Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why Did George Washington Not Call a Priest or Pastor to His Deathbed?

On this day (December 14) in 1799, the father of the United States of America breathed his last breath. George Washington was the greatest statesman North America ever produced and, quite possibly, one of the greatest in all of human history.

Given his immense stature in world history, it's understandable that many debate the specific nature of his faith. Washington was formally associated with the Anglican Church (which, of course, in America, became the Episcopal Church). He was also a Freemason. Yet, when it came to his faith, he played his cards close to his vest and many argue that these affiliations were more social than spiritual. They allege that Washington was never really a genuine, orthodox Christian and one of their best (at least in their mind) pieces of evidence is that neither Washington nor his family called a priest or pastor to his bedside at the time of his passing. Is the absence of clergy at Washington's passing indicative of his true spiritual or intellectual leanings?

In my short book Was George Washington a Christian?, I examine much of the debate surrounding the specifics of Washington's faith. I talk about the fact that he rarely, if ever, took Communion. And I address how little he publicly spoke of Christ. And I talk about the absence of clergy at his deathbed, which is what we will focus on in this article.

In His Excellency: George Washington, historian Joseph J. Ellis argues that Washington died a "Roman stoic" and not a Christian, and he points to the lack of clergy as Exhibit #1 in drawing that conclusion. This is a huge overreach on Ellis' part. Let me give you four reasons why:
  1. While Stoicism was distinct from Christianity in the ancient world, there are many Christians today (and many in Washington's day) who displayed Stoic tendencies or who held some Stoic convictions alongside their biblical beliefs. There's no reason to make this an "either-or" scenario. Yes, Washington was, in many ways, a "Roman Stoic." He was also, in many ways, a Christian. One such way was his official membership in the Episcopal Church.
  2. Calling clergy to one's bedside was not as convenient or as simple in Washington's day as it would be in later years. As a pastor, I've been called to the bedside of dying members...literally. Clergy in Washington's day had no phone. Getting a priest or pastor to Washington's bedside required a little more effort.
  3. According to the Bible, it's not necessary for clergy to be at someone's bedside when one passes into eternity. Catholics believe that "last rites" are a crucial part of someone's passing, since they involve a set of sacraments meant to prepare the soul for death. Anglicans, at least traditionally, put more emphasis on faith than on works or sacraments when it comes to a person's relationship with God or eternal destiny. If a member of the clergy had been at Washington's bedside, it would've been to provide spiritual comfort and encouragement to the Washingtons, not to help usher Washington into eternity. 
  4. Clergy were a part of Washington's funeral.
When it comes to those who question whether Washington was a true Christian, the best argument they have is that Washington rarely spoke of Christ publicly. That he didn't have clergy at his deathbed is frankly irrelevant to the authenticity or specific nature of his faith. And, honestly, the whole Communion issue is likewise a bit of a red herring. There are several reasons why someone, including a professed Christian, might decline to take Communion. We should not conclude that such a refusal equates with a denial of the faith.

George Washington died with dignity and confidence. He did not fear death, having faced the prospect of death many times before. He knew his time had come, and he was ready for the "Hand of Providence" to usher him from this life into the next.

For more on Washington's faith, I encourage you to read Was George Washington a Christian? 


Thursday, November 28, 2013

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation

New York - 3 October 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Remembering Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

On this 150th anniversary of the most famous speech in American presidential history, my blogging colleague Brad Hart pays tribute to Abraham Lincoln's masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address. Check it out at...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Should We Sue Native Americans?

Viewers of this past Sunday night's (unfortunate, at least in my opinion) trouncing of the Washington Redskins by the Dallas Cowboys were subjected to a condescending lecture by Bob Costas on how the Washington Redskins should change their "offensive" team name. That Costas' personal commentary fuels the growing controversy over Washington's NFL team name on Columbus Day Weekend is ironic (and perhaps no accident at all), since Columbus Day itself is an annual touch point of controversies surrounding the legacy of the ill treatment of Native Americans at the hands of European whites.

