Archive for the ‘GEORGE WASHINGTON’ Tag

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: REFLECTIONS ON THE ORIGINS AND MEANING OF AMERICA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY – RE-POSTED FROM 6 YEARS AGO, NOTHING HAVING CHANGED   10 comments

 

REFLECTIONS ON THE ORIGINS AND MEANING OF AMERICA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

 

Why no on should be surprised when America behaves as an international bully

John Chuckman

If you relish myths and enjoy superstition, then the flatulent speeches of America’s Independence Day, July 4, were just the thing for you. No religion on earth has more to offer along these lines than America celebrating itself.

Some, believing the speeches but curious, ask how did a nation founded on supposedly the highest principles by high-minded men manage to become an ugly imperial power pushing aside international law and the interests of others? The answer is simple: the principles and high-mindedness are the same stuff as the loaves and the fishes.

The incomparable Doctor Johnson had it right when he called patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels and scoffed at what he called the “drivers of negroes” yelping about liberty.

Few Americans even understand that Johnson’s first reference was to their sacred Founding Fathers (aka Patriots). I have seen a well known American columnist who attributed the pronouncement to Ben Franklin, a man who was otherwise admirable but nevertheless dabbled a few times in slave trading himself.

Johnson especially had in mind history’s supreme hypocrite, Jefferson, with his second reference. Again, few Americans know that Jefferson kept his better than two hundred slaves to his dying day. I know a well educated American who sincerely believed Jefferson had freed his slaves. Such is the power of the myths of the American Civic Religion.

Jefferson was incapable of supporting himself, living the life of a prince and being a ridiculous spendthrift who died bankrupt and still owing money to others, the man of honor being a trifle less than honorable in paying back the money he often borrowed. When a new silk frock or set of shoes with silver buckles was to be had, Jefferson never hesitated to buy them rather than pay his debts.

The date we now celebrate, July 4, is based on the Continental Congress’s approval of the Declaration of Independence, but in fact the date is incorrect, the document was approved on July 2.

Jefferson wrote the first draft of the declaration, but it was edited by the redoubtable Benjamin Franklin, and later was heavily amended by the Continental Congress. Jefferson suffered great humiliation of his pride and anger at the editing and changes.

Despite the document’s stirring opening words, if you actually read the whole thing, you will be highly disappointed.

The bulk of it has a whining tone in piling on complaint after complaint against the Crown. Some would say the whining set a standard for the next quarter millennium of American society.

In Jefferson’s draft it went on and on about Britain’s slave trade. The ‘slave trade’ business was particularly hypocritical, trying to sound elevated while in fact reflecting something else altogether. At the time there was a surplus of human flesh in Virginia, and prices were soft.

The cause of the Revolution is also interesting and never emphasized in American texts. Britain’s imposition of the Quebec Act created a firestorm of anti-Catholicism in the colonies. They were afraid of being ruled from a Catholic colony.

The speech and writing of American colonists of the time was filled with exactly the kind of ugly language one associates with extremist Ulstermen in recent years.

This combined with the sense of safety engendered from Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War)and the unwillingness to pay taxes to help pay for that victory caused the colonial revolt.

Few Americans know it, but it was the practice for many, many decades to burn the Pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day along the Eastern Seaboard. Anti-Catholicism was quite virulent for a very long time.

The first phase of the revolt in and around Boston was actually something of a popular revolution, responding to Britain’s blockading the harbor and quartering troops in Boston.

The colonial aristocrats were having none of that, and they appointed Washington commander over the heads of the Boston Militias who volunteered and actually elected their officers.

Washington, who had always wanted to be a British regular commander but never received the commission, imposed his will ferociously. He started flogging and hanging.

In his letters home, the men who actually started the revolution are described as filth and scum. He was a very arrogant aristocrat.

The American Revolution has been described by a European as home-grown aristocrats replacing foreign-born ones. It is an apt description.

Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and many other of the Fathers had no faith in democracy. About one percent of early Virginia could vote. The president was not elected by people but by elites in the Electoral College. The Senate, which even today is the power in the legislature, was appointed well into the 20th century.

The Supreme Court originally never dared interpret the Bill of Rights as determining what states should do. It sat on paper like an advertising brochure with no force. At one time, Jefferson seriously raised the specter of secession, half a century before the Civil War, over even the possibility of the Bill of Rights being interpreted by a national court and enforced.

The Founding Fathers saw popular voting as endangering property ownership. Democracy was viewed by most the same way Washington viewed the “scum” who started the Revolution around Boston. It took about two hundred years of gradual changes for America to become anything that seriously could be called democratic. Even now, what sensible person would call it anything but a rough work still in progress.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that early America was ruled by a portion of the population no larger than what is represented today by the Chinese Communist Party as a portion of that country’s population.

Yet today we see little sign of patience or understanding in American arrogance about how quickly other states should become democratic. And we see in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo, and in the CIA’s International Torture Gulag that the principles and attitudes of the Bill of Rights still haven’t completely been embraced by America.

Contrary to all the posturing amongst the Patriots – who few understand were a minority at the time – about tyranny, the historical facts indicate that Britain on the whole actually had offered good government to its North American Colonies.

Everyone who visited the Colonies from Europe noted the exceptional health of residents.

They also noticed what seemed an extraordinary degree of freedom enjoyed by colonists. It was said to be amongst the freest place in the known world, likely owing in good part to its distance from the Mother Country. A favorite way to wealth was smuggling, especially with the Caribbean. John Hancock made his fortune that way.

Ben Franklin once wrote a little memo, having noted the health of Americans and their birth rates, predicting the future overtaking of Britain by America, an idea not at all common at the time.

Indeed, it was only the relative health and freedom which made the idea of separation at all realistic. Britain was, of course, at the time viewed much the way, with the same awe of power, people view America today. These well-known facts of essentially good government in the Colonies made the Declaration of Independence list of grievances sound exaggerated and melodramatic to outsiders even at the time.

The combination of the Quebec Act, anti-Catholicism, dislike of taxes, plus the desire to move West and plunder more Indian lands were the absolute causes of the Revolution.

Britain tried to recognize the rights of the aboriginals and had forbidden any movement west by the Colonies.

But people in the colonies were land-mad, all hoping to make a fortune staking out claims they would sell to later settlers. The map of Massachusetts, for example, showed the colony stretching like a band across the continent to the Pacific. Britain did not agree.

George Washington made a lot of money doing this very thing, more than any other enterprise of his except for marrying Martha Custis, the richest widow in the colonies.

The tax issue is interesting.

The French and Indian War (the Seven Years War) heavily benefited the Colonists by removing the threat of France in the West. Once the war was over, many colonists took the attitude that Britain could not take the benefits back, and they refused to pay the taxes largely imposed to pay the war’s considerable cost.

And Americans have hated taxes since.

By the way, in the end, without the huge assistance of France, the Colonies would not have won the war. France played an important role in the two decisive victories, Saratoga and Yorktown. At Saratoga they had smuggled in the weapons the Americans used. At Yorktown, the final battle, the French were completely responsible for the victory and for even committing to the battle. Washington had wanted instead to attack New York – which would have been a disaster – but the French generals then assisting recognized a unique opportunity at Yorktown.

After the war, the United States never paid the huge French loans back. Some gratitude. Also the United States renounced the legitimate debts many citizens owed to British factors (merchant/shippers) for no good reason at all except not wanting to pay.

It was all a much less glorious beginning than you would ever know from the drum-beating, baton-twirling, sequined costumes, and noise today. And if you really want to understand why America has become the very thing it claimed it was fighting in 1776, then you only need a little solid history.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN”   Leave a comment

“THESE COLORS DON’T RUN”

John Chuckman

Given its strutting brownshirt quality, here is a slogan that might well have been coined by America’s most articulate political thug, Pat Buchanan.

