“the futile drivelling of mere quil driving”

I read Christopher Gilbert’s biography of the Duke of Wellington many years ago and remember thinking how the Duke’s campaign against Napoleon would make a great movie or historical novel.

It’s hard not to find some humor and fascination in a man who is confident enough—and then some—to criticize his boss with such oblique candor.

Here is an extract from a letter written by Wellington in Spain around 1810 to the Secretary of War, Lord Bradford:

My lord, if I attempted to answer the mass of futile correspondence that surrounds me, I should be debarred from all serious business of campaigning.

So long as I retain an independent position I shall see to it that no officer under my command is debarred, by attending to the futile drivelling of mere quil driving in your lordship’s officer, from attending to his first duty – which is, as always, to train the private men under his command.

Praying for Patrick Henry’s Death

Patrick Henry & Thomas Jefferson

The young William and Mary college student stood in the doorway of the Virginia legislative chamber and watched the renown man speak. The year was 1765. With the cadences and imagery and power of his words the speaker seized the spirit of the young man. Reflecting on that moment many years later Thomas Jefferson wrote “He spoke as Homer wrote.” The speaker was Patrick Henry.

Homer was the great epic poet of ancient Greece and many of the lines from the Iliad and the Odyssey were memorized by many young colonial American boys. Jefferson and Henry could, no doubt, quote large sections of the texts from memory. Ancient Greek authors wrote their poems and histories specifically to be read aloud. The words and imagery were chosen carefully for the emotive purpose of getting the audience to “move with” the author. The success of the writer, or any artist really, is when the power of his or her words (or whatever art form they use) takes you along, imaginatively, to the place that he or she intends. We’re storytelling beings who find our purpose and meaning in the stories we tell ourselves. The world and our experience are the canvas; words are the paint.

The power of great words, especially the spoken, for good or for ill, can move people to do things they might not have done otherwise. That day Jefferson could feel the seductive force of Henry’s words. The men of that chamber, at the time, were debating the one of the most consequential things you can: treason. Henry added great persuasive force to the cause.

The younger Jefferson was a great admirer of Henry and his skill as a speaker, but the later, the older and more experienced Jefferson, found Henry’s power of oratory could also pose a tremendous problem. Breaking things up is much easier than building things up. And so while Henry was an asset in bringing about the revolution and a new nation, he was a serious liability when Virginia was trying to form a new state constitution. It worried Jefferson a lot. So much so that in a letter to James Madison we find some rather candid lines about the content of Jefferson’s prayers:

“While Mr. Henry lives another bad [state] constitution would be formed, and saddled for ever on us. What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death.”

Book: First Principles

When Thomas Ricks woke up that gloomy Wednesday November morning, after the Presidential election of 2016, he began asking himself some searching questions about this country. “What just happen? What kind of nation do we now have?” “Is this what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders?” And probably, How do I move to Canada!? Like the majority of Americans, I had similar thoughts that same morning.

Ricks dealt with this terrible turn in America politics by writing a book. He decided the best way to deal with his angst was to try and understand the American experiment at its founding. What was it all about? What were the principles this nation was founded upon? And so in First Principles Ricks examines some of those core principles around which this nation was originally founded upon.

This is the second book of Ricks’s I’ve read. He’s a good writer and if you like history and politics I highly recommend you pick up a copy of First Principles.

For me, I could summarize the main point of the book as follows: The belief that the “public virtue” of the citizenry and public officials could be counted on to sustain our Republic was dismissed as a complete fantasy by our founders. History and personal experience demonstrated this over and over. People are hopelessly self interested and so to avoid the concentration of federal power—and its abuse—it was purposely divided up among the three branches of government. These branches—executive, legislative, and judiciary–were supposed to function as separate institutions that put a check on the power of other two. The founders feared the rise of people exactly like Donald Trump, and so they purposely built separate institutions to ensure characters like Donald Trump were checked by the power of other institutions.

Some people feel our institutions worked as they were suppose to during Trump’s 4 year term, but I’m not so convinced. We survived in my view…for now. There is a growing authoritarianism on the political right in this country that resembles the authoritarian movements of early 20th century Europe. And just like many Europeans then, many Americans now, don’t seem to realize what’s happening right in front of them and how quickly we could potentially lose our democracy and our way of life.

Happy Easter

Today is Easter Sunday for those of us who follow the Christian faith. Today Christians all around the world will celebrate the resurrection and the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. For Christians this is the holiest day of the year.

I have many fond memories of Easter Sunday. My maternal grandmother was a Southern Baptist and she attended services at Virginia Heights Baptist Church regularly. She knew her Bible and when the moment called for it she’d repeat a verse to me during the many days and nights we spent together. I can still remember coming through her front door and seeing her in that large chair with her Bible spread open on her lap. I stayed with her a lot when I was a kid and we always said our prayers together at bed time. Every Easter, as I recall, she would attend a sunrise service at the Cape Henry Memorial Cross at Fort Story. It was at this site on April 26, 1607, that sea wary and thankful colonists first came ashore to explore a piece of this new world. They named the cape, and set up a cross before heading up the James River to found Jamestown.

Easter marks the true beginning of spring and nowhere, it seemed when I was a kid, was that more apparent than on Easter Sunday at church. The ladies with their bright dresses and corsages and hats. The church with flowers all over and their sweet smell in the air. And the Sunday school lesson and the message from the pulpit rang with the words of life and new beginnings and forgiveness.

Happy Easter!

Cape Henry Memorial Cross, Virginia Beach, VA.

Book: Into Thin Air

Finished reading Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer. A very interesting, but hauntingly true story. Krakauer is journalist (and mountaineer) who accompanies a group on a climb to the summit of Mount Everest—a very challenging and dangerous assent into very cold and very thin air. Originally Krakauer was on the trip to write about the commercialization of Mount Everest, but Krakauer ended up being part of a major disaster. Five of sixteen of his fellow climbers—3 of them guides—perished on the upper mountain during their May 10, 1996, assent. Wikipedia has a fairly good summary of what happened. There’s also the made for TV movie available on YouTube, made not long after the event, and there’s a fairly good documentary on Youtube worth watching if you’re interested.

I think this quote of Krakauer’s probably best captures the theme of this human tragedy:

Unfortunately, the sort of individual who is programmed to ignore personal distress and keep pushing for the top is frequently programmed to disregard signs of grave and imminent danger as well. This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die. Above 26,000 feet, moreover, the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin. Thus the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses.*

* Of the 300 people who’ve died while climbing on the slopes of Mount Everest over the decades, about 150 of those bodies still remain on the mountain to this day. As Krakauer says, being up that high is like being on the surface of the moon. If something goes wrong, you’re largely on your own. It’s too high for a helicopter rescue and bringing a seriously injured climber or dead body down the upper reaches of the mountain is a perilous task. Thus many frozen corpses remain on the upper slopes.