The First American

I live in Franklin County, Ohio, where the large statue of Benjamin Franklin pictured below is found at the county courthouse, so it makes sense that at some point I would finally turn to reading a biography of the county’s namesake.  I chose The First American, a fine recent biography by H.W. Brands that is well worth reading if you are interested in learning more about the early history of America and one of its foremost founding fathers.

Franklin is a fascinating character for more reasons that you can reasonably count.  During his lifetime, he was easily the most famous American alive, known and lauded in both America and in Europe for his experiments with lightning and electricity, his invention of the Franklin stove and other devices, and his writings, both in Poor Richard’s Almanac and elsewhere.  He was a hard-working capitalist, turning his printers’ shop into a thriving business and engaging in a number of other commercial ventures, yet he also had his eye on the common welfare and the greater good and played a key role in forming colleges, fire departments, lending libraries, and philosophical societies.  He was exceptionally well-traveled for that era, crossing the Atlantic multiple times, living in England and France, and exploring all parts of the American colonies.  Franklin saw a lot of the world during his 80-plus years, and he unquestionably left it a better place than he found it through his efforts.

Franklin’s life story, more than any other, also is the story of the early days of America.  He was born in Boston and began his writing career jousting with the Puritan fathers who dominated the life and politics of Massachusetts at that time.  He moved to Philadelphia, which quickly grew into the largest and most prosperous city in the colonies, where he became a successful printer and public figure, crossed swords with the Penn family, the proprietors of Pennsylvania, and conducted many of the experiments and created many of the inventions that made him famous.  He was a public spokesman for the colonies during the French and Indian War and made one of the first proposals for colonial unification under a single government, served as a de facto ambassador for the colonies in Great Britain during the years leading to the Revolutionary War where he was castigated in Parliament, became a proponent for independence and returned to America just in time to serve as a member of the Continental Congress and an editor of the Declaration of Independence, then traveled to France to engineer the pact that brought the French into the war on the American side, to broker loans and trade deals to help supply the war effort, and then, after the battle of Yorktown, to negotiate the treaty that ended the conflict.  He returned to America, again, in time to serve multiple terms as Pennsylvania’s president and play an important role in the Constitutional Convention and in encouraging popular support for the new Constitution before dying, in the early days of the new Republic, as a revered and celebrated figure.

Franklin was not a perfect human; he had warts and missteps and embarrassing moments and times of hubris and thoughtlessness.  Yet you can’t help but be struck by the enormity of his accomplishments.  Throughout his 80-plus years of life, Franklin wrote countless letters, engaged with countless historical figures, and left a trail of sayings, witticisms, practical concepts, and scientific ponderings that would do credit to a legion of people.  And he invented bifocals, for which I am particularly grateful since I’ve worn them since I was about 6.

When I read about Franklin, I wonder:  where are the Franklins among our current political class, and is there anyone in our government who even comes close to his record?

 

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Timing Labor Day

Every year, Labor Day seems to arrive at just the right time.  It’s been a long summer, you’ve worked hard, fatigue and ennui are weighing you down . . . and suddenly a glorious three-day weekend arrives that allows you to sleep in, spend some time with the family, and revel in a little bit more of summer before cooler autumn comes to town.

This year is no different.  It’s been a really busy summer, with lots of time on the road. From my perspective, at least, the timing of Labor Day could not have been better.

220px-grover_cleveland_-_nara_-_518139_28cropped29I’ve written before about the origins of Labor Day — which is one of the oldest federal holidays, next to Thanksgiving — but it almost wasn’t scheduled for the first Monday in September.  The alternative date was May 1, also known as International Workers’ Day.  President Grover Cleveland decided, however, that having a holiday on that date might encourage labor group protests and general anarchist and socialist rabble-rousing, so the September date was selected instead.

If President Cleveland consciously selected the September date because he wanted to discourage rioting and mass labor marches, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. For decades, most Americans have marked Labor Day not with marches and protests, but with grilling out, getting in those last precious moments of pool time, and fortifying themselves against the coming colder weather with a few frosty adult beverages.

