Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

America’s Declaration for Taking Up Arms

After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which began the fighting in the American Revolution on 19 April 1775, the Continental Congress convened and had to deal with this new situation. One of the first actions was to appoint George Washington as commander-in-chief of the fledgling Continental Army that had surrounded the British troops in Boston.

Washington’s name was put forward not only because he had some experience in the French and Indian War, but also because he was a Virginian. The delegates at the Congress didn’t want this military conflict to appear to be solely a Massachusetts issue; they wanted all the colonies to band together. By choosing Washington, they made a conscious effort to create colony-wide unity.

Then the Congress went to work on a document that sought to explain why the situation had devolved into armed resistance. That document was called a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. While not as well known as the later Declaration of Independence, it was an elegantly written piece that clearly outlined the colonial position. Here are the main points spelled out in that document:

  • God never intended one part of humanity to hold unbounded power over another.
  • Parliament exceeded the bounds of the British constitution.
  • The colonies were founded by men who sought civil and religious liberty.
  • Parliament has taken arbitrary control of the colonists’ property and lives.
  • Peaceful reconciliation has not worked.
  • The colonists would rather die as free men than to live as slaves.
  • They had no desire for disunion.
  • They felt assured of God’s protection in this endeavor.

Along with this document, the Congress composed another one that was called the Olive Branch Petition, which was softer in language and appealed to the king to hear their pleas.

Both documents were sent to England but King George III paid no attention to them, issuing instead his official Proclamation of Rebellion on 23 August 1775. That proclamation stated that anyone in the colonies who was part of what he termed a “rebellion” was disloyal to the crown and out of his protection. Participants in this rebellion were to be put down by loyal subjects. When a king says that a subject is out of his protection, that, in effect, is a declaration of war against such subjects.

This proclamation, alongside what the colonists perceived to be a hostile attack upon peaceful citizens in Lexington and Concord, made it clear to many that the breach was now irreparable, but full recognition of that reality would not come until the middle of 1776.

Although I have been using the term “American Revolution” for this overall event, I really don’t think that is an appropriate designation. The colonists were simply trying to assert the rights and privileges they had had all along. They were defensive, not offensive. That’s why, as I hope many of my students will recall, I refer to this as the American War for Continued Self-Government, which, in my view, is a more accurate assessment.

Self-government, the right to make our own decisions without some overweening authority imposing everything, continues to be a concern in America today. We need to keep asserting the principle of self-government, particularly in a time when the federal government has taken on many of the attributes against which our forefathers fought.

The Coolidge Legacy

Yesterday was the anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s death in 1933. It passed by most people. In fact, if you were to ask a random one hundred people who Coolidge was, I’m afraid only a very few would be able to give an informed answer.

Calvin Coolidge, president of the United States from 1923-1929, brought character to the forefront of American politics. Vice president under Warren Harding, he had the presidency thrust upon him when Harding died suddenly. Upon first hearing the news, Coolidge and his wife immediately knelt by their bed and prayed. He was then sworn into the office by his own father in his boyhood home in Vermont where he was visiting.

Harding’s administration was in the throes of a number of scandals at the time, with the most infamous being Teapot Dome. Coolidge made sure the various investigations went forward and that the guilty were punished. He restored confidence in the government.

His entire tenure in office was a period of prosperity for the nation. Part of the reason for that was his philosophy of limited government and economic liberty. He acted on principle and did his best to keep the federal government under control.

Coolidge won election in his own right in 1924, and since he only completed a year and a half of Harding’s term, nearly everyone expected him to run again in 1928 and win without any trouble. Yet Coolidge declined to do so. He explained more fully in his post-presidential memoir why he made that decision, and his explanation reveals the heart of the man.

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

If only more politicians had that perspective, we would be in better shape as a nation.

Although Coolidge gained the reputation of being a man of few words, whenever he did speak, he was eloquent.

Assessing the Battle of Bunker Hill

Sometimes, a victory is more of a defeat and a loss is more of a victory. That’s the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution.

To be as historically accurate as possible, most of the fighting actually took place on Breed’s Hill, but that’s not what’s important here. The chief significance of this battle is that an untrained, makeshift militia took on the disciplined British army and came away with greater confidence.

After the skirmish at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Massachusetts militia surrounded Boston, intent on never allowing the British troops out again to ravage the countryside. British General Howe was just as determined to break the siege. Thus, on 17 June, Howe finally made repeated attempts to dislodge the colonial militia from the aforementioned hills.

Every time the British troops charged up the hill, they were met with a strong volley from those militia; they would retreat and charge again.

One of the weaknesses on the colonial side was a shortage of ammunition. The story handed down (hard to document) is that militia colonel William Prescott gave the following command in order to conserve ammunition: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” That command has become legendary, so much so that Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson gave us this classic, one that I like to use in my course on the American Revolution:

I love historical humor.

