Category Archives: Non-fiction

Page One

 

 

portrait of Geoge Washington

It is fitting that I finished David McCullough’s 1776 this week. The book, published in 2005 by Simon and Schuster, hit number one on the national bestseller list. It is not the topic that afforded this success: the skill lies in the narrative which is engaging and gripping. Too often history is viewed as dull and boring by those who may have this impression solely from textbooks. McCullough wisely focuses on the characters. He brings to life the pictures of armies marching, of ships landing, of those who were engaged in the effort, and whose task was the more arduous. How do you put down a rebellion on a distant shore, landing by ship to unfamiliar ground? How do you stop the mighty in their tracks? It was a markedly difficult task for both sides, and as you read the description of battles, it seems that the smart money would certainly have fallen for the British. They had skilled troops who were trained and disciplined while George Washington’s army seemingly sprang up quite suddenly.

 

1776

History belongs to the victors, but in this case, McCullough presents a clear picture of two sides of the coin. He paints Washington as a man of British ancestry who sought to duplicate the life of English gentry on American soil. He cared deeply about the addition he envisioned and was in the process of building at Mount Vernon. He oversaw all of the details and professed an abhorrence for disorder. The trappings of his comfortable existence in the form of clothing, footwear, books, coach and even the glass in his house were all imported from London. This would not be uncommon for any prosperous colonial, but it struck me as ironic. Like most heroes, his ascent was a reluctant one. Nor did he have a steadfast belief in his men; there were statements recorded of his disdain at times. According to McCullough, Washington was blessed with a bit of luck, favorable weather, and marked persistence: his efforts were successful because of these factors. In my attempt to gain a sense of the George Washington, I found the most telling description came from picturing him riding to hounds.

From page 48.

“Found a fox in Phil Alexander’s island which was lost after a chase of seven hours,” Washington recorded in his diary at the end of one winter day in 1772, but he did not give up, as shown in his entry for the day following: ‘Found a fox in the same place again which was killed at the end of 6 hours.’”

What struck me about this description was not the fact that he engaged in the sport of fox hunting, but that he did not do it lightly, for the fun and revelry, but to accomplish what he set out to do. He did not give up. The bedrock of his character lies in his obstinacy. He could be wrong, he could be temporarily defeated, he could be confounded, but he did not quit.

Concerning the sheer logistics of the effort, it is remarkable to contemplate from today’s perspective. We can communicate around the world from our fingertips; they were marching blind into the night. Not only did they not know where and when the British might strike, but they also had no clear idea of the opposition from their fellow citizens.

Page 118

“In Boston, where the comparatively few Loyalists of Massachusetts had either fled the country or were bottled up with the British, there had never been a serious threat from ‘internal foes,’in Washington’s phrase. In New York, the atmosphere was entirely different. The city remained divided and tense. Loyalist, or Tory, sentiment, while less conspicuous than it had been, was widespread and ranged from militant to the disaffected, to those hesitant about declaring themselves patriots for a variety of reasons, trade, and commerce not being the least of them.

“Two- thirds of the property in New York belonged to Tories. The year before, in 1775, more than half the New York Chamber of Commerce were avowed Loyalists.” p.119

It boggles the mind to think on this now. People who lived and prospered together had taken sides, some divided by region, and others quite mixed. How would it all pan out? How would they manage to live side by side again? In most cases, they did not; the Tories, or Loyalists, left and sailed north leaving behind established farms and businesses generations in the making.

From p. 240

“The problem was not that there were too few American soldiers in the thirteen states. There were plenty, but the states were reluctant to send the troops they had to fight the war, preferring to keep them close to home, and especially as the war was not going well. In August, Washington had had an army or 20,000. In the three months since he had lost four battles- at Brooklyn, Kips Bay, White Plains, and Fort Washington- they gave up Fort Lee without a fight. His army was now divided as it had not been in August and, just as young Lieutenant Monroe had speculated, he had only about 3, 500 troops under his command- that was all.”