My friend Brad Hart, who blogs regularly on American history, has injected quite an interesting thought into this debate. Perhaps it's whites who should be offended at Native Americans? Maybe it's whites who should be suing American Indians? Check out the tongue-in-cheek argument at...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Martin Luther King Calls America to its Conscience

In his famous "March on Washington" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not rant, speak out of hatred or bitterness, or bash America's heritage. On the contrary, he called Americans to conscience. He spoke approvingly of the Founding Fathers, but did so in a way that reminded Americans it was their duty to fulfill the inspiring vision laid out by the Founders...

"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men -- yes, black men as well as white men -- would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." 
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

March 28, 1963 was a great day for America - a day perfectly in keeping with the finest traditions and values of America's founding.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Happy 237th Birthday, America!

As we say goodbye to another Fourth of July, I am very grateful to be a citizen of the United States of America. For all our problems and difficulties, we remain very blessed to live in a free, prosperous, and stable country. For that, we should give thanks of course to God. And then, humanly speaking, we must thank all the men and women who have served in our armed forces over the years and, yes, for the men and women of our founding generation who sacrificed so much to establish our nation in the first place.

Happy Birthday, America! May we have many more.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Battle of Monmouth

Today (June 28, 2013) is the 235th anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth, one of the largest battles of the American Revolution. It was a battle that gave birth to the legend of Molly Pitcher and ended the military career of General Charles Lee. To read more about the battle, head over to...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Siege of Yorktown: A Low Point for Slaves in the American Revolution

In the autumn of 1781, General Lord Charles Cornwallis found himself, along with 6,000 British soldiers and 4,000 African Americans, trapped in Yorktown. Surrounded by American and French soldiers and hemmed in by the French navy, Cornwallis faced a grim situation that, a few years prior, was considered unthinkable by either side. The British were on the verge of a catastrophic defeat. This siege at Yorktown set the stage not only for American independence, but for a shocking event that remains neglected by most history books, yet is one of the lowest points in U.S. history, especially for African Americans. 

Most Americans today look at Yorktown as the place where American independence was realized. Yes, the Treaty of Paris, which formally recognized American independence, would not be signed until 1783, but the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 is what broke the back of the British and made recognition of American independence inevitable. Understandably, it's been seen accordingly as a high point in American history. Sadly, it was not a high point for the slaves in the American Revolution era.

Black auxiliaries started following the Southern British Army after the siege of Charleston. Most did camp work or quartermaster task, but many African Americans would also serve in the British Army. With good rations and decent pay by the time of Yorktown, thousands of freed blacks were assisting Cornwallis's Army. 

On October 9th 1781, Allied cannons began to bombard the British positions at Yorktown. For over a week, listening to the whistles and the screams of cannonballs would be the norm for the fortified British.  The dead started to pile, and General Clinton's promised relief force was nowhere in site. With the British Army low on food and provisions, they would send their loyal African workers at gun point into the Continental lines. They did this in the slave state of Virginia.

Later, when the situation became hopeless, Cornwallis ordered the full surrender of his army. On a clear, sunny October day in 1781, the British bands played a tune “The World Turned Upside Down” for on this dreadful day their world was indeed upside down. As they marched in fife and drum and the music played, they laid down their arms in surrender. Over six thousand chosen British troops were now prisoners of the Americans. “If summer were spring and the other way round, then all the world would be upside down.” The Southern British Army had been defeated, most of the prisoners would be paroled or sent to work on farms, but what about the African Americans who assisted the British during this campaign? What became of them?

The aftermath of Yorktown for African Americans was not a pleasant one. Historians estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 African Americans died during the siege of Yorktown, many due to malnutrition, disease (small pox is said to have been the cause of most of the deaths), exhaustion, or from battle wounds. A few of the African workers boarded the overly crowded British ship Bonetta, which sailed to New York City.  Most of those who were sent out of the British camp before the surrender would be returned to slavery. An accurate number of survivors is difficult for historians to find, but estimates of around 3,000 African American workers returned to slavery. 

This was indeed yet another example of the most tragic paradox of the American Revolution and the newly formed United States of America. Just five years before Yorktown, Thomas Jefferson had written into the Declaration of Independence the beautiful claim that "all men are created equal." The American Revolution would put America on the course to ultimately living out that ideal, but for African Americans, that course would be longer than the course for their white counterparts. This was especially the case for those African Americans betrayed by the British army at Yorktown.

**For more on the Siege of Yorktown, check out The Guns of Independence by Jerome Green.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Decisive Day at Bunker Hill: An Excerpt from Nathaniel Philbrick's "Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution"

Award-winning author Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower, Sea of Glory, and The Last Stand, has turned his attention to the first major battle of the American Revolution. It was a battle that took place primarily on Breed's Hill, though it has come to be known through history as the Battle of Bunker Hill. Philbrick's book Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution brings that momentous battle to life. Here is an excerpt from that book, reprinted by permission from the publisher:

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
by Nathaniel Philbrick

Preface: The Decisive Day

On a hot, almost windless afternoon in June, a seven-year-old boy stood beside his mother and looked out across the green islands of Boston Harbor. To the northwest, sheets of fire and smoke rose from the base of a distant hill. Even though the fighting was at least ten miles away, the concussion of the great guns burst like bubbles across his tear-streaked face.

At that moment, John Adams, the boy’s father, was more than three hundred miles to the south at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Years later, the elder Adams claimed that the American Revolution had started not with the Boston Massacre, or the Tea Party, or the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord and all the rest, but had been “effected before the war commenced . . . in the minds and hearts of the people.” For his son, however, the “decisive day” (a phrase used by the boy’s mother, Abigail) was June 17, 1775.

Seventy-one years after that day, in the jittery script of an old man, John Quincy Adams described the terrifying afternoon when he and his mother watched the battle from a hill beside their home in Braintree: “I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia’s thunders in the Battle of Bunker’s hill and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own.” They feared, he recounted, that the British troops might at any moment march out of Boston and “butcher them in cold blood” or take them as hostages and drag them back into the besieged city. But what he remembered most about the battle was the hopeless sense of sorrow that he and his mother felt when they learned that their family physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, had been killed.

Warren had saved John Quincy Adam’s badly fractured forefinger from amputation, and the death of this “beloved physician” was a terrible blow to a boy whose father’s mounting responsibilities required that he spend months away from home. Even after John Quincy Adams had grown into adulthood and become a public figure, he refused to attend all anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Joseph Warren, just thirty-four at the time of his death, had been much more than a beloved doctor to a seven-year-old boy. Over the course of the two critical months between the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington Green and the Battle of Bunker Hill, he became the most influential patriot leader in the province of Massachusetts. As a member of the Committee of Safety, he had been the man who ordered Paul Revere to alert the countryside that British soldiers were headed to Concord; as president of the Provincial Congress, he had overseen the creation of an army even as he waged a propaganda campaign to convince both the American and British people that Massachusetts was fighting for its survival in a purely defensive war. While his more famous compatriots John Adams, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams were in Philadelphia at the Second Continental Congress, Warren was orchestrating the on-the-ground reality of a revolution.

Warren had only recently emerged from the shadow of his mentor Samuel Adams when he found himself at the head of the revolutionary movement in Massachusetts, but his presence (and absence) were immediately felt. When George Washington assumed command of the provincial army gathered outside Boston just two and a half weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was forced to contend with the confusion and despair that followed Warren’s death. Washington’s ability to gain the confidence of a suspicious, stubborn, and parochial assemblage of New England militiamen marked the advent of a very different kind of leadership. Warren had passionately, often impulsively, tried to control the accelerating cataclysm. Washington would need to master the situation deliberately and—above all—firmly. Thus, the Battle of Bunker Hill is the critical turning point in the story of how a rebellion born in the streets of Boston became a countrywide war for independence.

