Friday, May 29, 2009

Thomas Jefferson's Words of Wisdom

"Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself. She is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate." --Jefferson

Jefferson says these truly remarkable words in the preamble to the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and they remain true to this day. Reading this statute, I am reminded what a truly remarkable leap of faith our founding fathers took when they separated church and state. After all, most of them were devout Christians and no doubt many were worried that people would stop going to church. They were brave and had a vision of a country that did not seek to cut windows into men's souls. They realized that the government should not have the power to mandate someone's religion. And, as we see from the above words, they had great faith that the truth would out, regardless of the government's stance on the matter.

These words are still true today. Maybe we should think about them a little more before we get stirred up about religion in politics.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Of Greatness and History (War and Peace)

"A king is history's slave. History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes."
-War and Peace, Book 9

War and Peace raises an interesting question regarding the purpose of the so-called "great" men and women of history. Are they remembered as great because they were some sort of super-humans or because they knew the people under them and the times? Perhaps they wrote history to feature themselves prominently.

Isn't it funny how times are remembered? When we think of Tudor England, we think of King Henry VIII and his wives, somehow attributing the cause of the Reformation in England to his caprice with regards to making himself Head of the Church of England. In fact, the Reformation was already a gigantic wave heading for shore. Henry VIII just leaped on a surfboard and claimed to command the wave.

Indeed, Henry VIII wanted England to basically remain Catholic, with the only difference being him at the head of the church instead of the pope. Only in this way could Henry guarantee his freedom from an unproductive marriage. The Reformation continued in England regardless of Henry's attempts to stop it or slow it down. The huge wave deposited Surfer Henry on the changed map of religious England, and gave him all the credit for the change. So, especially in history books written more than 50 years ago, we remember Henry VIII as critical to the Reformation. Which he was not.

In War and Peace, this theme is expounded upon using the characters of Napoleon and Kutuzov (the Russian Commander in Chief). The main difference between the two is that Napoleon thought he, as a simple surfer, controlled the wave, while Kutuzov knew the real force behind his movement. In the end, that is why Napoleon lost and Kutuzov won; Napoleon's fall did not begin with the orders he gave as he entered Moscow, but simply in the fact that he thought he controlled everything. Kutuzov, a simple man, was smart enough to know that he was not in control, and he was able to use the forces driving him to chase Napoleon out of the country. Kutuzov saw the bigger picture, and Napoleon thought it was all about him.

This brings us to the question: "What is history?" Why do we remember the lone surfer standing upon the changed beach and not the great wave? Tolstoy talks about the Science of History. Does that mean history can be broken down scientifically just as we have broken down the joy of a sunset into the air molecules and light particles that make it so colorful? Do we dare break down history that way?

What will that leave us with?

Friday, January 16, 2009

John Adams: The Man I Never Knew About

"There is an urbanity without ostentation or extravagance which will succeed everywhere and at all times."
-John Adams

I was reading the John Adams biography by David McCullough and was struck with this quote from a letter Adams wrote to Elkanah Watson, a young New England merchant who had wrote to Adams to inquire what sort of manners he should cultivate in anticipation of going to Europe. Adams replied, with the above quote.

The more I read about Adams the more I am fascinated with him. Before beginning McCullough's biography, I knew very little about the man except that he was the second president of the United States of America and that his correspondence with his wife was very detailed. The more I learn, the more I realize what a fundamental impact Adams had on the shaping of the revolution and the young nation.

It was Adams that spoke out again and again in the Second Continental Congress in favor of freedom, even when it hurt his reputation. He was a great orator, but his most important speech, the hour long speech he gave to Congress in favor of the Declaration of Independence, was never recorded.

It was Adams that served on all the various subcommittees of Congress; who headed up the War Office. This man probably knew more about the War for Independence than anyone else, yet it is George Washington, the general, that we hear more about.

It was Adams who gave up his life at home time and time again in pursuit of the betterment of his country, travelling to Paris many times as the Ambassador from America. It was Adams who put everything in order in the embassy when Benjamin Franklin was lazy and Arthur Lee was fighting with Benjamin Franklin. And it was Adams who was dismissed from his post without so much as a by-your-leave, only to be unanimously re-voted into the position after a mere three months at home.

It was Adams who wrote one of the greatest enduring documents of the American Revolution: the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The constitution of Massachusetts is the oldest functioning written Constitution in the world, but people forget about it in favor of other documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights (both written by Thomas Jefferson).

It was Adams, who, in his Thoughts on Government, first articulated many of the concepts so familiar to us today: concepts such as the establishment of a Supreme Court with appointed Judges who served for life, the separation of powers, and "laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people". Thoughts on Government was to become one of the most influential pieces Adams would ever write and affected all the writing that came after it. So why hadn't I, who have long been a scholar of history, ever heard about it before?

To the reader of my blog, I pray you excuse my ramblings; I am simply trying to articulate my shock at discovery of a man I never knew: John Adams. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are the people that the average American tends to remember. But John Adams is equally important. If any of what I have imparted to you today has surprised you as it did me, I beg you to go read John Adams by David McCullough.

It is the best book I have read all year.