Monday, June 30, 2008

Questioning a Candidate's Patriotism

In a speech Monday in Independence, Missouri, Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) defended his patriotism and promised he wouldn't question the patriotism of anyone else.

"I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged – at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for," Obama said. "I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine."

Since this blog is about the founding era, I will withhold my thoughts on Senator Obama's patriotism. Instead, I want to politely point out that the attacks on Senator Obama are pale compared to those flung back and forth during presidential elections in the early part of our nation's history.

During George Washington's presidency, rival Cabinet members Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson employed paid and unpaid surrogates to hurl constant barrages of vicious accusations against each other. Washington almost refused a second term due to the mudfest, and chided his Cabinet members repeatedly to essentially grow up.

Things didn't get better upon Washington's retirement. The election of 1796 was rather unpleasant, and the election of 1800 was downright nasty. Thomas Jefferson was called everything from an atheist to a traitor, while John Adams was mocked and ridiculed as a befuddled "monarchist." (Oh, and as David McCullough points out, to be called a "monarchist" back then was like being called a "communist" in the 1950s).

Campaign vitriol is indeed nothing new, nor is questioning another's patriotism. It goes back to the beginning of our nation's history. This isn't to say that mudslinging is good for America. Just that it's been around for a while.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Disney's Swamp Fox

Do you remember Disney's "Swamp Fox" TV series? It was based on the exploits of Continental militia hero Francis Marion, who was the inspiration behind Mel Gibson's character in "The Patriot." Here's a YouTube video featuring a couple of scenes from the series...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bring Back George!

Not George W. Bush, but George Washington! That's right, some folks at Facebook want to reelect the first President, making him the successor to George W. Bush. Do you agree?

If so, click here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

New Book: "George Washington's Secret Navy"

George Washington, the first commander-in-chief of the first American army, was committed to the idea of civilian control of the armed forces. But when in the Fall of 1775, he recognized the need for a navy - a navy he knew Congress would never approve - Washington ignored that commitment and created a navy anyway. He just didn't bother mentioning it to Congress.

This is the premise and theme of James L. Nelson's new book George Washington's Secret Navy: How the American Revolution Went to Sea. Nelson is the author of Benedict Arnold's Navy.

I just got myself a copy of this book - and it looks like I'll enjoy it. I'll let you know more as I read through it.

Revolutionary War Era Shipwreck Found

A twenty-two gun British warship lost in 1780 has been found. It's quite the story, and you can read about it here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

American Creation

If you haven't visited the new blog - American Creation - you need to head over that way soon.

The American Creation looks at the founding of the United States from a cultural, specifically a religious, angle. There are several contributors to the blog, including yours truly.

To head over, just click here.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Revolutionary War Chaplains

Priests went to war with armies as far back as ancient times. And this tradition has been a part of America's history from as early as the French and Indian War, when a young militia colonel named George Washington complained for "want of a chaplain."

General Washington and the Continental Army instituted a chaplain corps. during the American Revolution to help bolster troop morale and insure that the religious needs of the soldiers were met.

During the first few years of the war, the nature of the chaplaincy was a bit disorganized - as were quite a few facets of American military life. The first major step in establishing an organized chaplaincy came in 1776, when Congress approved one chaplain per regiment. General Washington ordered that the regimental commanders "procure Chaplains accordingly" and that the chaplains be "persons of good Characters and exemplary lives."

In 1776, Congress set the pay rate at "thirty-three Dollars and one third pr month." And in 1782, Congress passed a resolution that fixed chaplain pay to the rank of major.

Virtually all Revolutionary War chaplains were Protestant, reflecting the dominant nature of Protestantism in colonial America. There were two Roman Catholics in the Chaplain Corps. Over the years, the Chaplain Corps. has become increasingly diverse, reflecting the changing nature of America's population.

For more information on chaplains in the Revolutionary War, click here.

And...I am working on a novel about a Revolutionary War chaplain. It's only in the idea stage, and has been in the idea stage for a couple years now. Any creative help you'd like to provide would be welcome. :-)

New Book Explores French & Indian War Campaign

Pennsylvania’s Forbes Trail:
Gateways and Getaways along the Legendary Route
from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh

A new family travel guide has been published as part of the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail: Gateways and Getaways along the Legendary Route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh tells the story of the Forbes Campaign, one of the most dramatic and significant chapters of the French and Indian War.

The 208-page illustrated guide to the trail is written by Burton R. Kummerow, Christine H. O'Toole and R. Scott Stephenson and edited by Laura Fisher, with a preface by Fred Anderson (Taylor Publishing / July 2008).

