Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Heartbreaking Loss

On this day in 1775, the American forces under Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery were defeated in their late night attack on Quebec. Having arrived at the city almost a month prior, both Arnold and Montgomery were hopeful that they could force the British from their strongholds by surrounding the city and bombarding it with canon fire. Much to their dismay, the British were well supplied and entrenched, and the Canadian population was not eager to support the American cause of liberty as Arnold, Montgomery and even Washington had hoped. As a result, the "rebels" were forced to attack the city on December 31 with everything they had. With year enlistments coming up, along with a horrific shortage of food and supplies, both Arnold and Montgomery knew that they would not be able to hold out for long. Simply put, the attack became an all-or-nothing roll of the dice.

The outcome was disastrous for the Americans. Of the 900 American soldiers who participated in the assault, 100 were killed and another 400 were taken prisoner -- the British only lost 6 in the assault. Among the casualties was none other than General Montgomery, who was killed in the attack. Colonel Benedict Arnold was also severely wounded in the leg, which forced him to relinquish command -- albeit temporarily -- to Daniel Morgan, who had the presence of mind to call off a second assault on the city.

For Washington and the rest of the Continental Army the news of the defeat at Quebec was a terrible pill to swallow. Both Washington and his aides, along with several members of the Continental Congress had hoped that an assault on Quebec would inspire British Canadians to their cause and cut off the British in the north.

They were wrong.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas According to Thomas Jefferson

I know that I have mentioned The Thomas Jefferson Hour in the past on this blog, but I would like to call your attention to it again. In his most recent installment, Clay Jenkinsion, who portrays Thomas Jefferson, explains what the Sage of Monticello thought of the celebration of Christmas, Boxing Day, religion, etc.

Click here for the link to the show's website. Simply scroll down to the bottom of the left hand column and click on "Listen to the Show." The show is archived under #749: Christmas Past.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Don't Forget Trenton!

Merry Christmas everyone! As you enjoy the festivities, keep in mind that today also carries a special American tribute that should not go forgotten.

232 years ago on this date George Washington and the Continental Army made their daring advance on Trenton to attack the Hessian soldiers encamped at the city. The move was risky to say the least. Trenton was defended by 1,500 Hessian mercenaries, who were expecting to pass through a relatively calm winter encampment at the city. Washington, however, saw an opportunity to gain a moral victory (moral because winning Trenton was not a major tactical victory) for his army. After all, this was the same army that had been thoroughly routed by the British at New York, where they were forced to flee on a number of occasions. As a result, the Continental Army was in extreme disarray and Washington himself was being questioned by the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In fact, some even suggested that the General should be replaced for his poor performance at New York.

It was under these tough circumstances that Thomas Paine wrote the words to his epic pamphlet, The Crisis, which was written just two days before the planned attack on Trenton:

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
With such dire circumstances all around them, Washington decided to roll the dice. An attack on Trenton would secure a for the Continental Army a legitimate moral victory, one which would help to inspire the allegiance of more colonials to the cause of independence. Despite the benefits, Washington was not unaware of the tremendous risk he was taking. In a very real sense this was an all-or-nothing gamble (It is therefore no surprise that Washington would pen a note on his desk that read, "Victory or Death").

To make a long story short, Washington and the Continental Army won an astonishing victory at Trenton, capturing over 1/3 of the entire Hessian garrison. Since the Hessians expected a quiet winter encampment, they chose to enjoy the holidays by staying up late and drinking away their Christmas Eve. As a result, the army was caught asleep, hung over, and disorganized upon Washington's arrival. Here is a clip from the movie The Crossing, which captures the feel of that Christmas morning:

The Army then goes on to rout the Hessians at Trenton. In the process, only 2 continental soldiers lost their lives. In addition, only five were wounded (including James Monroe, who eventually became our 5th president).

So, Merry Continental Army Kicks Hessian Butt Day/Christmas!!!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gingerbread, Lovely Gingerbread!

When it comes to celebrating the holidays, gingerbread is to Christmas what the American flag is to the 4th of July. In all of its variety, gingerbread has delighted the pallets of generations of Americans. Even our colonial ancestors got a piece of the gingerbread action!

Gingerbread, which has traditionally been one of the most popular Christmas treats, was used to decorate both the homes and trees of early American colonists. The very first printed cookbooks, which were printed in the late 1400s, even carried a number of recipes for making gingerbread, which was thought to be an extremely healthy snack. In Germany, gingerbread took the name lebkuchen which means life bread because of its perceived health benefits.

