: Journalism is 90 percent the art of deciding not what to tell you. You pay us to decide what's essential to you. The news editor dispatches reporters to cover an accident or a meeting. The reporter picks out the relevant facts, among thousands of facts he might choose. ... more ... MEDIA and IRAQ: If only perfect nations could act, none ever would. We won our independence with the help of a French fleet and a Dutch loan. Were the Dutch and the French pure at heart? Did they have a self-interest in seeing Britain lose its colonies? ... more ... JOURNALISTS and HISTORY: Journalists should not try to write with historical perspective. Because among all people, journalists uniquely lack it. ... more ... FIFTH COLUMNISTS: The belief in the media that the sole purpose of a printing press or a television camera is to shine a light on every fault and failure of American authority has its uses. It may at times be what saves democracy. But too steady application of it can be a water torture. ... more ... GAYS, GODS, and JOURNALISTS: Gays and Christianity are crossing paths all over the place these days, and the local newspaper is writing about it. ... more ... PRONOUN TROUBLE: One thousand years of using English language pronouns based on physiology just went out the window. ... more ... CHE TRIPPERS: "The Motorcycle Diaries" is bound to induce a whole new generation of disaffected youth to hitch their dreams of liberation and freedom to this handsome rebel. ... more ... MISCARRIAGE: Months after the miscarriage a phone call came, a sales pitch for a diaper service. I figured out it was just about the time the baby would have been born. Apparently, the HMO sold the mailing list from that first-baby program to all sorts of marketers. We were on it and it was too late to get off. ... more ... 'UNDER GOD': The "under God" part of the public school Pledge of Allegiance is clearly unconstitutional, but only the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals could say so. ... more ... 'GOD BLESS AMERICA': I know some people see that slogan, and the song that embodies it, as creeping Christianism. Which is amusing, since it was written by an Ashkenazi Jew, albeit a Republican. ... more ... TEN COMMANDMENTS: Amid boos and chants and civil disobedience, fifty-by-29 inches of Old Testament bronze on the courthouse in West Chester disappeared behind 50-by-29 inches of blank plastic. ... more ... JUDGE MOORE'S ROCK: Roy Moore snuck into the Alabama Judicial Building in the middle of the night three years ago and plunked down a 5,280-pound rock chiseled with the Ten Commandments. He paid for that with his job, after being given many chances to think better of his misdeeds. ... more ... 'IN GOD WE TRUST': "In God We Trust" got inscribed on the money only after a coalition of Protestant church groups failed to rewrite the Constitution to "indicate that this is a Christian nation." ... more ... 'UNDER GOD' AGAIN: Would you replace the mosaic of American Christianity with another faith? Which one? Where would you find one more inclined to steer its adherents toward public virtue, love of humankind, humility, tolerance, optimism, and non-violence? ... more ... The NAZI SLUR: There is something about the Germans' stagger into darkness in the 1930s that thoughtful Americans can take as a warning. And maybe, by keeping the "Nazi" insult alive as the worst one in our cultural vocabulary, the partisan loudmouths are doing us a small favor. ... more ... WHY WE FIGHT: In 1946, at a beautiful society wedding in London, a Tory MP remarked to Lady "Emerald" Cunard how quickly life had returned to normal. "After all," he said, gesturing to the crowded room, "this is what we have been fighting for." "What," she replied, "are they all Poles?" ... more ... DIPLOMACY: "Diplomacy" is thrown up as a sort of magic word that seems to mean "getting good results without getting any Americans killed," but it does have a real meaning, and it presents severe challenges for any modern-day American president who plans to use it as a policy. ... more ... DR. SUZY: Even the Islamic gutter-press, which twisted this stupid venting of a dull mind into a news story, had the smidgen of humanity required to change its tune -- after it was too late, of course. A prominent writer admitted the rape reports were "without any foundation." ... more ... CROSS and CRESCENT: Many bloggers will confuse the historical realities of Christianity and Islam, as human constructions, with their natures as revealed religions. As a skeptic of both, damned by both, perhaps I can be of some help. ... more ... ISLAMIC REFORMATION: There already was an Islamic Reformation. It happened while we were sleeping. The result is Wahhabi dominance, and Islamic Brotherhood, and Bin Laden. This is the Islamic Reformation. We're fighting it now. ... more ... The IMPURITY of TEARS: In what other place in the world would a man, obviously gravely injured, have to shout out an explanation of his religious affiliation before he got help to save his life? ... more ... READING ISLAMISTS: I think it would be a valuable exercise to have the whole nation take a day off work and read what Osama Bin Laden has said and written about us and what he plans to do to us and why. ... more ... SHARIA in CANADA: Ontario has authorized the use of sharia law in civil arbitrations. A group calling itself the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice will hold tribunals in which marriage, family, and business disputes can be settled according to fundamentalist religious law. ... more ... NECESSARY BLASPHEMY: Nobody's going to cut your head off for mocking American fundamentalist Christians who oppose physician-assisted suicide. That's hardly a test case for free speech. It's more important to hold up a candle in the demon-haunted darkness than in broad daylight. ... more ... TOLERATING the INTOLERANT: Paradox of paradoxes: Is Western separation of church and state an idea rooted in Christianity? ... more ... WHAT is IT GOOD FOR?: A little familiarity with history does disabuse one of the sort of sham shock some people seem to feel on entering a war down one hole and coming out another. ... more ... LUCKY BOMB: Is it possible that something as awful as the nuclear holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was -- in the cold, long view of historical time -- a positive good, a lucky break for the human race? ... more ... 'YOU WOULD WEEP': The Arab women who had slipped between the lines and warned Eaton of their enemies' plots and plans, were left to their fate. Everyone knew the town would be looted and the inhabitants massacred when the Americans left. ... more ... 