But the slogan, with little waving-flag pictures, is being used for bumper stickers selling John Kerry. Good marketers know that you want an offering for every niche, so here’s Kerry for the belly-over-the-belt, beer-belching, walrus-mustache set.

Niche marketing also explains goofy pieces about Kerry’s military service versus that of Republican chicken hawks (for those unfamiliar, “chicken hawks” is an informal American political term for men who never fought yet advocate sending others off to war, a group largely, but not exclusively, consisting of Republicans). Never mind the moral obtuseness of opposing an armchair-psychopath like Bush with arguments in favor of a man who did his own killing, there’s a weird market niche out there to be reached.

They sell everything in America. I recall the many patriotic displays of flags, buttons, and sweats in parking lots, supermarkets, and doughnut shops – all for sale, day and night, right after 9/11. Many claimed to be at reduced prices or even offered at two-for-one in especially touching displays of national feeling.

I recognize that Kerry needs all the advertising and marketing he can get. Every niche counts for one of the most uninspiring candidates in memory, although competition for the distinction of “most uninspiring” is tight in America. The nation’s political system seems capable only of advancing con men, bumblers, and paste-board cutouts anymore, although, occasionally, as in the case of the late Great Communicator, a single man combines all three identities. A network of powerful interests much like rivers and tributaries running together to form one roaring cataract sweeps away any candidate in a major party who might actually stand for something other than the imperial ethos.

God knows Kerry never has never represented much of substance. Efforts to sell him are likely wasted. Ask any professional marketer whether he or she thinks Bud Lite, even with the best marketing effort, can outsell Bud. If there’s a better description of John Kerry than “Bush Lite,” it eludes me.

Kerry, the boring, monotone moose of American politics, has hung up his set of Senate-fundraising cummerbunds – or at least restricted photographers access to the galas when he still hitches them up – in favor of casual plaid shirts. Well, he isn’t completely consistent about the plaid shirts: it’s a matter of which group he’s addressing whether he wants to suggest being a regular guy or society swell. When he does wear the plaid – always immaculately pressed to make sure no one mistakes him for someone who actually works for a living – there is more than a passing nod to millionaire, perpetual candidate, Lamar Alexander, who made a hobby of running for the Republican nomination sporting custom-made red lumberjack shirts.

People in struggling or oppressed lands who dream of being able to vote freely will be distressed to learn that America squanders her national elections on such costumed silliness, but it really cannot be otherwise when candidates have almost nothing to say.

Kerry’s casual shirts are probably custom-made, too, with enough of them in each of his wardrobes to provide a fresh change three times a day. After all, Kerry is a very wealthy man, coming from a privileged background and having married the fabulously-rich heiress to the Heinz Pickle and Canned Spaghetti fortune (no, she has no connection to the company, now part of a monstrous agglomerate, she just sits on mountains of cash it generated). You can see where Kerry’s sympathy and understanding for the little guy might come from.

There are precedents. George Washington inherited wealth and also married a very wealthy lady, Martha Custis, probably the richest widow in the colonies. Washington was famous for his warm qualities, too. The icy, piercing stare given to anyone for so much as touching his sleeve unbidden was legendary. His private characterization of early militiamen in Massachusetts, the men who genuinely had risked everything to start the revolt against Britain that he and other aristocrats then took over, was along the lines of filthy rabble.

Kerry is not built of quite the same stern stuff as the Father of His Country. Washington would never have worn a plaid shirt, but a lot has changed since his day when maybe the wealthiest one-percent of Americans could vote. Now, most Americans can vote, so you can’t be standoffish and you must expose yourself to the mob if you want to become President. The wealthiest one-percent now are limited strictly to determining with their campaign contributions which candidates the rabble sees on its ballots.

