Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Brief History of the Revolution

So you think you know what moved America from being a British outpost to being a nation in its own right? Check your facts against our Highly Selective Satirical History. And remember, more good revolutions are won with the pen than with the sword.

1754-63 The French and Indian War. England and France have been at war for 1200 years, but this time they got smart and decided not to fight it on their own soils. A young George Washington is less than stellar in this series of bloody skirmishes.

1760 King George III crowned. Just because you’re born in a royal bed doesn’t mean you’ve got good sense. He wound up talking to trees.

1765 The Stamp Act and the Quartering Act piss off the colonies. Quartering is particularly abominable, because nobody wants a houseful of rambunctious, hungry soldiers . . .

1768 . . . who arrive in Boston because Parliament has heard that its taxes are unpopular . . .

1770 . . . and kill people because they don't have anything else to do. The Boston Massacre is proof that armies need to be kept busy, or they'll get into trouble.

1773 The Sons of Liberty throw tea in Boston Harbor as a gesture of defiance. People start drinking bergamot tea, which is a gesture of gastronomic stupidity.

1774 First Continental Congress meets, and meets, and meets.

1775 The Second Continental Congress meets and eventually adopts the Declaration of Independence, which is Thomas Jefferson sounding more like John Locke than John Locke. War breaks out, more or less.

1778 The French, seeing an opportunity to REALLY get even with England over the whole F&I war, support the rebellion, pretty much guaranteeing a win.

1781 Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown, stunning the British, who declared early that it would all be over by teatime, Christmas at the latest.

1783 The Treaty of Paris – America is a nation, and Britain is broke.

1787 The Constitutional Convention finally creates a government. For several years, we were running on adrenaline, apparently.
And these uniforms don't look silly at all. As a matter of fact, the red ones are just perfect for fighting in a wilderness setting.
The writers of the Revolution -- Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine -- were men of passionate rhetoric and (except for Paine) remarkable intelligence and diplomacy.
The post-revolutionary writers, architects of the new government -- James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton -- were a lot duller, but necessary. If Thomas Paine wrote the constitution, Ron Paul would have been canonized by now.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Perfection in Thirteen Steps

Benjamin Franklin may be the closest we get to a national saint, which is a little strange, because he wasn't all that saintly. He WAS, however, immensely likeable and his vast literary output is the first widely-read American literature that wasn't primarily religious.

Another of Locke's disciples, Franklin decided that perfection is attainable, and he set out to attain it. In his characteristic fashion, what he did was create a list of virtues and then a weekly schedule by which he practiced them. If he weren't Ben Franklin, we might think he was OCD.

Anyway, if you're determined to achieve moral perfection, here's Ben's list. Devote a week to each one, in turn, until they become habits. Watch out, though. Ben warns that if you have any success at all, you will screw up number 13 and be proud of your humility.

1. Temperance:. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. Frugality. make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.

13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Okay, I hate to admit this, because it's like admitting to enjoying Brussels sprouts and oatmeal (which I DO actually like), but I'm quite fond of Jonathan Edwards. I think we misunderstand his intentions in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and Edwards, the man, just fascinates me. Really.