'RISE of AMERICAN DEMOCRACY': "The Rise of American Democracy" sees the past too much through the filter of current events. Wilentz even lapses into modern catch phrases like "support the troops" that have dubious utility when applied to the War of 1812. ... more ... ALGERIA: Algeria was the first modern terrorist thugocracy, a nation born of a cowardly father -- European lack of will -- and a cruel mother -- unrelenting terrorism on a grand scale. Naturally, the country fell into complete economic collapse. ... more ... PARAPHILIA: Sexuality is something you receive, in one form or another, in one measure or another, early in life. How you cope with it, that is a different matter. Sexuality is the hand you've been dealt in life. How you play that hand is your character, your ethics. ... more ... DEBATE: Where the word problems in the math worksheet used to begin, "John is an engineer ..." they now as often began "Jane is an engineer ...." On another page was the same simple line drawing illustration of a group of kids on a playground. But now some of the faces were stippled over with black Benday dots to make them African-American. ... more ... SLAVES in the FAMILY: When I hear people ask why Washington, Jefferson, and Madison didn't live up to their principles and free their slaves, I think of Henry and Pauline. ... more ... WONDERLAND: "Was this really the way a post 9/11 American government was supposed to be operating," she wondered. "Where were the careful security measures, where was the record-keeping, the checking and double-checking?" ... more ... WHAT WOULD KLEISTHENES DO?: The Founders looked to classical models when they built the American political system. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we continued that policy. ... more ... PROFESSOR CHURCHILL: Ward Churchill's "Chickens coming home to roost" explanation of 9/11 was hardly unique to him, though he may have been one of the first to rush it into print. It's hardly perceptive, either. ... more ... CHOMSKY, COULTER, and MOORE: I have no more use for someone who calls his book "Stupid White Men" than I do for someone who calls his "Stupid Black Lesbians." Yet some of the white men I work with adore this guy. ... more ... UNCLE GULLIVER: Since Americans forced the issue of their independence, the intellectuals in the former colonies have tried to cozy up to the Mother Country, who has returned the affection with scorn. ... more ... TAGS and FLAGS: Across the street stood a gutted McDonald's; its shatter-proof windows all spider-webbed by some massive assault, and the whole thing plastered in posters proclaiming McDonald's is dead and merde a McDonald's. I learned more of the story when I got home. ... more ... COWBOYS: John Jay was among the Founders who feared the frontier's influence on Americans. "Shall we not fill the wilderness with white savages," he wondered, "and will they not become more formidable to us than the tawny ones who now inhabit it?" ... more ... DEEP IMPACT: There's a fascinating, but unexplored, subtext to meteorite hunting, since it converges astronomy and geology. The boys who sit on the hills gazing out at the heavens take one path into science, and it's different from the path taken by the boys who clamber into caves and come home muddy at dark. ... more ... LOOSE BUCHANAN: To dismiss James Buchanan's adherence to the Constitution as a cover to allow treason is to write off the foundation of the American republic. It overlooks the seriousness with which Americans once regarded their government. ... more ... 'TEAM of RIVALS': Goodwin's starry-eyed Lincoln biography grows whiggish. If some crisis erupts and Lincoln does nothing, then his masterly inactivity proves his genius. If some crisis erupts and he makes a sudden change, then the bold stroke proves his genius. ... more ... LINCOLN on DISSENT: The Great Emancipator shows his political skill, in a way Bush and Cheney can only envy and never hope to match, in pulling the rug out from under the Democratic opposition without stepping down from his own high ground. ... more ... WAR WITHOUT END: Every generation has its own Civil War. Now, I think, we have ours. ... more ... RACE in AMERICA: Should we work to reconcile ethnicity with citizenship, or the other way around? In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. offered us a choice: "chaos or community." Which are we choosing? ... more ... LASCAUX: Nobody picks up a charcoal stick for the first time and draws like that. This is the result of a long process of art skill-acquisition. Perhaps spread over generations. If we have a half dozen of these cave scenes, they imply hundreds, or thousands, of designs in bark, pottery, tattooing, that have been long lost. ... more ... EUROPE VACATION 2003: In America a leather jacket should look like it's been worn by the kind of person who needs to wear a leather jacket -- a test pilot or a motorcycle rider or a lumberjack. In Paris, men's black leather jackets are sleek fashion statements. ... more ... GOODFRIEND: The woman asked my mother something that implied she was Jewish. "I'm not Jewish," my mother answered. "We're all Jewish; all the Goodfriends are," was the reply. ... more ... MILL for the GRIST: I have no patience with people who try to use logic to convert me to their faith, any more than I have with those who use logic to try to convert another out of his. ... more ... POLITICAL LABELS: A pair of labels invented to describe the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly in 1789 may have been useful for a time in describing the rudimentary politics of the early French Republic. Their application to anything else is a farce. ... more ... 'RED DAWN': Long before 9/11 I sat in a tavern with our staff columnist (highly liberal, of course) and some other people and "Red Dawn" played on the TV over the bar. He refused to even look at it, and spent the rest of the night looking the other way. ... more ... TSUNAMI: Sometimes it takes a village. Sometimes, when the village is in trouble, it takes an aircraft carrier battle group. ... more ... CHERNOW's HAMILTON: I like Alexander Hamilton, and so does Ron Chernow, whose cinder-block-sized biography of the financial genius was a non-fiction best-seller this summer. The trouble is, I don't like Chernow's book. ... more ... ABSOLUTE MORAL AUTHORITY: Almost from the moment the British evacuated Dunkirk the Allies began attacking French infrastructure and factories to cripple the German war effort. Stray bombs killed French families and even ones that hit their targets killed French workers. ... more ... CITY LIVING: They are lords of the street. They treat every property on it like it's their own. They will lounge for hours on any stoop or porch that appeals to them. People trying to walk down the sidewalk have to step around them. ... more ... THOROUGHLY MODERN MARGARET: Margaret and John Eaton left town after the Cabinet purge, prompting Henry Clay to quip, echoing Shakespeare, "Age cannot wither nor time stale her infinite virginity." ... more ... MERCENARIES: Julia Ward Howe's eye might have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, but if she had looked out on the street she would have seen the less-than-glorious coming of more than half a million immigrants to the U.S., almost 200,000 