But Washington did sometimes coyly draw his silk frock coat over his cummerbund for touching moments when he spoke to people who weren’t fellow aristocrats: he was skilled at acts like removing his glasses as his eyes went misty addressing the men, whose poor promises for pay he would in some cases later buy up at severe discount. You wouldn’t recognize his capacity for empathy with ordinary men, though, from the monstrous bill he submitted to Congress after the Revolution for everything you can imagine including the wagon trains of wine he consumed at table while the rabble often did without a decent meal.

It’s true that wealthy people sometimes make inspired leaders – F.D.R. comes to mind as does the greatest prince in Europe’s history, Elizabeth I – but such people give strong signs of their remarkable talents long before they’ve reached Kerry’s age. You don’t hide your light until the near approach of senility. More often than not, you get Bushes or Rockefellers from the likes of Kerry, people with no more motivation for serving than capping their family’s list of achievements with the nation’s highest office.

Kerry rarely speaks of working people or the poor, rather he speaks of “the middle class,” feel-good language adopted by contemporary politicians to cover just about everyone in the country down to McDonald’s employees with more than one-month’s service. You are not supposed to speak of class differences in America. Everyone there is middle-class, unless extremely wealthy like Mr. Kerry or Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney or Mr. Rumsfeld, something not to be mentioned, or so poor as not to be worth mentioning. Economically-marginal Americans like to be called “middle class,” just as they like to brag about their kids “going to college,” even when the kids are working towards a degree in playground supervision or fast-food management in one of America’s countless sleazy, for-profit diploma mills.

Mr. Kerry, of course, didn’t attend a diploma mill. Only the best for him, the Yale of George and Daddy Bush. Incidentally, Bush’s graduating Yale is often advanced as an argument for his actual intelligence being higher than the public’s perception. But those old schools just love accepting the sons and daughters of rich patrons, and they manage to graduate them virtually always. You don’t build fat institutional endowments by flunking guys like Georgie Bush. Even Oxford and Cambridge in England follow the practice, accepting and graduating some of the most mediocre members of the Royal Family.

America’s love affair with everyone’s being middle class nicely serves the establishment’s belligerent foreign policy. It just doesn’t count for much when you kill peasants somewhere on the periphery of the empire, it’s a bit like stepping on ants while doing your gardening, and Kerry knows, firsthand, about killing peasants. He and his merry band of men buzzed up and down the rivers of Vietnam in a boat shooting people too poor and ignorant to understand the great blessings of liberty being offered them.

That experience may equip Kerry to handle the revolt of Iraqi peasants against American occupation. After all, in Vietnam they didn’t bother with stripping prisoners naked and smearing excrement on them. That was a war for real men. They took prisoners up in helicopters and threw them out from several thousand feet if they didn’t give the right response, and frequently even when they did give the right response. It just made for one less gook (the affectionate nickname American troops bestowed on the locals). When America’s good old boys tired of such vicious games, they just napalmed whole villages instead of bothering to find out what should or should not be attacked. That’s how you build a “body count” of about three million.

Kerry’s statements on foreign policy indicate, as they are intended to do, that he is ready and willing to kill and maim for whatever are America’s interests of the moment abroad. Of course, he doesn’t say just those words, but what he does say carries those implications. Never mind any emphasis on diplomacy, international institutions, or cooperation – that’s all sissy stuff. On the issue of Israel’s bloody occupation of the Palestinians, a dreary, deadening reality at the heart of much of America’s current trouble in the world, Kerry sounds even more fanatical than Bush.

Of course, the one comforting thought about an idiotic slogan like “These colors don’t run,” is that it is so plainly false. The colors ran like a cheap dye in Vietnam and Cambodia, leaving a trail of death, disillusionment, and broken promises. And the colors ran again in Somolia where an arrogant people busied themselves more with trying to shoot-up the bad guys than they did with feeding desperate people.