Here's another Puritan upstart, like Cotton Mather, who matriculates at an appallingly young age. He read, and understood, John Locke at 14. Most of us have just about figured out how to tie our shoes by then. He believed passionately in a loving God, and unlike his Puritan brethren, he was overtly evangelical. In other words, he wasn't buying this strictly deterministic view of the world, thanks to Locke. He treated his wife with outstanding tenderness and respect, in ways that were very uncharacteristic for the time. In fact, much of his work indicates that he felt women were intellectually and spiritually equal to men, and he often studied the women of the Bible as worthy examples of faith and practice. Finally, when he lost his church at Northampton, he went off to Stockbridge to be a missionary to the natives, a hardship post that he accepted with humility and grace. He almost made president of Yale, except that his smallpox vaccine went bad and killed him.
On the negative side, he did not understand the meaning of the word "compromise," and he struggled with a working definition of "tact." He so loathed the Halfway Covenant that he smashed his own reputation trying to abolish it, and his unswerving devotion to other people's holiness split the Presbyterian Church right down the middle for a while. (Yes, by this time the Puritans had morphed into Presbyterians, mostly, with a side order of Congregationalists.)
As a writer, Edwards takes after Locke in many ways. He is clear and direct. (Really, he is. It's just our unfamiliarity with 18th Century formal English that makes him seem difficult.) He relies on reason (Locke again), not emotion, most of the time. He always knows what he wants his writing to accomplish. It makes sense, which is very Lockian. A lot of his writing is still in use in seminaries and philosophy departments.
Keep in mind, as you read "Sinners," that Edwards is trying to wake up a church that has become complacent and spiritually dull. Yes, he describes God as a vengeful deity who would be completely within His rights to roast every human in hell, but at the end, he emphasizes God's love and grace as free to all who want it. (And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a HUGE departure from the strict predestination of the Puritans.) A fascinating man, and the first American philosopher and intellectual that I can stand. Cotton and Increase Mather just don't count. Sorry.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Moving On to Enlightenment and Awakening

As we leave the seventeenth century behind, let's not make the mistake of thinking that American literature, or history, for that matter, comes in neat historical boxes. The era of Puritan thought did not, by any means, end when Cotton Mather died in 1728, nor did the Enlightenment in American begin in 1700. Eras, philosophies, and relationships intertwine in a most disorderly fashion. Get used to it.

In 17th Century Europe, philosophers realized that Galileo was right about the universe. It did seem to be governed by "natural" laws that did not require supernatural intervention. Even though this was not called the Age of Enlightenment until the 1770's, my own personal date for its beginning is with René Descartes and the publication of his Principles of Philosophy in 1644.

The short-short version of Cartesian philosophy is this: People can use reason -- the ability to think about things -- to learn truth. Aristotle had asserted that experience was the only valid teacher, and all truth could be derived from it. Descartes said that some things were accessible only through reason, but they are still true. He also affirmed that natural laws could govern the world without help from supernatural sources. Finally, Descartes is responsible for the "mind-body split" that divides the world into material objects and the mind that thinks about them. "Mind," for Descartes, is close to being what "God" is to William Bradford.

In the Cartesian universe, everything has been wound up, presumably by God, and set in motion according to natural laws. Within that system, people have about as much free will as they have under John Calvin's predestination, but it's going to open the door for Deism, later. Oh, how nervous this made the Puritans. So, they ignored Descartes, and hoped he'd go away.

John Locke, the most important British philosopher ever, was impossible to ignore. His ideas fueled the American and the French revolutions, and still resonate with us today. They underlie our government, and were largely responsible for the shift away from Aristotelian logic.

Locke's philosophy, like that of Descartes, can't be compressed very easily into little digestible bits. But that's not going to stop me from trying. Just remember that this is "Locke Light." The real thing is a lot more complicated.

Locke was a utilitarian; he defined the "moral" thing as that which would do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Many governments operate on this principle, and it beats the heck out of governments who only want to do good to the six guys who have all the power. Next, Locke explained that all men (not women, yet), in their "natural" state, are equal. In other words, all this "blue-blood" stuff about aristocrats being a higher order of human is just wishful thinking. Bad news for monarchs, who made a good living by convincing people that they were special and should not be messed with.

These equal men have the natural right to own property. Men have other natural rights -- life, freedom, and health. Sound familiar? It should. A just government, Locke said, is one that supports these natural rights and then gets out of the way.
To support the idea of natural rights, which people are born with, Locke goes into a complex argument about where they come from. It doesn't involve God, but instead affirms the inherent worth of human beings, thereby opening the door for later Humanists. Locke's idea, which now pretty much permeates Western thought, is that humans are born as blank slates (his literal tabula rasa), onto which experience and reason write character, personality, and life choices. This is much more appealing than the Puritan idea that humans are born as disgusting, sinful beings, destined for hell, so, naturally, it caught on.
Weirdly enough, Locke profoundly influenced a man with whom he otherwise had little in common -- the architect of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards still believed in original sin, but he couldn't quite lose the idea that Locke was right -- people are made, not born.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some Test Review Hints

Here, faithful blog followers, is a small reward. Thinking about these questions will help you immensely on the test tomorrow, AND give us a jumping-off place for some discussion later. I'm not giving you "right" answers here, but rather my own ideas on the subject. Yours should be different. (Remember, I am not interested in hearing from you what I already think. I want to know what YOU think, and why.)

Troubling Question #1: Why did the Puritans' "City on a Hill" go down the tubes?

There are lots of good ways to answer this, and most of them have to end somewhere around the "nobody's perfect" statement. It's hard to create a perfect society with imperfect humans. One answer has to come, though, from Christianity itself. Can anybody show me any place in the New Testament, where God tells Christians to separate themselves from the world and set up a government? I thought not. A religion that concerns itself primarily with the relationship of individuals to God is not going to make a good framework for a theocracy. Plus, have you ever noticed that in theocratic governments, it's always some human calling the shots?

Troubling Question #2: Why did William Bradford hate Thomas Morton so much?

Again, this can go a lot of ways, but we do have to consider how this relates to the "City on a Hill." If you are going to establish a Perfect Society, it helps if everybody's on the same page about what that is. Imagine how angry Bradford must have been when he saw Morton throwing parties and consorting with natives and (shudder) dancing. We just can't have a perfect City on a Hill with him whooping it up next door. Worse, people were starting to look at the activities at Merrymount and think, "Hmmm, that looks like more fun than listening to five sermons a week." Obviously, Morton has to go.

Troubling Question #3: What role does humility play in Puritan literature?

Most of the virtues practiced by the Puritans would be considered legalistic in even the most conservative churches today, but humility is one they got right. When we read Bradford and Anne Bradstreet, and even Mary Rowlandson, the striking thing we see is each writer's humility before God and before other people. Bradstreet, who clearly has a poetic gift, doesn't brag about it, and did not consent to the publication of her work. Rowlandson, who has been dragged into the wilderness and suffered atrocious treatment, says it's no more than she deserves. Bradford is so humble, he never even mentions himself by name in his history of Plymouth. More deeply, no Puritan writer will ever blame God for his or her difficulties, despite believing that both good and evil come from God. Why? Because the Puritans recognized that God's ways are not their ways, and God's thoughts are not their thoughts. They did not feel that God owed them an explanation, nor did He have to justify Himself to them. Who were they to call God on the carpet?

Troubling Question #4: What was Cotton Mather thinking when he said, "If a drop of Innocent Blood should be shed in the prosecution of the Witchcrafts among us, how unhappy are we! . . . But on the other side, if the storm of justice do now fall only on the heads of those guilty, Witches and Wretches which have defiled our land, How Happy!"

Cotton Mather has always bothered me. His writing borders on incomprehensible in places, and when we CAN comprehend it, we often wish we didn't. I have to keep reminding myself that belief in witchcraft and in supernatural explanations for natural things was not just common -- it was the default belief. It still troubles me that he could believe people like George Burroughs and Rebecca Nurse guilty of malevolence, based on nothing more than dreams and visions. The trouble with this kind of thing is that we're always ready to believe evil of people we don't like and disagree with, even now. Sigh.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Spectral Evidence -- Well, It Sure Looked Like You

The Mathers, Cotton and Increase, are particularly vexed by something called "spectral evidence." What in the world is that?

It's when someone sees the "spectre," or apparition, of another person, doing some evil act. The actual person can be miles away at the time, but witches were believed to lend the devil their bodily form, and further, people believed that the devil could not assume their appearances unless they gave permission.

This is how people could be convicted of acts of witchcraft despite being able to prove that they were nowhere near the scene of the acts. Their "spectres" were there, and that was enough. Sometimes these spectres showed up in other people's dreams, and this was also admissable as evidence. A huge number of the accused in Salem were imprisoned on the basis of spectral evidence, against which there was no defense. If someone says they saw your apparition doing something evil, you would not be able to prove that it wasn't.