of them from Ireland. ... more ... PRAISE for PARTISANS: "Partisanship" may be in bad odor today. But if the parties are rooted in something real, and are not merely ad hoc coalitions of "whatever the other side is against," it can be the heartbeat of a democracy. ... more ... FOUNDERS DEFENDED: I'm grateful to Mark Kurlansky for busting loose and saying what a lot of people think, but are too intimidated to say. That doesn't mean he's not grossly wrong about every sentence he writes in a Fourth of July fireworks assault on the Founders. ... more ... BILLY YANK: I compiled roughly 2,600 names of young men in Chester County, Pennsylvania, who volunteered or were drafted into the Northern armies in the Civil War. "William" was the second-most common name, and fully 107 of them bore the given name William H. or William H.H. ... more ... CHARLES MINER: When the First Amendment was written, newspapers were the voices of politics, and the press was shockingly partisan by modern standards. It made no pretense to being fair and unbiased.... more ... INDEX - AUTHOR


DEMOCRACY To understand the founders of American democracy, and the system of government they devised, it is not enough to stand in the present and look back at 1787. You have to stand where the founders stood, and then look back, from there, at the past they knew. In trying to create a constitutional government, they had few models. One was the British constitutional monarchy, before it was corrupted (as they saw it) by George III. Everywhere else in their world, with a few exceptions that seemed not to suit the American model (Switzerland, Holland) absolute monarchs ruled from their palaces by God's decree, answerable to no one. But the founders had a rich resource of government models in the histories of the Roman republic and the Greek city states of antiquity. These were not obscure subjects: the founders were steeped in classical learning through their shared education. They had all grown up in the same method of schooling that had predominated in the Western world since the Middle Ages, a long litany of Greek and Roman authors, read in their original languages. They thought through problems, both personal and political, in classical terms. The classical authors provided the founders with their symbolic language when they wrote to one another. There are hundreds of instances of classical analogies in the generation of the American Revolution, from the designs on the national seal to the name of the national Capitol. One of my favorites is Cincinnatus. He was a Roman hero who, during a crisis, reluctantly accepted the dictatorship for six months, defeated Rome's enemies in six weeks, then resigned and went back to his plow. Now regarded as almost surely mythical, Cincinnatus was a real hero to the founders. And when George Washington resigned from public life in 1783 after the great victory and returned to Mount Vernon rather than mounting the throne of the new nation, he was the marvel of the world, and he was behaving quite deliberately on the classical model. His peers recognized it. Washington became head of an association of Revolutionary War veterans -- the equivalent of today's American Legion or VFW -- called the Society of the Cincinnati. (Washington agonized later when an equally classical sense of civic duty led him to return to head the Constitutional Convention and later to accept the presidency.) The idea that this country was founded on "Judeo-Christian principles" by "Bible-believing men" is a convenient fiction for the Pat Robertsons of the nation, but if you take that as your starting point, the real history of the founding will be utterly incomprehensible. A Bible-based vision would have hailed Washington as Moses, leading his people out of bondage. But there was none of that in 1783. No doubt the founders assumed that the institutions they were creating would be used by people who were more or less Christians (some, especially Madison and Jefferson, thought about this a good deal), but the models they studied before they built this system of government were not in the Bible (which, after all, never claims to be a manual of political theory), but in Tacitus and Xenophon. Not the truth of the classical world, but the version of it that was understood by the Enlightenment, the version enshrined in that canon of (surviving) classical writing that the founders learned in their schoolboy days: the Greek and Roman historians, most of them "nostalgic aristocrats disgruntled by monarchial and democratic encroachments" on the power of their class [Richard]. Writers like Thucydides, an aristocrat exiled by a popular government, who wrote a horrific description of the irrational, unstable, violent government of Athens under the popular demagogue Cleon, who cost that state dearly during the Peloponnesian War (and, incidentally, led the party that exiled Thucydides). The founders had these models in mind when they framed America's government. They also had in mind a theory of government inherited from the same antiquity. Plato, in the 4th century B.C.E., laid out three simple forms of government: monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by a few) and democracy (rule by the many), explained what was wrong with each, showed how each deteriorated over time, and suggested that the best form of government would be one that balanced these three orders of society. It came to be called the "mixed government" theory, and Aristotle enshrined it as the centerpiece of his Politics. Other classical writers (Polybius, etc.) concurred that only mixed government could prevent cycles of violence, slides into tyranny or mob rule, decay of liberty and public virtue. After its fall, the old Roman republic was mourned (probably falsely) as the perfect example of mixed government, and the nostalgic fondness for it in Plutarch, Livy, and many other late Roman authors confirmed many of the Founders in their sense that this was the best path for America. The Federalists built the notion of mixed government into the U.S. Constitution. In many details, they strove for a balance between the one president, the few senators and the Representatives of the many. Not everyone who participated in the founding was convinced about mixed government, however. Those who thought the new country could bear a pure democracy based their hope on America's agrarian nature, though this hope, too, was rooted in the ethics of the Roman republic. To Jefferson and Madison, the secret of the ancient republics' successes was not their mixed form of government, but their pastoral values. "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens," Jefferson wrote. "They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its interest and liberty by the most lasting bonds." His famous conclusion was that "our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America." The modern American government is a hybrid of mixed government with representative democracy, brought about