A stark summary of what actually has occurred over the last few years highlights the slogan’s goonish nature. The only attack on America was by nineteen fanatics with virtually no weapons who all died. It is positively inspiring that Old Glory, imperial symbol of the world’s mightiest country, didn’t run on such a challenging field of battle. Old Glory also withstood the heroic assault and occupation of two pathetically-poor countries whose combined capacity for defense was roughly comparable to the state of Missouri.

How could you lose with cruise missiles, stealth bombers, high-tech fragmentation bombs, the poison of depleted uranium, plus all the money and means imaginable to bribe officials and reward disloyalty? It was indeed a shining achievement, and if you recall John Kerry’s voice standing against any of it, you heard something the world missed.

The examples are countless of headstrong people like Americans learning hard lessons only by banging their heads into walls. A second dose of Bush’s truly destructive leadership will likely do more for America’s ailments than taking a placebo like John Kerry.

Posted June 1, 2009 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

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JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: LESSONS FROM THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION   6 comments

LESSONS FROM THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

John Chuckman

Many otherwise well-educated Americans know remarkably little about the actual circumstances of their country’s birth. Assumptions about that early period, frequently offered as counterexamples to the current dangerous and dreary American government, too often contain little more than boyish daydreams of nobler times.

America’s central myth about its founding goes something like this: An extraordinary bunch of men, dressed in frock coats and wearing powdered wigs, closeted together after a long and heroic war against tyranny, worked unselfishly to give the United States a perfect modern system of government.
Since they were men concerned with rights and abuses and the tyranny of absolute monarchy, they gave Americans a set of basic rights that is the envy of the world.

Some Americans, blissfully unaware of European history and the long-term development of democratic and enlightened government in all advanced societies – a process that has proceeded as inexorably as the growth of modern science since the Renaissance, albeit in fits and starts over some periods – add that the events of those early days were almost a set of miracles, providing the world with a new concept of government, “made from whole cloth,” as one enthusiastic Fourth of July editorialist put it.

These notions manage to get thoroughly muddled with Puritan religious ones that have been around since America’s colonial days, producing a story with strong overtones of a biblical legend.

Belief in the sudden, unprecedented appearance of a new form of government reminds one of the sun being halted in the sky or the virgin birth. Attitudes about the Founding Fathers uncomfortably mimic those for the Twelve Apostles. There’s even a Judas character in Benedict Arnold. The documents associated with these events, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, are regarded with much the same awe as books of the Bible, even though, as is the case certainly for the Declaration of Independence, there is a good deal of silly, outdated nonsense.

This set of myths and attitudes has been called America’s Civic Religion, and it is an apt name.

It follows that the thoughts and actions of someone like Mr. Bush – a narrow politician, a man of few ideas and less learning – can only suffer by comparison. One sometimes sees letters in The New York Times from people with lengthy titles, people you might think should know better, making what are silly comparisons of real people to myths. Clearly, even the most robust flesh-and-blood politician would suffer by such comparisons.

But contemporary America is not a case of a saint who’s fallen into sin. The historical fact is that America was born out of some pretty unpleasant circumstances, and better understanding of this fact would provide Americans with perspective in the way they understand the world, especially concerning the arrogant habit of expecting everyone to see how clearly America “has got it right.” and to instantly copy the pattern. America, in fact, did not “have it right” at the beginning, and it has taken more than two centuries to make a great many corrections, with many still to be made.

Along the way, since its founding, some moments of genuine human progress have occurred and the concepts of democracy and human decency for all have begun to take hold, but no more so than is the case for all other advanced countries of the world whose history did not start in revolution and the myths of Sacred Writ.

The myths about America’s origins serve several purposes, apart from the obvious one of tidying up a not-so-pretty historical record. As I wrote in “Flirting with Fascism,” America has a long history of doing just that, flirting with fascism. The birth-myths help solidify the hold on the American imagination of democratic and human-rights principles and, to that extent at least, serve a worthy purpose.

America was founded by a small coterie of privileged men who were mainly interested in maintaining their privileges and indeed in expanding them at the expense of a foreign-born aristocracy.

