And I quote… Paine, A. Adams, and Longfellow

A web-log on history has many avenues available to the author and as I explore them I find that sometimes the thoughtful exploration of a quote* from an historical document can give enlightenment to history as a whole. A few lines of prose or poetry, short and succinct, allows time for analysis when hundreds of pages of reading is too demanding.

Ideas are carried in words and none more so than those of Revolutionary era America. I find myself, during times of upheaval, turning to the words of the men and women who influenced the founding of the  United States or later recorded their stories. Ironically, those individuals saw the dangers that faced the generations to come after them. Over two hundred years later, we are witnesses to the dangers they foresaw.

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Freedom

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 his country; but he that stands 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; ’tis 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.

– Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, 1776

Sacrifice

I will take praise to myself. I feel that it is my due, for having sacrificed so large a portion of my peace and happiness to promote the welfare of my country which I hope for many years to come will reap the benifit, tho it is more than probable unmindfull of the hand that blessed them.

– Abigail Adams to John Adams, June 17, 1782

Watchfulness and Courage

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm –
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore.
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” last stanza

* All quotes from Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches edited by William J. Bennett

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Praising John Adams

The U.S. had its fair share of kingmakers and quasi-aristocrats in its early years, but the venerable John Adams seems not to have been among them. That didn’t stop his opponents from labeling the force behind the Declaration of Independence a royalist!

From a farm in Braintree, Massachusetts and working as a lawyer in Boston and environs, Adams stood up for what was right and faced down those with whom he disagreed, most vociferously at times and sometimes to the annoyance of others – many others.

However, an aristocrat he was not and seemed not to have been riddled by the double standards that plagued Jefferson and others. He is fast becoming one of my favorite patriots of the revolutionary period.

I draw these conclusions from the masterful biography, John Adams, written by David McCullough. I know that it doesn’t do to rely only on one book to try to understand an historical figure, but I was struck by the fairness of McCullough’s approach to Adams, his friends, and his enemies.

The author treats his subjects as men with all their flaws, but doesn’t deny that they were extraordinary men in extraordinary times. Especially touching is the skillful way he weaves in the relationship between John and Abigail Adams and that of their extended family. Their vast letter writing capacity despite years and years of separation proves that a happy marriage isn’t based solely on the physical, but requires a strong intellectual attraction as well.

I strongly recommend this book as a basic primer on Adams. McCullough’s very approachable style of writing turns a somewhat lengthy book into a compelling page-turner. If you are trying to sink your teeth into history, this is a good place to start. I will admit that it slows as the narrative follows Adams life to its close, but perhaps that is because the 1770’s in America were so packed with action that the 1820’s seem placid in comparison.

For the interested historian John Adams is a fabulous resource of excerpts from letters and written works by Adams and others. A good author knows how and when to use a source directly rather than a paraphrase and this book is proof of that. Hearing the subject in his own words helps us draw a better picture of the man, more so because Adams was a straightforward individual (agree with him or not) and free of rank political duplicity.

Great book, great man, great marriage – great history.

– Amanda Stiver

America: A Vision for the Present

Lately I’ve been reading David McCullough’s John Adams, upon which the recent HBO series was based. Although I won’t write a review yet (I haven’t quite finished it), some interesting observations can be drawn from this era of history.

As I read the comments in letters and writings of individuals like John Adams, Abigail Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Rush and others, I found myself reading sentiments of modern proportions.

Devaluation of money, excessive national debt, wartime alliances, and visions of America for centuries to come and not just as a mere 13 British colonies. After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, men and women worried about America’s acceptance with the British, if we were to be continually their enemy or treat for total peace and recognition. Whether America would be a collection of very loosely confederated, nearly autonomous states, a pure, overwhelming national state with a central government, or united in balance under state and federal establishments.

Policies and Politics

Mud was slung between politicians and between factions. Republicans (at that early stage) stood for continuous revolutions and applauded the bloody, messy French Revolution, while Federalists looked to a strongly central government.

These positions would switch back and forth between liberal and conservative parties through the centuries. Today a less empowered federal government is the aim of conservatives while liberals yearn for a highly centralized, intensively regulated state.

