Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Story Behind the Star-Spangled Banner (Except Not Really)

With snow piling up in Colorado it looks like I have some extra time to devote to blogging this weekend. To start things off, I wanted to address a video that has become quite popular over the past few months. In fact, three different people have sent it to me via email this past week. The video is of a man named Dudley Rutherford. Rutherford is the Pastor of the Shepherd of the Hills Church in California. In the video, Rutherford gives a stirring and patriotic account of what he calls the story behind the National Anthem. The video has gained so much attention that even Glenn Beck, pseudo historian extraordiaire, is planning on having Mr. Rutherford on to discuss the "real" history of our nation's anthem. Take a look:

Now, before I point out where he went terribly wrong with his history let me first state for the record that I admire Mr. Rutherford's love of country. One of the things I appreciate most about the Christian right is their reverence for this nation and their appreciation for those who went before us. In my opinion, this is something that the secularists on the left (and yes, I realize that not every secularist fits this mold) either detests or can't seem to understand. With that said, I do want to address Mr. Rutherford's woefully inaccurate account in the video above. I do so with the intent to simply correct the history. In no way am I suggesting that Mr. Rutherford is a diabolical liar bent on twisting history for his own personal gain.

1.) About 39 seconds in, Rutherford stated that "the colonies were engaged in vicious conflict with the mother country, Britain." Rutherford continuously refers to "the colonies" throughout the video, which reveals very poor chronology on his part. The American Revolution lasted from 1775 to 1783, and the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, which means that "the colonies" had become a thing of the past. By the time Francis Scott Key met with the British at the Battle of Baltimore the United States had been a sovereign nation for over 30 years. They were not "colonies". Rutherford messes up his chronology by assuming that the Battle of Baltimore took place during the American Revolution, and he is incorrect.

2.) Key did not sail out to the British to free a bunch of prisoners. In fact, he sailed out in order to free only ONE prisoner, Dr. William Beanes. As for Rutherford's claim that Key tried to liberate a bunch of men who were being kept in chains in a cargo hold, this is completely not true. In reality, Key was considered a "guest" on board a British command frigate, where he dined with other British "gentleman." From the Library of Congress website:
When the British invaded Washington in 1814, Ross and Cockburn with their staff officers made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., at the residence of a planter, Dr. William Beanes, whom they subsequently seized as a prisoner. Upon hearing of his friend's capture, Key resolved to release him, and was aided by President Madison, who ordered that a vessel that had been used as a cartel should be placed at his service, and that John S. Skinner, agent for the exchange of prisoners, should accompany him. Gen. Ross finally consented to Dr. Beanes's release, but said that the party must be detained during the attack on Baltimore.

Key and Skinner were transferred to the frigate "Surprise," commanded by the admiral's son, Sir Thomas Cockburn, and soon afterward returned under guard of British sailors to their own vessel, whence they witnessed the engagement.
Again, no account of hundreds of men, in chains, in a dark cargo hold being comforted by Francis Scott Key.

3.) Rutherford continuously refers to the fort as "Fort Henry." It was actually called Fort McHenry.

4.) Rutherford is right when he states that Key, Beanes, and John Skinner (who accompanied Key) were not allowed to return to shore, due to the impending attack by the British. This point, however, is about the only point Rutherford gets right. He then completely derails and really screws up the true history. Rutherford claims that Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who was in command of the British naval forces, informed Key that he was going to reduce Fort McHenry to rubble. This isn't true. The British had no intention of destroying the fort but instead wanted to capture it.

5.) Rutherford states that Admiral Cochrane informed Francis Scott Key that "the entire British war fleet...with hundreds of ships" were going to attack the "Fort Henry." This is completely untrue. The British only had 19 ships at Baltimore, nothing more. In addition, only 8 or 9 of those ships actually fired on the fort, since the other ships didn't have the guns that could reach the shore. Also, it is important to note that Cochrane had sent a landing party of British soldiers to attempt to gain intelligence. Cochrane then ordered his ships to pull back and only attack the redoubts of the fort. He clearly didn't want to destroy the fort or inadvertently kill his own men who he had sent ashore.

6.) There were no women or children in the fort. Another bogus claim. I think Rutherford states this because there was one woman killed in the bombardment. She was trying to bring her husband and other men dinner when a bomb took her out.

