Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Samuel Adams, Martha Washington, and the Philadelphia Ball

The American Revolution was an event that called forth great sacrifice from the American people. Thousands of men left their chosen professions to shoulder arms with the Continental Army, while many of those who remained behind to till their fields served stints in the militia. The womenfolk had to see their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons off to war, their safe return uncertain. Imports from Europe were cut off by the fighting and the British blockade, forcing the colonists to do without luxuries and to make many previously imported essentials themselves. Inflation ran riot during this period, inflicting terrible economic hardship. The worst smallpox epidemic in American history raged across the land late during the war, carrying off thousands of victims. It was, indeed, a time of trial the likes of which America has not seen since.

No one understood the suffering being endured by the people better than Samuel Adams, the man who probably did more than any other single individual to bring on the Revolution. He was a man for whom wealth or material possessions meant little or nothing. Believing in the cause of American liberty with a fervency unrivaled and virtually unequaled among the other Founding Fathers, Samuel Adams saw the pursuit of money as a base and ignoble distraction from what really mattered. To him, the Revolution was a fiery trial sent by God through which they had to pass if they were to prove worthy of independence.

In November of 1775, Adams was serving as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The war had begun at Lexington and Concord the previous April, with the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill having been fought in June. Adams's hometown of Boston remained under British occupation, loosely besieged by George Washington's disorganized and undisciplined army. The war was well and truly underway and the suffering had begun. Whether the American people would have the stomach to make the sacrifices necessary for victory was unclear. It was something that Samuel Adams worried about constantly.

That month, Martha Washington was going to pass through Philadelphia on her way to join her husband (she would spend every winter with the general over the course of the war, in fact). To the great concern of Adams, a fancy dress ball was scheduled to be held at City Tavern in her honor when she arrived. The big shin-dig was being organized by some of the wealthier members of the city's elite, as well as members of the Continental Congress. Many were upset when word of the scheduled ball leaked out, thinking that such elaborate and expensive celebrating highly inappropriate considering the ongoing war and the suffering being endured by the people. In particular, many objected that the party would violate the Eighth Resolution agreed upon by the First Continental Congress the previous year, which read as follows:

That we will, in our several stations, encourage Frugality, Economy, and Industry, and promote Agriculture, Arts, and the Manufactures of this Country, especially that of Wool, and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of plays, shews, and other expensive diversions and entertainments, and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families, will go into any further mourning dress than a black crape or ribbon on the arm or hat for gentlemen, and a black ribbon or necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarfs at funerals.

This resolution had been adopted as part of the effort to discourage imports from Britain in the run-up to the outbreak of the war, when it was thought that economic pressure might be sufficient to force His Majesty's Government to agree to end the crisis on reasonable terms. But for Sam Adams, it was much more than a merely practical expedient. What is was really about, as far as he was concerned, was instilling a sense of civic virtue in the American people. For without that, as he and many others fully realized, they would lack the moral fiber to endure the conflict with the British Empire.

Worried about how news of the ball would be received by the people of Philadelphia, Adams and a few others went directly to Martha Washington and asked her not to appear at the event. After speaking with them, she immediately agreed not to go. A wise woman if ever there was one, she grasped the argument Adams was making quite easily. As she was to have been the guest of honor, the event was scrapped, much to the irritation of the wealthy Philadelphians who had organized the whole thing. Adams, however, was pleased at the small but symbolic victory in the fight for civic virtue in America.

What is civic virtue? The very fact that we have to ask ourselves this question illustrates how far America has fallen into decline in the early 21st Century. In essence, it is placing the interests of the community ahead of one's own interests, whether on the level of the neighborhood or the level of the entire nation. Adams understood that the American people were only going to become a free and independent people if they pushed aside thoughts of merriment and amusement and focused their energies on serving the cause. As he once said:

A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous, they cannot be subdued. but when once they lose their virtue then they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.

Nothing irritated Adams more than seeing his fellow Americans fall into dissipation and trivial entertainment when there was a war to be fought and won. When John Hancock (with whom Adams had a long and complicated relationship) was elected as the first Governor of Massachusetts in 1780, Adams was horrified by the great expense and celebratory pomp that went into the inauguration ceremony. What would have been wrong, Adams would have asked, with simply having a judge swear Hancock into office in a quiet, no nonsense affair?

One wonders what Samuel Adams would say to us today. Grave problems are bearing down us, with the inevitability of a train approaching a man tied to the railroad tracks. Among other things, our nation faces a mounting debt crisis, climate change, and an unstable world in which American military superiority can no longer be taken for granted. Compounding all these problems is the gridlocked political situation that blocks all efforts to deal with the multiple problems.

In spite of all this, we Americans continue to eat, drink, and be merry as though nothing was wrong. We devour our fast food and frozen pizzas, indulge in our clownish and inane popular culture, and breathlessly follow stories about the personal lives of entertainment celebrities. We we haven't left them plugged into brain-sucking smart phones and video games, we teach our kids strategies for taking standardized tests but not much in the way of useful or enlightening knowledge. Every year, our schools spend less time on civics and the history of our once great republic. Our elected officials, left and right, offer us endless enticements to get us to vote for them, but none have the courage to tell the American people the truth about the hard times that surely lie ahead.

It seems to me that our elected officials, our media, and our educational system are combining together to tell us, in effect, that Sam Adams was wrong, that it would be a good idea to put on the lavish ball in Philadelphia, that we should ignore the need for sacrifice and virtue, that the times are really not as bad as we think they are. The powers-that-be are sitting pretty these days and would rather keep dancing and enjoying themselves while they have the chance. One is reminded of the "soma" of Aldous Huxley.

In spite of everything, though, I still have faith in the wisdom and the virtue of the American people. It has been sorely tested at times, I admit, but it's still there. More and more, I think that my fellow Americans are seeing past the smoke and mirrors erected by the powers-that-be. In the coming years, I believe that they will brush aside the mirage that we should be defined by whether we are on the "left" and "right" of the political spectrum and remember the true wisdom of Sam Adams and the other Founding Fathers. The fate of our republic rests on our reacquiring of virtue and wisdom. That, and not the soma of mindless entertainment, is what will save America.

Sam Adams and Martha Washington were right in 1775 and they remain right in 2017. Let's cancel the Philadelphia Ball once again.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Seeing the Declaration of Independence as a Mission Statement

It is Independence Day, our great national holiday. The Fourth of July is supposed to be the day we set aside every year to celebrate the foundation of our great republic, trumpet our experiment in self-government, and come together as a people to remember the values upon which this country is founded. Though John Adams got the date wrong (he expected the holiday to be July 2, when the Continental Congress approved the resolution for independence), the "Atlas of Independence" was right on the money when he said:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty; it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore. 

And Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the glorious document signed on this day two hundred and forty-one years ago, had these words to say about the Fourth of July, in one of the last letters he ever wrote.

[M]ay it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

(The fact that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was considered by many at the time to be a sign from the Almighty. Who are we to say it wasn't?)

Now, I love fireworks, drinking beer, and cooking out on the grill as much as anyone. But as with Memorial Day and Labor Day, I fear that we lose perspective when we fail to stop and appreciate what our national holidays are really about. On Independence Day, I think it's important to stop and think about what the American Revolution was really all about. Our nation is the only state in the history of the world founded upon moral principles, rather than some sort of ethnic or tribal identity, and those moral principles were spelled out in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the thirty-five most important words ever written in the English language.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

July 4 is a day of patriotism. We live in a cynical age in which patriotism is all too often dismissed as old-fashioned of even bigoted. This is wrong. While we should never gloss over the many times America has failed to live up to its own ideals, and even committed the unspeakable crimes of enslaving African-Americans committing ethnic cleansing of American Indians, we should still love our country. Indeed, keeping our national shortcomings in our mind should spur us on towards the full realization of the words within the Declaration, which we have yet to achieve even in our own time.

The Declaration of Independence was much more than a simple statement that America would be an independent nation. It was a mission statement. It was not describing America as it was, but America as it is supposed to be. In writing those words, Jefferson was throwing a gauntlet down at our feet. Can we build a society in which a self-governing people are truly free and equal? Nobody knew better than he the difficulties of that challenge, for despite his best efforts he could never devise a solution to the slavery problem. It took a bloody war and the deaths of around seven hundred thousand Americans to purge that curse from our land. In doing so, we also determined that America was going to be a single republic rather than a confederation of individual states.

The destruction of slavery was only a single step up the vast flight of stairs towards the realization of the mission expressed by the Declaration. It took another century before full civil rights for all people regardless of race was enshrined in our nation's laws. In the meantime, a battle was fought and won for full political rights for women, though anyone who thinks this struggle is truly over is deluding themselves. Citizenship was not granted to American Indians until the 1920s. Even in our own time, we struggle with the granting of full equality to gay and lesbian Americans. The fight for true equality continues, but we can take justifiable pride when we reflect that the rights of all citizens have gradually expanded year-by-year over the course of American history.

We must resist efforts to gloss over the past failings of our nation, but we also must resist the temptation to reject patriotism as if it were narrow-minded nationalism. I love my country and I wish all other Americans did, too. The United States of America has been, is, and will continue to be a force for tremendous good in the world. In the 1940s, America led a global crusade against fascism that crushed the power of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, liberating millions of people who conquered and enslaved by those evil regimes. Through the long and dark years of the Cold War, the United States contained Soviet communism until the threat of that ideological disease collapsed of its own dead weight. The United States has led the way in scientific and technological advancement, manifested best by the footsteps of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon.

More than anything else, though, America really does continue to stand as a "city upon a hill". It remains an example of a people united not by ethnicity, language, or religion, but by agreed upon moral and political principles, and building a society in which people are free, equal before the law, and have the chance to strive for a better life for themselves and their families.

The Fourth of July is a day of celebration. Put on colorful shirts of red, white, and blue and go see fireworks with your family and friends. Enjoy your beer and grill some burgers and hot dogs. Belt out Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA!" Indulge in the fun of the holiday, by all means. But while doing that, take a few moments to reflect on the ideals on which our great republic was founded upon. More than anything else, though, remember that Jefferson's words in the Declaration were a mission statement and that it is incumbent upon all of us, as citizens, to do our part towards the fulfilling of that mission.