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


    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


   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?