This is also the story of two British generals. The first, Thomas Gage, was saddled with the impossible task of implementing his government’s unnecessarily punitive response to the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. Gage had a scrupulous respect for the law and was therefore ill equipped to subdue a people who were perfectly willing to take that law into their own hands. When fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, militiamen from across the region descended upon the British stationed at Boston. Armed New Englanders soon cut off the land approaches to Boston. Ironically, the former center of American resistance found itself gripped by an American siege. By the time General William Howe replaced Gage as the British commander in chief, he had determined that New York, not Boston, was where he must resume the fight. It was left to Washington to hasten the departure of Howe and his army.

The evacuation of the British in March 1776 signaled the beginning of an eight-year war that produced a new nation. But it also marked the end of an era that had started back in 1630 with the founding of the Puritan settlement called Boston. This is the story of how a revolution changed that 146-year-old community—of what was lost and what was gained when 150 vessels filled with British soldiers and American loyalists sailed from Boston Harbor for the last time.

Over the more than two centuries since the Revolution, Boston has undergone immense physical change. Most of the city’s once-defining hills have been erased from the landscape while the marshes and mudflats that surrounded Boston have been filled in to eliminate almost all traces of the original waterfront. But hints of the vanished town remain. Several meetinghouses and churches from the colonial era are still standing, along with a smattering of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses. Looking southeast from the balcony of the Old State House, you can see how the spine of what was once called King Street connects this historic seat of government, originally known as the Town House, to Long Wharf, an equally historic commercial center that still reaches out into the harbor.

For the last three years I have been exploring these places, trying to get a fix on the long-lost topography that is essential to understanding how Boston’s former residents interacted. Boston in the 1770s was a land-connected island with a population of about fifteen thousand, all of whom probably recognized, if not knew, each other. Being myself a resident of an island with a year-round population very close in size to provincial Boston’s, I have some familiarity with how petty feuds, family alliances, professional jealousies, and bonds of friendship can transform a local controversy into a supercharged outpouring of communal angst. The issues are real enough, but why we find ourselves on one side or the other of those issues is often unclear even to us. Things just happen in a way that has little to do with logic or rationality and everything to do with the mysterious and infinitely complex ways that human beings respond to one another.

In the beginning there were three different colonial groups in Massachusetts. One group was aligned with those who eventually became revolutionaries. For lack of a better word, I will call these people “patriots.” Another group remained faithful to the crown, and they appear herein as “loyalists.” Those in the third and perhaps largest group were not sure where they stood. Part of what makes a revolution such a fascinating subject to study is the arrival of the moment when neutrality is no longer an option. Like it or not, a person has to choose.

It was not a simple case of picking right from wrong. Hindsight has shown that, contrary to what the patriots insisted, Britain had not launched a preconceived effort to enslave her colonies. Compared with other outposts of empire, the American colonists were exceedingly well off. It’s been estimated that they were some of the most prosperous, least-taxed people in the Western world. And yet there was more to the patriots’ overheated claims about oppression than the eighteenth-century equivalent of a conspiracy theory. The hyperbole and hysteria that so mystified the loyalists had wellsprings that were both ancient and strikingly immediate. For patriots and loyalists alike, this was personal.

Because a revolution gave birth to our nation, Americans have a tendency to exalt the concept of a popular uprising. We want the whole world to be caught in a blaze of liberating upheaval (with appropriately democratic results) because that was what worked so well for us. If Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, the guidebook that has become a kind of bible among twenty-first-century revolutionaries in the Middle East and beyond, is any indication, the mechanics of overthrowing a regime are essentially the same today as they were in the eighteenth century. And yet, given our tendency to focus on the Founding Fathers who were at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia when all of this was unfolding in and around Boston, most of us know surprisingly little about how the patriots of Massachusetts pulled it off.

In the pages that follow, I hope to provide an intimate account of how over the course of just eighteen months a revolution transformed a city and the towns that surrounded it, and how that transformation influenced what eventually became the Unites States of America. This is the story of two charismatic and forceful leaders (one from Massachusetts, the other from Virginia), but it is also the story of two ministers (one a subtle, even Machiavellian, patriot, the other a punster and a loyalist); of a poet, patriot, and caregiver to four orphaned children; of a wealthy merchant who wanted to be everybody’s friend; of a conniving traitor whose girlfriend betrayed him; of a sea captain from Marblehead who became America’s first naval hero; of a bookseller with a permanently mangled hand who after a 300-mile trek through the wilderness helped to force the evacuation of the British; and of many others.

In the end, the city of Boston is the true hero of this story. Whether its inhabitants came to view the Revolution as an opportunity or as a catastrophe, they all found themselves in the midst of a survival tale when on December 16, 1773, three shiploads of tea were dumped in Boston Harbor.

**End of Excerpt**

For more, check out Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Frontier Fort Found in Georgia

Fans of American Revolutionary War history are excited about a discovery in Georgia, that of a frontier fort where Georgia militiamen forced British Loyalists to retreat. The skirmish at Carr's Fort was a rare victory for the Americans in the South during the American Revolution, and it came just few short weeks after Savannah had fallen to the British.

For more information on the discovery, visit The Washington Post article "Archaeologists in Ga. say they’ve found remains of frontier fort in Revolutionary War battle."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Jamestown Legacy Exhibit to Open March 1


WILLIAMSBURG, Va., February 11, 2013 – More than 60 objects destined for exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown will be on display in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution,” opening March 1 at Jamestown Settlement, a museum of 17th-century Virginia.  The special exhibition, which continues through January 20, 2014, examines the lives of Revolutionary War-era descendants of people associated with 17th-century Jamestown, the first capital of colonial Virginia.

Work is under way on the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which will replace the Yorktown Victory Center by late 2016.  The artifacts featured in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution” – a sampling of those to be exhibited in the new museum – include furnishings, weapons, nautical items, documents and commemorative objects.  Among them are an American-made saber engraved with the owner’s name and the year 1776, a trunk owned by a Continental Navy shipbuilder, and examples of 18th-century Virginia currency.

The exhibition opens with “King George III’s Virginia,” illustrated with an eight-foot-tall portrait of the king in coronation robes, one of several done by the studio of Allan Ramsay between 1762 and 1784.  From the time he ascended to the British throne in 1760, George III worked to strengthen British administration in the American colonies, with his American subjects ultimately rising in opposition.

In pre-Revolutionary Virginia, agriculture and trade drove the economy.  A section titled “Merchants, Planters and Farmers” profiles Mary Cary Ambler, widow of Edward Ambler, a wealthy Yorktown merchant and planter, and John Ambler II, their son, and Azel Benthall, a small planter and church vestry clerk on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  The Ambler family suffered serious financial reverses during the Revolution, while farmers like Benthall were better able to cope with wartime shortages.

Colonel Richard Taylor, who served with the First Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army, and Captain Edward Travis IV, who served in the Virginia navy, are featured in “Soldiers and Sailors.”  Most Virginians who fought in the war were either militiamen or soldiers of the Continental Line.  Virginia’s small naval force operated chiefly to keep the state’s rivers and the Chesapeake Bay safe from the British navy and to assist in the transport of supplies for the Continental Army.

“Statesmen and Diplomats” highlights individuals who supported the Patriot cause and the new nation as public officials.  Arthur Lee served on diplomatic missions to Europe during the Revolution and later as a member of Congress.  Richard Bland II was actively involved in events leading up to the Revolution, as a member of the Virginia committees of Correspondence and Public Safety and the Continental Congress.  During and following the Revolution, General Joseph Martin served as Virginia’s agent for Indian Affairs, acting as a diplomat between the Cherokee and settlers who encroached on Indian lands.