7.) Rutherford is 100% wrong when he states than men from the fort held the flag up "until they died" and that "the patriot's bodies" were piled around the flag pole. Not true. Only 3-5 soldiers were killed in the fort, nothing more.

*** On a side note, I am curious to know if the Washington quote that Rutherford brings up is true. He claims that Key was inspired by Washington's following words:
"The thing that separates the American Christian from every other person on earth is the fact that he would rather die on his feet, than live on his knees!"
I have looked around and cannot find anything to substantiate or repudiate that Washington did/did not say this. Anyone out there have the answer?

In conclusion, my intention is not to make fun of Mr. Rutherford or to start calling him a pathological liar. Instead, I simply believe that patriotism based on mythical history really isn't patriotism, and sadly, too many people gobble this stuff up as gospel. After all, it came from a pastor!

***Update: In the post I mistakenly stated that Mr. Rutherford was going to be on Glenn Beck's show. That is not true. Rutherford informed me that he has never been in contact with Mr. Beck and has no plans to be on his program. My apologies for the error.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Don't Forget Trenton Today!

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

234 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!!!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Season Decorations at Colonial Williamsburg

Thought you all might enjoy watching this video from the folks at Colonial Williamsburg on how they decorate for the Christmas holidays...

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Was Lincoln the Most Influential American in History?

According to a 2006 survey of ten historians, conducted and published by The Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln topped the list of the 100 most influential Americans in history. Several figures from the founding era (and before) made the list, including Jonathan Edwards (#90), Noah Webster (#71), John Quincy Adams (#55), John Adams (#25), Thomas Paine (#19), Andrew Jackson (#18), James Madison (#13), John Marshall (#7), Benjamin Franklin (#6), Alexander Hamilton (#5), Thomas Jefferson (#3), and George Washington (#2).

I'd like to see The Atlantic update this list by moving George Washington to the top spot where he belongs (without Washington, there wouldn't be a United States or a President Lincoln) and to move Jefferson down a few notches. He continues to be overrated in his influence. And Paine at #19? What's that about?

If you want to check out the list, visit The Atlantic's "100 Most Influential Figures in American History." And then let Brad and me know what you think in the comments section.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"From the Halls of Montezuma, to the Shores of Tripoli"

Happy 235th Birthday to the
United States Marines!!!

On this day in 1775, the United States Marine Corps was born. Members of the Continental Congress, seeing that war with Britain was on the horizon, drafted a resolution calling for the establishment of "two battalions of Marines to be raised." The Continental Congress, gathered at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, ratified the resolution, which officially commissioned the Continental Marines "for the protection of the American colonies and to fight for independence at sea and shore." It was John Adams, the chief supporter of the bill, who pushed for the ratification of this resolution. As a result, it is Adams who should be given special recognition as being the "father" of the Marine Corps.

Here are some interesting tidbits of history on the Marines and their role in the Revolution from the History Channel's website:
Serving on land and at sea, the original U.S. Marines distinguished themselves in a number of important operations during the Revolutionary War. The first Marine landing on a hostile shore occurred when a force of Marines under Captain Samuel Nicholas captured New Province Island in the Bahamas from the British in March 1776. Nicholas was the first commissioned officer in the Continental Marines and is celebrated as the first Marine commandant. After American independence was achieved in 1783, the Continental Navy was demobilized and its Marines disbanded.

In the next decade, however, increasing conflict at sea with Revolutionary France led the U.S. Congress to establish formally the U.S. Navy in May 1798. Two months later, on July 11, President John Adams signed the bill establishing the U.S. Marine Corps as a permanent military force under the jurisdiction of the Department of Navy. U.S. Marines saw action in the so-called Quasi-War with France and then fought against the Barbary pirates of North Africa during the first years of the 19th century. Since then, Marines have participated in all the wars of the United States and in most cases were the first soldiers to fight. In all, Marines have executed more than 300 landings on foreign shores.
For more information on the birthday of the U.S. Marines click here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Jefferson's "Tree of Liberty" Quote in Context

This past week Americans witnessed the beautiful miracle that is a democratic election. And though many on the left are probably unhappy with the results, all Americans should be proud of the fact that in this nation we can have a safe transfer of power from one person to another without a single shot being fired or a single life being lost. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest blessing of living in America.

