Faces of Lincoln

 This video purports to have in it every known photograph of Mr.  Lincoln.  The songs in the video are Lincoln and Liberty Too, perhaps the most stirring campaign song in American history, Dixie, ironically a favorite song of the President of the Union, and the haunting Ashokan Farewell.

Published in: on January 31, 2010 at 7:09 am  Comments Off on Faces of Lincoln  

John Brown



American history has its share of odd characters, but surely none odder than John Brown.  An Old Testament prophet somehow marooned in Nineteenth Century America, John Brown preached the wrath of God against slave holders and considered himself the bloody sword of the Almighty.  It is tempting to write off John Brown as a murderous fanatic, and he was certainly that, but he was also something more.

The American political process was simply unable to resolve the question of slavery.  Each year the anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces battered at each other with no head way made.  Bleeding Kansas was the result of Stephen A. Douglas’ plan to simply let the people of the territory resolve the issue.  Where ballots cannot, or will not, resolve a question of the first magnitude in a democracy, ultimately bullets will.   A man like Brown, totally dedicated to the anti-slavery cause, was only too willing to see violence resolve an issue that the politicians would not.

After his mad and futile attempt to start a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Brown was tried and hung for treason against the state of Virginia.  He considered his trial and treatment quite fair and thanked the Court.  Brown impressed quite a few Southerners with the courage with which he met his death, including Thomas Jackson, the future Stonewall, who observed his execution. 

Brown of course lit the fuse for the Civil War.  He convinced many moderate Southerners that there were forces in the North all too ready to incite, in the name of abolition, a race war in the South.  The guns fired at Harper’s Ferry were actually the first shots of the Civil War.

Brown, as he stepped forward to the gallows, had a paper and pen thrust into his hand by a woman.  Assuming for the last time the role of a prophet, Brown wrote out, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Stephen Vincent Benet in his epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, captures the man completely in this prayer: (more…)

Published in: on January 29, 2010 at 6:18 am  Comments (1)  
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Washington Crossing the Delaware

Sometimes a work of art depicting an historical event gets most of the facts wrong but nonetheless captures completely the essense of the event.  In the case of Emanuel Leutze’s masterpiece, he depicts the turning point of the Revolution as being caused by the resolution of General Washington, and he is absolutely correct.  My middle school had a large black and white copy of the painting, and I never glanced at it without being moved with emotion.  It is a trite saying that a work “brings history alive”.  In the case of Mr. Leutze’s painting, the trite is also true.

Published in: on January 28, 2010 at 6:23 am  Comments Off on Washington Crossing the Delaware  
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Jefferson and the will of the moment

Continuing my look at the political thought of Thomas Jefferson (part one can be found here), we will now examine what I’d call Jefferson’s “presentism.”  Perhaps a better way to describe it is a disdain or disregard for the “permanent things.” Jefferson does not seem to have an abiding veneration for tradition; rather, Jefferson’s political philosophy is one that is highly sensitive to the will of the moment.  This is not to say that Jefferson completely rejects tradition, but nonetheless his political theory is one that does not bind generations to the past or the future.  Each generation, Jefferson holds, is independent of every other and thus no generation can bind the next, or be bound by the previous.

Such thinking is in line with that of Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Rousseau.  Voltaire writes that the codes of law in every country are poor because they were made “in accordance with time, place and needs,” and became stagnant.  He adds, “when needs changed, the laws which remained became ridiculous laws.  Thus the laws which forbade the eating of pork and the drinking of wine was quite reasonable in Arabia where pork and wine were harmful.  It is ridiculous in Constantinople.”[1] Laws must adapt to the times.

Thomas Paine argues vociferously against Edmund Burke in The Rights of Man, his response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  His is a thorough refutation of Burke’s writings on tradition and permanency.  Contrary to Burke, Paine does not believe a government or a parliament could bind men for all times.  “Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generation which preceded it.  The vanity and presumptions of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.”[2] Paine goes on to – incorrectly – accuse Burke of denying the living the power to repeal any ancient laws.[3] This is an exaggeration of the Burkean philosophy.  Burke does not hold that all laws must forever be respected, but he does insist that we should respect ancient customs and adapt, but slowly.

The essential idea, however, is very important and would be echoed by Jefferson.  The idea that the dead have no right to govern beyond the grave is clearly reflected in a letter to Madison:

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind one another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water.  Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government . . . I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”[4]

Such a philosophy indicates that man is not much beholden to his ancestors, and an examination of Jefferson’s speeches and writing verifies this conclusion.  In his Second Inaugural address, Jefferson discusses the problems in dealing with the Native Americans and their obstinate refusal to part with ancient customs.  “These persons,” he says, “inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatsoever they did, must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, moral, or political condition, is perilous innovation; that their duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and knowledge full of danger.”[5] Though speaking of Native Americans, he may very well be speaking about his fellow Americans, as this calls to mind his words about “sanctimonious reverence” for the laws.