mainly by the rise, in the last decade of the 18th century, of political parties which cut across class lines, whose division replaced that which was intended among the branches of government. To those who had grown up believing in mixed governments, this was alarming. Washington devoted most of his Farewell Address to an attack on this development. John Adams wrote in 1806: "I once thought our Constitution was quasi or mixed government, but they (Republicans) have now made it, to all intents and purposes, in virtue, in spirit, and in effect, a democracy. We are left without resources but in our prayers and tears, and have nothing that we can do or say, but the Lord have mercy on us." It would get worse, for the mixed government purists. The selection of the Electoral College gradually shifted to the popular vote (by 1828 only South Carolina and Delaware still chose their electors through the state legislatures). This and the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators, in 1913, were the greatest blows to the mixed government created in 1787. Yet aspects of it remain, in the appointments-for-life of Supreme Court justices, for instance, and in the Electoral College. INDEX - AUTHOR

Civil War: Zach

Pennsylvania had three lynchings in the years when that was common practice in America. Maryland had one. In Coatesville, Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1911, a black man named Zack Walker was burned alive for killing a white steel mill cop. They dragged him from the hospital, still chained to his bedstead, and burned him to death in front of thousands of witnesses in a field south of the city. No one was convicted of the crime. When he staggered from the pyre, a mass of flames, with rakes they shoved him back in. I have seen the picture of what was left of him. It would not fill a grocery bag. Around it are the bare feet and legs of young boys. I found the photos in the back of a cabinet drawer of the West Chester newspaper when I became an editor there. A year after the lynching, John Jay Chapman, poet, dramatist and social critic, came to Coatesville, hired a hall there and held a memorial service. Only two people came. But the speech was published in Harper's Weekly (Sept. 21, 1912) and Chapman's book of essays, "Memories and Milestones," (1915) and has become a classic. Here is part of what he said: We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most dreadful crimes in history — not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent for our share in it. We do not start any agitation with regard to that particular crime. I understand that an attempt to prosecute the chief criminals has been made, and has entirely failed; because the whole community, and in a sense our whole people, are really involved in the guilt. The failure of the prosecution in this case, in all such cases, is only a proof of the magnitude of the guilt, and of the awful fact that everyone shares in it. I will tell you why I am here; I will tell you what happened to me. When I read in the newspapers of August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a human being, and of how a few desperate, fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, while around about stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference, fascinated and impotent, hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness, and no one man among them all who was inspired to risk his life in an attempt to stop it, no one man to name the name of Christ, of humanity, of government! As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal — a cold thing, an awful thing. I said to myself, "I shall forget this, we shall all forget it; but it will be there." What I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth. I have seen death in the heart of this people. For to look at the agony of a fellow-being and remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker. Religious fanaticism has sometimes lifted men to the frenzy of such cruelty, political passion has sometimes done it, personal hatred might do it, the excitement of the ampitheater in the degenerate days of Roman luxury could do it. But here an audience chosen by chance in America has stood spellbound through an improvised auto-da-fé, irregular, illegal, having no religious significance, not sanctioned by custom, having no immediate provocation, the audience standing by merely in cold dislike. I saw during one moment something beyond all argument in the depth of its significance. No theories about the race problem, no statistics, legislation, or mere educational endeavor, can quite meet the lack which that day revealed in the American people. For what we saw was death. The people stood like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron, waiting for someone or something to determine their destiny for them. .... Let me say something more about the whole matter. The subject we are dealing with is not local. The act, to be sure, took place at Coatesville and everyone looked to Coatesville to follow it up. Some months ago I asked a friend who lives not far from here something about this case, and about the expected prosecutions, and he replied to me: "It wasn’t in my county," and that made me wonder whose county it was in. And it seemed to be in my county. I live on the Hudson River; but I knew that this great wickedness that happened in Coatesville is not the wickedness of Coatesville nor of today. It is the wickedness of all America and of three hundred years — the wickedness of the slave trade. All of us are tinctured by it. No special place, no special persons, are to blame. .... There is no country in Europe where the Coatesville tragedy or anything remotely like it could have been enacted, probably no country in the world. On the day of the calamity, those people in the automobiles came by the hundred and watched the torture, and passers-by came in a great multitude and watched it — and did nothing. On the next morning the newspapers spread the news and spread the paralysis until the whole country seemed to be helplessly watching this awful murder, as awful as anything ever done on this earth; and the whole of our people seemed to be looking on helplessly, not able to respond, not knowing what to do next. That spectacle has been in my mind. The trouble has come down to us out of the past. The only reason slavery is wrong is that it is cruel and makes men cruel and leaves them cruel. Someone may say that you and I cannot repent because we did not do the act. But we are involved in it. We are still looking on. Do you not see that this whole event is merely the last parable, the most vivid, the most terrible illustration that ever was given by man or imagined by a Jewish prophet, of the relation between good and evil in this world, and of the relation of men to one another? This whole matter has been an historic episode; but it is a part, not only of our national history, but of the personal history of each one of us."