Over the past few months, however, we have witnessed a great disturbance in the collective political discourse of this nation. The fires of political partisanship has led to an inferno of overheated, hate-filled demonstrations of pretended patriotism aimed at "securing" America's "true" glory no matter the cost (some have even suggested revolution as a viable option). Now, it's not my intention to engage in a political debate here (that's one of the things I love best about this blog...very little politics), but I do think there are some historical matters to clear up here.

In the wake of this public discourse one infamous and stirring quote has made its way back onto the public stage: enter none other than Thomas Jefferson.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson -- who was then living in France -- wrote a letter to his friend William Smith. In the letter Jefferson wrote the following words, which have, from time-to-time, been quoted to affirm the rights of the people to rebel against one's government:
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.
Simple enough, right? Well, not quite. And while Jefferson's "tree of liberty" quote has become a favorite of many who oppose the current direction being taken by the Obama Administration, the quote has an important and often forgotten context.

As mentioned before, Jefferson was still living and working in France in 1787. At the time, Jefferson was deeply concerned about some of the proposals for the new United States Constitution -- particularly the role of the executive branch, which he saw as being far too powerful. In addition, Jefferson believed that the recent rebellion in Massachusetts -- which became known as Shays' Rebellion -- had heightened the fears of the American elite, causing them to throw their weight behind a stronger executive government. Shays' Rebellion was essentially an armed rebellion against taxes being levied at Massachusetts farmers. It's leader, Daniel Shays -- who had served as a soldier during the American Revolution -- used the legacy of the American Revolution to garner support for his cause. As a result, scores of patriotic Massachusetts men, most of whom were farmers themselves, resurrected the legacy of the "liberty tree" to fight the perceived injustices of the newly created government. As a result, America's governing class -- and yes, it was a class -- believed that a strong centralized government was the only surefire way to ensure America's future security.

For Jefferson, this was a textbook example of how partisan passions could cloud judgement, creating an atmosphere of panic and fear. As Jefferson states in his letter to William Smith:
Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts? And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it's motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms
Simply put, Jefferson understood Shays' Rebellion to be a common and important component of republican government. Without it, the people could not be effectively represented and the communal "lethargy" would eventually destroy the nation. On the flip side, however, Jefferson also notes that the people are rarely if ever well informed on all issues. It is this communal ignorance -- Jefferson emphasises ignorance and not wickedness -- that Jefferson believed the government must endeavor to remedy. He continues:
The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them.
The remedy is not suppression or rejection of public discontent, but rather persuasion and public discourse.

So would Jefferson support the current public dialogue? There's a good chance that he would. We can debate whether or not he would like the current rhetoric of the conservatives/liberals but I think it's hard to deny that Jefferson would be pleased to see the outpouring of public interest.

With that said, I doubt Jefferson would support actual blood being shed on the proverbial "Tree of Liberty." After all, enough blood has been lost thanks in part to this often misunderstood quote. It was Timothy McVeigh, the convicted Oklahoma City bomber, who was so very misguided by his poor understanding of Jefferson's words. On the day he chose to murder 168 of his fellow Americans, McVeigh was wearing a shirt that carried Jefferson's infamous words:
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.
May we ALWAYS remember to be cautious with the history we fail to understand!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Remember, Remember the 5th of November...

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Probably few Americans are aware of the significance of November 5th or of Guy Fawkes Night: a celebration to commemorate the failed attempt made by Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators to blow up the English Parliament in 1605. As a devout Catholic, Guy Fawkes hoped that his actions would end the discrimination of Protestant England towards Catholics. From that day forward, the 5th of November was commemorated by British citizens with the burning in effigy of Guy Fawkes, along with a celebration of God's providence in protecting their Protestant King.

In colonial America, Guy Fawkes Night was celebrated as "Pope Day" (or "Pope Night"). Young men from New England would traditionally construct large wagons (with figures of the Pope, the Devil and other Catholic figures, along with unpopular British governing officials all to be burned in effigy), which were drawn throughout the public streets for all to see. The young men would even dress up and petition the affluent of the city for money which was used for getting drunk and having a "splendid supper." As Historian J.L. Bell (of Boston, 1775 fame) points out on his 5th of November website:
In the mid-1700s, the 5th of November was one of Boston’s most popular holidays. On that day, apprentices and young men paraded through town with giant effigies of the Devil, the Pope, and current political scapegoats, demanding coins from householders and passersby.

