Archive for the ‘ American Character ’ Category

Defusing the Newburgh Conspiracy

The American Revolution was essentially over. British General Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781. Yet George Washington still had to keep his army together until a peace treaty was concluded. That didn’t happen until 1783.

Many of his officers were angry with Congress. They hadn’t been paid for a long time and were contemplating open mutiny, even to the point of marching on Congress, guns in hand.

They knew Washington wouldn’t approve their potential plans, so they turned to Gen. Horatio Gates, the supposed hero of Saratoga. He really wasn’t the hero (that honor actually belonged to Benedict Arnold, prior to his turning traitor), but public perception is sometimes everything.

Gates had humiliated himself at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina, not only losing the battle, but being in the forefront of the hasty retreat. Yet there were some who still clung to the false idea that he was a leader, so they looked to him to “lead” in this mutiny.

The army was encamped in Newburgh, New York, in March 1783, and that’s why this episode is called the Newburgh Conspiracy. The mutineers called a meeting to discuss how to proceed with their plans. Gates was in charge.

Then, unexpectedly, Washington appeared at this meeting. He knew what they were plotting, totally disapproved of the movement, and hoped to soothe their anger over how they had been treated.

Washington had not only led the army all those long years of the war, but he had carried on another “war,” so to speak, the entire time—trying to get Congress to follow through on promises made. He was in constant communication with the Congress and came into this meeting to let the officers know about the latest exchange with the political leaders.

Some have called what he did next “political theater,” but to me, it seems genuine enough. One account describes what happened this way:

With a sigh, he removed from his pocket a letter and announced it was from a member of Congress, and that he now wished to read it to them. He produced the letter, gazed upon it, manipulated it without speaking. What was wrong, some of the men wondered. Why did he delay?

Washington now reached into a pocket and brought out a pair of new reading glasses. Only those nearest to him knew he lately required them, and he had never worn them in public. Then he spoke: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

This simple act and statement by their venerated commander, coupled with remembrances of battles and privations shared together with him, and their sense of shame at their present approach to the threshold of treason, was more effective than the most eloquent oratory.

As he read the letter, many were in tears from the recollections and emotions which flooded their memories. As Maj. Samuel Shaw, who was present, put it in his journal, “There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.”

Finishing, Washington carefully and deliberately folded the letter, took off his glasses, and exited briskly from the hall.

Immediately, Henry Knox and others faithful to Washington offered resolutions affirming their appreciation for their commander in chief, and pledging their patriotism and loyalty to the Congress, deploring and regretting those threats and actions which had been uttered and suggested. What support Gates and his group may have enjoyed at the outset of the meeting now completely disintegrated, and the Newburgh Conspiracy collapsed.

I share this story for two reasons: first, I want to showcase again the character George Washington brought to his public duties; second, I want emphasize that history sometimes turns on the actions of one individual.

Let’s never forget that our actions do have consequences. By being obedient to what we know is right in God’s eyes, we can truly make a difference in this world.

Individual Choices, Not Impersonal Forces, Determine History

I’m teaching my American Revolution course this semester. Every time I do, I’m impressed with how character shapes history. In this case, the character of George Washington comes to the forefront.

As 1776 drew to a close, it seemed more likely than not that the fledgling nation was in jeopardy and that the Declaration of Independence was destined to be a silly footnote in history, another testament to man’s folly.

Washington’s army, such as it was, composed primarily of untested militia with short-term enlistments, had miraculously escaped the British noose on Long Island in August. Many would comment on the remarkable feat of ferrying the army from that island over to New York City in the dark of night.

Many others would remark with wonder at the almost-supernatural fog that descended on Long Island that morning, thereby allowing the retreat to end successfully. Divine Providence, many would say.

Yet after that, one might wonder where Divine Providence had gone. The ragtag Americans were pushed back in battle after battle, eventually losing the entire island of Manhattan and licking their proverbial wounds for the winter on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.

Morale in the army and the new nation was at low ebb as Christmas approached. Would the army disintegrate completely? Was this experiment in independence over before it could even begin?

I’ve often taught that history does not revolve around impersonal forces (such as economics). Rather, it’s the individual choices we make that determine what happens next.

Washington took a risk. He knew the mercenary Hessian troops just across the river in Trenton, New Jersey, would be “celebrating” Christmas in their traditional manner—getting stone-cold drunk.