Civil War: Populists

Something else that intrigued me recently, on the list of "true things that don't fit into the present paradigm," is the Southern Populist movement of the 1890s. This political revolution forged -- for a time -- a common cause between poor whites and blacks, just at the time when, most people are taught to believe, the South was celebrating its re-enslaving of the freedmen. Not only that, the Populists, in their approach to blacks, steered clear of the patronizing approach of the radical Republicans and the noblesse oblige of the conservative Democrats. But the most amazing fact is that the movement came right out of the depressed, deprived lower class of Southern whites -- the very crackers who are supposedly the most fanatic racists in the world. The movement, and the racial bridge, eventually failed, but the wonder of it is how far they all came before they did. And it gives the lie in a big way to the notion that Southerners are historically incapable of achieving racial harmony without Northern intervention. Though the Populists had their share of two-faced politicians and race-baiters, the movement as a whole made a remarkable call for trans-racial solidarity, based on an equality of want and poverty, a common grievance and a common oppressor. "They are in the ditch just like we are," as a white Texas Populist put it. Tom Watson, the leading light of Southern Populism had the vision of "presenting a platform immensely beneficial to both races and injurious to neither," and "making it in the interest of both races to act together for the success of the platform." The success of the party overall hinged on black cooperation, and Watson promised blacks that, if they succeeded at the ballot box, the Populists would "wipe out the color line and put every man on his citizenship irrespective of color." "You are made to hate each other," he said, addressing both races, "because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both." My interest is not in Watson's polemics or his party's assumptions about human nature. But rather in the success it had, as an indigenous Southern movement, in breaking down racial barriers and achieving some degree of equalitarianism. There was political pragmatism behind it, of course. The president of the first Populist convention in Texas said, "We have no disposition to ostracize the colored people. I am in favor of giving the colored man full representation. ... He is a citizen just as much as we are, and the party that acts on that fact will gain the colored vote of the South." But the pragmatism led to sincere action. The convention cheered the Texas speaker's sentiments, and what's more it elected two blacks to the state executive committee of the party. Other Southern states followed the example. In terms of real integration, the Populists far outstripped the radical Republicans. Blacks were not shunted into figurehead appointments with nominal power. They operated in the inmost councils of the party. They served alongside whites in county, district, and state executive committees, campaign committees, and as delegates to national conventions. Black and white campaigners spoke from the same platform, to mixed-race audiences, and both had places on official party tickets. Populist sheriffs made sure blacks were represented on jury duty, and Populist newspaper editors praised the achievements of black citizens. Watson, in Georgia, announced that it was the object of his party to "make lynch law odious to the people," and the 1896 Populist Party platform in the state contained a plank denouncing lynching. In the campaign four years earlier, a black Populist had made 63 speeches for Watson. He was threatened in one town and fled to Watson for protection. Watson called for aid, and some 2,000 white farmers showed up, some of them after riding all night, and remained on armed guard for two nights at his home to prevent violence to this man. Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote that the Southern Populists had given "negroes of the South a political fellowship which they have never obtained, not even from their saviors, the Republicans." Sadly, in the end the surge of the Populists and the Farmer's Alliance helped push the South into Jim Crow. The conservative old guard, which had taken at least a paternalistic interest in blacks and protected them from the most fanatic racists since 1877, was thrown back on the defensive. To keep their grip on a power that was slipping away from them, the conservatives went overboard and turned to fraud, bribery, violence and terror to defeat the Populists. And as part of that, they raised the cry of "Negro domination" and white supremacy. The Populists protested, to no avail. "It is no excuse," a Virginia Populist newspaper wrote in 1893, "to say that these iniquities are practiced to 'preserve white civilization.' In the first place it was white men who were robbed of their votes, and white men who were defrauded out of office." Because in the ultimate irony, the conservatives used the black vote to defeat the aspirations of the white lower class. The conservatives still dominated in the Black Belts, and they bought and intimidated some black voters, but mostly they just stuffed the ballot box, or counted up all the votes on their side, regardless of reality. In election after election, thumping majorities of black votes turned up for the party of white supremacy. In 1896, the conservatives carried only one-fifth of the parishes of Louisiana that had a white majority, but, as the New Orleans Times-Democrat cynically noted, the party of white supremacy was once again "saved by negro votes." Seeing their votes stolen and the party stalled, black Populists grew apathetic. Seeing their party fail through failure of black votes, many white Populists decided the attempt at a black alliance had been a mistake. In some cases they turned their bitterness against the black race. And the white conservatives were on the one hand stuck with the devil's bargain they had made with racist fanatics, and on the other more interested in disfranchising the blacks to prevent their votes from defecting again. Their opponents, meanwhile, often found no harm in legally disfranchising blacks from votes that were only going to be stolen anyhow. It was one more step in the slow stagger of America, and especially the Southern part of it, into the deplorable race relations that characterized the first half of the 20th century. But for a time, the two races surprised each other and astonished their opponents by cooperating with harmony and good will. "[T]hings have not always been the same in the South," C. Vann Woodward wrote in 1955. "In a time when the Negroes formed a much larger proportion of the population than they did later, when slavery was a live memory in the minds of both races, and when the memory of the hardships and bitterness of Reconstruction was