At nightfall, Boston’s North End and South End gangs met in the middle of town and brawled. The winners hauled away the other side’s paraphernalia and burned all the effigies in a festive bonfire. In 1764 the event became so violent that a young boy was killed, his head crushed by a wagon wheel.

In the decade that followed, the 5th of November processions became closely linked to the town’s protests against Parliamentary taxes. That political conflict led to the American Revolution. Ironically, the Revolutionary War ended up doing away with the 5th of November holiday in America.
In essence, "Pope Day" became yet another example of how Colonial American bred a culture of anti-authoritarianism. Pope Day evolved to become not only a day to mock Catholicism but a day to also express disgust with colonial (particularly British) government.

In addition, it is interesting to note how "Pope Day" gave birth to many of the traditional Halloween customs that are still in practice today. As Mr. Bell points out above (and throughout his website) the tradition of children running though the streets in costume asking for money, treats, etc. was most certainly a common practice on the 5th of November.

With that said, let us not forget the origins behind this anti-Catholic celebration. Guy Fawkes became, for many colonial Americans, the perfect scape goat for all their anti-Catholic rhetoric. The following poem helps to capture at least a portion of that popular anti-Catholicism:

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o' cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A fagot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Washington Saves the Pope...Sort Of

Guy Fawkes Night (or "Pope Day" as it was called in colonial America) is coming up this Thursday. And as was commonly the case, Guy Fawkes Night was celebrated in colonial America with the ritual burning in effigy of the Catholic Pope, which most American Protestants embraced with glee.

That is, unless you were a member of George Washington's army. In his November 5, 1775 General Orders to the Continental Army, Washington strictly forbade the practice of burning the Pope in effigy or the mockery of Catholicism in general:
As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form'd for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope -- He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain'd, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Hail Columbia: America's ORIGINAL National Anthem

And How it Illustrates the
Evolution of American Nationalism

I know I am going to catch a lot of crap for this but I'm going to say it anyway: I really don't like our national anthem that much. Don't get me wrong, it's a pretty song that does invoke strong feelings of patriotism in the hearts of many. With that said, I simply dislike the fact that our nation's official anthem is nothing more than a poem commemorating a bombardment we barely survived, put to the tune of an old British drinking song. Hardly the inspiring anthem so many make it out to be! But hey, that's just me and I realize that many Americans love the song. So be it.

But whether you like "The Star-Spangled Banner" or not, everyone should recognize the fact that it doesn't have the patriotic history everyone assumes. In fact, the "original" national anthem of this fair land, which was in place from roughly the time of George Washington to FDR, was muscled out by Francis Scott Key's over-dramatic drinking song. That's right folks, the "Star-Spangled Banner" has a relatively recent history as America's national anthem; a history that illustrates the evolution of American nationalism.

Before Francis Francis Scott Key ever witnessed the "rockets' red glare" and the "bombs bursting in air" America (a name that you will see not everyone was sold on) marched to a different patriotic tune. It was "Hail Columbia" that initially served as America's unofficial but very popular anthem:

Hail Columbia, happy land!
Hail, ye heroes, heav'n-born band,
Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
And when the storm of war was gone
Enjoy'd the peace your valor won.
Let independence be our boast,
Ever mindful what it cost;
Ever grateful for the prize,
Let its altar reach the skies.

Immortal patriots, rise once more,
Defend your rights, defend your shore!
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Invade the shrine where sacred lies
Of toil and blood, the well-earned prize,
While off'ring peace, sincere and just,
In Heaven's we place a manly trust,
That truth and justice will prevail,
And every scheme of bondage fail.

Behold the chief who now commands,
Once more to serve his country stands.
The rock on which the storm will break,
The rock on which the storm will break,
But armed in virtue, firm, and true,
His hopes are fixed on Heav'n and you.
When hope was sinking in dismay,
When glooms obscured Columbia's day,
His steady mind, from changes free,
Resolved on death or liberty.

Sound, sound the trump of fame,
Let Washington's great fame
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Let ev'ry clime to freedom dear,
Listen with a joyful ear,
With equal skill, with God-like pow'r
He governs in the fearful hour
Of horrid war, or guides with ease
The happier time of honest peace.

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.
Now, it probably sounds strange to some when they discover that "Hail Columbia" was America's "original" anthem. After all, what does Columbia have to do with America?