Part of what makes McCulloughs work so gripping is that even though we know the outcome, we are caught up in the impossibility of the quest. He gives us a picture of the burning of New York, of the wet and exhausted troops deserting, of common folk called into the fight with some of the gentry joining and others disagreeing. I truly enjoyed the picture McCullough painted of the British landing on Long Island and thoroughly delighting in the land of plenty. Pleasantly surprised by the abundance of delicious fruit, they remarked on well-tended farms and handsome houses pleasingly furnished. Some felt that Americans were prospering at their expense.

How many mothers have said to how many squabbling children that there are two sides to every story? “Unremitting courage and perseverance,” is what Washington asked of his officers and soldiers. One percent of the population was lost to the effort. Those forced to flee are also part of the tale. This week, in the United States, the page turns one more time. A new chapter awaits. We have better communication than ever before, but seemingly, with less understanding of one another. We struggle, we strive, we are determined, and we persevere. We have hope, and we have fear: in that we are united. E Pluribus Unum carries a lot of weight.

The Discipline of Desire

 

John Locke

“The discipline of desire is the background of character.” John Locke

How do we maintain a free society? Is it bred in the bone, or is it up for grabs?

Having just finished reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, my eyes have been opened. It is not as if I did not know about the undue influence of special interests in government; everyone is aware of this fact. The term “special interests,” is vague, and if you cannot put a face to something, it is hard to imagine. Television advertising paid for by groups with names that sound good, Americans for this, that, or the other thing, makes a person think that these organizations are comprised of a group of individuals who came together to help solve problems. What we are not aware of is from whom the funding comes. Likewise, we don’t always know to what ends. Like most people, I err on the side of a general belief that people are inherently good. This line of thinking is the product of a Swiss- born French philosopher who influenced Thomas Jefferson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (1712-1778)

Rousseau
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

Hobbes, on the other hand, described life as, “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” Having witnessed the English Civil War, his outlook was both Calvinistic and pessimistic.

John Locke, the other great influence, wrote in Two Treatise of Government, “We are like chameleons. We take our hue and the color of our moral character from those around us.”

I am not blind to the fact self-interest drives most decisions. When Jane Mayer described the heart of the ideology of the far right, she expressed the beliefs of some that there should be no limit as to what people can acquire and keep. Many would say that is what made America. Ronald Regan, running for President in 1980 asked, “What is wrong with letting people keep their own money?” It is a good question. It seems like every democracy has been in this argument forever. Remember the heated exchanges between Archie Bunker and the Meathead we laughed at on All in the Family? We all have friends who are on opposite sides, and the day we can no longer have these lively debates would be a very sad day indeed. It is completely understandable that if you amassed a great fortune, you would naturally feel you had something significant to contribute to the discourse. You would also feel that you lived in a great country that made it all possible, and that you wouldn’t want anything to change. You would want to find politicians who would do your bidding when you came up against roadblocks. You would pick up the phone and demand action. You may even believe that you do not have any responsibility to your fellow man. You may feel as John Locke stated that the only purpose of government is the defense of property. You may choose to devote considerable time and resources to furthering these views. Would that constitute undue influence, or would it be contributing to the discourse? That is that is the question.

There is, however, one flaw in this thinking. Hammered into my head in my teens, by the Headmistress of my school was this universal truth from the Bible: “To whom much has been given, much will be required.” Fans of Downton Abbey will remember that it was played out in nearly every episode. Nobless Oblige. If fortune has smiled on you, it is your duty to make your life about good works. One can see philanthropy everywhere, and one can point to all the generosity displayed by the wealthy. Some feel there should be no taxes at all, and if let alone, people would naturally give aid where it is needed. The only flaw I see in that philosophy is that it is too willy-nilly. It is not organized. When George H. W. Bush referred to “a thousand points of light,” in a speech written for him by Peggy Noonan, it sounded well and good. A little here and a little there does not build roads and bridges. So we aught to question the belief that we would be better off without any government at all. Too much would not be good either because I still believe that I was born free.