Due to the lack of ammunition, the British eventually took both hills, but the battle was a significant morale-booster for the inexperienced Americans. They continued to maintain the siege of Boston despite the loss.

Overall, in this battle, the British suffered 200 deaths and another 800 soldiers wounded; the colonists lost only 100, with 300 wounded. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the British, a type named after a Greek general who experienced “disastrous successes.” Gen. Howe lamented that his victory had been “too dearly bought.” Conversely, Nathaniel Greene, who would become one of the American heroes of the war, wished that his side could “sell them another hill at the same price.”

Today, there is a monument on Breed’s Hill that commemorates the battle. I’ve climbed to the top. In front of it is a statue of Joseph Warren, an ardent patriot leader who died in that battle.

It was shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill that George Washington arrived to take over command of what he hoped would develop into the Continental Army. But that’s a post for another day.

Focusing on the Eternal

Last year’s political season was probably the most divisive in modern American history. The nature of the presidential race was such that I felt compelled to concentrate on it in this blog. However, I always sought to provide thoughts on other topics as well. After all, this blog is not about politics and government only; it’s about life overall.

I have a daily routine of online sites I check for current events and commentary, but I don’t limit my reading to those. That would be unbalanced. I am a voracious reader. It’s not just my profession as a history professor that mandates it; I thrive on reading.

My foundational reading for life is always going to be Scripture. I just completed reading the Bible through again. Whenever I do that, I use a different version to keep the message fresh.

My newest Bible-reading project will be long-term, as I’ve begun to delve into a study Bible that will keep me occupied for at least a couple of years. I’m not going to rush through it. I’ll take my time while I meditate not only on the verses themselves but the commentary within.

As a corollary to Scripture reading, I also have a daily e-mail from Christian History that not only offers a short devotional but also information about various people and movements in the history of the church.

A lot of my reading does have to do with the courses I teach, as I want to stay current with scholarship in my field. Yet that type of reading is not a duty; rather, it’s a joy.

For instance, I am teaching my C. S. Lewis course this spring. In my reading of a book about Lewis over Christmas break, I realized I hadn’t yet read some of his essays on literature. So I got a collection of those and found some I have now incorporated into the course.

Reading Lewis is one of my favorite things, as most of you probably know, since I published a book about him a few months ago. I find endless fascination in his thoughts and in the way he expresses them. He helps keep me balanced.

I’m reading other books now as well (I usually have three or four going at the same time). For my American Revolution course, which I will probably teach again in the fall, I’m previewing a book with an intriguing title: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. The author is a man I know personally, Daniel Dreisbach, who is an excellent scholar. Reading a book like that is a perfect combination of faith and history.

A course I’ve not yet taught, American history from 1877 to 1917, is another one I may teach in the fall, so I’m focusing right now on a key period in that history, trying to find just the right book to fill in the gap.

I’ve found a very readable book on the pivotal 1912 election that may be the one. It’s an interesting character study of the four candidates in that key campaign: Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs. I can say I’ve learned quite a bit; it has deepened my knowledge of the era, which is something I always seek to do with any historical period.

I also read fiction, mostly from evangelical authors who know how to tell a good story. Some of my staples in that area are Ted Dekker, Stephen Lawhead, and Joel Rosenberg, but I broaden my search all the time, wanting to find others who know how to combine fine storytelling with the faith.

I’m also working my way slowly through Paradise Lost, which is going to take a while, to be sure. Catching up on some of the classics that I’ve never read is another goal.

So, you can see I’m not just narrowly focused on politics. My life is so much more than just a matter of who won the last election. In fact, with an election like the one that has just occurred, I am truly grateful that life is bigger than that.

Memes created from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, can sometimes capture how I feel:

I hope we can all keep our sense of humor in times like these. Faith in God and a sense of humor should go together to remind us that current events are just that—current, not eternal.

That reminds me of another of my favorite Scripture passages, found in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lost heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.

For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

May our focus always be on the eternal.

22 November 1963

Today, November 22, is one that most of the world recognizes for one significant event. I recognize it for two, and the latter is of greater consequence.

In the preface of my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, I write this:

I grew up in Bremen, Indiana, population roughly four thousand, surrounded by corn fields and a significant Amish community, half a world away from Oxford and in an entirely different environment. My parents had never read any of Lewis’s works; there was nothing in my background to lead me in that direction.

By the end of the decade of the 1950s, I could ride a bike and fill my bike’s basket with books from our local public library, a feat I accomplished consistently. Already, before the age of ten, I was a voracious reader. Yet I never borrowed anything in the library by C. S. Lewis. All of his Narnia books had been published by then, but if they were in that library, they never crossed my path, and my affinity for fantasy/science fiction reading surely would have aroused my interest if I had seen them.

Since I knew nothing of Lewis in 1960, I was unaware that his wife, Joy, had died that July. It would have had no meaning in my young life.