In colonial America, the making of gingerbread was based on the traditional methods of Europe, primarily England, where bakers traditionally carved an assortment of shapes and designs out of their popular treat. Gingerbread men, which were traditionally cut into the shapes of various saints, were used to decorate one's home in commemoration of the respective saint's achievements. For the impoverished masses in both England and America, gingerbread men/houses were far too expensive to be enjoyed. As a result, bakers cut small strips of gingerbread or used the leftovers from their gingerbread men/houses to make "snaps." These "snaps" were often dunked in alcohol, much to the delight of the poor customer.

Yes, gingerbread truly enjoys a history that not only dates back to our colonial ancestors, but all the way back to our European roots, which, like a number of traditions, has taken on a unique American twist. With a heritage like this, gingerbread is sure to enjoy a starring role in the American celebration of Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Merry Colonial Christmas

Being that we are only days from celebrating Christmas, I have chosen to look at how early colonial Americans understood this celebration, which has become so mainstream in our modern era. Contrary to what most of us might think, Christmas has not been the predominant American holiday throughout our history. In fact, it has been anything but that.

This bright and joyful holiday that we celebrate every December, which is no doubt the most popular holiday in modern day America, was seen in a very different light by the earliest Americans. Instead of lavishly decorating the town and cheerfully celebrating the holiday spirit, those of America's early years took a very indifferent stance on the celebration Christmas. As historian Nicole Harms put it:

Christmas in colonial America did not resemble the brightly lit festivities we celebrate today. In fact, many colonial religions banned celebrations of the holiday, claiming that it was tied to pagan traditions. The New England Puritans passed a law in Massachusetts that punished anyone who observed the holiday with a five-shilling fine. The Quakers treated Christmas Day as any other day of the year. The Presbyterians did not have formal Christmas Day services until they noticed that their members were heading to the English church to observe the Christmas services. This sparked the Presbyterian Church to start services of their own.
Nicole Harms is 100% right. The Puritans, whom we celebrate for their quest to establish a new religious community, utterly loathed the celebration of Christmas. Since their religious doctrine was predominantly based on strict adherence to the Bible, and since there is no mention of Christmas being celebrated in the Bible, the Puritans saw the holiday as a blasphemous heresy. Even the overwhelming majority of Puritan diaries reveal that December 25th was nothing more than an average day of work and worship in their corner of the New World. Not only could one be fined for celebrating Christmas, but in addition they could find themselves locked up in the stocks for up to eight hours!

As more Europeans began migrating to British America, many of their Christmas customs naturally made the journey as well. However, as these customs clashed with overwhelming religious opposition, the celebration of Christmas evolved into a more secular winter festival that was reminiscent of its original pagan roots. As a result, Christmas was detached from any major religious significance. The overwhelming majority of colonial preachers -- particularly in the Puritan lands of Massachusetts -- made little to no effort to preach the "pagan" or "papal" doctrine surrounding Christmas. For those various Protestants, the Reformation had taken care of those "vile," "hideous" traditions of the papacy, and Christmas was certainly seen as one of them.

A good example of this religious detachment from Christmas can be found in the first year of the American Revolution. As George Washington and his men limped away from their horrific defeat in New York at the end of 1776, the Continental Army was literally teetering on the brink of destruction. It wasn't until General Washington suggested a Christmas Day attack of the Hessian camps in Trenton that the "rebels" were able to gain a measure of success in the war's first year. And why did Washington choose Christmas for his attack? Because he knew that the Hessians, would be completely drunk and hung over from their Christmas celebration; a celebration that was completely secular in nature. After all, Washington wasn't counting on the Hessians being caught up in prayer. Instead he was sure they would be drunk off their mind from their holiday ale.

And such was the case for most colonial celebrations in America. Amongst the earliest settlers to the New World were the Jamestown explorers of 1607. And what did their first Christmas in the New World entail? Well, pretty much nothing but getting as drunk as possible. John Smith mentioned how the popular holiday drink that we call eggnog was the primary source for "jolliness" during their Christmas season. The Jamestown drink, known as "grog," was a slang for any beverage containing run. Later, the word was eventually changed to "nog," and has been present at every Christmas festival since.

In conclusion, there can be little argument that many of the festivities that we use to commemorate Christmas are deeply rooted in pagan tradition. In today's society this is hardly noticed, but in Colonial America it was a well known fact, which turned many Christians off to the holiday. It wasn't until the late part of the 19th century that Christmas took on its central role as the premiere American religious holiday. For literally centuries, Christmas was a quasi-holiday, often ignored by the masses. Christian churches were less zealous to see it celebrated than they are today. If our ancestors could only see us now!!!

Land of Confusion: Will We Ever Sort it all Out?

At American Creation, one of the repeating arguments that we tackle almost on a weekly basis centers around the issue of how much "God talk" did the founding fathers want in American society and government. Did the founders hope for a plethora of religious discussion to take place in the halls of government? Or were they hoping to create a secular government based on human reason and intellect that would be free from the "shackles" of religious tyranny?

