Category: History

“the futile drivelling of mere quil driving”

I read Christopher Gilbert’s biography of the Duke of Wellington many years ago and remember thinking how the Duke’s campaign against Napoleon would make a great movie or historical novel.

It’s hard not to find some humor and fascination in a man who is confident enough—and then some—to criticize his boss with such oblique candor.

Here is an extract from a letter written by Wellington in Spain around 1810 to the Secretary of War, Lord Bradford:

My lord, if I attempted to answer the mass of futile correspondence that surrounds me, I should be debarred from all serious business of campaigning.

So long as I retain an independent position I shall see to it that no officer under my command is debarred, by attending to the futile drivelling of mere quil driving in your lordship’s officer, from attending to his first duty – which is, as always, to train the private men under his command.

Praying for Patrick Henry’s Death

Patrick Henry & Thomas Jefferson

The young William and Mary college student stood in the doorway of the Virginia legislative chamber and watched the renown man speak. The year was 1765. With the cadences and imagery and power of his words the speaker seized the spirit of the young man. Reflecting on that moment many years later Thomas Jefferson wrote “He spoke as Homer wrote.” The speaker was Patrick Henry.

Homer was the great epic poet of ancient Greece and many of the lines from the Iliad and the Odyssey were memorized by many young colonial American boys. Jefferson and Henry could, no doubt, quote large sections of the texts from memory. Ancient Greek authors wrote their poems and histories specifically to be read aloud. The words and imagery were chosen carefully for the emotive purpose of getting the audience to “move with” the author. The success of the writer, or any artist really, is when the power of his or her words (or whatever art form they use) takes you along, imaginatively, to the place that he or she intends. We’re storytelling beings who find our purpose and meaning in the stories we tell ourselves. The world and our experience are the canvas; words are the paint.

The power of great words, especially the spoken, for good or for ill, can move people to do things they might not have done otherwise. That day Jefferson could feel the seductive force of Henry’s words. The men of that chamber, at the time, were debating the one of the most consequential things you can: treason. Henry added great persuasive force to the cause.

The younger Jefferson was a great admirer of Henry and his skill as a speaker, but the later, the older and more experienced Jefferson, found Henry’s power of oratory could also pose a tremendous problem. Breaking things up is much easier than building things up. And so while Henry was an asset in bringing about the revolution and a new nation, he was a serious liability when Virginia was trying to form a new state constitution. It worried Jefferson a lot. So much so that in a letter to James Madison we find some rather candid lines about the content of Jefferson’s prayers:

“While Mr. Henry lives another bad [state] constitution would be formed, and saddled for ever on us. What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death.”

Book: First Principles

When Thomas Ricks woke up that gloomy Wednesday November morning, after the Presidential election of 2016, he began asking himself some searching questions about this country. “What just happen? What kind of nation do we now have?” “Is this what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders?” And probably, How do I move the Canada? Like the majority of Americans, I had similar thoughts that same morning.

Ricks dealt with this terrible turn in America politics by writing a book. He decided the best way to deal with his angst was to try and understand the American experiment at its founding. What was it all about? What were the principles this nation was founded upon? Of course the Founders were men whose educations were mostly built around classical literature. And so in First Principles Ricks examines what the American founders learned from the [ancient] Greeks and Romans and how that shaped our country.

This is the second book of Ricks’s I’ve read. He’s a good writer and if you like history and politics I highly recommend you pick up a copy of First Principles.

For me, I could summarize the main point of the book as follows: The belief that the “public virtue” of the citizenry and public officials could be counted on to sustain our Republic was dismissed as a complete fantasy by our founders. History and personal experience demonstrated this over and over. People are hopelessly self interested and so to avoid the concentration of federal power—and its abuse—it was purposely divided up among the three branches of government. These branches—executive, legislative, and judiciary–were supposed to function as separate institutions that put a check on the power of other two. The founders feared the rise of people exactly like Donald Trump, and so they purposely built separate institutions to ensure characters like Donald Trump were checked by the power of other institutions.

Some people feel our institutions worked as they were suppose to during Trump’s 4 year term, but I’m not so convinced. We survived in my view…for now. There is a growing authoritarianism on the political right in this country that resembles the authoritarian movements of early 20th century Europe. And just like many Europeans then, many Americans now, don’t seem to realize what’s happening right in front of them and how quickly we could potentially lose our democracy and our way of life.

The Hampton Roads Conference — 156 years ago today

Historians call it the Hampton Roads Conference. It happened 156 years ago today. Not far from where I live now, near Fort Monroe, Virginia, on February 3, 1865, Abraham Lincoln met with commissioners from the southern Confederacy to discuss a possible peace agreement.

The conference is dramatized in the Oscar winning movie Lincoln. The movie, of course, cannot give us all that was said during a roughly 4 hour meeting. What the film maker does in this scene is give us the core sentiments of the negotiating sides, creatively summed up in this short scene:

Hampton Roads Conference scene from the movie Lincoln

“How have you held your union together? Your democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration. Your union sir, is bonded in canon-fire and death.”

Lincoln’s reply brilliantly turns those words back on Alexander Stephens. Yes, the sacrifices had been immense, but these sacrifices will ultimately be proven worthy because they were made not just for our democracy but for democracy as an idea itself. “But say all we’ve done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos. That there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union. Say we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere. Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to? Eventually to become worthy of? At all rates whatever may be proven by blood and sacrifice must have been proved by now.”

Again, the movie clip above is a creative dramatization. Stephens and Lincoln didn’t, as far as we know, actually say these lines, but if you read the correspondences related to this meeting and the various written recollections, you can see how what’s said could be interpreted as representing the central position of Stephens and Lincoln.

By the time of this meeting it was clear the Confederacy was defeated. It was over. The Hampton Roads Conference wouldn’t lead, however, to the Confederate government surrendering. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, would continue to allow southern troops to fight and die in a hopeless cause. The Civil War would end only when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865.

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