History I Never Knew: The World’s First Tweetstorm was 485 Years Ago

October 17, 2019

If you think things are impossibly difficult and polarized in the world of politics nowadays, you ain’t seen nothin’.  Washington, DC and America in 2019 are like Romper Room compared to Paris and France for 64 years spanning the latter half of the sixteenth century.

Proclamation of October 17, 1534, text of the world’s first tweetstorm that launched the Wars of Religion.

Today, we have Twitter to set passions aboil. Back then, they had the printing press. But the effects of these technologies were pretty much the same.  They could make the world mighty ugly, mighty fast. And that’s what happened, almost 500 years ago, when hundreds of nasty, polemical printed posters were nailed up in several French cities by a group of conspirators.

It was history’s first Tweetstorm; the conspirators sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

On the evening of October 17, 1534, the “Affair of the Placards” launched the Wars of Religion in France.  Followers of John Calvin, known as Huguenots and led by a reform pastor named Antoine Marcourt, went around under the cover of darkness and nailed up copies of a screed titled “Trustworthy Articles on the Horrible, Great, & Unbearable Abuses of the Papal Mass.”  They even posted one on the door of the royal bedchamber of King Francois I.

Francois I

The poster’s message was severely critical of Catholicism, the religion of the realm. To condemn the Catholic Mass and Catholic doctrine was a crime in itself. But Francois was rattled to the core at the almost unthinkable breach of security and the threat to his personal safety.

His reaction was swift and severe. He offered generous rewards – four years’ worth of wages of ordinary folk – and many of the conspirators were caught and burned at the stake. Undeterred, they printed another “tweet,” titled “A Very Useful and Salutary Short Treatise in the Holy Eucharist of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Huguenots made up no more than 15% of the French population, but they were well moneyed and educated, for the most part. They were decidedly influential in their push for reform and religious freedom.

Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France

More repression and retribution followed. Francois and his bishops responded by holding a sacred procession throughout the streets of Paris. Along the way they venerated the consecrated host, and they finished up with a Mass at Notre Dame. After the Mass they took six conspirators out and burned them at the stake.

On and on it went. Kings, queens, and royal regents came and went.  Violence and atrocities by both sides flared up regularly. Treaties and truces were made and broken. After a failed assassination attempt of a Huguenot leader named Gaspard de Coligny in 1572, the Catholic establishment

under Catherine de Medici planned and executed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Between 4,000 and 6,000 Huguenots were killed between August and October of that month.

Henry IV: “Paris is worth a Mass.”

There followed the “War of the Three Henrys,” who all vied for the throne.  The eventual winner was Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot who became King Henry IV. But he wanted to calm things down, so he converted to Catholicism – for the fifth time – and justified it by his famous observation, “Paris is worth a Mass.”

With Henry IV’s 1598 conversion came the Edict of Nantes. It granted Huguenots many rights and freedoms, but Catholicism was still the dominant faith by far.  Almost a century later, in 1685, King Louis XVI revoked the Edict. He set the stage for his own overthrow and trip to the guillotine. But that’s another story for another time.

So ended the Wars of Religion and the repercussions of the first tweetstorm from 64 years before. So tell me now – is it really that bad nowadays? I’ll take Twitter over printed posters any day.

1492: What Really Happened

October 12, 2019

Columbus

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Yes, he did. But in the long sweep of history, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea’s “discovery” of America did not have anything approaching the impact – the tragic consequences – of other events of that year.  Christoper Columbus wasn’t all that important, or consequential. If he hadn’t voyaged west and found new lands, someone else would have. History in the “New World” would have followed roughly the same course.

Not so the history of the Old World, had the rulers of Spain been enlightened and fair-minded.

Columbus himself points out the world-changing decree of Ferdinand and Isabella. His diary begins:  “In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.”

Ferdinand and Isabella

In January of 1492, the forces of Castile and Aragon had conquered Granada, the last remaining Muslim caliphate in Spain. This restored all of Spain to Christian rule. The king and queen had resisted the demands of Tomas de Torquemada, head of the Spanish Inquisition, to expel the Jews until they had first subdued the Moors (not the Moops.) But with that military victory, they moved swiftly to get rid of Jews and impose religious uniformity.

It would take until 1614 for Spain’s succeeding monarchs to banish the rest of the Moors.  For a short while, Islam was allowed in Spain. But in 1502, all remaining Muslims were order to convert to Christianity or leave.

As for the Jews of Spain, about 200,000 of them were forced to leave as of July 30, 1492. They had to abandon all of their material possessions and settle in places like North Africa, Turkey, Italy and elsewhere.  They became known as Sephardic Jews – “Sefarad” is Hebrew for “Spain.”

Can you imagine how the history of the world might have evolved if Ferdinand and Isabella did not agree with people like Torquemada – had they allowed their Jews and Muslims to stay, to work out their differences, and to build their country into something else entirely?

Nor was it enough for F&I to “cleanse” Spain. They married off their daughter Isabella to King Manuel of Portugal in 1496. They made it a condition of the marriage that Portugal expel its Jews. Manuel reluctantly complied, although in the end only eight Jews were kicked out; according to the Jewish Virtual Library, tens of thousands of others had to convert to Christianity, on pain of death.

Tomas de Torquemada

I recall learning in school of the wonderful monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who supported Columbus on his great adventure.  What rot. And what profound negative consequences their religious hatred had, down through the centuries.