Of course our blog is not the first or only forum in which these discussions take place. A countless number of books, blogs, television outlets, etc. have immersed themselves in this "custody battle" for the religious -- or anti-religious -- heritage of America's founding. I believe author Steven Waldman effectively illustrates this ongoing "war" for America's founding heritage when he writes:

The "religious" side wants less separation of church and state, and the "secularists" want more...For starters, many conservatives believe that if they can show that the Founding Fathers were very religious, they thereby also prove that the Founders abhorred separation of church and state...Some liberals, meanwhile, feel the need to prove the Founders were irreligious or secular and therefore, of course, in favor of separation...But in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, BOTH SIDES DISTORT HISTORY...In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty. (Founding Faith, 7).
And this is the central problem. in the heat of this "custody battle" both the Christian nation supporters and the American secularists have lost their way in the labyrinth of popular culture.

Attempting to grasp the historical facts of America's founding heritage is a messy prospect regardless of one's persuasion. Even the very participants in America's revolution understood this. As John Adams stated to his Virginia comrade, Thomas Jefferson:

Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?
Jefferson's response is equally provocative:

Nobody...except merely its external facts...The life and soul of its history must be forever unknown.
So can we ever actually hope to ascertain America's true religious heritage? At least one man believes so. And not only does he vehemently support the "Christian Nation" agenda but he also makes the boogeyman cower in fear. Yes, I am talking about the one and only Chuck Norris!

As a contributor to WorldNetDaily, Norris has written several pieces on America's Godly heritage. In October of this year, however, Norris aimed his attacks at the new $621 million dollar Capitol Visitor Center, which Norris believes is nothing more than a tribute to American political correctness. Norris writes:

Religious revisionism is popping up again in the new Capitol Visitor Center...Absent is anything that discusses our Christian or religious heritage. That is why Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., and the 108 congressional members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus recently petitioned the Architect of the Capitol by letter, which details and documents the incomplete and inaccurate religious content in the Capitol Visitor Center.
Norris then lists the specific religious components that are missing from the Visitor Center:

1. No mention of our national motto, "In God We Trust"

2. In displaying images of the current speaker's rostrum in the House chamber, the phrase "In God We Trust" is omitted from its location engraved in marble above the speaker's head;

3. The opening words in Article 3 in the Northwest Ordinance (1787) are excluded from an exhibit. The actual article reads, "Art. 3. Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." The exhibit article reads: "Art. 3. … schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

4. There are factual inaccuracies regarding church services held at the Capitol in early decades of our republic, saying they were held when Congress wasn't in session, when in fact they were held year around – and even the so-labeled strict-separatist Thomas Jefferson attended them throughout his eight years of presidency.

5. The exhibits include photos from Earth Day, an AIDS rally, various casino grounds and factories, but it does not include photos from monumental religious events such as the National Day of Prayer or the March for Life event, attended by thousands annually, etc.

6. There is an absence of any major display or description of the religious influence within or about the 200-plus year history of the Capitol.
But not everyone is upset with the portrayal of America's religious heritage as presented in the Capitol Visitor's Center. Sandhya Bathija of Americans United For the Separation of Church and State expressed his extreme opposition to the work being done by the Christian Nation crowd. He writes:

The version of American history pushed by Barton and Forbes is their own skewed version. For the rest of us, we have learned since kindergarten that our founding fathers had enough sense to keep religion out of government and government out of religion in order to preserve religious liberty for all.

I’m pleased that the new Capitol Visitor Center hasn’t yielded to Religious Right propagandists. I hope it doesn’t do so now.
In conclusion, here is a Youtube video posted by Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, and staunch supporter of the Christian right. The video addresses the Senator's specific grievances with the new Visitor's Center and what he would like to see changed:

And here are some parting words from Chuck himself:

America's fathers wholeheartedly believed in the premise stated in Psalm 33:12, which says, "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." But what would they have thought of a nation that removes God from its heritage, classroom instructions, civic ceremonies, buildings, monuments, historic sites, etc.? I believe the words of Thomas Jefferson are as fitting for religious apostasy as they were for slavery, words that were inscribed upon his memorial in Washington, D.C., around 1940: "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.
-If you have five dollars and Chuck Norris has five dollars, Chuck Norris has more money than you.

-There is no 'ctrl' button on Chuck Norris's computer. Chuck Norris is always in control.

-Chuck Norris can sneeze with his eyes open.

-Chuck Norris can eat just one Lay's potato chip.

-Chuck Norris destroyed the periodic table, because he only recognizes the element of surprise.

-Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird