Founding Fathers Fun Facts

Founding Fathers Fun FactsInspired by the upcoming President’s Day I want to plug a great biography I’ve just finished. It’s Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. It’s a compelling read detailing the life of – no surprise here – our first president. Now, that was a man who overcame adversity! The whole time I was reading the book I kept thinking to myself: people were so much stronger back then. Setting aside the strength of character he showed in politics and service later in his life, George Washington almost died many times, in various battles and from myriad illnesses, before a single shot had been fired in America’s Revolutionary War. Simply surviving to the age of twenty back in those days was nowhere near the given that it is in our time. And yet, the Founding Fathers navigated the trials of a dangerous and changing world with such integrity and strength. It’s really worth reading, if only to show you what true human greatness is.

My husband recently asked me: “What do you think the Founding Fathers would think if they saw our country today?” I’ve been thinking about this question since then. I have no doubt that our Founding Fathers would be humbled by the men and women in the Armed Forces, private citizens who jump to serve our nation and protect our freedoms. I have no doubt the Founding Fathers would marvel at the advances that we as a people have made in science, healthcare, and technology. They would be agog at the skyscrapers, cell phones and airplanes that we now take as regular features of our daily lives in America. But I think that, like most Americans, George Washington would be unimpressed with the current spirit of uncompromising partisanship in his namesake city. After all, in his final speech as President, Washington warned against the dangers of a nation that becomes polarized, its elected officials too rigid to work together with a pragmatic approach and willingness to respect opposing viewpoints.

I also wonder what Washington would have thought about the current state of voter apathy. The Founding Fathers were many things – but a few things they were not: apathetic. Complacent. Content to take self-governance for granted.  They had, after all, risked their lives to win this radical new thing called democracy.

Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The sun has not caught me in bed in fifty years.” That’s right: up before sunrise, down after sunset. Every day for fifty years. This was a man, who like many of his peers and colleagues, was a great statesman, a lawyer, a scientist, an inventor, an architect, a farmer, and not to mention, President and writer of the Declaration of Independence. Say what you will about his personal choices – Thomas Jefferson was undisputably brilliant and industrious. It certainly inspires me and makes me feel that I squander far too much time.

John Adams – another man who dedicated his life to ensuring that America won its independence, and then, once won, did not squander it – described being humbled by the oath of office he took as the second president. He was following a powerful and popular man who could have easily made himself King George Washington. In fact, the idea of Washington ruling for life was a popular one. The people adored him. Yet Washington walked away from power after two terms. He willingly handed over the title and office to John Adams, setting the precedent that the desire and will of an individual in America must always yield to the greater good of the Republic and its people.

And did you know this Founding Fathers fun fact? Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, life-long rivals and old friends, died fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1826. Perhaps that is an uncanny coincidence, or perhaps there was what the Founding Fathers would have called “Divine Providence” at play.

200 Years With Elizabeth and Darcy

PrideAndToday readers around the world mark the 200th Anniversary of publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. What a jewel of a story and easily in my top-five novels of all-time. Every time my 97-year-old grandmother and I get together, we watch the Masterpiece Classic version of Pride & Prejudice – the beloved six-part series with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet.

How interesting to think about the fact that P&P was written in a world 200-years gone, and yet the courtship of Lizzie and Darcy, the deceit of George Wickham, the humorous maleficence of the Bingley sisters – it all still resonates so powerfully even in our chaotic, computer-aged, over-caffeinated culture.

Recently at a wedding, I had a friend come up to me and say: “Quick – the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, what is it?” How could I forget? It is one of literature’s finest openings. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” I literally have that saying on my favorite tea-mug.

I’ve been asking myself all day: what is it about Elizabeth Bennet’s story that stands so timeless, renders it so beloved through all ages? All of Austen’s novels are great. Emma is endlessly entertaining, Persuasion is incisive in its treatment of the broad spectrum of human nature. So what is it about Pride & Prejudice?

And then I remembered something that a great teacher once told me. In college I had the great good fortune of taking a seminar with Harold Bloom, the unparalleled Shakespearean scholar. Professor Bloom told us that, as readers, we connect most profoundly to the characters whom we feel are human enough to walk off the page and quit their own worlds to inhabit ours. For Professor Bloom, he found that in Rosalind, from As You Like It, and in the rascal Falstaff from Henry IV. Professor Bloom also said that he found it to be true of Hamlet, the kind-of-famous lead of the play by the same name.

And I think readers see that in Lizzie and Darcy. How many times have I wondered: what must it have been like at Pemberley? What must Lizzie and Darcy have talked about over breakfast the morning after their wedding? What did they plan to do about their bothersome new brother-in-law, Wickham? Lizzie and Darcy do not cease to exist once you close the covers of the beloved Pride and Prejudice novel. They continue on, and you can easily imagine Lizzie walking the halls of her grand new home, stopping to stand alongside her dashing new husband to receive her visitors, the beloved Mr. and Mrs. Bingley.

Not only do they quit their worlds and stay with us long after we’ve completed reading of their courtship; they make us long to quit our own worlds to inhabit theirs.

America Loves Lincoln

I recently saw Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s historical drama garnering so much attention for its Oscar buzz and Daniel Day Lewis’ universally-acclaimed performance as America’s sixteenth president.