The exhibition concludes with an overview of the career of George Washington, whose ancestor John Washington arrived in Virginia in 1656 and later sat in the House of Burgesses at Jamestown.  Less than a decade after leading the United States to victory as commander of the Continental Army, George Washington reluctantly accepted the office of the first president of the United States.  A life-size statue, made in the 19th century by William James Hubard after an 18th-century work by Jean-Antoine Houdon, portrays Washington as a modern Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who left his land to fight for his country and, after victory as a general, returned to his farm as a man of simplicity and peace.

“Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution” is supported with grants from James City County, Altria Group and Dominion Resources.  

Jamestown Settlement, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, is located southwest of Williamsburg on Route 31 at the Colonial Parkway, next to Historic Jamestowne, site of America’s first permanent English colony, founded in 1607.  Jamestown Settlement general admission of $16.00 for adults and $7.50 for children ages 6 through 12 includes admission to the special exhibition.  A combination ticket is available with the Yorktown Victory Center.  The two state-operated living-history museums tell the story of America’s beginnings through gallery exhibits and in outdoor re-created settings – Powhatan Indian village, three English ships and 1610-14 colonial fort at Jamestown Settlement, and Revolutionary War encampment and 1780s farm at the Yorktown Victory Center.

For more information, call (888) 593-4682 toll-free or (757) 253-4838 or visit

Friday, February 22, 2013

George Washington: Mightiest Name on Earth

On this day (February 22) in 1731 (according to the Gregorian Calendar), the greatest statesman in American history was born. It can accurately be said that George Washington is truly the indispensable man in the history of the United States. Without Washington, there would be no United States today. Anyone who disputes that shows his or her ignorance of American history. (See "What if George Washington Had Never Been Born?")

Without Washington, there would have been no victory in the American Revolution. Without Washington, there would have been no Constitutional Convention or ratification of the new Constitution. Without Washington serving as President, the United States would likely have collapsed in its first few years. No one at the time could have pulled off what Washington accomplished during these critical, formative years of the United States. (See "Leadership Qualities of George Washington").

Washington was human, of course. He had his faults - the greatest of which being his status as a slave owner. Nevertheless, even in his weaknesses, he showed a determination to be better. Washington had a volatile temper, but learned to (most of the time) restrain and control it. Deeply infatuated with a woman (Sally Fairfax) who was married to another man, Washington restrained himself and, once married to Martha, devoted himself entirely to his own family. As a slave owner, Washington wrestled with his conscience, growing to deplore the evils of slavery, eventually freeing his slaves in his will. He was not perfect, but he always pointed himself in the right direction. 

No temptation faced by Washington, of course, can top what he confronted in the closing years of the American Revolution. Faced with an impotent national government, a pathetically weak economy, and a disgruntled army bordering on open revolt, Washington could have assumed total power over the newly independent United States. Some suggested he become dictator or king. A lesser man would've seized the opportunity. Not Washington. He believed in a Republic. He renounced all talk of dictatorship or monarchy, and instead resigned his commission, handing all his authority over to Congress in 1783. Later, when called back into national service, he refused to serve more than two terms as President of the United States. 

George Washington stands in history as a hero among heroes. And the legacy he leaves us as Americans in particular is worthy of our gratitude and respect. Abraham Lincoln is said to have declared: "Washington is the mightiest name on earth...To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor, leave it shining on."  Washington undoubtedly would've considered such language more appropriate to the "Divine Author of our Blessed Religion." (See "Was George Washington a Christian?") Nevertheless, when it comes to those who fall short of divinity, it's hard to think of a figure in history mightier than George Washington. 

**For more on George Washington, check out David McCullough's stirring 1776 or Ron Chernow's bestselling Washington: A Life

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Presidents Day Trivia: Reflecting on the True Meaning of the February Holiday

Are you happy "Presidents Day" is here? Are you glad to have a three-day weekend? As you enjoy your day off work (if your employer respects "Presidents Day"), I'm sure you'll reflect on the (ahem) immense achievements of (cough) great Presidents like Warren G. Harding, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and Millard Fillmore.

