Sunday, June 25, 2017

CIVILITY: A Post-Mortem

  Civility is dead.  This has been commented on repeatedly in the media, and repeated on various social networking platforms.  The brutal political cycle of the last couple of years drove a stake through the heart of decency, to the point that I think we can honestly say the idea of principled, polite disagreement has becoming increasingly foreign in Americas' public discourse.  There have been times in the past when we have been almost as polarized as we are today, and there have been times when we have been almost as rude as we are today, but barring the restoration of dueling, I don't see how we can get much worse than we are now when it comes to public discourse.  I mean, even Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton wrote each other respectful letters about their disagreements before they strapped on their pistols and shot at each other!

   I'm a historian by temperament and training.  As such, I've always tried to look at the big picture and not fall into the "things are worse now than they have ever been" trap.  In many ways, we live in better times today than our ancestors did.  People aren't routinely lynched for the crime of being black, people with mental, sexual, or socially "different" lifestyles are no longer stoned, burned at the stake, or sentenced to years of electroshock therapy.  Slavery has been legally abolished throughout the civilized world. Women can vote.  We have air conditioning (and it Texas summers, that is a HUGE technological blessing!). In so many marvelous ways, we in the Western world live better than human beings have been able to since the dawn of time.

    So why can't we be nicer to each other?

    For years I have drawn cartoons and pasted them to the whiteboard in my classroom for my students to read.  Some are just plain silly, and some are me trying to make a point with a dollop of humor.  Last fall I drew one showing three men having a debate.  The two on each side were shouting at each other.  One said: "You're a commie liberal Muslim-hugging snowflake!" while the other shouted: "You're a racist, homophobic right-wing teabagger!"  Then the guy in the middle spoke up and said:  "Can't you see that you are both loyal Americans who love this country but have different ideas about how it ought to be run?"  At that, the other two looked at him and screamed in chorus:  "What's wrong with you???"

    That sums up a lot of it.  We have slanted "fake news" websites right and left, the complete marginalization of the traditional media, and the constant self-affirmation that comes from social media circles whose members all share the same political beliefs. This is compounded by the number of complete nutjobs from all fringes of the political spectrum who bog down serious consideration of issues with conspiracy theories so ridiculous that no one should give them the time of day. The result is that real truth is more elusive now than ever.  So otherwise rational human beings are convinced that Bush and Cheney conspired with Israel and "big oil" to murder 3000 people on 9/11, or that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim who deliberately weakened America to help groups like ISIS establish a global caliphate, or that "Big Pharma"  (Rule number one of demonization: reduce a vast, complex industry owned by multiple interests to one word, then put "Big" in front of it!) is hiding dozens of "cures" for cancer in order to make more money by keeping people sick.  Put all this together, throw in a healthy dose of pure ignorance, mix in generational anxiety over America's ever-changing social mores, and what do you wind up with?  Tens of thousands of people whose minds are completely closed to any explanation of events that does not suit their world view; who have lost all sense of nuance and complexity and embrace a simplistic, black-and-white view of the universe which is populated only be true-believing Patriots and The Others - an evil, vast group of villains conspiring to destroy Mom, apple pie, baseball, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.

   Gone are the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill could go at each other hammer and tongs from nine to five on Capitol Hill and then have cocktails at the White House that evening, when Bill Clinton could bash the Republican Congress on the campaign trail and still poach their best ideas, sign them into law, and then take credit for them when they worked.  Now we are so polarized that ANY effort by people on either side of the political aisle attempt to work out some form of compromise to actually get something done, they are demonized as an "establishment sellout."

    Well, as a historian, I can tell every one of you, both left and right - America as a nation was built on compromise! Our Constitution itself is nothing more than a bundle of compromises arrived at by a group of men deeply divided on the fundamental nature of our country - were we a confederation of sovereign states or a single nation made up of locally autonomous political districts? They couldn't agree on everything, so the document our nation is built on deliberately left many questions to be worked out in the future, by practice, trial, and error.

   Can we bring civility back?  Maybe.  The best way to start is by us as individuals being civil to each other.  Don't call people names because they disagree with you.  Don't post inflammatory political articles until you verify whether or not they are factual - and even then, consider whether or not repeating this material will do anything to improve the situation it complains about.  If someone posts something derogatory of offensive about a position you embrace, or a politician you admire, instead of shooting back with hateful invective, read it carefully. Research it to see if the claims it makes are true or not. Ask the person if they have ever considered the opposite point of view.  TALK, don't yell.  We've yelled at each other enough.

   Civility may be dead in America today.  But it doesn't have to stay that way.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

ARE THE GOSPELS HISTORY?

    I have long said that, if the four Gospels found in the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - were not the founding documents of Christianity, virtually no one except a few crackpots would challenge their authenticity or their historical accuracy.  After all, they are better attested than any other work of the ancient world, by far.  The closest rival is Homer's Odyssey, of which there are some 700 Greek manuscripts, of which the oldest dates some 900 years after the original work's composition.  With the New Testament, on the other hand - well, there are 6000 Greek manuscripts, the oldest of which date within a generation of the originals.  Of those 6000 Greek manuscripts, over a third of them are our Gospels, including the oldest known fragment of the New Testament (for the moment) - the Rylands Papyrus Fragment, which contains six verses from John 18 and is generally dated around 110-125 AD (most scholars feel John was written around 95 AD).   That figure doesn't even begin to count the Syriac, Latin, and other languages into which the Gospels were copied within two centuries of their composition, or the thousands of quotes from the Gospels found in the writings of second and third generation Christian works from the Second Century.  While there are many variant readings in these hand-copied manuscripts, the variations are generally minor and there are only a handful of passages in the whole NT where the original wording is in any serious doubt.  In other words, when it comes to the four Gospels, we are pretty darned sure that the manuscripts we have today are virtually identical to the original works.