Well, first off, we're not talking about the Columbia where all that lovely "mota" and cocaine come from. This Columbia is quite different. The Columbia of America's earliest generations was the female personification of her "discoverer," Christopher Columbus. Columbia's role as a symbol became obvious to all Americans. Whether she served as the title of a city, a river, a college or a monument, Columbia's role in American culture was ever-present. Much in the same way that Britannia became the female personification (and Roman goddess) of Britain, Columbia was the feminine guardian of the new American republic. In other words, she was sort of the Uncle Sam before Uncle Sam.

And Columbia's influence didn't stop with the founding. She can be seen throughout the course of America's history. From the very name of our capitol city (Washington, District of Columbia) to the very first space shuttle ever commissioned by NASA. She was present in American artwork like the one above depicting Columbia's divine protection to western settlers on their quest to secure the country's "Manifest Destiny," and she even graces the opening credits of several modern movies. Heck, many Americans have (incorrectly) suggested that she was even the inspiration for "Lady Liberty" herself. Bottom line, Columbia's role as a symbol in America's growth and development is as important (if not more so) as any other symbol of American nationalism.

Perhaps more importantly, Columbia illustrates just how complicated the concept of the American nation was for our founding generation. Contrary to what we are often let to believe, America's founding was far from a united effort where all parties saw eye-to-eye on the direction the country should go. In reality, it was a complicated mess of clashing ideas and beliefs. As historian Gordon Wood points out in his newest book Empire of Liberty, a book that should have won this year's Pulitzer Prize (on a side note, it's worth mentioning that the Pulitzer Prize is awarded by none other than COLUMBIA University. The irony is striking):
Despite the ratification of the Constitution, most Americans knew that they were not yet a nation, at least not in the European sense of the term. At the end of the Declaration of Independence the members of the Continental Congress had been able only to "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor." In 1776 there was nothing else but themselves that they could have dedicated themselves to -- no patria, no fatherland, no nation as yet.


The fact that most Americans were of British heritage and spoke the same language as the subjects of the former mother country created problems of national identity that troubled the new Republic over the next several decades. Indeed, almost to the movement of independence the colonists had continued to define themselves as British, and only reluctantly came to see themselves as a separate people called Americans. The colonists were well aware of the warning of John Dickinson, the most important pamphleteer in America before Thomas Paine, had given them on the eve of independence. "If we are separated from our mother country," he asked in 1768, "what new form of government shall we adopt, and where shall we find another Britain to supply our loss? Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affection, relation, language and commerce we must bleed at every vein."

Could the colonists who had been British and who had celebrated their Britishness for generations become a truly independent people? How could one united people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, and professing the same Protestant religion differentiate themselves from the people of the mother country? These questions, perhaps more than any others, bedeviled the politics of the early decades of the new Republic's history.

If there were to be a single national people with a national character, Americans would have to invent themselves, and in some sense the whole of American history has been the story of that invention. At first, they struggled with a proper name for their country. On the tercentenary celebration of Columbus's discovery of America in 1792 one patriot suggested "The United States of Columbia" as a name for the new Republic. Poets, ranging from the female black slave Phillis Wheatley to the young Princeton graduate Phillip Freneau, saw the logic of the name and thus repeatedly referred to the nation as Columbia. With the same rhythm and number of syllables, Columbia could easily replace Britannia in new compositions set to the music of traditional English songs.
As illustrated above, early had a difficult time understanding what their new nation was supposed to look like. The pull of tradition from the Old World and the allure of new possibilities brought on by the Enlightenment, obscured America's sense of itself. This is the precise reason why Columbia became such a popular symbol. While so much was still up in the air, Columbia was, at the very least, the embodiment of what it truly meant to be American.

But alas, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. With the onset of nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America's sense of itself began to change. And with that change, Columbia's presence in American culture began to fade. "Hail Columbia," which had never been made an official national anthem, found itself in a contest with other popular songs like, "My Country Tis of Thee," "America the Beautiful," and yes "The Star-Spangled Banner." Like most nations of this era, the creation of official anthems became an important component of surging nationalism, and in the United States, the "Star-Spangled Banner" was gaining ground. Thanks in large part to the attention given it at professional baseball games, the "Star-Spangled Banner" became a quasi-national tradition. Long story short, the song's popularity grew over the next thirty years, until finally in 1931 when President Hoover and Congress officially made "The Star-Spangled Banner" America's anthem.