That’s when he made the decision—called rash by some in his ranks—to cross the river in the dead of night and march straight into the Hessian encampment, taking them by surprise.

Who hasn’t seen this famous painting? Leaving aside for the moment whether Washington actually stood up in the boat in this heroic pose, he nevertheless was embarking on a desperate and heroic endeavor.

It worked. The surprise was complete. The Hessians surrendered quickly.

British general William Howe was in the area and vowed vengeance for this brazen act. He attempted to surround Washington’s army, but Washington fooled him, again moving his forces during the night while keeping enough camp fires burning to make Howe believe the army was still there.

In the morning, Washington’s troops ran into a contingent of British near Princeton. At first, the troops were timid and started a retreat. Washington himself then rode to the front and rallied them. The result: another stunning victory.

When news of these back-to-back military successes found its way into the newspapers, the reeling nation’s morale rose immediately. Washington, by his personal courage and determination, had single-handedly revived their hopes.

Historians, of course, note that this was hardly the end of the trials and that morale would rise and fall throughout the next few years, depending on the circumstances. Washington would face more hard times, even to the point where some in Congress sought to remove him as commander of the army.

Yet this winter of 1776-1777 was crucial to the continuing struggle, a struggle that eventually saw the establishment of America’s independence.

I often call George Washington the indispensable man of this era. This is just one example of why that is true. And I repeat: individual choices, not impersonal forces, are the determiners for how history unfolds.

Who Was Harry Freeman? And Why Should You Care?

Harry Freeman is not a household name; most Americans have no idea who he was. Why should anyone care? Well, Harry Freeman was an example of just how devoted someone can be to a political party regardless of the drastic changes that might occur.

Whittaker Chambers knew Harry Freeman. When Chambers joined the open Communist Party in America in the late 1920’s, he worked alongside Freeman at the party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker.

Allow me to draw from what I’ve written in my book on Chambers and Reagan:

Freeman was the perfect communist in his responses to the party line. As Chambers relates, “No matter how favorable his opinion had been to an individual or his political role, if that person fell from grace in the Communist Party, Harry Freeman changed his opinion about him instantly.”

Others in the party also shifted their viewpoints to match the leadership, but Freeman was unique because he would do it “without any effort or embarrassment. There seemed to vanish from his mind any recollection that he had ever held any opinion other than the approved one. . . . More adroitly and more completely than any other Communist I knew, Harry Freeman possessed the conviction that the party line is always right.”

Freeman, after he left the Daily Worker, went on to become the managing editor of the American Bureau of Tass, the Soviet news agency. In 1976, two years before his death, he received a special award from the Soviet leadership—the Order of Peoples Friendship. His achievement, according to the Soviet government, was his devotion to strengthening cooperation between the peoples of the Soviet Union and the United States. Freeman’s commitment to the communist cause was total.

Chambers, for all his devotion to communism, could never be a Harry Freeman. He could not stomach the politics within the party, and when Stalin initiated a purge of the American leadership, Chambers saw it for what it was—a power struggle unrelated to whether or not a person was a genuine communist.

“It seemed to me,” Chambers wrote years later, “that the party, of which it had been said in Lenin’s time that it peopled the jails of Europe with philosophers, had simply gone insane. … I thought: ‘The pigmies have taken over.'” He refused to play along with this political game and dropped out of the party for a time. This made him a pariah, someone not to be trusted.

How many Harry Freemans, I wonder, exist in America today? The Harry Freemans of today are those who hold to the party line, regardless of which party, no matter how that party may shift and bend itself out of shape.

The Democrat Party in our day is not the Democrat Party of yesteryear when it had a strong anti-communist center. It never dallied with changing basic morality with respect to the right to life and marriage.

The Republican Party of 2017 has morphed also. It’s no longer the party led by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Its purported leader has little in common with Reagan’s sunny disposition, his devotion to constitutionalism, and his thorough knowledge of the conservative philosophy.

I’m concerned because I see Harry Freemans popping up all over the place. I see supposed conservatives, for instance, jettisoning basic conservative/Biblical principles for pure pragmatism.

My goal in this post is simple: it’s a warning—don’t be a Harry Freeman. Stay faithful to what you know is true and don’t bend yourself out of shape to keep up with whatever the “party” wants you to do. Maintain your integrity.

Rockefeller the Christian?