For those who may need help understanding what "Presidents Day" is really all about, I prepared this little 10-question quiz for you. A little "Presidents Day" trivia to help you remember why we have a day off in February. Here we go...

  1. Which President came to office with a unanimous vote of the Electoral College, representing the overwhelming consensus of the American people?
  2. Which President was elected overwhelmingly without campaigning for the office of President? He was truly the reluctant statesmen. 
  3. Which President came to office without the benefit of having ANY predecessors from which to draw example? He had to set all the precedents and be the example to future Presidents himself? 
  4. Which Chief Executive presided over the creation of a stable American economy with a sound currency --- from SCRATCH? 
  5. Which Commander-in-Chief put down the Whiskey Rebellion, which was our nation's first domestic insurrection and could've (if left unchecked) led to the disintegration of the Union before the 18th century even came to a close!? 
  6. Which President said that "religion and morality" are "indispensable supports" to "prosperity"? A man known for his immense character, he set the important precedent that no one is qualified to lead a nation unless he can first govern his own passions and temptations -- and submit himself to a Higher Authority. 
  7. Which President steered our nation down a path of careful neutrality, keeping us from getting embroiled in the bloodbath of the French Revolution and from getting into a renewed war with Great Britain - something that would've been absolutely devastating to the nascent United States? 
  8. Which President (before he became President) led a rag-tag, ill-equipped, poorly-fed, and (initially) poorly trained "army" of farmers, peasants, shopkeepers, teenagers, etc. to victory over the mightiest empire in the world? This accomplishment alone, something he achieved before becoming President, were enough to make him the truly indispensable man in American history. 
  9. Which President could have EASILY become dictator or king, but flatly refused -- opting instead to reluctantly accept the presidency in a constitutional Republic based on shared powers with checks and balances? 
  10. Which President set the precedent of serving only two terms (in spite of the fact that he easily could have been reelected to a third)? 

If you don't know the answers to the preceding ten questions, well...that's because we celebrate "Presidents Day" each year instead of the holiday's original purpose. So, sit back and enjoy a day that has tragically become the most meaningless "holiday" on our calendar -- a heavily commercialized day that symbolizes so poignantly how many Americans are out of touch with their heritage and shamelessly ungrateful for it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Becky Akers Brings Famous Spy Nathan Hale to Life

Becky Akers, a historian and freelance writer, has kicked up a "Halestorm" (you might say) with a debut novel set in her favorite period, the American Revolution. Akers' focus is on Nathan Hale, the schoolteacher-turned-soldier-turned-spy, who has gone down in American history as perhaps the most famous hero to be hanged. Akers' writings have appeared in several publications, including The Washington Post, Barron's, Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Post, but she's turned to fiction with Halestorm, her first novel.

I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Akers via email, and I'm delighted to bring our online conversation to the attention of my readers. My questions are bold and in italics. I hope you'll pick up a copy of Halestorm and that you'll enjoy the interview.


"Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. My blog readers will, I know, appreciate it. So....this is your first novel, correct?"

Thanks so much, Rev. Tubbs. I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you and your readers today.

To answer your question, Halestorm is not only my first novel, but some of my first writing-for-publication ever.

I’d always wanted to write fiction, especially historical novels (my favorite genre!), but I wasn’t sure how one makes a living at that. So when I graduated college, I went to work as an editor, figuring that was the next best thing. Boy, was I wrong! Several jobs later, I quit to write full-time, and Halestorm was among my first efforts. Surprise: the publishing world wasn’t eagerly awaiting The Next Great American Novel from an unknown writer, so I spent the next years compiling a portfolio, with articles in The Washington Post, The New York Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Barron’s,,, etc.

"Why Nathan Hale?"