still fresh, the race policies accepted and pursued in the South were sometimes milder than they became later. The policies of proscription, segregation, and disfranchisement that are often described as the immutable 'folkways' of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention, are of a more recent origin. The effort to justify them as a consequence of Reconstruction and a necessity of the times is embarrassed by the fact that they did not originate in those times. And the belief that they are immutable and unchangeable is not supported by history." It's yet another irony of the situation that some (most?) of the best studies of the evolution of race relations in the South 1865-1920 came out during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. They were written by Southern historians of liberal/progressive (lower-case "p") inclination, and the slant to them was exploding the myth that the South has always been (and always will be) a segregated, racist, white supremist culture. Since this was the rallying point of the die-hard segregationists, the historians pointed out that the position was not borne out by history. Always a great introduction to the topic is C. Vann Woodward's "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," first edition 1955, which is still in print. Martin Luther King Jr. called it "The historical Bible of the civil rights movement." Today, half a century later, the same material comes to bear on those who say federal/Northern pressure on the South is the only agent of positive social change in the region, and that the dinosaurs of the Civil Rights era must never relax their iron vigilance over matters like the Battle Flag, or else the South will revert to its natural, segregated, white supremist "folkways" path. The received wisdom is that Southern whites are incapable of lifting their benighted selves out of the crudest collective racism without the Better Angels of the North to guide them. There seems to be truth in the maxim that if you fight something too long, you start to resemble it.

Civil War: Slavery

One of the gulfs between most of the modern historians I read and many of the older ones is that the earlier historians were able and willing to look at slavery as an economic institution, and at the enforcement of fugitive slave laws as a legal process between the sections. It is necessary to do this to understand the coming of the Civil War. But it's also not easy or entirely pleasant to do so. We who do it stand in an exposed position, not in terms of historical realities -- because in doing so we're more true to those realities than our opponents -- but in terms of modern moralities. To grapple with slavery as a dynamic force between North and South in America, you have to think of it in terms of its meaning to two groups of white people. To do that does not ignore the humanity of the slaves, or the fact that slavery was the central aspect of a slave's life. But it does set it aside for the duration of the argument. That "setting aside," after the 20th century, is something we feel as horrible. It is a mental process akin to the one that allows genocides. I suspect it is a natural muscle in the human mind, but it is one we're desperately trying not to exercise. A similar grappling goes on in literature, dealt with more openly but no less emotionally. Readers, writers, and critics anguish over writing they know is good, and that actually opens minds in the dominant race toward the downtrodden one, yet it relies on stereotypes to do so, and it takes that other race, ultimately, as a backdrop or a symbol. In America, we have the "problem" of "Huck Finn." The British and the Europeans have the same ambivalence toward Joseph Conrad, especially "Heart of Darkness." Chinua Achebe, father of modern African literature, has long argued that Conrad was nothing more than "a thoroughgoing racist." Caryl Phillips, an author and writer who admires both Conrad and his great African detractor, sat down with Achebe one day and tried to hash out his outrage for a book she respects. The results were published [Feb. 24, 2003] in a long and fascinating article in the British newspaper The Guardian. One of the things Phillips, and most modern Westerners, like about "Heart of Darkness" is its grim questions about the colonizing mission that so many Europeans of Conrad's day took for granted as the proper ordering of God's creation. Achebe understands this, but he finds it insufficient. He tells her: "Africa as setting and backdrop, which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?" Later, he tells her, "I am an African. What interests me is what I learn in Conrad about myself. To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever, but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction I don't like it." She answers him. "Conrad does present Africans as having 'rudimentary' souls." Achebe draws himself upright. "Yes, you will notice that the European traders have 'tainted' souls, Marlow has a 'pure' soul, but I am to accept that mine is 'rudimentary'?" He shakes his head. "Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a very short-lived period of ambivalence about the certainty of this colonising mission, and Heart of Darkness falls into this period. But you cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity. I cannot accept that. My humanity is not to be debated, nor is it to be used simply to illustrate European problems." The realisation hits me with force. I am not an African. Were I an African I suspect I would feel the same way as my host. But I was raised in Europe, and although I have learned to reject the stereotypically reductive images of Africa and Africans, I am undeniably interested in the break-up of a European mind and the health of European civilisation. I feel momentarily ashamed that I might have become caught up with this theme and subsequently overlooked how offensive this novel might be to a man such as Chinua Achebe and to millions of other Africans. Achebe is right; to the African reader the price of Conrad's eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the "dark" continent and her people. Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe. However lofty Conrad's mission, he has, in keeping with times past and present, compromised African humanity in order to examine the European psyche. Achebe's response is understandably personal. And those of us who muck around in history have it harder than Caryl Phillips. A literature student can walk away from a novel, even a beloved one, and take up another. But we have only the one past. And if you find it too soul-destroying to enter into a state of mind that can feel white supremacy as God's law, or if you aren't willing sometimes to think of slaves as a sort of property-with-free-will, I can certainly understand that. But you'll never understand the whys and hows of the Civil War without it.