    But does that make them history?  Not necessarily.  There are many myths and legends of the ancient world which have been passed down that no one takes seriously.  We may study the great tales of Greek mythology, but we don't really believe that Zeus and Poseidon were real, or that they castrated their father Kronos, or that there really was a god-king named Osiris who ruled over Egypt and was sewed back together by his wife Isis after his jealous brother cut him into pieces.  Nor does anyone really think that Hercules was real, or that he performed the twelve labors legend ascribes to him.  So are the Gospels just mythology then?

    Well, take a look the first few verses of the Gospel of Luke:  "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught."  That does not sound like a fairy tale, does it?  More like the introduction to a court briefing, or a historical essay.  Myths, by definition, are stories that form over a long period of time. Sometimes they conglomerate around an actual historical figure (there may have well been a man named Romulus who helped found the city of Rome), but they generally incorporate more and more fantastical details around that person until the historical figure at the heart of the myth is lost in a sea of tall tales, exaggeration, and hero worship. Invariably, the mythical figure lived long, long before the time when his tale was recorded.  Jesus was never represented in the Gospels as anything other than a real person, born in recent history, with known associates who passed along his teachings.

    Skeptics will tell you that the Jesus of the Bible was a mythologized historical figure.  The radical  Galilean teacher who drew a large following and then was crucified by the Romans had a series of tall tales woven around His person over many years, until He became a supernatural being who could heal the sick, raise the dead, walk on water, and ultimately conquer death itself.  Of course, for this to be true, two things have to be assumed about the Gospels: First, that they were not written by eyewitnesses or drawn from eyewitness testimony - since the real eyewitnesses would have known that all these ridiculous, supernatural stories about Jesus were just tall tales.  And secondly, that the Gospels were not written down until Jesus and his original followers were long gone and the myths had sufficient time to form and crystallize among the second and third and fourth generation followers of Jesus.

    The problem is, both of those assumptions are false.  I know, there is a cottage industry of books by skeptics like Bart Ehrman and John Shelby Spong and a host of others who will do their best to convince you that the Gospels were not written down for a very long time - maybe a century! - after the crucifixion.  But hard scholarship belies their claims.  First of all, a single century really isn't time for a fully blown myth to form.  Look at Suetonius' biography of Julius Caesar. It was written a hundred and fifty years after Caesar's death in 44 BC, but it is still considered one of the standard sources for Julius Caesar's life, and his account is generally considered accurate.  The fact is, all four Gospels were composed in the First Century AD.  Even if they were composed in the 90's AD, that puts them within 60 years of Jesus' death.  And the majority of scholars believe that the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written between 60 and 80 AD.  Certainly they were around by the 90's, since Clement of Rome quotes from all three in his letter to the church at Corinth, composed in 96 AD.  By the second century, all three of these Gospels were widely regarded as authoritative and apostolic in origin.  John's Gospel may indeed date to the 90's AD - but that comports well with several early accounts that John lived to be a very old man, over 100 at the time of his death, and that he wrote his Gospel near the end of his long life.  John also alludes to his unusual longevity at the end of his Gospel.

    During the Second, Third, and Fourth centuries there were numerous Gospels composed that claimed to be written by major figures in the life of Jesus.  There is a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of Judas, a Gospel of Peter, as well as a dozen or more others.  All of them were promoted by splinter sects - many of them by a group known as the Gnostics, who broke off from the mainstream apostolic church around the end of the First Century.  Not one of these Gospels was embraced by the mainstream church or accepted by the men known as the Apostolic Fathers - people like Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, and Irenaeus, who were born in the latter part of the First Century and who could remember encountering the disciples of Jesus when they were young men.  All these men accepted the canonical Gospels and rejected the Gnostic works for the forgeries that they were.  All four of the Biblical Gospels were ALWAYS associated with the same names we hang on them today, so the traditions of authorship go back as far as the Gospels themselves.

   While the exact date the Synoptic Gospels were written may never be determined, the fact is that the arguments for early authorship actually carry a lot more weight than those for later authorship, when viewed objectively.  Let's look at Luke's works in closing.  Luke wrote two books in the New Testament - the Gospel that bears his name, and the Book of Acts.  Acts tells the story of the disciples of Jesus from the time of His resurrection right up until Paul's journey to Rome under arrest, having appealed his case to Caesar (Nero Caesar, to be precise) when he saw that he could not get a fair trial in Jerusalem.  The book ends with Paul still awaiting trial in Rome, receiving guests, and preaching the Gospel to all who come to see him.  The date would have been around 62 AD at that point.

    The next eight years were HUGE years for the early church.  The Great Fire of Rome broke out, Nero blamed the Christians for starting it and outlawed their faith, Peter and Paul were both put to death, along with some 20,000 Christians in the city of Rome alone.  James the brother of Jesus was killed by an angry mob in Jerusalem at the beginning of a great rebellion in Judea, and - oh, yeah!  The city of Jerusalem was sacked and burned by the Romans, and the great Temple of Herod was torn down to its foundations, exactly as Jesus had predicted in the Gospels.  Now, a careful historian like Luke, who records many, many details in his two books with painstaking accuracy - so much so that classical archeologist Sir William Ramsay regarded him as "a historian of the first rank." Why didn't Luke record any of these events that loomed so large in the history of the early church?