America Loves LincolnI am neither a movie critic nor film connoisseur, so I will make no attempt to offer anything akin to criticism. I simply wish to draw a brief comparison to the novel upon which Lincoln is, in part, based. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is as good as everyone says it is. Painstakingly researched, jam-packed with rich historical detail, and written with an urgency and dramatic flair that rivals Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, it’s a must-read. It’s a must-read for any lover of history, or really, any lover of human nature.

Spielberg’s film focuses on this American hero through the lens of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Constitutional addition that outlawed slavery.

Kearns Goodwin covers more ground. She covers more years and a larger number of the personal and public battles which Lincoln waged. What I realized while reading Team of Rivals was that President Lincoln was super-human in his ability to forgive those by whom he had been wronged; an essential character trait, albeit a rare one, when trying to win half of the country back to your side after its secession. But Lincoln was good on both a macro and a micro scale. Some of his more impressive displays of altruism, I thought, occurred on the smaller stage of his private daily life. A smaller stage, and yet perhaps a more difficult one on which to cede your own right to being right.

Lincoln was dealt with a seemingly endless series of setbacks during his too-brief time on earth. Time and again, Lincoln proved willing to meet vindictive or petty rivals (and friends) with magnanimity. Kearns Goodwin describes the undercutting that happened within his own cabinet: the time his own Treasury Secretary tried to run against him and thwart Lincoln’s re-election; the time his top General, George McClellan, tried to take his boss’ job. And the personal heartbreak he faced is difficult to imagine: losing his mother at a young age, losing the first love of his life, burying two of his four sons, and struggling with a wife who was mentally unstable. Lincoln is justifiably understood to be one of the best, if not the best, leaders our country has known. But he was more than that – he was a truly good, decent man.

On the macro level, his steady leadership and vision were what the nation needed through years of Civil War. Kearns Goodwin and Spielberg both illuminate this fact: the Civil War could have gone any number of ways. Victory for the Union was far from a sure thing; peace and reconciliation were one option, but a large number of disastrous outcomes were not only possible, but probable. Slavery might have been addressed, or not addressed, via political and legislative approaches very different from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.  It was Lincoln who brought about the end of slavery and the peaceful resolution of the Civil War, not because of the hand he was dealt, but in spite of the hand he was dealt.

A Battle Misnamed?

Most of us remember learning about the Battle of Bunker Hill in our grade school history lessons. Do you remember the saying: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes”? The Pyrrhic victory of the British early in the Revolutionary War. The fight in which the British took the hill outside of Boston from an under-armed and ill-trained force of rag-tag Colonials. Ring a bell?

Well, it turns out, this fight did not actually occur on Bunker Hill. The Battle of Bunker Hill in fact took place on the nearby Breed’s Hill. Shocking, right?

battlemisnamedI recently had the opportunity to travel to Boston and walk The Freedom Trail – a fascinating excursion that takes you on the path ridden by Paul Revere, the path marched by the troops fighting the battles of Lexington and Concord, and, yes, past Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. I’m not sure how this misnomer came about, but it’s true: most of the fighting of this crucial battle in fact occurred at the latter location.

Throughout the walk of The Freedom Trail, a couple of thoughts struck me. First, I was surprised to see how near these locations were to one another. True, the landscape was different back then: much of what we now think of as Boston was water during the Revolution, not filled in and built upon until centuries later. This of course made (what we call) Boston a much more fragmented patchwork of outposts and locations. Residents of and visitors to Boston nowadays can travel by car or subway in five minutes what it took days to travel on foot or horseback during the Revolutionary War. And still, it’s always an interesting exercise to wrap one’s head around the fact that we, as people with cars, routinely travel large distances that for the vast majority of human existence were prohibitively far apart. Paul Revere raced, Minute-men marched, and patriots gave their lives on a large swath of land that a morning commuter can easily travel while listening to a single song on an iPod and drinking just a few sips of coffee.  It was interesting to be reminded of how small we are in relation to the land we live on, the history we walk through.

And second, I hadn’t expected these pivotal hills – these spikes of land on which the hopes of the nation were staked – to be, so, well, flat. These days, it’s possible to fly in several hours to the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon. We can do a simple Google search and see what the Alps, the Himalayas, and even Mars look like. This had certainly skewed my way of thinking, rendering a small mound of earth like Bunker Hill, its monument jutting out like a needle, a little anti-climatic. It looked like a small mound of earth. And yet people fought for days, giving their lives, for that small mound of earth. I tried to wipe my imagination clean, to try to put myself in their shoes: skyscapers didn’t exist, and a church bell-tower was the highest structure piercing the top of an urban skyline. These hills provided the high vantage point around the city, and were thus integral pieces of land to occupy and defend.

American history is so rich, and I’m so appreciative of the fact that memorials like The Freedom Trail exist. For it’s one thing to read about a battle, it’s another to see the hill that was fought for. The hill that tested the mettle and resolve of the Colonial forces, showing that this rag-tag bunch of volunteers could in fact hold its own against the world’s most powerful and well-trained army. The Freedom Trails allows you to walk their walk, literally, even if some imagination is required to fill in the missing pieces. But hey, that’s the fun part.