Civil War: Northrace

You can feel chilled by that letter even if you don't have several ancestors on the Sept. ye 15, 1682 To ye Aged and Beloved Mr. John Higginson: There is now a ship at sea called the Welcome, which has on board a hundredor more of the heritics and malignants called Quakers, with W. Penn, who isthe chief scamp, at the head of them. The General Court has accordingly given secret orders to master MalachiHuscott, of the brig Porpose, to waylay the said Welcome, slyly as near theCape of Cod as may be, and make captive the said Penn and his ungodly crew,so that the Lord may be glorified, and not mocked on the soil of this newcountry with the heathen worship of these people. Much spoil can be made by selling the whole lot to Barbados, where slavesfetch good prices in rum and sugar, and we shall not only do the Lord greatservice by puniching the wicked, but we shall make great good for hisminister and people. Master Huscott feels hopeful and I will set down the news when the ship comesback. Cotton Mather [*] "Welcome" (as I do). But it's an accurate insight into the mindset of the New England Puritans, whom we honor among the founders of the country, and hold up as models in contrast to the nefarious slave-owners of the South. De Tocqueville observed that "race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known." The word "racism" in all its variants is a 20th century invention. Lincoln never heard it. What we would now call "racism" was so pervasive and universal in 19th century America -- North and South and West -- that no one felt a need to coin a word for it. The mere fact that we have a word "racism" in our vocabulary now is a way to rope off a certain attitude or behavior, and that is a first step to moving beyond it. It's a sign of progress. I dislike the idea of making modern moral labels retroactive. I can no more condemn George Washington as immoral for owning slaves in Virginia in the 1790s than I can call Aristotle stupid for not knowing that the Sun is a star. Modern people sometimes like to trot out some racist statements by Abraham Lincoln. I'm impressed that Lincoln was less racist than the generality of people in the place he was born and raised in, the pre-war U.S. Midwest. The abolitionists -- that is, the extremists among them who advocated not just emancipation but social equality of the races -- had a uphill fight to persuade popular opinion in the North, South, West and all points that blacks and white were equal in any real sense. To get an idea of how strongly the North, as a section, despised abolitionists in the 1830s, consider the career of Lydia Maria Child. Born and raised in Massachusetts, in 1824, when she was just 22, she published the first historical novel printed in the United States. It made her an instant celebrity. She spun out novels and stories that the public gobbled up, and she became editor of "The Juvenile Miscellany," a new and popular children's magazine, again one of the first of its kind. Her book The Frugal Housewife was an immensely popular manual. But in the 1830s Child got involved with Garrison's abolitionist movement, and she dedicated herself to it. She published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833. The work condemned slavery in the standard abolitionist terms, pointing out its contradiction with Christian teachings, and its moral and physical degradation of slaves and owners alike. She also railed at miscegenation, and she took shots at the North for its share of responsibility for the system. And it stopped her career cold. The views were considered so extreme that the public dropped her. Sales of her books plummeted, publishers refused to take anything she wrote, and she lost her editorial post with "The Juvenile Miscellany." This pioneer of American publishing is now utterly obscure, and most people who see her name have no idea that she wrote, for instance, the Thanksgiving poem that begins, "Over the river and through the woods ...." To prove the pervasiveness of any opinion, in the days before Gallup polls, you have to introduce masses and masses of documentary evidence, and even then, no matter how many gallons of ink you drain, you're open to a charge of selective bias. The editorial opinions of anti-administration Northern newspapers during the Civil War were obviously full of a virulent racism. It was there for political purposes, primarily, and the editors of those newspapers often had personal relationships to the blacks in their communities that were at least as benevolent and sincere as those of their Republican enemies. Their attempt was to stir up resentment of the party in power. And the reason they played on that particular string, and play it so long and loud, is that they were sure it resonated with the voters. One of the Pennsylvania newspapers I studied was full of race-baiting that makes me cringe even now. It slandered Lincoln, too, calling him every name in the book. But nobody made trouble for the editor until the summer of 1861, when he printed his opinion that the North had gone to war with the ultimate goal of freeing the slaves. This was considered so outrageous and offensive that soldiers just back from their three-months regiments attacked the office and sacked it.">soldiers just back from their three-months regiments attacked the office and sacked it. I spent a long time reading letters, journals, newspapers and diaries in a region of Pennsylvania so noted for its abolitionism that it's now marketing historical tourism based on the Underground Railroad. But in all that reading I found almost nothing that would not be considered hard-core racism today. I wasn't writing about race per se, but the book had to touch on the topic. It became painful at times, reading one thing after another, and I wondered if it wasn't undoing all the rest of my work in trying to paint a vivid, sympathetic picture of a bygone Northern place. Like Thomas Jefferson's slaves, the one fact begins to crowd out all the others. At times it did seem to me to poison every