    Occam's Razor is an ancient premise that the simplest explanation is nearly always the most likely.  If we use that in this case, the answer becomes very clear: Luke didn't include the Great Fire, the deaths of Peter and Paul, or the destruction of the Temple in the Book of Acts because THEY HADN'T HAPPENED YET when he finished his books!  No other explanation of their omission makes more sense than this. So what does that mean?

   Well, it means that the Book of Acts was written before 62 AD.  That means the Gospel of Luke - his "former treatise," as Luke calls it in the introduction to Acts - would date even earlier, perhaps around 60 AD.  And since virtually all scholars agree that Luke used the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as sources for his own work - well, that means both of them were likely completed before 60 AD as well.  So let's do the math now - assuming Jesus was crucified in 33 AD, which most scholars feel is the most likely year, then that would place the three Synoptic Gospels as all having been written in the late 50's AD.  That's only 25 years after the fact!  We know, at that time, that James the brother of Jesus was still alive.  Peter and John were still alive.  Jesus' mother may well have outlived her son by as many as 20 years, so the Gospel writers would have had access to her version of events as well.  In short, all the major eyewitnesses of Jesus' life were likely still alive when the Gospels we have in our Bible today were written.

    You may believe or not believe them, as you see fit.  But one thing is perfectly clear - they are NOT myths, not by any scholarly accepted definition of the term.  They are early accounts of real events, composed by or with the testimony of eyewitnesses.  In short, they are HISTORY.


   Now, if you like historical FICTION, I have written a book that weaves the writing of Luke's works in with the history of the Roman Empire in the mid to late First Century AD.  If you enjoyed what I wrote above, or just like historical fiction and this time period in general - well, here's the Amazon link.  Enjoy!!

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1632132729/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1491859610&sr=8-2&keywords=THEOPHILUS%3A+A+TALE+OF+ANCIENT+ROME

Thursday, June 8, 2017

GOING TO TEMPLE - And I'm Not Even Jewish!!

   Once a year, usually the first weekend in June, like grizzled salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Texas arrowhead collectors convene in the small town of Temple, about an hour north of Austin, for one of the largest Indian Artifact shows in North America.  Hosted by the Genuine Indian Relic Society, the gathering is held at the Mayborn Convention  Center on the north side of town - a sprawling civic center that is the size of two football fields and holds two hundred and fifty eight-foot-long tables, arranged in rows, groaning beneath the weight of tens of thousands of arrowheads, spear points, grooved axes, celts, scrapers, flint knives, fossils, rare minerals, Spanish artifacts, and every other sort of ancient tool you can imagine.

   I've gone to the Temple Show every year since it began.  Generally speaking, there are three kinds of people in the collecting world.  There are guys like me - the "arrowhead hunters" - who find all of our stuff ourselves and display our cases with pride, even if our artifacts aren't necessarily as pretty or as big as some of the stuff other guys have.  We go out and walk riverbeds and wade in creeks and hike plowed fields and comb shorelines to rescue these bits of the past, and we are DARNED proud of them!  Then there are the dealers. These are guys who buy entire collections for resale. They may keep a few pieces, but to them, an artifact is primarily a way to make a quick buck.   They will find some old farmer's collection and give him a few hundred dollars for it, which he will gratefully accept.  Then they will pull out one or two pieces that they want to keep, and put a price tag on all the rest.  When you consider that a single perfect Clovis or Scottsbluff point can sometimes be worth over $10,000, dealers can make big profits on their investments. But the vast majority if points in any personal finds collection are common examples of common types, so often dealers will buy an entire collection just to get a half dozen really good pieces.  Of course, they also get burned by fake relics sometimes, since people have been knapping out "modern" points since the 1890's!  Finally, there are the buyers.  These are guys with pretty big money who collect the best of the best, or maybe they are looking for specific artifact types.  Many of them don't sell at all, but they come to the show to scour collections of the "hunters" and "dealers" that are there.  Unlike the dealers, buyers will pay top dollar for a piece if it is something they really want, and they may chase the same artifact for years, gradually raising their price until the finder finally caves in and sells it.  (For the record, I try to keep most of my personal finds, but when the money gets downright stupid, it is, after all, just a rock I found on the ground!)

    So Thursday afternoon, June 1, 2017, I packed up my cases of points, boxes of fossils, and multiple copies of my books, and then Patty and I headed down to Temple together.  It's a three hour drive, and we got there around 9 pm and checked into our hotel.  We crashed almost immediately, since we'd put in a very busy day long before we left Greenville.  The next morning we got up, ate breakfast, went to the Mayborn Center, and set up my tables.  While I am primarily a hunter, I did sell a few of my very best personal finds back in the early 2000's when we were pretty poor and our daughters had a lot of medical bills.  Around 2008 I decided enough was enough - out of my ten all-time best personal finds, I had sold seven!  So I began buying a few points here and there, mainly on EBay, so that I could sell them at just enough of a markup to at least pay for going to the show.  More recently, after I became an author, my arrowhead business declined to the point (ha ha! pun!) that I pretty much quit buying.  I didn't have much sales inventory left at all  this year, in fact, so I after setting up I wandered over to the table of a dealer who is a good friend of mine and picked up a few pieces  that I knew I could turn a small profit on.  By noon I had sold one arrowhead, a nice fossil, and a sword that my daughter's boyfriend sold me the year before that I no longer wanted. Then it was time to go to Doug's!