But Columbia wasn't completely lost. Her presence, though very limited, is still around. All you have to do is look for her. And who knows, maybe she'll return one day! As for her song, "Hail Columbia", well, it went from being the unofficial anthem of a nation to nothing more than the entrance song for the Vice President. But that's not a terrible consolation prize. In a similar fashion as "Hail to the Chief" is for the President, "Hail Columbia" triumphantly announces the presence of our nation's second in command.

And just in case you were curious, it's not that I hate "The Star-Spangled Banner." Rather, I simply believe there are better songs out there. For my money, "America the Beautiful" is the song I would select as our official anthem. Perhaps it is a personal bias, being that the song was written in my back yard, but I don't care. It simply sounds more "American" (or Columbian) than the rest. And to help prove my point I give you the one and only Ray Charles. Take us home, Ray:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Election of 1800: A Model of Crazy, Dirty Campaigning

Today is election day! As we are all aware, every two years in this grand nation of ours citizens invoke their right to elect the candidates to office whom they feel best represent their views, hopes and goals for the future. It is a time-honored practice that we as a nation have enjoyed (to differing degrees of course) for more than two centuries.

And as is the case with these election cycles, negative ads have become a staple item on the menu of American political dialogue. Virtually every candidate for almost every office up for grabs in today's election has engaged in some form of "mud-slinging" towards his/her opponent. Whether it takes the form of automated phone calls, mailed letters, television commercials or radio sound bites, this election has, for the most part, been like those of recent history: a dog fight.

With that said, we still see candidates who either deny their personal participation in negative campaign tactics or who claim to soar above such trivial and hostile banter. They claim to be invoking the extinct heritage of long ago, when Americans could somehow set aside their partisan views and focus exclusively on the issues at hand. Oftentimes we see these same individuals calling upon the legacy of America's founding fathers as "evidence" of their innocence. These candidates state they (and their cause) are on the side of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, whose purity and grace transcended political division, giving rise to an era of cooperation and contentment that our generation's political circus is incapable (or unwilling) to rekindle.

And though I am not a fan of today's 24/7 political media blitz and the constant bombardment of campaign ilk every election cycle, I think there is a grave misunderstanding as to the nature and history of American politics. We seem to be under the delusion that this "dog-eat-dog" street brawl style of campaigning is something new. It's not...and not even our blessed, holy, infallible founders were exempt from it.

210 years ago, at the turn of the century, two of the biggest players in the American Revolution exchanged blows over some of the same issues that still occupy us to this day. John Adams, the incumbent who had taken the Federalist reigns from the great George Washington, squared off with his on-again, off-again, on-again Virginia friend, Thomas Jefferson. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, this contest was incredibly fierce and oftentimes took a very negative tone. For example, when the Adams camp learned of Jefferson's desire to thwart the Federalists they accused Jefferson of plotting to destroy the very fabric of society by eliminating god from American life. As one broadside stated:

The attacks didn't stop with mere broadsides. Having discovered some of Jefferson's personal religious declarations that could prove problematic to his campaign, the Adams camp went on the offensive. In his infamous letter to the Reverend William Linn in 1800, Jefferson stated, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Along with this declaration, Jefferson went on to state the following about Christianity:
Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.
Needless to say, such comments proved to be extremely distasteful to the American populace, who actually believed that a Jefferson election might actually lead to:
Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest [being] openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.


Female chastity violated [with] children writing on a pike.
Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was "one of the most detestable of mankind and a threat to our way of life." (Gee, you NEVER hear that kind of stuff about our current leaders!).