Jefferson is hostile to that which inhibits the freedom of the human mind or spirit, be they perpetual constitutions or strict laws.  This belief reveals itself in Jefferson’s opposition to patent and copyright laws, which he believes prevent the spread of ideas.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.  Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.[6]

His thoughts on patent laws demonstrate his sense that it is a dangerous idea to permanently affix any law or custom on society.  Ideas must flow freely in the interest of progress; similarly constitutions must be alterable in order for society to progress.

This reflects Jefferson’s fundamentally democratic outlook.  Much as he puts abundant stock in the reason of man, and therefore in the governing ability of man, he then allows the democratic majority to determine the outlines of the nation’s constitution.  As I will show in a future post, Jefferson’s faith in the democratic will, combined with his unfavorable view of tradition and custom, inspires a constitutional philosophy that can be summed up as one of rigid adherence to a frequently altered constitution.

In the next post I will look at the consequences of his antagonism to perpetual constitutions.  He advocates frequent revisions in the Constitution, and this underlines his belief that the will of the past generation should have little or no bearing on the present.  It is a philosophy that eschews the traditionalism of Burke and, for the most part, the Framers.

[1] Voltaire, “Pocket Philosophic Dictionary,” in Political Writings, ed. and trans. David Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 19.

[2] Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, ed. Gregory Claeys (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), 63.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, 6 September, 1789, in Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc, 1984), 959.

[5] Jefferson, “Second Inaugural Address,” 4 March, 1805, in Jefferson Writings, 520.

[6] Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, Monticello, 13 August, 1813, in Jefferson Writings, 1291.

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm  Comments Off on Jefferson and the will of the moment  

Sam Grant


Few men in American history have gone from complete obscurity to being a  central figure in the life of the nation faster than Ulysses Simpson Grant.  Known as Sam Grant by his West Point friends, his first two initials making Sam an inevitable nickname, Grant had an unerring ability to fail at everything he put his hand to, except for war, his marriage and his last gallant race against the Grim Reaper to finish his memoirs and provide financially for his wife and children.  Most great figures in our history have known success more than failure.  Not so Sam Grant.  He would encounter humiliating defeats throughout his life, from beginning to end.  At the beginning of the Civil War, he was a clerk, barely able to support his family.  This section of John Brown’s Body, the epic poem on the Civil War by Stephen Vincent Benet, chronicles the unlikely rise of a military genius who knew unending defeat except in war. (more…)

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 6:30 am  Comments Off on Sam Grant  
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The Signers

 A musical tribute to the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Here is a list of the Signers by State with short bios.  The last survivor of the Signers was Charles Carroll of Carrollton from Maryland who died at 95 on November 14, 1832.  Carroll also had the distinction of being the sole Catholic Signer of the Declaration.

Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 6:31 am  Comments (4)  
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Federalist 26 – Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton continues his series of papers on the nature of the legislative power concerning national defense with Federalist 26.  Here he concerns himself with the idea of restraining the legislature with respect to the common defense.  Though he specifically addresses the contrast between states that have placed such limits (Pennsylvania and North Carolina) and those that have not, there is an interesting theoretical undercurrent.  Hamilton is concerned about striking an appropriate balance between granting extensive legislative authority and preserving liberty, something he alludes to in the opening paragraph of this essay.

It was a thing hardly to be expected that in a popular revolution the minds of men should stop at that happy mean which marks the salutary boundary between power and privilege, and combines the energy of government with the security of private rights. A failure in this delicate and important point is the great source of the inconveniences we experience, and if we are not cautious to avoid a repetition of the error, in our future attempts to rectify and ameliorate our system, we may travel from one chimerical project to another; we may try change after change; but we shall never be likely to make any material change for the better.

In the next paragraph, Hamilton hints that we are moving too far in one direction. (more…)

Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 4:57 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 26 – Alexander Hamilton  

Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean

Something for the weekend.  Written in 1843, by Thomas a Becket, Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean was probably the most popular patriotic ballad of the Nineteenth Century.

O Columbia! the gem of the ocean,
The home of the brave and the free,
The shrine of each patriot’s devotion,
A world offers homage to thee;
Thy mandates make heroes assemble,
When Liberty’s form stands in view;
Thy banners make tyranny tremble,
When borne by the red, white, and blue,
When borne by the red, white, and blue,
When borne by the red, white, and blue,
Thy banners make tyranny tremble,
When borne by the red, white and blue.