     My friend Doug S. has a nice little ranch just east of Temple built on top of a large Indian camp.  We met in 2007 and he invited me to come out and dig for points on his place with him. He has found thousands of points there, some very nice.  Over the next ten years, I found maybe fifty or sixty nice points on his place, going down to hunt with him once or twice a year.  Honestly, most of the best camp is now dug out, and even with a screen table and a front end loader we only found one whole artifact this afternoon - a nice Clear Fork Gouge that my wife pulled off the screen.  But, it was a beautiful day, and we got to play in the dirt and have a little fun and hang out with some nice folks.
After that, we went to the hotel and cleaned up, ate a very nice dinner at Texas Road House, and then hit the sack early, watching a movie together in bed before fading off to sleep.  Saturday was going to be a big day!

   The next morning we rose early, grabbed a quick bite, and were at the Convention Center by 8 AM.  I uncovered my tables and set up.  I got to see a ton of old friends and some very beautiful artifacts (I never have time to walk around all I want; I'm too busy hustling books and stuff at my table!).  I sold seventeen of my novels, almost all my nicer fossils, and a few decent points, making enough money to pay for all the trip's expenses and come out about $200 in the black at the end of the day.  I saw collectors from all over America, got to hold some incredible artifacts, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing many of my friends again.  By four in the afternoon the show was winding down, and I began to slowly pack away my stuff.  We carried the heavy cases and frames of points and spears and boxes of rocks and stacks of books back out to the car, and by 6 PM we were on the road, headed north, back to home.

    But the call of the flint is strong, and I imagine that come next June, I'll be on I-35 heading south with a carload of flint and high hopes of rocks and friends and fossils and pointy things and adventures in the dirt . . .

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"TEAR DOWN THIS STATUE!" - Harming History or Erasing Racism?

       All across the South, especially in cities with large black populations, war has been declared on the monuments of the Confederacy.  New Orleans has taken down several statues.  In Charlottesville, Virginia, the image of Robert E. Lee - once an icon of Southern gentility and heroism - has been removed from the park that once bore his name.  If the trend continues, in another twenty years a foreign tourist in the South will have no visible clues that there ever was a Confederacy, or that the South once belonged to it.  What should we make of this?

     In the interest of full disclosure - I am a white male, a descendant of slave owners.  I am a sixth generation Texan and a tenth generation Southerner.  My ancestors, on both sides of the family, fought for the South in this nation's most destructive conflict.  My grandmother's grandfather was a veteran of the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War, who survived all three unharmed and lived into his nineties.

      But, before you start measuring me for a Klan robe, let me give you the other side of the coin.  First of all, unlike far too many Southerners, I will freely concede that the Civil War was about slavery, first and foremost.  Anyone who argues to the contrary simply has not read the primary source documents.  Read Southern newspaper editorials from 1859-60, read the speeches made on the floor of Congress by the South's representatives, read the Ordinances of Secession that each Southern State published as they voted themselves out of the Union.  That hoary old Southern canard, "states' rights," barely gets a mention, but nearly all of them either refer to slavery directly or indirectly ("to preserve our domestic institutions" - do you think they meant that Lincoln's election was a threat to marriage, or parenthood?).  The bottom line is this: the South seceded to avoid a perceived threat to the institution of slavery. (Ironically, Lincoln had repeatedly said he had no intention of disturbing slavery in the states where it already existed.  Had the South not seceded, the "peculiar institution" might have slowly fizzled out over the next generation instead of being torn from them by force.)  True, the North did not wage war on the South initially for the purpose of exterminating slavery, but to preserve the Union which the South was attempting to destroy.  (I always wondered why Southerners call it the "War of the Northern Aggression" when the South fired the first shots!)  Over time, it became apparent that the surest way to defeat the South was to eliminate slavery, hence the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln's extremely risky battle to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress before the war ended, so ably chronicled in Spielberg's movie LINCOLN.  He wanted to be sure that slavery was permanently scotched, so that it might not spark another horribly destructive war.

       So, for me, the bottom line is this: the South was on the wrong side of history.  They were fighting to preserve a monstrous and immoral institution against the sweeping tide of human freedom that came from the Enlightenment.  Indeed, it is horrifying to see how willing and indeed eager they were to throw America's founding values under the bus in order to justify the Peculiar Institution. "All the societal ills of the Northern States descend from their erroneous view that all men are created equal," wrote George Fitzhugh in his 1850 "Sociology of the South."  Slavery is incompatible not only with the founding principles of America, but also with the spirit of Christianity.  Yes, the New Testament does condone slavery in Paul's epistles (and it is worth noting that slavery in the ancient world was a very diverse institution), but in the end, can any of us truly "love your neighbor as yourself" and then sell him on the auction block?  Can we "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and separate husband from wife, child from mother, in order to deliver them to a lifetime of brutal servitude?  I would answer a resounding "No!"

      At the same time - this current trend disturbs me.  There is a tide of hateful ignorance behind it that would have us forget the lessons the nineteenth century taught America at such bitter cost.  History is a harsh instructor: its lessons are dear-bought, but well-bought.  By erasing the monuments to men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, we erase the lessons we can still learn from them, the most important of which is that good and decent men can sometimes be deluded into defending monstrous institutions in the name of tradition, and even - bizarrely enough - in the name of "liberty".  By all means, let us take down the worshipful placards bemoaning the Lost Cause that the Daughters of the Confederacy erected by the tens of thousands across the South and replace them with more contemporary, intellectually honest text. But let us also give Robert E. Lee and his subordinates their due: they were men of decency, honor, and courage who fought with great skill against overwhelming odds in a cause that they believed to be right.  We can salute their bravery and admire their martial abilities without embracing or misrepresenting the cause for which they fought. 

      Public morality is elastic.  Practices that would have earned their participants a jail term not too many years ago are celebrated today; actions that our grandfathers would have cheered are now regarded as loathsome and disgusting.  Who knows which of our current trends will wind up on the ash heap of history?  The old adage: "Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it" still applies.  Let us not rob our children of the chance to learn these lessons the easy way, so that they will not have to re-learn them in a way as difficult as any battle the Army of Northern Virginia ever faced.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

INTERVIEW AT WEEHAWKEN

    I want to thank everyone who took the time to visit this page last week and read the tribute I wrote to my Dad.  The fact that five hundred people did so was a very humbling experience for me, and a reminder of how much people loved him.
   In the midst of all I went through over the last few days, I sought escape in writing, and this short story came to me in the space of a single afternoon.  The life of Alexander Hamilton has always fascinated me, long before HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL came along.  What might have happened had he lived to a ripe old age, and fulfilled the promise of his earlier political career?  Of course, for that to happen, a certain encounter along the shores of the Hudson on the morning of July 11, 1804 would have to have gone a little differently . . . .




        Alexander Hamilton grasped the gunwales of the barge as the murky waters of the Hudson rolled beneath them.  The sun was just clearing the horizon, and the bluffs at Weehawken loomed ahead, illuminated by early morning rays.  Atop those bluffs was a flat area, lush with summer greenery, about a hundred yards in length by forty in breadth.  It was out of sight of the nearby docks and walkways, a secluded field where duelists had met off and on for over a century. There Hamilton would face a man whom he had despised for years, a man he believed had every intention of killing him.  This man was also the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr of New York. 

          Hamilton was deep in thought.  He did not want to fight this duel, and despite his contempt for Burr, he had no particular desire to kill the man.  He had made out his will the night before, and in it he had announced his intention of throwing away his shot.  As a Christian, Hamilton had come to despise dueling -especially since his beloved son, Philip, had lost his life in a duel three years before.  Certainly, he had no wish to die – indeed, he felt he had much to live for.  He had not abandoned all hope of becoming President someday, despite the scandal of his well-known affair with Maria Reynolds.  Someone would have to undo the damage Thomas Jefferson was busily inflicting on the country; why not Hamilton? There was no other leader in the Federalist Party who had his credentials, or his political ingenuity.  He was not yet fifty years old, and in excellent health.  His prospects were still bright.

          And yet – he could have evaded this duel had he really wanted to, but the cost would have been his personal honor.  He meant everything he had said about Burr – the man was an unscrupulous snake who coveted power at all costs. Hamilton could not apologize to Burr without retracting what he had said, and what he had said was true.  Jefferson, his former cabinet colleague and great rival, had often denounced Hamilton as an ambitious, unscrupulous monarchist – a charge Hamilton resented.  Certainly, Hamilton lacked Jefferson’s blind faith in the wisdom of the masses, but there was a far cry between believing the country should be led by wise, educated men of substance and property, and actually craving a scepter! Hamilton found it ironic that a man who accused him of royalist ambition should take as his running mate someone who truly lusted for that kind of power.  Even Jefferson had come to realize what Burr was, finally, and had already let it be known that he would run for re-election that fall with a different Vice Presidential candidate. 

          Burr had seen the handwriting on the wall, and had switched parties yet again, trying to win the Federalist nomination for Governor of New York.  Although he had not held political office in a nearly a decade, Hamilton was still the leader of New York’s Federalists, and he had let it be known to all and sundry that he was adamantly opposed to Burr’s nomination.  Burr had lost both the nomination and the election, in which he had run as an independent.  Seeing his political career in ruins, he blamed Hamilton for his failure – and he was right.  Hamilton took a certain grim pride in destroying Burr’s prospects.  He had not done so out of malice, but out of genuine concern for his country’s future.

          Now, however, he was paying the price. In a newspaper interview, one of Hamilton’s friends, Charles Cooper, had mentioned some of the things Hamilton had said about Burr, and the Vice President, incensed by the statement that Hamilton had a “yet more despicable” opinion he had left unuttered, had issued a challenge that Hamilton could not refuse. 

The former Treasury Secretary looked at the portmanteau containing the dueling pistols.  One of them, he knew, was the same gun that had killed his son Philip three years before. Philip – Hamilton still had to stifle sobs of grief when he thought of his beautiful son, a bright and shining light snuffed out before his time, killed defending his father’s honor on this same bloody ground.  He still remembered the grief on his wife Eliza’s face as their son had breathed his last, and closed his eyes, trying not to imagine her expression if he, too, died in the same place.

“Are you well, my friend?” Nathaniel Pendleton asked him.  One of Hamilton’s close friends, he had volunteered to act as second in this “affair of honor.”

Hamilton forced a smile he did not feel.

“Well enough, Nathaniel,” he said.  “My bosom and I have been debating each other.”

The keel of the barge grated on the sand and gravel of the shoreline, and Hamilton rose and sprang lightly to the shoreline.  A clear-cut path led up the bluff, and Pendleton and Dr. David Hosack started after Hamilton as he briskly climbed up.  Hamilton turned at the sound of their steps and frowned.

“Doctor, you should wait with the barge and the rowers.  You will be called if your services are needed,” he said.

Hosack nodded.  Dueling was illegal in New Jersey, although it was not prosecuted as vigorously there as it was in New York.  As the attending physician, he could be called on to testify in court if he actually watched the duel in progress. Granting the witnesses a level of deniability was customary in such affairs; the doctor always remained out of the line of sight, and the seconds turned their backs to the duelists.

When they reached the top, Hamilton found Colonel Burr and his seconds, William van Ness and Matthew Davis, as well as another man Hamilton did not know, had already arrived and cleared away the brush that had grown up that spring.  Pendleton and van Ness conferred for a moment, then Hamilton and Burr drew for position.  Hamilton won the draw and chose the high ground, facing across the river to the city.  The sun was now well above the horizon, so that its glare would not blind him.

“Gentlemen, now is the moment.  Should either of you wish to end this affair, you may do so now,” said William van Ness.  “General Hamilton, will you apologize for your egregious insults to the honor of Colonel Burr?” During duels, it was customary to refer to one’s opponent by his military rank, if he had one.  

“Had the Colonel confined his demands to a single remark, I might have been prevailed upon to consider an apology,” Hamilton said. “But what he has required is that I recant every opinion I have ever held of him and publicly expressed.  That I cannot do and retain my honor.  Will the Colonel modify his demand?”

Burr shook his head silently, refusing to meet his opponent’s eyes.

“Then we shall proceed,” said van Ness.  “Do you have the weapons, Judge Pendleton?”

“I do,” replied Hamilton’s second, opening the portmanteau and presenting the well-oiled dueling pistols.  Burr chose first, and Hamilton followed.  The two men walked ten paces and turned to face each other.

“You may each have a moment to confer with your men,” said Davis.

Pendleton leaned in close to Hamilton.

“Do you wish to activate the hair-trigger?” he asked.

Hamilton thought for a moment and shook his head.  He knew that each pistol contained a gear that made the trigger much more responsive, but he was more accustomed to the traditional heavy pull flintlocks required.  Besides, he fully intended to throw away his shot, so aim would not matter.

But should he throw it away?  This was the question that had raged through his thoughts ever since he had accepted Burr’s challenge.  The Vice President was a dangerous man, a man whose ambitions boded ill for the country.  If he killed Hamilton, it was quite possible the consequences of that deed would destroy Burr’s political prospects forever.  But what if they did not?  There was not a single Federalist leader who had Hamilton’s stature or connections.  Jefferson detested Burr, to be sure – but Jefferson would not be President forever.  Who would be left to check Burr’s path the Presidency if Hamilton died.  James Madison?  The diminutive Secretary of State was a brilliant man, but a poor politician.  Burr was effortlessly ingratiating, a man who could easily persuade gullible people of his sincerity.  His path to the Executive Mansion would be easier with Hamilton out of the way.

Still in an agony of indecision, Hamilton reached into his pocket and retrieved his spectacles.  If he did decide to shoot, he thought, he wanted his aim to be true.  He surveyed the ground one last time and nodded.

“Back to back, gentlemen,” van Ness said.  The Vice President and the former Treasury Secretary took their positions.  Pendleton, van Ness, and the others stepped away from them and turned their backs. 

“I will count to ten, and then you may turn, face each other, and fire at will,” said Burr’s second.  “One, two . . .”

As he marked off his paces, Hamilton’s mind was still racing.  Finally, as van Ness got to the count of seven, he decided.  He would let Burr shoot first, and then respond accordingly.  Let God decide the outcome – if he died, then Burr was meant to go on to greater things.  But if Burr missed -

“Ten!” Burr’s second said, and the two men turned.  Burr’s face was twisted with wrath; he had been practicing with a pistol all week, and now he took deadly aim at his hated rival.

A shrill shriek broke the silence of the morning.  It was only an osprey, stooping to catch a fish, but for that split second, to Alexander Hamilton, it sounded like the anguished scream Eliza had uttered the moment she saw Philip’s pale, stricken face after their son’s fatal duel.  Hamilton swiveled his head to track the sound, and as he did so, his body rotated slightly.

The osprey saved his life.  Burr’s bullet struck his side, penetrated his clothes, and glanced off his ribs, leaving a gash but doing no serious damage. The pain of the impact caused Hamilton to wince. He looked at his side, where the blood was already staining his jacket, and then looked down the field at Burr.

The man’s sneer slowly faded to shock as he realized that his shot had failed to finish his opponent.  In that moment, Hamilton saw in Burr’s eyes the fury of the man’s ambition and folly suddenly giving way to fear.  The former Treasury Secretary slowly clenched his jaw.  Burr had indeed tried to kill him – and failed!  In that moment, Hamilton saw all that he had nearly been robbed of – the love of Eliza, the best of wives and best of women, who had stood by him, forgiven him when he strayed, and comforted him in his grief when their son died.  He saw Philip’s face, his beloved son, killed by one of Burr’s more scurrilous minions.  His beloved mentor, the father figure who had raised him from obscurity and seated him at the right hand of power, George Washington, stood there in his mind, unbowed by age or sickness.  Hamilton thought of himself as the guardian of Washington’s legacy, and he had nearly let Burr destroy that legacy.  In that realization, he made up his mind.

He took careful aim at Aaron Burr’s heart, and pulled the trigger.  Burr’s eyes widened as the bullet struck home, and the Vice President slowly sank to the ground.  At the sound of the second shot, the seconds slowly turned around. 

Van Ness quickly strode to Burr’s side and spoke his name.  Burr opened his eyes briefly, and then they closed for the last time.

“General, are you all right?” Pendleton asked, his voice full of concern.

“His bullet grazed me, nothing more,” said Hamilton.  “Let us go.”

 

**********************

A week later, the President of the United States sat down to the breakfast table with his Secretary of State, James Madison.  Jefferson’s red hair had gone grey in his later years, but his face was unlined and youthful still, and his gaze as piercing as ever.

“Can we somehow hold Hamilton accountable?” asked Madison.

“That would be most difficult,” said Jefferson.  “Burr shot first, he shot to kill, and Hamilton, by all the codes of honor, was fully justified in returning fire. Not only that, but the fact that I had already made up my mind to replace Burr as Vice President will be cited as evidence that I agreed with Hamilton’s assessment of his character.”

“So Hamilton is still a force to be reckoned with, then?” Madison said.  “That is most unfortunate.  Without him, the Federalists are a motley crew of miscellaneous dissidents.  But with his mind and pen to guide them, they can easily become a potent threat.”

“I do not doubt that he aspires to occupy the chair where I now sit,” Jefferson said.  “He might have been here already, were it not for his feud with Adams and his involvement with Mrs. Reynolds.”

“Surely the electors would never choose as President a man who is a self-confessed adulterer and killer!” said Madison.

“America is changing,” said the President, rising and sipping his coffee.  “It is a change you and I have worked for, putting the choice for the next President more into the hands of the people and less into those of the political elites.  Hamilton will not run against me this fall – it is too soon. He will bide his time.  I imagine he will campaign for the Senate in two years, and from there establish a platform from which he can step into the Presidency. The people love a man who is willing to defend his personal honor, and who is humble enough to confess his sins publicly and seek forgiveness.  We should never have threatened to expose Hamilton’s affair! The ‘Reynolds Pamphlet’ may have hurt him in the short term, but over time his honesty will be remembered above his indiscretions.”

Madison sighed, and walked to the window, looking out on the capitol city.  Washington, DC, was still a work in progress – stumps stuck out of its muddy streets, and half the buildings were unfinished.  But the seeds of the Republic had been planted there already, and were beginning to bear fruit.  Jefferson came up behind his friend and laid his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“I will admit, Thomas, I had hoped to succeed you in the Presidential chair,” Madison said wistfully.

“You may do it yet,” said Jefferson.  “But first you will have to face the candidacy of Alexander Hamilton.”

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

IN MEMORY . . . BENJAMIN CLINTON SMITH, 1926-2017

   When I was seven or eight years old, if you had asked me, I would have confidently informed you that my Daddy was the biggest, strongest, tallest, wisest, and best-est man in the whole wide world. And if you knew my Dad as I did, you would understand why I thought that.
     Dad was a big man - almost six feet four, and strong as an ox.  When I was little he would scoop my up in his giant hands and swing me onto his back, and off we would go - across the yard, down a trail, even up the side of a cliff onetime, with Dad using a wooden ladder to climb up to an ancient Anasazi cliff dwelling and me hanging onto his back for dear life!
     Dad knew about all kinds of things.  He was an endless fountain of stories about everything, from growing up in East Texas during the Depression to his time in the Army in World War II, to all kinds of great embarrassing stories about my siblings (none of the stories about me were the least bit embarrassing, ever, of course!).  He knew all about history and Native Americans and could recite lengthy passages of Scripture from memory.  His sermons made the Bible come to life, and from the pulpit his outsize personality filled the entire church and served as a megaphone for the Gospel of love that he preached.
    When I was five years old, I found my first arrowhead.  Dad told me what it was, and showed me in a book how old it was - then he took it away from me and put it in a glass frame, so that I wouldn't trade it at school for a comic book or Hot Wheels car!  When I was twenty-two, he gave me his entire arrowhead collection, and that point was still there, in its frame, exactly where he placed it.  I still have it, along with the eight thousand or more arrowheads I have found since then, all because my Dad taught me to love this hobby when I was a small child.
    When I was six years old, I was fishing with my Dad and threw my line out too hard, sending my new Zebco rod and reel flying out into the lake after it! I started to cry, but my Dad calmly cast his line out where my pole had sunk, snagged it, and reeled it back in and gave it to me.  That was when I began to suspect he was really a superhero in disguise!
    Later that year, my sister's cat tried to use one of my Dad's lures as a cat toy and wound up with a treble hook in each paw and in its cheek.  The terrified feline tore our garage apart and wrapped itself up in a huge ball of fishing line - and my Dad wrapped the cat up in a towel, cut away all the fishing line, and managed to remove every hook.  The cat was NOT grateful, and Dad's hands were clawed to pieces when he was done - but my sister's pet was saved.
   When I was ten, and deathly ill with strep throat, my Dad caught a baby raccoon in the church parking lot and brought it home as a pet for me - on the condition that I get up and get well!  I recovered in record time after that, and Rascal, as I named the little raccoon, was my inseparable companion for the next year.  He developed a great fondness for pouncing on Dad's feet and nibbling his toes whenever Dad fell asleep on the couch in the evenings!  Dad would jump and thrash and send the raccoon flying across the room, and it would run behind the couch and get ready to pounce again as soon as Daddy dozed off.  It is a tribute to Dad's love for me that he never did shoot that little beast!
    When I was twelve, my mother and I were in a very serious car wreck.  Even though my Mom was far more gravely injured than me, and my Dad was deeply concerned about his wife, he still took the time to go to the bookstore and get me a giant hardcover book full of Snoopy cartoons to read as he took me home from the hospital.
    Dad taught me everything that a rightly constructed boy needed to know - how to be a gentleman to ladies, how to shoot, how to skin a catfish, how to salute the flag, how to tell directions when you were lost in the woods, how to run a lawn mower (although he never taught me how to LIKE mowing!), how to memorize Scripture, how to pick the best turtle to win the annual Vacation Bible School Turtle Race, and how to spot an Indian camp.
    Dad also taught me what not to do, by making sure I understood the consequences of my misbehavior.  I learned not to stay down in the creek past suppertime, not to skip church, not to swear, and above all, not to give my sister's class ring to my fifth grade sweetheart as an "engagement ring!"  But his discipline was always given in love, and while I deeply respected my father, I never feared him.
    Every lesson I needed to learn to become a good man, I learned by watching my Dad and listening to my Mom.  Their life together was a wonderful example of what a Christian marriage should be. My Dad always took care of my Mom, whether that meant roses and a beautiful gown on Valentine's Day, a sweet card on Mother's Day, taking  us kids out so she could get a nap after a long day teaching school, or donating blood when she was in the hospital.  Their love story was an inspiration to all who knew them for sixty-seven years!
    Daddy was a preacher, and a good one, but his greatest message was always lived, not spoken, and he continued to live it out until the very end.  When I saw him on the last evening of his life, I asked him how he was feeling.  I knew he had been through a rough day, and I knew that he was very weak and ill.  But he looked at me with clear eyes and a slight smile and said: "I feel a lot better!"
    He never wanted us to worry about him.  And now we don't have to.  He is tall again, strong again, clear-minded again.
    Did I tell you that my Daddy was the biggest, tallest, strongest, wisest, and best-est man in the whole wide world?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

THIS WEEK'S CLASSROOM ADVENTURE!!!!

OK, before I get to my story of serpents, rodents, and adolescents - a sad, but true tale this week! - let me mention that the launch party for my new novel is THIS SUNDAY, April 23, from 1 to 3 PM, at the Greenville Christian School Boardroom  (across from the office) in Greenville, TX.  If you are in the North Texas area and want a signed copy, please come on by!!!
   And, if you are not in range to drop in, go ahead and order your own copy of THEOPHILUS: A TALE OF ANCIENT ROME, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or whatever online bookseller you prefer.  Help me keep that sales rank up!!  I'll furnish a link below, but for now, on with the story:


                                                      TERRI THE MOUSE
                                                 (and the not-so-hungry snake)

       OK, I have three snakes as pets in my classroom. All three of them - Napoleon the corn snake, and Isis and Osiris, my two kingsnakes - have been prowling in their cages for several days now, indicating that they are getting hungry. Rule One of feeding snakes is that, unless you want the entire class to turn into a "Circle of Life" biology lesson, you DON'T feed the snakes when kids are in the room. I have a conference period right before lunch, so that gives me an hour and a half to complete the task with no juvenile witnesses to the demise of the Petco Feeder Mice.

      Off to Petco I go, and grab three mice, getting back to the school by 11:10 (Lunch starts at 11:20). Fifty minutes for my trusty reptiles to do their work and dispose of the evidence. I even discarded the Petco rodent box in the trash can at the end of the hall. Napoleon is a voracious feeder, despite being over ten years old. His mouse was locked into a death hug within less than a minute of being dropped into the cage. Isis grabbed her prey right away, too, and began constricting it, so I sat and graded papers and gave a couple of make-up quizzes. Meanwhile Osiris is stalking his mouse all over the cage, striking repeatedly only to have the athletic rodent jump out of the way every time. Finally, he got disgusted and gave up. What I didn't realize is that after Isis hugged her mouse to death, she turned up her nose at swallowing it and left its limp body on the floor of her cage.

    So the bell rings, and my seventh graders come pouring into the room. Worst . . . possible . . . class to witness a snake feeding! Immediately all the girls are like "He's so cute!" "Save him!" and "Let's name him Terri!" One of the boys offered me $20 for the mouse on the spot if I would pull it out of the cage and let him take it home.

      I was like "Calm down, reptiles have to eat, let's get to work!" and finally they did. By this time Osiris had given up on the mouse; it was washing its face and putting on a show of cuteness for the kids while my poor hungry serpent sulked in the corner. Then one of the girls noticed the dead mouse in Isis' cage, and pandemonium struck again. I gave the still-warm carcass to Napoleon, who has no problem at all eating two mice in a day. He started swallowing it right away, and I had to redirect their attention AGAIN.

      After they left, I informed Osiris he was a disgrace to snake-kind, and decided to drop "Terri" into Isis' cage to see if she found him more to her taste. That was when I noticed one of the girls had made a placard and put it in front of the snake's cage that read "PRAY FOR TERRI!!!" Well, Isis ignored this mouse, and I sat down to start grading papers, figuring maybe hunger would eventually do its work. Nope. Isis was NOT interested.

      Moments later, most of the seventh grade came traipsing back in, with our art teacher, Mrs. Bragg (a very nice young first year teacher) in tow. They kept pestering me to save "Terri", and I said if he remained uneaten by the end of the day, they could redeem him. Mrs. Bragg began making a cage for Terri the mouse at this point. I'm glaring at my snake thinking: "Just eat the stupid thing already!" The seventh graders kept popping back in every few minutes to see if Terri was still hanging on to life, so finally I said "FINE! Take him!"

      Of course, I was the one who had to catch him. Mrs. Bragg's cage proved to be a cardboard box with Seran Wrap over the top - any self-respecting mouse would chew its way out of that in a matter of minutes - so I pulled an old snake cage with a snap-on top out of my closet, dropped the mouse in it, and sent them on their way. So the art class acquired a new mascot, and I am still stuck with two hungry snakes.

     Today produced a funny sequel to this episode.  The 7th grade art class is making an illustrated children's book about Terri the Mouse, and sculpting action figures to go with it.  They have already christened my likeness as "Indiana Smith."
     Go figure!



NOW:  Here is the Amazon link to my new book. Please, go buy a copy!!!


https://www.amazon.com/dp/1632132729/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1491859610&sr=8-2&keywords=THEOPHILUS%3A+A+TALE+OF+ANCIENT+ROME