Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Declaration of Independence and the Pursuit of Happiness

Now, as another July 4th approaches, it behooves us to consider what the holiday commemorates. In the late days of June, 1776, more than a year into the American Revolution Thomas Jefferson hastily wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, which was modified by and revised by others. Finally, on July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously signed the document. Despite the dominance of the British Empire and their imminent capture of New York City, the Declaration
severed all ties between Great Britain and the thirteen American colonies. (Or so the Americans maintained. But it would take another six years before we forced the British to their knees.)

Most famously, the document pronounces mankind's "natural" right of personal liberty, the notion, introduced by British philosopher John Locke a century earlier, that man is born into a state of freedom, and thus cannot be governed by a monarch. Government, says the document, exists only to serve man and laws can only be passed with the consent of the governed.

In the most famous portion of the document, the signatories assert that "We hold these truths to be self-evident/ that all men are created equal/ that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." (Emphasis added.)

What did they mean by the phrase "pursuit of happiness, a phrase that survived a number of drafts?"

In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke maintains that mankind possesses the right to "life, health, liberty and property" (Emphasis added.)  Why did we Americans alter this set of rights to include the "pursuit of happiness?"

As literary scholar Carol Hamilton has argued, Locke used the phrase elsewhere, writing in another essay, that "the necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty."

But "happiness," as used at the time, did not mean the gratification of our emotional needs and demands. Writes James R. Rogers, professor of political science at Texas A&M,  "[i]t meant prosperity…well-being…the right to meet physical needs [and included] a significant moral and religious dimension."

Note, too, that happiness itself is not guaranteed, but rather "its pursuit." Writes James R. Rogers: "'The pursuit of happiness' means … occupying one's life with the activities that provide for overall wellbeing. This certainly includes a right to material things, but it goes beyond that to include humanity's spiritual and moral condition."

Like the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence asserts that government must step out of  our way.

But we live in an era in which everyone, including multi-billion dollar corporations, demands that government provide them with instant gratification. It is time to remember the philosophies of our Founding Fathers and limit the size and reach of  our massive federal government.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Benedict Arnold: Did the Americans Know About His Proposed Treachery Before His Defection?

Upon learning of the defection one of his favorite generals, Benedict Arnold, General George Washington openly wept in shock.

But Arnold's defection should not have surprised Washington. According to the historical record, the evidence had been there since Arnold, who'd pleaded with Washington for a post at West Point, first assumed command of this important area of defense.   In a pointed letter, Benjamin Talmadge, head of the Culper spy ring, chastised the would-be-traitor for the forts'  general state of disrepair, warning him of the opportunity its vulnerabilities presented to the British, who long had coveted this key spot on the Hudson,, which, if captured, would enable the Empire to sever the connection among many of the provinces. 

Surely, Talmadge must have wondered why Arnold allowed West Point to lapse. Did it not cross the spy's mind that the disgruntled general might be purposely undermining the defenses? Why did he not tell Washington, his immediate supervisor, about the state of West Point? 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Jews in Colonial America: Why They Were tolerated, Even Welcomed.

No religious group had it worse in Colonial America than Catholics, who faced an outright ban on the open worship of their religion. The thirteen Protestant colonies feared the bloodshed that occurred in Europe during the Reformation and Counter-reformation periods. By contrast, Catholics were explicitly tolerated in British Canada--in large part because the wily British Parliament sought to drive a wedge between the 13 colonies and their northern neighbor.

But nowhere did Jews have it better than during the colonial period in America. Why? All through history, Jews had been tortured, killed or expelled from their so-called homelands. Gradually finding their way to the North American colonies circa 1654, they were originally rejected by New York City (New Amsterdam) mayor Peter Stuyvesant. But his Dutch superiors convinced him that by trading with their co-religionists throughout the diaspora, Jews would bring prosperity. Jews, who over time settled primarily in port cities (New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Savannah, Charleston), contributed mightily to commerce.

Not a single restrictive law was passed against the Jew in British America. In most colonies, Jews could not hold public office, a ban enforced by requiring Christian oaths. Jews were also far too few in number vex the anti-semites. At around the time of the American Revolution there were between 1,000-2,500 Jews in the 13 colonies out of an overall population of more than 3 million. Many were wealthy, outstanding citizens. Because of their mercantilism, they tended to side with the rebels during the Revolution and thus were signatories of various non-import agreements. Though only a small number served in the military, several as officers, Jews contributed financially to the revolution by generously supplying funds, ammunitions and provisions. 

In the 1790s, George Washington sent out letters to congregations in Philadelphia, Newport and elsewhere expressing honor and respect for Jews. Though anti-semiticism later followed--especially with the influx of European Jews in the 1800s-- colonial America was a safe haven for the Jews. Little wonder they kept arriving from all over the world.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Historical Novel About Jews During the American Revolution: The fine 'art' of revision

A Historical Novel About Jews During the American Revolution: The fine 'art' of revision: Am slogging through the manuscript now, generating second draft by the "drop dead" deadline of November 1. Next step: send it around to read...

The fine 'art' of revision

Am slogging through the manuscript now, generating second draft by the "drop dead" deadline of November 1. Next step: send it around to readers, then do another draft incorporating their comments. After that, the agent. Scary stuff.

Sometimes revision can be pure joy,  a wonderful feeling of improving on what's already written, like adding a vase of fresh flowers to a dreary room. Sometimes it's pure drudgery, though: making sure that someone's who's been sitting isn't suddenly standing up without my having mentioned it, etc. Then there's the surgical incision of paragraphs that "don't work." Today, once again, chopped off some of the novel's beginning. Have to make sure to capture reader's attention from first page, there being so much competition these days for our attention.

The main point of this revision is the plot line, maintaining  suspense as my heroine, Rebecca, balances her love for the British officer she's been spying on --Major John Andre--against the rebels' need for military intelligence. And then the grand finale when she learns that an American general, known only as "Monk," is about to defect to the British. But she can do nothing, unable to discover his identity. Then comes disaster....

Will be really interesting to finally get reactions from those who've volunteered to read the manuscript. Thus far, my friend Sally has read each and every version, my husband only the beginning sections. It's weird to toil away every day on a work without knowing whether I've pulled it off. Guess I'll find out soon.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Historical Novel About Jews During the American Revolution: Kayaking on Lake Champlain: A Whiff of History

A Historical Novel About Jews During the American Revolution: Kayaking on Lake Champlain: A Whiff of History: During a lovely, solo, kayak ride on Lake Champlain today, it stuck me that I was immersed in the very geography that proved so vital to th...

Kayaking on Lake Champlain: A Whiff of History

During a lovely, solo, kayak ride on Lake Champlain today, it stuck me that I was immersed in the very geography that proved so vital to the American Revolution, the subject of my novel.

The route along the Hudson River in, to Lake George, then  Lake Champlain -- with several portages (land interruptions) in between-- is essentially one long watery way from NYC to Quebec. Its capture was always at the forefront of British strategy: by holding any point along the way, they could easily transfer their troops between Canada and New York, block American supply lines, divide the Northern and Southern colonies.

This is what made Benedict Arnold's defection so dangerous. In 1780, before his treason was known, he pleaded with George Washington to be given command of West Point, a key fort on the Hudson along this passage to Canada. While working secretly for the Brits, Arnold intentionally kept the fort in disarray and passed military secrets about the point onto the British who, but for the discovery of the treason, might have likely seized West Point, the entire NYC- to- Quebec waterway and won the Revolution.