When war wing’d its wide desolation,
And threaten’d the land to deform,
The ark then of freedom’s foundation,
Columbia rode safe thro’ the storm;
With her garlands of vict’ry around her,
When so proudly she bore her brave crew;
With her flag proudly floating before her,
The boast of the red, white and blue,
The boast of the red, white and blue,
The boast of the red, white, and blue,
With her flag proudly floating before her,
The boast of the red, white and blue.


The star spangled banner bring hither,
O’er Columbia’s true sons let it wave;
May the wreaths they have won never wither,
Nor its stars cease to shine on the brave.
May thy service united ne’er sever,
But hold to the colors so true;
The army and navy forever,
Three cheers for the red, white, and blue!
Three cheers for the red, white, and blue!
The army and navy forever,
Three cheers for the red, white, and blue

Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 6:58 am  Comments Off on Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean  
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My “favorite” “founding father”

This post at the American Catholic spurred some debate.  Since I’d like to at least attempt to keep this blog relatively non-partisan, I’d simply like to analyze the question for what it is rather than Sarah Palin’s response to it.

If I were asked this, I’d probably give a response that would also have most viewers rolling their eyes, but for different reasons.  First of all, I object to the term “Founding Father.”  Now this is a pet peeve of mine that has diminished over the years.  I understand the arguments in favor of the phrase, but to me it is still a misnomer.  The American Nation was not created out of whole cloth on July 4, 1776.  A nation of sorts already existed, though it was nominally ruled by the British Empire.  But the American colonial experience certainly had an impact on those that would form the initial American government.  Now, I don’t want to go too far in the extreme direction of dismissing the achievements and significance of the American Revolution as it was indeed more than a simple regime change.  But America already existed; the great achievement of the men that we call the Founding Fathers was to mold it into a Nation strengthened by a Constitution and set of laws.

But this is mere quibbling.  Whatever term one may want to use (I prefer “Framers”), which of these great men was the greatest?  Initially I suggested that correct answer is James Madison.  And I do think that Madison was the greatest thinker of this generation, and it was his philosophy more than any other that shaped the early American republic.  But then I got to thinking -what is greatness?  What standard are we using?

So then I turned to John Adams, who I believe was actually much closer to Madison than Jefferson was (and in turn I believe Madison was closer to Adams than was Hamilton).  Not only was Adams a titan of an intellect, he arguably did more than any other colonial figure to spur the Americans to revolution.  Donald has already written a couple of posts that demonstrate Adams’s fair-mindedness, and he was – despite a quick temper and degree of vanity spurred by personal insecurity – a man capable of giving full hearing to his opponents.

But then I began to wonder if I was over-valuing intellect and political philosophy.  How can I dismiss George Washington’s accomplishments?  He arguably saved the American republic not once, but twice – first by leading the army to victory, and then by guiding the Nation as its first president.

And what of the lesser known figures, the ones who shaped public opinions in their states and fought for independence?

And so the more I thought about it, the more I began to think – maybe Sarah Palin’s answer wasn’t so bad after all.

The First

James K. Polk, President of the United States, had a problem.  The year was 1846 and the US was at war with Mexico, a Catholic nation.  A large fraction of the American army was Catholic, usually fairly recent Irish immigrants.  Mexican propaganda portrayed the war as a wicked onlslaught by Protestants against a Catholic people and appealed to Catholics in the US army to desert to them, promising them land and a position in the Mexican army.  Some troops took them up on their offer, with deserters eventually forming the San Patricios Battalion and fighting for Mexico during the war.  To stem such desertions, Polk wanted to appoint Catholic chaplains to the US Army.  Although Catholic chaplains had served informally in prior American wars, none had served officially in that capacity.  To remedy that, Polk had a quiet private meeting with Archbishop John Hughes of New York.  While Dagger John suspected Polk’s political motivations, he agreed to recommend two priests to serve as chaplains:  Father Anthony Rey, vice-president of Georgetown and a Jesuit, and Father John McElroy, also a Jesuit, who went on to found Boston College and who will be the subject of a future post.

Father Rey, like most of the Catholic troops serving in the US Army during the Mexican War, was an immigrant.  He had been born in Lyons, France on March 19, 1807.  Originally planning on a career in business, while studying at the Jesuit college in Fribourg he decided to enter the priesthood and become part of the Society of Jesus.  In 1840 he was sent to the US and became a professor of philosophy at Georgetown.  In 1845 he became vice-president of Georgetown.

Joining the army of Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico following his appointment, Chaplain Rey took part in the siege and battle of Monterrey from September 20-23, 1846.  Coming from a sheltered academic environment and being tossed swiftly into vicious urban combat, I doubt if anyone would have blamed Father Rey, a newcomer to the Army, if he had remained safely out of the fight and tended the dead and dying afterwards.   However, that is not what he did.  What he did do during the battle is set forth in this account from an admiring Protestant: (more…)

Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 6:35 am  Comments (3)  
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