A couple days ago, I posted about Booker T. Washington—the fruit of the preparation I’m doing for a course called “The Emergence of Modern America, 1877-1917.” I hope I showed in that post that he is someone to be admired for his character.

Another figure from that time period who needs his reputation reexamined is John D. Rockefeller. Historians typically castigate this man for supposedly destroying other companies by buying them out. Another presumably evil thing he did was to negotiate with the railroads for special rates for shipping his product: Standard oil.

I won’t try to do a total overhaul of those interpretations today, but I will offer these rejoinders:

First, Rockefeller was a very efficient oil producer; many other companies were sloppily run and doomed to failure. Many people that he bought out were actually saved by the transaction. He paid them a good market price for their equipment and sometimes even hired the best of their managers and employees.

He’s accused of creating a monopoly, which would be bad for consumers because monopolies can charge whatever they wish. Well, Rockefeller so lowered the price of oil to all Americans that they all could afford it, thereby lighting their homes in a significantly cheaper way than by candles.

What about the special rates with the railroads? Unfair? If someone gives you far more business than another person, what’s morally wrong with providing them, in return, a better rate? Isn’t that how business operates all the time? Buy in quantity and you get a lower price. Ever heard of Sam’s Club?

Rockefeller, to the surprise of many, was a devoted Baptist who tithed from his millions to his church and to missionary endeavors. And when journalists hoped to find an extravagant lifestyle that they could expose, they ran into the proverbial brick wall. Rockefeller liked nothing more than quiet times at home and going to church with his family.

Everyone talks about how much money Andrew Carnegie gave away. That’s fine, but Rockefeller gave away even more, and he was more focused on Christian charities. He even gave the funds necessary to ensure the establishment of Spelman College, the historically black women’s college that is named after his wife’s family.

I found some very fascinating Rockefeller quotes in my research. Here’s one that shows his goal for becoming rich:

He noted that anyone who concentrates solely on getting rich is missing the mark:

And how about this one from arguably the richest man in America at that time?

Although a Baptist, Rockefeller saw all Christians as his brothers and sisters:

And I’ll end with this:

So did Rockefeller never make a misstep? Am I whitewashing him because of my personal agenda? There are some things to critique, but I think they are minor in comparison with what he accomplished. He deserves more credit than many historians are willing to acknowledge.

Reclaiming Booker T. Washington

What occupies professors when they are on summer vacation? I imagine some may think we do nothing. Those would not be the professors I know; we stay busy.

For instance, I’ve been working diligently on a new upper-level history course for the fall semester: American history from 1877-1917. For me, though, that’s hardly “work”—it’s an enjoyable experience putting my thoughts together and giving them life through my PowerPoint presentations.

I’m the type of historian who concentrates quite a bit on the people of an era, less so on statistics, graphs, etc. My primary interest is character and how that affects the cause-and-effect flow of history.

I also have a tendency to provide alternative views on those people, views that don’t fit into the prevailing interpretations. Take Booker T. Washington as an example. One of the books I’m using in the course is Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery. It’s a heartfelt account of one man who overcame tremendous disadvantages and made a positive impact on many lives through the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute.

Today, Washington is often criticized as an “Uncle Tom.” First of all, that’s a slam on the fictional Uncle Tom as presented by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel. Tom was a Christ-like man to be admired.

Washington also should be admired for his tenacity, his desire to help ex-slaves, and his Christian character.

I like to include key quotes from significant historical figures. Washington is very quotable.

Here’s one that can be applied to him personally:

Washington’s selflessness shines in these two comments:

Washington knew, from personal experience, what it meant to be discriminated against, but he also received tremendous support from many in the white community throughout his life. He lived by this motto:

That’s the perspective we need in our cultural and political wars today. It came from Washington’s Christian faith.

Here’s a very short quote, but it says a lot:

It’s amazing how just three words can communicate a vital truth.

Booker T. Washington’s life is a testimony to character, and it should be an inspiration for the current generation.

I like teaching history; it has a lot to offer us if one approaches it with a right attitude, and not with the proverbial chip on the shoulder.

History should never be used to advance a preconceived agenda, but it can be used to remind us of the significance of individuals and the impact they can make. Booker T. Washington is one such individual.

Tweeterdumb

One of my main objections to the Trump nomination during the primaries last year was his character. I feared that as president he wouldn’t be able to control himself because he had never manifested self-control in his life. Whatever Trump wanted to do, Trump did, regardless of the consequences.