Adams worried about America’s future with dire forebodings about the continual practice of slavery. Constant was his worry about how the new nation would be received in Europe and if it would or should get involved in the wars of that continent.

Past and Present

This is how history affects us. The same worries tie us to an era whose daily life is so very different from our own. The industrial revolution had not yet begun in earnest and everyday life was much as it had been for thousands of years.

You traveled by horse, your house was unplumbed, electricity was a gleam in Benjamin Franklin’s eye, and cooking was done over an open wood fire!

And yet, the human yearning for liberty is not sequestered by physical environment. Despite the differences of our dress, manner, speech, and abode, we all still cling to the hope of freedom – to live a free and virtuous life full of opportunity.

For more on this, please read The Declaration of Independence.

– Amanda Stiver

The Great Depression and “Stuff”

A few months back I was blessed to be able to compile an article about survivors of the Great Depression. The article was an assignment for Vertical Thought magazine, which reaches out to a young adult and teen audience. My goal was to connect young people to the now elderly folks who lived through the Great Depression.

What was great about doing the article was that the subject fascinated me. Likewise, my interview material was everywhere! My relatives, older folks from the church congregation I attend, and from the community.

I think what has always amazed me about that era was that although so many people were barely scraping along; you will often hear them say that they didn’t know they were poor.

There was still an unspoken rule that if you had food to eat, a roof over your head, and a family with love – you were all right. Notice I didn’t say indoor plumbing, electricity, air conditioning, a new car, digital communication devices, digital music devices, etc. There are some basic things that all humans truly need. Then there are “necessities” that we are conditioned to “need.”

Binary Burden

To be fair, I, like the next person, use my fair share of these devices and benefit as a result, but I also find myself over-processed from them. In the same way that junk food is over-processed to the point that it doesn’t resemble its original components; I think over-digitalization is similar.

We lose ourselves in the crush of information, our ability to concentrate is tampered with, and we begin to feel like we can’t live without all the social networking, constant texting, and electronic gadgets. We’re addicted to a pile of things or worse, to the miles of information encoded in the vapor that is the web!

Tough as it is to imagine, we could all probably get along without the proliferation of leisure and time saving devices that drive store and Internet sales these days.

Maybe I’m a young curmudgeon in the making, but there is something to be said for daily physical activity that leaves you fatigued, but invigorated by the activity and accomplishment.

Walk the talk

My challenge to you – go find one of these elders and ask them about (if possible) their life before electricity. Ask them to tell you what it was like when each new device came into popular use. Ask them how they got along without all those things.

You will be intrigued by the answers, and more than that, you will have made a connection to their past, which is now part of yours. You will be an historian!

Play Me A Dirge, Matey…

A few years ago my folks were out on a garage sale tour and they came across an estate sale with a significant collection of books. Garage sales are fun on their own, but with the added incentive of books they are irresistible, to me at least. So I went along.

The collection was breaking up at a rapid pace, but before they disappeared I located part of a series of Time-Life books called The Seafarers. I ended up with eight volumes out of a set of 22.

Ever since high school when I read C.S. Forrester’s Captain Hornblower I have been curious about naval history. I’ve not sailed, but have had the chance to tour a replica of Captain Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour and my haul at the estate sale came as a boost to my curiosity.

Would you be interested in buying…

I remember commercials for Time-Life books when I was a kid, but I didn’t realize, until I got my hands on the nautical volumes, how detailed and fascinating they were. The illustrations are spectacular and the writing very approachable.

Collections of books like the ones sold by Time-Life take me back to the days of encyclopedia sets as well. My mom tells me childhood stories of curling up with a crunchy apple or wedge of cabbage and reading through a volume of the encyclopedia. I remember going through our own set and being fascinating by the pictures and the concise descriptions or explanations of various entries – mostly scientific.

The history of science

It wasn’t until my parents did some research that we learned the rocky relationship encyclopedias have had with history. Early on in the 18th century these compendiums of knowledge contained history as well as the burgeoning study of science and the natural world. This trend continued until the early 20th century, around WWI. At this point the history got dropped in favor of the multitude of scientific discoveries that were coming along at a rapid pace.