According to the publisher's news release, the book "takes an engaging approach, combining gripping history with tools to help contemporary travelers discover historic sites, the great outdoors and family attractions along the trail today."

"It's really two books in one," says Laura Fisher, editor. "We're telling a little-known but fascinating and important historical tale, including the actual locations where young George Washington, British General John Forbes and their men struggled to make headway – and identifying places people can visit and relive these events today. Great modern-day family and outdoor activities are included as well, making this book a comprehensive guide to history, travel and adventure along the Forbes Trail."

I personally have not been able to review a copy of this book, but it sounds interesting. Here's a link to it on Amazon for your convenience...

Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail is the official Signature Project publication of Pittsburgh 250, a year-long celebration of the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh, which was named by General Forbes immediately after the capture of Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio. Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail is published by French and Indian War 250, Inc., a non-profit organization spearheading the national commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War. The book was made possible by the Colcom Foundation. For more information visit, and

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bill Moyers Interviews Thomas Paine Biographer

Thomas Paine was America's first bestselling author and one of the earliest radicals in American history. Click below on the YouTube video to watch Bill Moyers interview author Harvey J. Kaye about his book Thomas Paine and the Promise of America...

David Letterman's Take on "John Adams"

David Letterman has a little fun at the expense of the HBO miniseries John Adams...

Video Tribute to the Declaration of Independence

Watch this video on the Declaration of Independence. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the video features actors (including Michael Douglas, Kevin Spacey, Whoopi Goldberg, Mel Gibson, etc.). It's pretty well-done. Check it out...

Richard Norton Smith on George Washington

Historian Richard Norton Smith speaks about George Washington....

Monday, June 02, 2008

Harry Jaffa vs. Jeremiah Wright

The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in a 2006 sermon at Howard University, declared: "Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!"

Of course, Wright has said quite a few other, shall we say, "colorful" things about America before and since those remarks. Jeremiah Wright's America is a nation founded on and still committed to racism and greed. And he sees very few redeeming qualities in America.

In the course of this year's presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Barack Obama has tried (with mixed results) to distance himself from Rev. Wright, his 20-year spiritual mentor. One effort to do so was a famous speech on racism and America's legacy that he gave in March. In it, Obama said that the Constitution of the United States (and America overall) was "stained by this nation's original sin of slavery." Lindsey Shuman posted a link to the speech (and a few comments) at the American Revolution Blog site back in March. You can find it here.

Conservative author Harry Jaffa, a Distinguished Fellow at the Claremont Institute, has written a response to Wright and Obama. It's titled (appropriately) "God Bless America." (Those familiar with Rev. Wright's more controversial remarks will understand). I recommend you click here to read it. And then let us know what you think.

Brad Hart on Peter Lillback's "George Washington's Sacred Fire"

Brad Hart, the co-founder and one of the principal bloggers for the American Revolution Blog, has written a partial analysis of Peter Lillback's George Washington's Sacred Fire. You can find it here.

While I don't fully agree with Brad's comments, his analysis is well-written (as always).

And it also gives me another opportunity to plug Lillback's book. If you haven't picked up a copy of Lillback's George Washington's Sacred Fire, I highly recommend it.

Elitism, Bias, and David McCullough in the Study of History

Do you remember when John Adams by David McCullough first hit the bestseller list? I do. And, being a fan of that era of history, I was probably one of the first to scoop up a copy. And I remember telling a friend of mine - a university professor friend of mine - that I was enjoying John Adams.

I was surprised to hear his sneering over the phone, as my friend - my university professor friend - had very few good things to say about "popular" history writers like David McCullough. McCullough, my university professor friend explained to me, was not a "REAL historian."

Looking back, I am amazed that my scholar friend had the patience to walk me through this position. After all, HE was a scholar, an academic, a university professor, an esteemed member of enlightened academia. And I....well...I was a member of the proleteriat class - at least intellectually speaking. Why, I only had a bachelor's degree (at the time) and my friend, well, he had a P....H.....D. Yessir, HE was the REAL deal! Me? least....I could read.

That conversation served up (for me) a real serious dose of academic elitism. And it was crystal clear to me that David McCullough, as terrific a writer and researcher as he is, will never shake off the snobbery of his critics. Why?

I think it boils down to two reasons...

1) Academic Elitism

Academic elitism, according to Wikipedia, is essentially "the view that only someone who has engaged in serious scholarship has anything worthwhile to say on any given topic." Of course, those truly in the "academic elite" category are likely to cringe at my citing Wikipedia - for any reason - but I doubt very many people would question that definition.