Out here on Windy Bay, in the beautiful state of Idaho, watching the great birds return from the south, I see that life is primarily about nest building and fishing. Maybe I can take my “hue and color” from them.

eagle in Canada

Thoughts for Thanksgiving

 

 going to the execution

What happens when you are interested in a particular period in time? If you like to read, you will be drawn to books about that era. When I was writing My American Eden, I was tasked with researching Colonial America between the years of 1635-1660. It began when I found a tidbit in a history book about a woman who walked into Boston with her shroud in hand. She walked to the hanging tree twice, had the noose around her neck twice, and her face covered with her Pastor’s handkerchief twice. A last-minute reprieve by the Governor spared her the first time: the second resulted in death. This story struck me as one that every American should know. Because a law was passed banishing Quakers on pain of death, Mary Dyer challenged it with her life. As I began researching the event, I quickly realized that history is far from simple.

Amazon Link to mae

I found that perspectives differed depending on the author. Then something else came to light. The story tended to change over time. Quaker historians had one perspective, British authors had another, and then American academia added more confusion to the mix. I began to wonder if history is based on myth or fact and wondered how to find the truth. Official court documents, dates and times, all came up with discrepancies. Initially, I was obsessed with every detail. My first draft ballooned to eight hundred pages. When I learned that Mary Dyer traveled back to England and spent seven years there, I had to accept the challenge of understanding the English civil war. The Puritans and the Roundheads, the rise of Oliver Cromwell, and his destruction of Parliament were vague recollections from high school. I turned to my favorite historian Sir Winston Churchill. It was his description of a rising merchant class gaining sufficient power to challenge the established ruling class that piqued my interest. The more deeply I delved into the conflict, the more understanding I gained of what unfolded decades, and then centuries later. I learned of that the roots of the American Civil War stretched back to the events of the 1650s. One side, the Royalists, eventually gravitated to Virginia and the southern United States while the Puritans sailed to Boston. The events in New England also had an effect on the American Revolution and the founding fathers. Mary Dyer’s protests did not go unheeded. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he immediately passed a law forbidding such discrimination.

JFK the Unspeakable

As we watch history unfold, try as we might, it is often difficult to find the truth. When asked if history would be kind to him, Winston Churchill replied that it would indeed because he intended to write it. As a child growing up in a military family in the post-war fifties and sixties, the shadow of war hung over the conversations by the adults. Watching the first reports of the news from Dallas, fifty-two years ago today, I had nothing but questions. At that point in time, I was obsessed with the Nancy Drew series. Even in the midst of the emotional wallop that hit us all regarding the assassination of the President, I sensed a murder mystery. People crave a simple explanation, but I feel we must be sleuths. What could be murkier than the events of November 22, 1963? One book leads to another; facts are disputed, and some facts are indisputable. The deeper one delves, the more confusion one is likely to find until at last the truth emerges. Should we accept the fact that we will never know? I have never thought so. The Unspeakable by James W. Douglass and The Devil’s Chessboard, by David Talbot have shed new light. Both books are thoroughly researched and beautifully written.

The final paragraph of the speech President John F. Kennedy was to deliver in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963:

We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility — that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint — and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal — and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

SOURCE: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Two statues in front of the Massachusetts State House: One by Sylvia Shaw Judson depicts Mary Dyer, and the other is Isabel Mcllvain’s President Kennedy.

bigger statue of Mary Dyerjfk statehouse

This week we will gather with friends and family remembering those first families who came to the New World seeking freedom. Some of us will pray for those around the globe who are fleeing terrible circumstances and conflict. Hopefully, we will all give thanks for the simple things: a roof over our heads, a warm house and a bounteous feast on the table. I hope we will all remember to cherish freedom too.