Our modern default setting is for science and scientific proof to back up even historical discoveries. Sometimes this “proof” is debatable, science itself not being a science, but an art and subject to interpretation. Human witness can get relegated to second place behind scientific substantiation in anthropological and archeological pursuits. Perhaps not always without cause, humans can be liars.

Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy the pages of well-reasoned, carefully researched history and see if someday I can track down a few more volumes of The Seafarers.

Reminiscing

I’ve written about using documentaries, historical journals, museums, and re-enactments to explore history, but I can’t go on without praising one of my favorite publications. It is a magazine that brings primary source history to my fingertips and reminds me of the struggles and challenges my parents and grandparents faced.

Don’t jump to conclusions! I’m not talking about WWII history magazines, archeological reviews, etc. I like those too, but they’re for another day.

I’m talking about entry-level history where even the most disinterested beginner can take a bit out of time and enjoy it.  A visual layout with great, short, first person reports on the historical past of the 20th century is the fundamental strength of Reminisce magazine published by Reiman Media Group which is a subsidiary of The Reader’s Digest Association, INC.

Tales of the past

This is the kind of history that you might hear your grandparents or great-grandparents tell if you are lucky enough to have these resources still alive. It isn’t ground breaking, never-before-seen historical research, but it is just as important. Knowing the daily details of the past and the experiences of our elders help us to live a fuller life, to respect them more, emulate the great things they did, and, one hopes, not make the same mistakes.

Magazines like this are a great teaching tool for kids and teens and a way to get them interested in history. Reminisce in particular has a surfeit of photographs, illustrations, and reprints of old cartoons and advertisements. Every issue is colorful, like having your own personal museum to page through whenever you need to fill a few minutes.

Did people really act like that?

After flipping through the past, it might surprise you to realize how degraded our current society has become. Wholesomeness is not something marketers feature much anymore. We are so used to the world in which we live that sometimes it takes a virtual journey back in time to realize how sordid it has become.

Scanning the advertisements of years past is an education in what people valued. The advertising professionals of the era designed their material to appeal to those values: wholesomeness, dignity, respect, faith, hard work, thrift, good clean fun, cleanliness, good cheer, family, marriage, the innocence of romance. From our 21st century cynical viewpoint we often see this material and think it looks hokey or syrupy. Kind of sad that good clean fun isn’t considered fun anymore.

There is one requirement when delving into this kind of historical record (or any part of the past, actually): check your modern sensibilities and put them aside, don’t reason from our contemporary perspective. Trade cynicism for a lighter approach to life in order to appreciate an era, only a few decades old, which had a greater sweetness and innocence than what we suffer through today.

The Internet: Research Tool

In my college days the Internet as a research tool had the reputation of a con artist heading up a charity. Academia didn’t like the idea of all that unsubstantiated “chatter” out there.

Well, times are changing and a little over a decade has given the Internet a sheen of respectability. It’s still a jungle of information but not a dead loss.

The Internet is a useful tour guide. With regard to history, Wikipedia and the like are a good starting point if you want basic information and are prepared to swim through a river of bias to get it. Encyclopedic sites that are reader-written have obvious problems – anybody can say anything!

Start there and move on to verifiable sources: books, official journals, news items (although, depending on source and with the political bias of many news sources, take them with a grain of salt), and official websites. Some of these are available on the Internet. And then there are story verifying watchdog sites (like Snopes) that come in handy.

Find the Facts

“Verify, verify, verify” is the catch phrase of Internet research. So much information, often self-published, is circulating that you have to consider it questionable until you have two or three sources to back it up.

If I’m trying to recall an historical event and it’s just barely escaping me, search engines can take the details I do remember and lead me back to the source. That is the beauty of the being online.

I’d like to say a word for online bookstores, like Amazon, and their review pages. Thrown in with the occasional crank are useful bits of information that may lead to another book or source of study.

Research on the Internet is still much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with part of the information here, another fact there, mixed in with a lot of repetition, or on the downside, a bunch of lies.

Tread the river of information carefully, and be grateful we have the freedom to produce it!