Since 1971, when Memorial Day became a federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day and Labor Day have bookended the summer months, giving us those wonderful three-day weekends to really set the warm outdoor months apart from the rest of the year.  When you think about it, it was pretty good decision-making by our elected representatives.  This Labor Day, as I enjoy my frosty adult beverage, I’ll take a swig in honor of President Cleveland and his impeccable sense of holiday timing.

Tearing Down The Confederate Past

Early Thursday morning, masked workers, operating under a significant police guard, removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, that had stood in New Orleans for 106 years.  The statute, located at the end of a park, shows Davis standing next to a pedestal, with one hand on the pedestal and the other outstretched, as if Davis were gesturing during some important speech.

220px-jefferson_davis2c_slave_ownerThe workers who took down the statue were masked and wore dark clothing, and there was a heavy police presence, because there had been anonymous threats to harm the people involved in the removal.  Others in New Orleans simply oppose the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue — which is one of four statues that honor the “lost cause of the Confederacy” in New Orleans that are slated for removal — on the grounds that the Mayor of New Orleans is trying to sanitize history.  The President of a group called the “Monumental Task Committee,” for example, said:  “Another historic monument was removed under the cover of darkness using amateur, masked workers in armor, unmarked vehicles and equipment with a heavy police presence.  [New Orleans Mayor] Landrieu cannot be inclusive, tolerant or diverse when he is erasing a very specific and undeniable part of New Orleans’ history.”  According to a city spokesman, New Orleans is now looking for a “more appropriate” place to put the statues — like a museum.

As far as I’m concerned, the “more appropriate” fate of the statues would be to melt them down for scrap metal value.  I don’t agree with the notion that removing statues of Confederate leaders in heroic poses from public spaces is trying to “sanitize” our past.  History is history, and whether such statues are kept around, or are removed, isn’t going to change that.  In fact, if anything, the design and construction of the Davis monument represented the effort to whitewash the past, not its removal.  When New Orleans decided to erect a statue of Davis nearly than 50 years after the Civil War ended, why didn’t they create a statue that showed Davis scurrying away from Richmond just before Union forces entered the city, or show Davis behind bars after being captured?  It would have been more accurate, because the South — thank goodness! — lost the Civil War.  The fact that some people in New Orleans more than 100 years ago had the bad judgment to erect an heroic statue of Davis doesn’t mean that the people of New Orleans must be stuck with that embarrassing mistake forever.

It makes perfectly good sense to remove a statue that offends many people because it celebrates a rebellion and a government that was created largely because racists wanted to preserve the immoral and brutal practice of slavery, and that was defeated only at the cost of millions of American lives.  The Confederacy should be remembered, but it should be remembered not as some honorable “lost cause,” but as the last gasp of a shameful chapter in American history.  Removing heroic statues of Confederate leaders is a good step toward putting the Confederacy into its true historical context.

Farewell To Fidel

Fidel Castro has died.  The cigar-puffing, fatigue-wearing Cuban revolutionary , who was a thorn in the side of countless American presidents, was 90.

The news of Castro’s death is weird, because he’s one of those figures who seems like he should have been dead for a long time already.  After all, this is a guy who first came to power when Dwight Eisenhower was President, TV was a new form of entertainment, and Chuck Berry and Elvis ruled the radio.  Castro became a geopolitical figure when he played a central role in the Kennedy Administration with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He seems like an anachronism from a long-dead era.

There seems to be no middle ground when you are talking about Castro.  He overthrew a corrupt and dictatorial regime, and some liberals tout some of his policies — such as the apparent quality and low cost of health care in Castro’s Cuba.  During the tumultuous ’60s, at least, he and his cohort Che Guevara had some of that revolutionary cachet and radical chic.  But Castro also was a died-in-the-wool communist, and there is no doubt that his regime was both brutal and repressive, clamping down on freedoms we take for granted and keeping Cuba in the dark ages economically.  People who have visited Cuba since the American embargo has been eased describe a struggling, impoverished country that seems to have stopped its progress in the 1950s.