I was told by many not to worry about that since he would be surrounded by people who could rein him in. So how’s that going?

My fears have been realized over and over again. Trump’s thin skin gives his emotions dominance over his behavior. While there are many instances of this in his actions, the way he gets into trouble most often is through his tweets.

His Twitter account, which many have urged him to shut down (to no avail) is his way of getting back at anyone who crosses him. He claims it’s his way of getting his message out to the public, frustrating the mainstream media. Yet there’s very little substance in most of his tweets; the majority are varying levels of personal invective toward individuals or groups that either oppose him or are not fully on the Trump Train.

And they sometimes fan the fires of a controversy that would have died off if only he could let things go. That’s not wise; it’s an exercise in foolishness that undermines any good he might presume to do.

By the way, the political cartoons I’m using are not from the fevered brains of progressives; these cartoonists are conservatives who see the damage he is doing to the conservative brand.

Sometimes, Trump is just dead wrong on the facts. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, after the recent terrorist attacks, told the people that they were going to see more police and military on the streets, but not to be alarmed by that since they were there for protection.

What did Trump do? He tweeted the following: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!'”

That comment ignored the context of the statement completely. Yet when it was pointed out to Trump that the “no reason to be alarmed” wording was related to the increase of security, he doubled down on his misinformed earlier tweet by sending out another one: “Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his ‘no reason to be alarmed’ statement. MSM is working hard to sell it!”

I hope to be very clear here. I’m no fan of this Muslim mayor of London who has shown himself at odds with common sense in combating terrorism. Neither am I a fan of the mainstream media that seeks to destroy the Trump presidency. But in this case, Trump was obviously wrong.

And he refuses to acknowledge he was wrong, making matters even worse.

Again, this comes back to character, or the lack thereof. It also makes one wonder whether he is competent to handle the office he’s been given.

There have been other times when his surrogates have explained him to the public, only to have him tweet something that contradicts what they have said. Being on the communications team for this president must be one of the hardest jobs in Washington.

There is a growing sense that this administration has few accomplishments it can point to. Of course, the rest of the Republican party has played a part in that as well, but that’s for another post. Besides Neil Gorsuch (who has yet to be tested) and a few Obama executive orders being axed, what has this administration done compared to what Trump promised?

If you’ve taken the time to analyze Trump’s tweets, you will find they follow a clear pattern. Someone came up with a handy aid for how Trump tweets. I thought I would share it with you.

You’re welcome.

Lest I be misunderstood, I don’t want Trump to fail on the matters that concern me most: religious liberty, abortion, and government regulations. If he fulfills his promises on those issues, I will be pleased. Yet he is his own worst enemy, and his lack of emotional control may well be his undoing.

It’s well past time to get his act together. I’m simply not confident that he can do so.

Chambers: The Meaning of Witness

Every couple of years, I’m privileged to teach my course on Whittaker Chambers. As this semester nears its end, students are also getting near the end of Chambers’s masterful autobiography entitled Witness.

Why that title? Chambers, as he shared what he knew about the communist underground of which he had been a part for many years, was a witness. Another word for a witness is a martyr—one who is willing to lay down his life for what he knows to be true.

Chambers took a great chance in providing information; he might have been the one indicted for his past activities. Yet he came forward regardless because integrity demanded it; he sought to help Western civilization understand the threat it faced, not just from an outward manifestation called communism, but from an inner loss of spirit due to its increasing denial of Christian faith.

Chambers made a distinction between making a witness and simply giving a testimony. “The testimony and the witness must not be confused,” he wrote. “They were not the same.” He explained further,

The testimony fixed specific, relevant crimes. The witness fixed the effort of the soul to rise above sin and crime, and not for its own sake first, but because of others’ need, that the witness to sin and crime might be turned against both.

Chambers, in confessing his sins and crimes, was hoping to help the world understand the deeper truths. Yet he was concerned “that the world would see only the shocking facts of the testimony and not the meaning of the witness.”

He expressed his concern in words that reverberate down to our day—elegant words, words wrought out of the depth of his soul:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract.

It submits that that something is the soul.

Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope.

What does the Christian hope offer to men? I love how Chambers ends this short soliloquy:

For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point of which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.

Chambers’s words remind me of chapter 4 of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. . . .

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Be a witness today, even if you feel weak. God uses whatever we offer Him for His glory.