Increase Mather was so deeply troubled by the abuses inherent in this, that he wrote a letter urging judges to admit spectral evidence only as support for stronger, empirical evidence. By itself, Mather decreed, the evidence was worthless. The devil could certainly assume the form of an innocent person as well as a guilty one, and therefore innocent Christians would suffer.

The end of spectral evidence put an end to the witch trials. It seems that actual, physical proof wasn't thick on the ground, and in the years following, judges like Samuel Sewell would repent of their use of it.

A Solution for Social Ills -- Hang the Witches!

Imagine you are a Puritan living in Massachusetts at the end of the 17th Century. You are majorly bummed, because your colony has lost its charter (which means even Quakers can vote), you're being attacked by Indians regularly, and people just aren't as pious as they used to be. To make matters worse, your daughter has been having fits -- fainting, screaming, crawling around on the floor. What the devil is going on?
In one of her more lucid moments, the kid tells you that she's bewitched, and that her tormentor is none other than the pastor's servant, Tituba. The light comes on! That's what's wrong with the world -- there are witches among us! If we just get rid of them, then we'll get our charter back, the Indians will leave us alone, and possibly the Quakers will all evaporate, too.
Okay, so it's not this cut-and-dried. Before we make fun of the Salem judges, and the people who allowed the trials to happen, we have to really imagine that we're Puritans in 17th C. New England. First of all, like nearly every educated person in America and Europe, we believe that witches exist. We also believe strongly in spiritual warfare, and we know that the devil walks among us. We also know that every year sees outbreaks of witchcraft in Europe, and recently in Sweden hundreds of people have been arrested for it. (If you thought this was a Monty Python-esque medieval issue, you're off by several hundred years.)
Second, we have zero outlets for adolescent angst, and have been having regular trouble with teenaged girls. Boys are no problem, because they are allowed to go outside the house and work -- hard -- with tools and guns. Girls must focus their energies on sewing and baking, neither of which use up much of their imagination or physical strength.
Thirdly, we believe that the invisible, spiritual world is as real as the material world, and can directly influence it. We are worried by Descartes, who has said that natural phenomena have natural causes, and have embraced Newton, because we regard gravity as a supernatural force. We are not stupid; we have a particular world view that says that evil can intervene directly in the lives of humans, and that people can wholly give themselves over to it. Is that wrong?
Cotton Mather has gotten a bad rap when it comes to the witch trials -- yes, he was a credulous, pompous, bombastic, uber-Puritan. In his defense, though, he urged caution in believing the afflicted, when they named others as witches, and he ultimately decided spectral evidence was inaccurate. He was also an empiricist, a member of the Royal Society, and responsible for smallpox innoculations in Boston and the surrounding area.
Like most people, he's complex. Too bad he can't write for squat. His prose is full of quotations from Greek and Latin, and his phrases and word choices all have an ornate, Latinate flair. Even people in his own time found him hard to follow, and subsequent generations find him almost unreadable. His Magnalia Christi Americana, however, influenced people from Benjamin Franklin to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and it still has a lot to tell us about those early Puritans in America.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Captivity Narratives

One of the little-known secrets of American history is the popularity of kidnapping as a fund-raiser for native tribes, particularly in New England. About 1,500 people were taken captive in the years between 1675 and 1750. Most of them vanished, but about 300 were ransomed, often for goods that included arms and ammunition. Talk about counterproductive.

Kidnapping highlights another of the huge cultural differences between the natives and the colonists. Taking civilian prisoners was a common practice among American tribes. In addition to other advantages, it kept the gene pool from getting too stagnant. It replenished the tribal numbers that dropped because of frequent skirmishes. It even served as a kind of economy, because captives became slaves who did the scut-work of their captors.

The colonists, on the other hand, came from a culture that never took civilian captives and regarded the practice as ungentlemanly, to say the least. It was one more example of the barbarous nature of the natives. All of a sudden, though, they found themselves bartering for their wives and children, and when those negotiations failed, the natives had no qualms about killing the captives or selling them into slavery to the French. Having your family kidnapped was a serious problem; the odds were good that you'd never see them again.

Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, a link to which can be found at the bottom of this post, was the first in a long genre of captivity narratives -- stories of the people who survived their kidnapping and returned to tell the story. These were the 17th Century equivalents of popular novels. People read them for entertainment, and they were widely disseminated. Note the date on the first page of this copy of Mrs. Rowlandson's story -- it's almost 100 years after she was captured.
The account of the brutality she suffered fueled anti-tribal sentiment for two hundred years. It reinforced the stereotypes of native Americans as vicious, savage, inhumane brutes who would kill innocent women and children without mercy. And, to be fair, they did kill, and torture, their captives without mercy. We shouldn't fall into the currently popular trap of imagining that the natives were gentle tree-huggers, pushed off the land by ruthless colonists. The natives gave as good as they got, for quite a while.
In Mary Rowlandson's case, the grievance was part of King Phillip's war -- a brief, bloody confrontation between the scattered colonial outposts and the Narrgahanset tribes whose corn they stole. (Apparently stealing from savages isn't a sin.) In retaliation for theft and the burning of crops, the Narrgahanset attacked Lancaster, MA, in the winter of 1676, killing people and burning their houses. Some twenty-four were taken captive, and among these were Rowlandson and her children.
In the course of her captivity, she suffered the death of her youngest daughter (and the wrenching abandonment of the same), malnutrition, forced marches, servitude, and torture that included everything from ashes in her eyes to being told (untruthfully) that her captors had eaten her son. On the other hand, in true Puritan fashion, she experienced this as God's just sentence on her for her sins, and felt His hand sustaining her. She sometimes experienced kindness from her captors, and was eventually restored to her husband, along with her two surviving children. (Forgive the spoiler.)
Her narrative is important to American literature because she's the first American writer to actually be considered a prose stylist. Her organization of the narrative, her reflections on the meaning of her struggle, and her unstinting portrayal of the whole eleven weeks are all done with a sophisticated sense of rhetorical purpose. No wonder she was popular long after her own time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sex and the Single Puritan

Well, actually, the single Puritan didn't have sex, or wasn't supposed to have sex, and would be in a world of hurt if he or she was discovered to be having sex while also being single. But the Puritans' view of sex within the context of marriage was surprisingly enlightened.

Read Anne Bradstreet's poems "To My Dear and Loving Husband," and "A Letter to My Husband, Absent upon Public Employment." Notice the physicality of their affection. She isn't just talking about how much she misses Simon, she's talking about how she misses his warmth, his actual body.

Would this have been shocking to a Puritan? Nope. Puritans viewed sex as a gift from God, and everybody could enjoy it all they wanted, in the context of marriage. Think of it this way, it was one fun thing they could do even in the wilderness, (although probably not on the Sabbath).

We need to understand what a radical departure this view of sex was from the tradtional Catholic view that predominated even in non-Catholic parts of Europe. This view held that sex was depraved, evil, and dirty. The only reason to ever have any was to reproduce, and even then, it was better if no one enjoyed it very much. The Puritans, on the other hand, looked at the Bible and found that God is in favor of sex. Since God created it, people should enjoy it, even women.

We are so used to our own culture's weird ways of thinking about sex that we don't understand how amazingly novel this was. Anne and Simon Bradstreet can have a really intimate marriage, and eight kids, and actually enjoy each other without feeling guilty. Not only that, but husbands who refused to perform their "conjugal duty" were apt to find themselves in trouble with the courts. We might expect that women would get punished for this, but it's amazing that men would be taken to task for "depriving their wives," as well.
This might substantially increase the appeal of Puritanism, but it does come with some major caveats. First, sex was for married people of opposite genders, only. Second, masturbation was punishable by death until 1690, and third, people who had sex outside of of marriage could look forward to a lifetime of censure and disapproval. Offspring from illicit unions also bore the brunt of the culture's displeasure.
We should not expect the Puritans to be permissive about sexuality outside of the Biblical mandates; remember how they feel about savages, Anglicans, and people who sell guns to the natives. They're' not known for being a tolerant bunch. Nonetheless, we have to give them their due in moving marital sex out of the "sinful" category. Just don't expect to read anything more graphic than Anne Bradstreet.