To capitalize on these comments, the Adams campaign took swift action. Acting as if they had been handed a gift from the divine, Adams' men pounced Jefferson in the public arena, accusing him of being "an enemy to his country and his God." Steven Waldman, author of the book Founding Faith sites a poem that was used against Jefferson throughout the campaign:
I am the first of men in the ways of evil,
The truest, thriftiest servent of the Devil;
Born, educated, glory to engross
And shine confess'd the Devil's Man of Ross.
Here's three to one I beat even him in pride;
Two whores already in my chariot ride.
(Founding Faith, 170).
But the fight was far from one-sided. To counter the Adams onslaught Jefferson decided to take off the gloves. On one public occasion, Jefferson called Adams, "a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man or the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." (David McCullough, John Adams, Pp. 500). But Jefferson didn't stop there. Taking advantage of President Adams' foolish Alien & Sedition Acts (a law that essentially tried to make it illegal for people to speak or publish anything negative about the president) Jefferson created the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, in which Jefferson claimed that:
The several States composing the US. Of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government…and one of the Amendments to the constitution having also declared, that the powers not delegated to the US. by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people, therefore the act of Congress…are altogether void and of no force.
As election day drew closer, President Adams found himself in a political mess that virtually consumed him. The Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson's clan) had effectively used the Alien & Sedition Acts to brand the President as a tyrant by calling them, "the most abominable and degrading Executive act that could fall from the lips of the first magistrate of an independent people." In an effort to demonstrate just how "tyrannical" the Adams Administration had become, Jefferson called on renowned pamphleteer James Callender, a long-time enemy to the Federalists who had attacked the likes of Alexander Hamilton by exposing his affair with Maria Reynolds to the public. This time, Callender was to turn his sights on the president himself. In his popular pamphlet, The Prospect Before Us, Callender pulled out all the punches by boldly proclaiming that John Adams had become a miniature version of King George III:
The reign of Mr. Adams has been one continued tempest of malignant passions. Indeed, the president has never opened his lips, or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding; the grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties to culminate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.
The Federalist response to Callender's "treason" was swift. Callender was quickly jailed in Richmond and sentenced by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase to five years in prison. In consequence, Callender quickly became a poster boy of sorts for the Jefferson campaign. Callender's imprisonment illustrated to the common man just how far Adams had gone. In essence, Callender became Jefferson's 19th century version of "Joe the Plumber."

In the end, the Alien & Sedition Acts helped to solidify the popular message of the Democratic-republicans, which in turn led to the election of their beloved Thomas Jefferson(even if he was an evil, godless man whose reign would surely lead to rape, murder, etc.). The popularity of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, combined with the "mud-slinging" efforts of James Callender and Jefferson himself, helped to ensure the demise of the Adams Administration. But the election was close...VERY close. See for yourself:

In the aftermath, Federalist supporters were devastated. Alexander Hamilton (one of Jefferson's biggest rivals) made the claim that a Jefferson presidency would surely usher in an era of violence unprecedented in American history, in which the guillotine of France would replace the civility of American republicanism (Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 429). Former First Lady Abigail Adams wrote to her husband stating, "'What an inconsistency,' said a lady to me today, 'the bells of Christ's Church ringing peals of rejoicing for an infidel president!'"

But somehow America survived. After all, here we are 210 years later. And while many things have changed over those two centuries, other things have stood the test of time...namely our tradition of crazy, over-hyped political partisanship. Yes, some may feel that an Obama presidency is a surefire catalyst for fascist, socialist, Marxist, Stalinist, Nazi, communist totalitarianism, while a Tea Party regime is sure to bring about racist, homophobic, idiotic, psychotic, leadership. But in the end all of this rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. Is there really any difference between the crap we hear today and the crap our beloved founders threw at one another? Not really. The only difference is that we're inundated with more of it today (thanks Fox News and MSNBC).

So the next time you drink the Chicken Little Kool-Aid and freak out over the possibility of the sky falling because the "other team" has won political power, remember that we've been down this propaganda road many times. If we can survive the "HORRIFIC" tyranny of John Adams and the "DISASTROUS" atheism of Thomas Jefferson, I'm pretty sure we'll be ok in the here and now. In conclusion, check out the following videos. They do a wonderful job of capturing some of the fear that surrounded the election of 1800:

Friday, July 2, 2010

John Adams Predicts July 2 Will Be "Memorable Epocha"

The real birthday of the United States of America is NOT the Fourth of July. Not according to John Adams. Nope. It's the SECOND of July.

On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, predicting that "the Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America."

Why? Because it was on July 2, 1776 that the Continental Congress voted for American independence.

You can read the Adams letter by clicking on the following link...

"Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776"

Friday, May 7, 2010

Bows and Arrows in the American Revolution?

Imagine a line of redcoated British soldiers marching across the battlefield at Camden. Just as the American army begins to break and run, a crack unit of 500 colonial soldiers armed with longbows dashes onto the field and rains down arrow barrage after arrow barrage on the British soldiers commanded by General Lord Charles Cornwallis.