When Lewis himself died on 22 November 1963, again I took no notice. But I wasn’t alone—the whole world was startled and anxious over the death of another man that the world deemed more consequential.

lewis-jfk

As the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was placed in his grave shortly afterward, so was C. S. Lewis. Today, which of those two is of greater significance? I would argue that Lewis has influenced more American lives since his death than has the former president.

God’s judgments about greatness are rarely the same as man’s. On this day, I remember both of these men, but I honor far more the one less acknowledged.

Preserving Freedom: Lexington & Concord

Among the innumerable examples of bravery in American history, the events surrounding the first battle of the American Revolution are prominent. Massachusetts was under martial law; Boston was ruled by a British general. A shadow government of sorts had been set up by those who were opposed to how the Mother Country was tightening her screws of control.

The two leaders of the resistance, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, were in the small village of Lexington, planning their passage to Philadelphia to be part of the Continental Congress. On the night of 19 April 1775, British regulars were dispatched from Boston with two purposes: capture Adams and Hancock for trial (and execution) in Britain; remove all the colony’s store of guns and ammunition in Concord.

Neither objective was achieved.

paul-reveres-rideRiders went out from Boston to alert the countryside. The best-known one, of course, was Paul Revere. No, he didn’t shout “The British are coming!” That would have been a redundancy—they were all still British. His message was that the “regulars” were coming out, which was a fearful matter. These were highly disciplined troops.

What did the colonists have to stand against them? Only farmers and shopkeepers, the local militia that had recently taken the name of Minutemen, since they had to be ready at a minute’s notice should an attack come.

Stand Your GroundAdams and Hancock escaped from Lexington just in time. The 700 regulars arrived to face a small contingent of Minutemen on Lexington green. There was never an intent on either side to have a pitched battle. Seventy townsmen facing 700 regulars would have been folly. They were simply making a statement. When ordered to leave the field, they were in the process of doing so.

Then a shot rang out. Accounts differ as to the source of that shot. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a poem, later referred to it as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”

Eight Lexington men were killed. And the troops marched on to Concord.

minuteman-statueConcord was ready. All the stores of munitions were removed to safety before the troops arrived. Nervous Concord Minutemen stood by a bridge outside of town. When they saw smoke coming up from the town, they feared the troops were setting fire to their homes. That brought on a battle on the bridge.

Seeing that their goals were not achieved, the regular troops were ordered back to Boston, but now the entire countryside was up in arms—literally. That march back to Boston turned into a rout, as colonists, fighting in Indian manner, would shoot at them from behind hedges, trees, and fences, then run ahead to do the same again when the troops reached them in their new location.

Once the troops were back in Boston, 15,000 Massachusetts militia formed a ring around the city, to ensure they would not be attacked again.

Lexington and Concord signaled the opening of the war for independence.

john-adamsJohn Adams, writing to wife Abigail about what had occurred, penned some memorable words:

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.

What of Adams’s words today? Have we done a good job of preserving what he and others of that Founding generation did to deliver freedom to us? Time will tell.

Lewis on the Old Books

“Every age has its own outlook,” C. S. Lewis instructed. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Amen to that. “We all, therefore,” he continued, “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Image: Dublin Library. The WSRL is a humble and intimate gathering ...Was Lewis saying that only old books are worthwhile? Was he so anti-modern that he believed nothing written in the last century could conceivably offer us wisdom? After all, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” one of the last specimens of those who live comfortably in their native land of previous epochs.

That’s hardly his intention. What he was doing in this quote was attacking the oh-so-modern fallacy (found in every age, by the way) that we have progressed so far that we understand things much better than previous ages and generations.

I teach historiography. Part of the course delves into different schools of historical interpretation. One common mistake for historians is to believe that progress is inevitable, that each succeeding generation is wiser than the last one.

I ran into this perspective in my doctoral program. One book used in a course on American colonial history was infused with a sneeringly condescending attitude toward those so-called primitive early Americans. They were just so backward, the book implied. Not like the new generation that has come so far.

Of course, in the view of that author, to “come so far” meant that we have set aside all those outmoded ideas about God that seemed to drive many of the early settlers. The hubris in the book was astounding.

c-s-lewis-2All Lewis was saying in this quote is that each era has its truth emphases and each also has its own characteristic mistakes and/or falsehoods that it believes. How do we guard against this arrogance? Return to the thoughts and beliefs of earlier times and keep in mind that whatever faults they had, they also might have contained truths that we, in our pride, have foolishly abandoned.

The “old books” are not error-free, but they do put a check on our runaway love affair with ourselves. They remind us of things we may have forgotten as a society.

There is one old book, though, that is error-free and never leads us astray. If we take it seriously, our pride is leveled and we recognize our true place in the universe.

As I survey the mess our current society has devolved into, I’m reminded of another Lewis quote: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse.” If we are disturbed by what we see happening morally in our day, we must acknowledge the real reason for this development. We have allowed our Christianity to be compromised to the point that it no longer is the salt and light it was intended to be.

We must return to the one Old Book that puts things right again.