The first truly important cause for American independence was Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War (more generally called the Seven Year’s War). The French in the 1750s were setting about constructing a series of forts both along the Canadian border and in places like the Ohio river valley. Their intention was to prevent the westward expansion of the British colonies and to lock up much of the valuable fur trade.

British colonists did not look favorably on this development. Their intense desire was to become rich through land speculation and endless westward expansion, the kind of
activity, apart from marrying a rich widow, that made George Washington one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, one with rather a reputation for sharp business practices. It has been said that the shooting of a French officer (the French flatly called it murder) by an ambitious young George Washington, serving in the Virginia militia, marked the opening of the Seven Years War, sometimes called the first world war.

Britain did win the war, but at considerable cost. The colonies’ first reaction to British victory was joy and celebration. It was later that a series of what can only be regarded as reasonable tax measures to have the colonists help pay the costs of the war aroused such great antipathy in the colonies. The view was simply this: The war was over, the benefits to the colonists could not be re-claimed by Britain, so the colonists felt no obligation to help pay beyond what they had contributed during the war. Hatred of taxes – unavoidably associated with crippling good, sound government – has remained to this day a feature of the American cultural landscape.

Besides, the colonists were used to a rather privileged position that none of them wanted disturbed. They lived a healthy and relatively happy life, as all the statistics and observations of the time attest. Foreign observers frequently commented on how healthy Americans under the Crown were. As well, it was widely observed, and commented on in Europe, that these colonies – well before the Revolution – were amongst the freest places in the world to live.

Ben Franklin at one point made the forecast that America’s population and wealth, given the conditions under which they prospered, would one day far outdistance those of the Mother Country. He was not alone in understanding this.

So, after the French and Indian War, things at first looked favorable for the desires of settlers to build limitless land empires, but then several developments considerably darkened the view.

A key one was the Quebec Act which vastly extended the territory of Quebec to include what today is Illinois as part of a vast Quebec Territory. Most Americans will not know what a huge storm this caused in the colonies because it is not an attractive subject for elementary texts.

First, it appeared to make the possibility of endless western expansion impossible. England, quite fairly and reasonably, wanted to discourage expansion over the Appalachians into Indian territory like the Ohio valley as a way of maintaining peace. The Mother Country had a conscientious policy of avoiding further conflicts with native Americans. This policy American colonists had tended to ignore, but the creation of a new Western jurisdiction under a Catholic province like Quebec, was an entirely different matter.

There was a paranoid fear of “papism” in the colonies, peopled as they were by many Puritan extremists who had run away from the dislike they often aroused in the old country. Anti-Catholic feeling ran very high in the American colonies. Indeed, it was an old custom, and remained the custom for decades after the Revolution, to burn effigies of the pope each year on Britain’s Guy Fawkes Day. America’s nasty-tempered Puritan settlers wanted nothing to do with “papists.” Yes, the very same nasty, hateful words we heard during the Northern Ireland conflict over the last thirty years were constantly on the tongues and in the newspapers of American colonists.

Britain’s final reaction to the colonists’ refusal to pay taxes, after a long period of adjustments in the taxes and talks with colonial representatives, and to their contempt for Imperial regulations over boundaries and trade – many of the colonies’ richest men such as John Hancock were simply smugglers – triggered an authentic “grass-roots” revolt in Massachusetts.

When the unthinkable actually happened in Massachusetts – violent revolt being originally unthinkable for most well-known and established colonial figures like Franklin or Washington or John Adams – there was no going back. The central issue became one of how things were to be managed by the colonies’ ambitious little Establishment.

Washington’s appointment as commander-in-chief represented an important turning point. What had been an almost spontaneous revolt organized by militia groups who elected their leaders became an organized opposition with an organized army under an appointed commander who suddenly started lashing and hanging volunteers who didn’t obey orders or show proper respect. Washington, the cold Virginia aristocrat, expressed contempt in his letters for the New England militiamen who had taken all the chances and started the whole business. He wanted to command a real army with smart uniforms and traditional discipline just like the British army he so admired. He had been frustrated for years about getting a permanent commission in the British army, something that was then rarely awarded to colonials.

Washington actually proved one of the worst generals of all time, losing battle after battle, although he offered a strong and stubborn figure as symbol and rallying point. Had the battle-hardened British commanders been ruthlessly determined instead of complacent and actually more than a little indulgent towards their American cousins, there is little doubt the Revolution would have died quickly (of course, the same local grievances and ambitions would years later have flared up again in some other form). In the end, it was French assistance, as I’ve detailed in “France’s Great Folly,” that made the Revolution a success, although this was rarely acknowledged later by Washington, an attitude still widely displayed today.

The real lessons of the American Revolution include the fact that early Americans were not motivated by quite the high ideals that contemporary Americans generally attribute to them. Anti-Catholicism and greed for Western expansion were basic causes. So, too, antipathy to taxes. Still, given enough time, America outgrew some of these early narrow prejudices.

One narrowness that has not disappeared with time is found in the Declaration of Independence. Few Americans ever actually read it, but after a few stirring, handsome words, this document is a long, whining list of grievances, almost amusing to read now. Jefferson’s first draft, which included even blaming the slave trade on Britain – Jefferson was very poor at economics, not recognizing the need for demand as well as supply in any market – was heavily excised by the Continental Congress, making the petulant Jefferson so irritated he disowned the document until in his later years it had become an American icon. Then he wanted credit for it engraved on his tombstone. Whining, unthinking demands and petulant attitudes remain readily-identified with America even as a world power.

The great lesson of Yorktown in 1781, the final, decisive battle, was that even a great power like Imperial Britain really could not suppress the naturally-grown ambitions and desires of a people thousands of miles away, not without investing at a cost out of all proportion to the benefits, and not without becoming intensely disliked. This is a lesson that America, now grown strong and very arrogant in its strength, has utterly failed to learn.

Posted May 28, 2009 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

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JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: ASHCROFT, AMERICAN HISTORY, AND SPEAKING IN TONGUES   1 comment

ASHCROFT, AMERICAN HISTORY, AND SPEAKING IN TONGUES

John Chuckman

John Ashcroft, Attorney General of the United States, recently repeated an old chestnut about America being a Christian nation whose Founders were Christian gentlemen.

The claim is common among the country’s fundamentalist Christians, but it is so ignorant of actual history one wonders whether it should not be taken as another serious indictment of American public education. Some readers may not be aware that Mr. Ashcroft’s background includes familiarity with such arcane subjects as speaking in tongues. As for Mr Bush, who touched the same theme in China, perhaps no comment on his grasp of history is required.

The late eighteenth century, following on the Enlightenment and waves of reaction to the violent excesses of the Reformation and Counter-reformation over the previous two centuries, was perhaps the lowest point for Christian influence ever. Virtually all educated people in Europe were deists and many were open skeptics.

America was not free of this influence despite its many Puritan immigrants. Indeed, many of the best educated citizens at this time were educated in Europe. And the small number of good libraries owned by educated people often contained the works of Enlightenment authors. Virtually all the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and even some of the words of the Constitution derive from these European sources. It is due precisely to the unique qualities of the period that we owe America’s early
embrace of religious tolerance. The immigrant Puritans had displayed no religious tolerance , and in fact were some of the worst fanatics from Europe.

Washington was a deist. He was a member of the Masons, a then
comparatively-new, secretive fraternal organization widely regarded as unfriendly to traditional Christianity and reflecting European secular attitudes. He did attend church regularly, but this was done with the aristocratic notion that it set an example for the lower classes, Washington being very much a planter-aristocrat (he used to refer to the independent-minded Yankee recruits in the Revolution, who had had the practice of electing their officers before he was appointed as commander, as “a dirty
and nasty people.”). This was a time when there was an established church in
Virginia, and it functioned as an important quasi-political organization.