I have loved Nathan Hale since I was a child of 4 or 5 and first heard or read about him – I can’t remember which it was.

My mother’s 16-year-old brother died in a car crash two weeks before I was born. So my earliest memories include the agony a family suffers when a young man dies. My uncle’s name happened to be Dale; somehow, as little kids will, I conflated that with “Hale” in my mind. Nathan Dale-Hale was more than a mere historical hero to me: he was an absent but utterly beloved brother.

"What lessons can Americans today take from someone like Nathan Hale?"

That liberty is among God’s greatest gifts to us, more precious even than life.

Many folks mistake Nathan’s sacrifice for nationalism – the “my-country,-right-or-wrong” mentality. And while that’s tragic, it’s understandable, given the warped version of his speech on the gallows bequeathed to us. That famous line – “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” – actually originated with Capt. (later Gen.) William Hull, one of Nathan’s buddies from college. He heard an account of the execution from an eyewitness, which he included in his memoirs as an old man. And then he paraphrased – inaccurately – the quote from a report on Nathan’s death the Boston Chronicle published just six years after the hanging: “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.” Obviously, Hull’s condensation packs a greater punch, but it also changes “cause [of liberty]” to “country” – an unfortunate and nationalistic rewrite.

"How long did it take you to write Halestorm?"

Not long enough! I loved Nathan even more when I had finished writing the book. In fact, I came up with the idea for my second novel in part because I was so lonely for him and those glorious Revolutionary times – I longed to continue my immersion in both.

"How much research did you do in writing Halestorm?"

Enormous amounts.

Though Nathan has been my hero forever, I didn’t really know that much about him. And while I’d always loved the American Revolution, ditto. I majored in Greek and Latin in college (partly because the Founding Fathers were fluent in both), so I hadn’t studied American history then either. Ergo, I started from scratch – but that may have been a blessing. Far too many history departments are bastions of Marxism whose professors denigrate or pervert the Revolution.

"In writing historical fiction, how do you balance facts and true events with the need for creative license?"

Nathan is the ideal subject in that respect (and so many others!) because we know enough about his life and death to provide the plot for an incredibly dramatic, exciting novel – far more dramatic and exciting than anything I could invent – yet we know little enough that there’s plenty of room for imagination. For example, we know that the Redcoats captured him sometime on Saturday, September 21, 1776 and hanged him the next morning at 11 AM. But how did they capture him? And what happened between his arrest and hanging? My task was to fill those gaps while remaining true to the period, to Nathan’s character, and to the general pathos of a 21-year-old boy’s confronting certain, shameful death.

"Is the Revolutionary War era your favorite period of American history? If so, why?"

It absolutely is!

I adore the Revolution because of its fierce devotion to human freedom. Now, all three million Americans then weren’t anarchists, hating politicians, corporatism, government and bureaucracy, but most of them were pretty close. They understood that government is our direst enemy, not the benefactor that too many of their descendants consider it.

"Tell us what you're working on next."

My second novel follows the adventures of Benedict Arnold (who makes a cameo appearance in Halestorm – and some of Halestorm’s characters likewise figure in this next book). I was astonished at what I found while researching his treason: Arnold was in fact a hero, not the greedy, villainous traitor so many historians paint him. While he was military governor of Philadelphia, he tangled constantly with the Radical Patriots – early communists and totalitarians. Arnold fought them valiantly; then, when they seemed about to triumph and hijack the entire Revolution, he turned to the British as a lesser threat and the only agency that could save Americans from the worse tyranny of the Radicals.

Combine that with a tale of espionage, heartbreakingly close calls, and profound betrayal, and again you have a story far more riveting than any novelist could invent.

"I'm sure the novel on Benedict Arnold will provoke lots of discussion. Can't wait to see that. In the meantime, best of luck with Halestorm and, once again, thank you for your time and for bringing such an important hero to life."

Thank you. Like I said, I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you and your readers today as well as all your scholarship on the American Revolution.