Would this have made a difference? Given Horatio Gates' incompetence and/or cowardice (take your pick), perhaps not. But it sure would've made things interesting! And it probably would've disrupted the British advance enough to allow more Americans to escape the field.

No one can know for certain, but such "what if" scenarios are fun to contemplate. And, in this case, the scenario really isn't that far-fetched. The use of bows and arrows is something that Benjamin Franklin endorsed.

For more on this possibility, check out an article just published over at "The American Revolution & Founding Era" blog. You can click on the following link to check it out...

"Guns and Bows and Arrows"

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Washington Delivers First State of the Union

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution states that the President of the United States is required to:

"...from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;..."

On January 8, 1790 (220 years ago) President George Washington delivered the first ever State of the Union address. His address was highly anticipated by virtually everyone in Congress, since nobody was quite sure how the Executive Branch was to work or what a State of the Union address would look like. In his speech, Washington outlined his administration's expected course of action, which was primarily dedicated to strengthening the new federal government. With a tremendous amount of help from Alexander Hamilton (who wrote the majority of the speech), Washington gave the following address to Congress:

State of the Union
George Washington
January 8, 1790
Federal Hall, New York City

Fellow Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives:

I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs. The recent accession of the important state of north Carolina to the Constitution of the United States (of which official information has been received), the rising credit and respectability of our country, the general and increasing good will toward the government of the Union, and the concord, peace, and plenty with which we are blessed are circumstances auspicious in an eminent degree to our national prosperity.

In resuming your consultations for the general good you can not but derive encouragement from the reflection that the measures of the last session have been as satisfactory to your constituents as the novelty and difficulty of the work allowed you to hope. Still further to realize their expectations and to secure the blessings which a gracious Providence has placed within our reach will in the course of the present important session call for the cool and deliberate exertion of your patriotism, firmness, and wisdom.

Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention that of providing for the common defense will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is on e of the most effectual means of preserving peace.

A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.

The proper establishment of the troops which may be deemed indispensable will be entitled to mature consideration. In the arrangements which may be made respecting it it will be of importance to conciliate the comfortable support of the officers and soldiers with a due regard to economy.

There was reason to hope that the pacific measures adopted with regard to certain hostile tribes of Indians would have relieved the inhabitants of our southern and western frontiers from their depredations, but you will perceive from the information contained in the papers which I shall direct to be laid before you (comprehending a communication from the Commonwealth of Virginia) that we ought to be prepared to afford protection to those parts of the Union, and, if necessary, to punish aggressors.

The interests of the United States require that our intercourse with other nations should be facilitated by such provisions as will enable me to fulfill my duty in that respect in the manner which circumstances may render most conducive to the public good, and to this end that the compensation to be made to the persons who may be employed should, according to the nature of their appointments, be defined by law, and a competent fund designated for defraying the expenses incident to the conduct of foreign affairs.

Various considerations also render it expedient that the terms on which foreigners may be admitted to the rights of citizens should be speedily ascertained by a uniform rule of naturalization.

Uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures of the United States is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to.

The advancement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures by all proper means will not, I trust, need recommendation; but I can not forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home, and of facilitating the intercourse between the distant parts of our country by a due attention to the post-office and post-roads.

Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness. In one in which the measures of government receive their impressions so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours it is proportionably essential.

To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways - by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness - cherishing the first, avoiding the last - and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.

Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording aids to seminaries of learning already established, by the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the legislature.

Gentlemen of the House of Representatives:

I saw with peculiar pleasure at the close of the last session the resolution entered into by you expressive of your opinion that an adequate provision for the support of the public credit is a matter of high importance to the national honor and prosperity. In this sentiment I entirely concur; and to a perfect confidence in your best endeavors to devise such a provision as will be truly with the end I add an equal reliance on the cheerful cooperation of the other branch of the legislature.

It would be superfluous to specify inducements to a measure in which the character and interests of the United States are so obviously so deeply concerned, and which has received so explicit a sanction from your declaration.

Gentlemen of the Senate and House of Representatives:

I have directed the proper officers to lay before you, respectively, such papers and estimates as regard the affairs particularly recommended to your consideration, and necessary to convey to you that information of the state of the Union which it is my duty to afford.

The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed, and I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.