positive quality, in the men, women, and institutions of that whole community. I could only explain it by remembering the degree of degradation that must have been brought on the black community by lack of education and poverty, and by the pervasive racist views of the day that were passed off as either scientific fact or the immutable word of God. But remember, this was the North, not the South. From 1843, an appeal trying to drum up public donations to keep open a public school for black children: "Education is said to be the chief defense of nations, and in the case of white people it is supposed to be a great preventive of crime. It is respectfully submitted that what is so good for white people may also be beneficial for the colored race. "We know there is a feeling of hostility and prejudice existing against this people, and a wish is often expressed by many, that they could be removed from amongst us. It might be desirable to have them away, but there are many things desirable which are not practicable. They are here, and are likely to remain here, and the question to be asked is, whether it is better to let children of this class grow up in utter ignorance or to bring the purifying influence of Education to bear upon them. "... They are a kind of people which white persons do not care to be much acquainted with, and whose character they have not thought it worth while to study. They are a degraded people, but they are not all degraded, they are a vicious people, but they are not all vicious, and it is believed that if they could have a schoolhouse and lot of their own, in which the best judging among them could place a teacher of their own choosing, they would be able to keep a good school the whole year, aided of course by the annual appropriation from school directors. "... Do you care nothing for the colored people and their children? If you do not, still you perhaps desire the welfare of your own children, and upon observing the superiority of educated colored children over those brought up in ignorance, you will readily perceive that it would be much better to have your own offspring brought up in a community where the first are found than to expose them to the pernicious influence of the latter class. "For your own sake then, contribute to enlighten a population which you cannot remove from among you, that the burden of this disagreeable contact may be rendered as light as possible." This is a moderate, mainstream -- liberal -- voice in that community. I suspect it was written by a Quaker, perhaps a member of an abolition society. There are voiciferous and sometimes violent people in the world today who claim that circuses and slaughterhouses and animal testing of new medical techniques are sins against nature and God. In 100 or 1,000 years it may be an obvious opinion that they were right -- I would not be surprised. But then PETA research lab bombers will be the only heroes in our generation. All the rest of us will be written off as immoral or worse. A VERMONT STORY From a speech on emancipation, by Sen. J.R. Doolittle of Wisconsin, March 19, 1862 [Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2nd session, vol. IV, appendix, p.84, col. 3] I can give you a case directly in point. A very distinguished gentleman from Vermont was first elected to Congress, I believe, about 1843. One of the well-to-do farmers in his neighborhood called upon him, the evening before he was to leave for Washington, to pay his respects. He found him in his office, and told him that he came for that purpose, and to bid him good bye. "And now, judge," said he, "when you get to Washington, I want to have you take hold of this negro business, and dispose of it in some way or other; have slavery abolished, and be done with it." "Well," said the judge, "as the people who own these slaves, or claim to own them, have paid their money for them, and hold them as property under their State laws, would it not be just, if we abolish slavery, that some provision should be made to make them compensation?" He hesitated, thought earnestly for a while, and, in a serious tone, replied: "Yes, I think that would be just, and I will stand my share of the taxes." Although a very close and economical man, he was willing to bear his portion of the taxes. "But," said the judge, "there is one other question; when the negroes are emancipated, what shall be done with them? They are a poor people; they will have nothing; there must be some place for them to live. Do you think it would be any more than fair that we should take our share of them?" "Well, what would be our share in the town of Woodstock?" he inquired. The judge replied: "There are about two thousand five hundred people in Woodstock; and if you take the census and make the computation, you will find that there would be about one for every five white persons; so that here in Woodstock our share would be about five hundred." "What!" said he, "five hundred negroes in Woodstock! Judge, I called to pay my respects; I bid you good evening;" and he started for the door, and mounted his horse. As he was about to leave, he turned round and said: "Judge, I guess you need not do anything more about that negro business on my account." [Laughter.] Mr. President, perhaps I am not going too far when I say that honorable gentleman sits before me now. Mr. [Jacob] COLLAMER [R-Vt.]. As the gentleman has called me out, I may be allowed to say that the inhabitants of the town were about three thousand, and the proportion was about one to six. [*] I have seen this letter in different books -- including, curiously, Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces," which cites it in a scholarly study of American government -- but did not find it in the collection of Mather's writings I consulted, which was published in the 19th century. It is possible the letter is not genuine, or is considered doubtful. The wording varies somewhat in the published versions I have seen. It also is possible it was left out of the 19th century collection out of embarrassment.