Due to such elitism, bestselling historical writers like the late Stephen Ambrose and the Pulitzer winner David McCullough are routinely dismissed in the historical scholarship community.

Indeed, one historian, writing for Slate, dismissed McCullough's 1776 as "vapid mythmaking." He derided it as a "rousing, feel-good tale of how George Washington led a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence." And as I read those words, I couldn't help but scream, "What's wrong with a rousing, feel-good tale about George Washington leading a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence??!!!"

To be fair, this writer did concede that academic historians write too much for themselves - and that their writing has become rather....boring. He was more sophisticated than using the word "boring," but that's what he meant. And he's right.

The "academic elites" excel at making history boring, whereas people like David McCullough should be credited (by EVERYONE - especially those "jargon-clotted" academics) for making history fun, interesting, and (yes) ALIVE! McCullough is making FANS out of history - and that's a good thing! For that, McCullough should be praised - since if McCullough's dreams come true (dreams he has publicly expressed), it will mean MORE young people pursuing historical studies in high school and college.

Nevertheless, academic elitism is deeply entrenched in our universities - no matter how many bestsellers McCullough turns out or how many young people he inspires.

2) Liberal Bias

I know my left-of-center readers will get mad at me for using the term "liberal bias," but I have to call it like it is! The truth is that the more "elite" of the academic elites in the field of historical studies are....well....liberal. Let's be honest.

I can hear you asking: "Are you saying that only liberals have elites?" Well, the truth is that conservative elites don't tend to be in academia. (If you want to find conservative elites, head to Wall Street or to the high-brow country clubs. But don't look for them in the universities).

In the world of academia, conservatives (those right of center in today's political, religious, and cultural discussions) tend to believe that historical scholarship is open to anyone willing to work hard and engage in ethical and critical research.

(This isn't to say that there aren't some conservative cranks out there. Trust me, there are. But conservatives aren't barring the door to historical scholarship. You don't typically find conservatives checking ID cards and academic papers before letting people in the door).

The reason, I think, isn't so much that liberals are engaged in a conspiracy to take over America. Liberals are no more interested in advancing their agenda than conservatives. I don't mean "liberal bias" in any kind of sinister way. What I think is at work here is that there's a fundamental difference in worldviews.

Some examples of this...

I don't know David McCullough's politics. My hunch is that he's a moderate Democrat of the Hubert Humphrey era. (Some of my readers may know more about this. If so, chime in). If I'm right, then McCullough is a centrist - liberal on some issues, but somewhat traditional in his general view of America. I consider this a good thing. A healthy thing. But, alas, my liberal readers and friends will disagree. And that's my point!

David McCullough believes it's healthy and desirable to celebrate our heroes. His 1776 is a clear celebration of George Washington, which the writer for the left-leaning Slate derides. Liberals pooh-pooh this, believing it better to emphasize previously disadvantaged or dispossessed sectors of society.

For my own part, I believe we can do both. And, I think, McCullough would agree. BUT...I would add (and I believe McCullough would agree with this too) that there are REASONS why certain individuals rise to the top of society. There are reasons why history has traditionally focused on leaders like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, and Martin Luther King. Among those reasons is the fact that the people (including some of those disadvantaged groups) CHOSE to FOLLOW those leaders.

And this brings us full circle. Historians like Ray Raphael are wrong to protest the celebration of figures like Washington. Why? Because the masses that Raphael CLAIMS to represent in his work celebrated Washington. That's right. Washington didn't impose himself on the people of America. The people of America embraced Washington.

It's not just the celebration of heroes over groups that separates conservatives and liberals in history, but also the celebration of certain ideas. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a favorite of many liberals, because Zinn gives a full, gut-wrenching condemnation of America's past (something fashionable in most left-of-center circles). By contrast, Thomas G. West's Vindicating the Founders is ridiculed, because West dares to contextualize and defend the Founders over sins for which the Academic Left has long since pronounced guilt and shame on America's heritage.

And, finally, there's the whole debate over the nature of truth itself. Liberals tend to be more sympathetic to the notion that truth is relative and that much (some say most) of history is unknowable. You just don't find that many postmodern relativists in conservative circles.

Bringing this to a conclusion, I have to tell you that my friend (my university professor friend) changed his mind on McCullough. He called back a couple weeks later to tell me that he was wrong about John Adams. He was, indeed, impressed with McCullough's research and analysis. I was surprised. A scholar with humility. It told me that there was still hope.

Indeed, with writers like David McCullough out there, there is still hope.