Washington always used deistic terms like Great Providence. His writings, other than one brief note as a very young man, do not speak of Jesus, and he died, knowing he was dying, without ever calling for prayer, Bible, or minister. There is a story given by some of his best biographers shedding light on his church-going. He apparently never kneeled for prayer nor would he take communion. When one parson brought this to his attention after the service, Washington gave him the icy stare for which this aloof, emotionally-cold man was famous and never returned to that church.

Thomas Jefferson was accused publicly of being an atheist. More than any other Founder, Jefferson was under the spell of European (and particularly, French) thought. His writings, and references to him by friends, certainly make him sound like a private skeptic. He belonged to no church. He explicitly denied the divinity of Jesus, viewing him as a great teacher of human values. At best he was a deist referring in his private writings to God as “our god.”

Jefferson who, despite high-sounding words, was something of a hypocrite on many aspects of civil liberties, and particularly on slavery, was at his best on the need for religious liberty. Despite his free-thinking reputation, he formed alliances with groups like the Baptists, who deeply resented paying taxes to the established church in Virginia, and won a long battle for a statute of religious liberty.

Thomas Paine, whose stirring words in Common Sense contributed greatly to the Revolution, was often accused of atheism because of his religious writing, but deism is closer to the truth. His later writing done in Europe, The Age of Reason, was regarded as scandalous by establishment-types. France, during the Terror under Ropespierre, turned to a new kind of state religion. This, the very brave Paine, living in Paris, also rejected, writing,

“I do not believe in the creed professed… by the Roman church,
by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the protestant
church, nor any church that I know of. My own mind is my own
church.”

The great Dr. Franklin, who incidentally lived about a quarter of his life on diplomatic missions in Europe and who as a very young man had run away from a home where rigid religious principles were imposed, was a typical deist of the period. He was an active member of the first Masonic temple in America. His attitudes were so amicable to French intellectuals and society, he was embraced, as no other American has ever been, as a national figure in that country.

Alexander Hamilton, undoubtedly the most intellectually gifted of the Founders other than Franklin, paid lip service to religion, but he was known during the Revolution as a rake. Later, his distinguished career in Washington’s cabinet was marred by a great sexual scandal. Generally, Hamilton used religion to promote his political aims, ignoring it whenever it was convenient. In this respect, perhaps he qualifies as a thoroughly modern American version of a Christian.

Gouveneur Morris, who wrote the draft of the Constitution we all recognize from the notes of others, was an extremely worldly and aristocratic man. He was also one of Washington’s most trusted confidants. He was perhaps the most rakish, womanizing diplomat America ever sent to Europe, sharing at one point a mistress with Talleyrand, the most amoral ex-cleric who ever practiced statecraft. In general, Europeans were astonished that a man so worldly and so arrogantly patrician in temperament represented the young republic for a period in France.

Abraham Lincoln, while not a Founder, is the most beloved of American presidents. Lincoln’s closest friend and most interesting biographer, Herndon , said flatly that Lincoln was a religious skeptic. This has always so upset America’s establishment historians that Herndon has been accused of writing a distorted book, a rather ridiculous charge in view of a close friendship with his subject and twenty years spent collecting materials.

Lincoln never attended church, and when he refers to God in speeches during the Civil War, it is always with words acceptable to secular, educated people who regarded the King James Bible as an important cultural and literary document apart from any claims for its sacredness. There is reason to believe that as the bloody war continued, Lincoln, who suffered from severe depressions, turned to the Bible for consolation, especially to the story of the struggle of the Hebrews. Lincoln was also an extremely astute politician who used every means at his command in the great battle with secession, and his references to the Almighty may well have been part of
his psychological artillery. He certainly did not invoke the name of Jesus.

Patrick Henry, who incidentally opposed ratification of the Constitution, was a Christian, but he was once described by Jefferson as “an emotional volcano with little guiding intelligence.”