Castro obviously was a significant historical figure, but how he will be perceived by history remains an open question.  Some of that perception will depend on how Cuba fares, now that some semblance of normal relations with non-communist countries is likely, and some of it will depend on what we learn about the inner workings of the Castro regime, and just how cold-blooded and terrible it was.

History Nerds

Most people don’t know who raised the American flag in that famous World War II photo from the battle of Iwo Jima.  Most of those who do simply accept that information and move on with their lives.

Most people aren’t history nerds.  History nerds question, and probe, and spend countless hours comparing photographs or hunting down film footage.  And in this case, they’ve caused people to reexamine what had long been thought settled about the identity of the American warriors in that iconic image and to ask whether one man who had long been celebrated as a flag-raiser wasn’t in the picture at all.  It’s a fascinating story, and one that you can read about here.

mount_suribachiI’d like to focus, though, not on the Iwo Jima photo and the soldiers, but on the history nerds themselves.  Some will wonder how anyone could be so obsessed with a particular battle from a war that ended more than 60 years ago that they would spend their free time doing the kind of detailed review and analysis that ultimately documented the lingering questions about the flag-raisers on Mount Suribachi.  What, don’t these geeks have lives?

But the reality of nerds the world over is that a passion lurks deep beneath the nerdish, pocket-protector-wearing surface.  Maybe it’s triggered by computers, or by a Star Trek episode or a Dungeons and Dragons game.  In the case of history nerds, it might be a Civil War battle, or a particular historical figure or event that lights the fuse of passion — and once the fuse is lit the nerd feels the need to read everything he can get his hands on about that one historical topic.  Most history nerds stop with binge-reading, but the serious guys go on to the next level.  They participate in Civil War reenactments and take scrupulous care to make sure their uniforms are as authentic as possible, or they fly to the site of the Battle of Agincourt, or they delve into the historical record because a fact that is accepted as settled doesn’t seem quite right.  And sometimes, as in the case of the Iwo Jima photo, those passionate history nerds get to make a bit of history themselves.

It’s interesting that the identity of the Iwo Jima flag raisers could be confused for so long without the actual participants speaking up, but what’s really cool about this story is the unflagging determination of the history nerds to make sure the historical record is right.

At The LBJ Ranch

1b521bd9-3bda-4d9a-9e3f-7ba03d6115d8Kish is down in San Antonio to visit Richard.  Today they visited the nearby LBJ Ranch as well as Lyndon Johnson’s boyhood home.  While at the ranch Kish snapped this picture — proving that Johnson was definitely not all hat and no cattle.

It’s interesting to reflect on people like Johnson.  He was a legendary Senate Majority Leader, was thrust into the presidency when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, ushered in the “Great Society” programs, and then was knocked out of the White House by the Vietnam War, riots in the cities, student protests, and general unrest in the country.  Now LBJ is largely an overlooked historical figure, overshadowed by JFK and Camelot as his predecessor and Richard Nixon and Watergate as his successor.

As Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly said, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”

America Then, America Now

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Yesterday morning in Washington, D.C., I walked past Ford’s Theater.  A small, quaint red brick building among the modern concrete structures of downtown Washington, the theater looks as it did 150 years ago, on that terrible night when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

It’sdownload wonderful that Ford’s Theate still exists; so much of American history has been erased in our never-ending quest for bigger and better that it’s gratifying to see a place that played such an important part in our history has been preserved.  So, too, has the house across the street where our greatest President died, and Edwin Stanton aptly said “Now he belongs to the ages.”

America being what it is, however, you won’t be surprised to learn that, among these sober living memorials to a dark chapter is a cheesy souvenir shop called Honest Abe Souvenir, which was having it’s grand opening as we walked by.  Because, after witnessing the place where American history took a grim turn and a great man breathed his last, who wouldn’t want to buy an Honest Abe mug or T-shirt?