The Sultan of Turkey, Bazajet, welcomed Jews. He said, “How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?”

How indeed.

Spain, and Portugal for that matter, became inconsequential, minor-league powers in Europe. Much worse, though, was that their treatment of Jews would be imitated in various guises throughout the known world. It’s still echoing loudly today. The decree of expulsion, known as the Alhambra Decree, was not officially overturned by the Spanish government until December 16, 1968.

This decision by the Spain, 476 years in the making, likely came about after the Catholic church itself admitted that it had been wrong about the Jews for almost two millennia.  The following is from Nostra Aetate, an instrument formulated in 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, during the papacy of Paul VI:

“what happened … cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”

Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII

And that pronouncement may never have happened had “Vatican II” not taken place.  The council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1959. It is sad that he died before the council, and before this pronouncement. He would have loved it. During World War II, as Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, he was the Vatican delegate to the Ottoman Empire.  He was the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to use his authority on behalf of Jews. He had no use for the wimpish Pope Pius XII, his predecessor, who did nothing to resist Adolf Hitler.

But back to today, October 12. If you feel like ragging on Christopher Columbus for his misdeeds, go ahead. But he’s not the villain. The real villains sat on the throne of the combined kingdom of Castile and Aragon, and at their right hands in the Office of the Spanish Inquisition.

Thomas Jefferson on Public Education and the Teaching of History

October 5, 2019

Sometimes it’s best to let others speak for themselves. I think that our third president, while certainly one of the “great” ones, has been treated a little too kindly by history. But I can’t deny his intellectual brilliance. Here is a sample.

(From Query XIV, “Notes  on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson first describes the state’s plans for public schools. They will be free to all boys for three years, after which the better students will advance to higher levels of learning. They will be further winnowed out until each year the best students will be selected for admission to the College of William and Mary. The family’s wealth will not be a factor in admission. Rich families whose students do not make the cut will be free to pay for those students’ higher learning, if they so desire.)

Who Is Educated, How Chosen, and Why:

“The ultimate result of this whole scheme of education would be the teaching of all children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten other annually, of still superiors parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to…”

“The general objects of this law are to provide and education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness. Specific details are not proper for the law. These must be the business of the visitors entrusted with its execution…By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of youth of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as among the cultivated. – But of all the views of this law, none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty…”

And Why the Teaching of History is Most Important:

“..the reading in the first stage, where they will receive the whole of their education, [is]…to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations: it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

“In every government on earth there is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve.  Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories.  And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. This indeed is not all that is necessary, though it be essentially necessary.

“An amendment to our constitution must here come to the aid of public education. The influence over government must be shared among al the people.  If every individual which composes the mass participates in the ultimate authority the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. “

Some Thoughts about Felicity

September 15, 2019

Nobody asked me, but…

I think that the sentence meted out to Felicity Huffman is reasonable and appropriate.  The star of “Desperate Housewives” will spend two weeks in a low-security federal corrections facility near San Francisco. She will also pay a $30,000 fine and perform 250 hours of yet-unspecified community service.

Felicity Huffman at her sentencing hearing in Boston

At the sentencing, the judge’s reasoning and remarks were well considered, professional, and compassionate. Ms Huffman’s contrition at being part of a college admissions scam seems genuine.  Her embarrassment at having broken the law and at having had insufficient confidence in her daughter’s abilities is obviously painful to her.

Rehabilitating and repairing the relationship within the family will probably take much longer than the two weeks or so that she will be off the grid. Yes, I know that she’s a rich celeb, and the rich have all the goodies and privileges, and blah, blah, blah. But let’s dispense with the schadenfreude. Her money and fame can’t shield her from the consequences of the decision that she now regrets – and I don’t think she regrets it simply because she got caught.

I have no doubt that she will be able to continue with her acting career, if she so chooses, once she completes her sentence. I will be rooting for her. If it turns that out I’m wrong about her sincerity, and that her admission of guilt and her demeanor are nothing more than a damage-controlling act — well, then I’m wrong.

We all screw up sometimes, and we all deserve a chance to make amends.

Book Review: “Beyond the Flight of the Arrow” by James Bradford Taylor

August 1, 2019

Author Brad Taylor

Sometimes, you just want to escape. Get away from here. Have a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure in a far-off land.  Meet your childhood hero or the girl of your dreams.  Tell their story – no, live in their story the way you imagine it was in days of old.

Here’s one way to do it. Make this book by James Bradford “Brad” Taylor part of your summer reading list. Take it to the beach, willingly suspend your disbelief, unsheathe your trusty sword, and offer battle to the forces of evil.

The book, Taylor’s first, is an autobiographically-flavored fantasy fulfillment.  As the book’s hero, Andrew “Finney” Jackson, he is a cinema owner who gets the chance to prowl around the offices and warehouse of a long-dead Hollywood movie mogul.  He falls down some cellar stairs and is transported, Twilight-Zone fashion, back to Sherwood Forest, where his adventure begins.

As a lad growing up in Winthrop, Massachusetts, Brad Taylor stoked his imagination with one of the town’s biggest and best-organized troves of DC Comic books.  Superman and Batman were staples, but he was also a big fan and authority on the likes of Green Lantern; Hawkman; Green Arrow and Speedy, and just about anyone else who was good enough to make the roster of the Justice League of America.

Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, 1938

When Brad outgrew the comic book heroes and began to notice girls, he developed a “thing” for Olivia de Havilland. She played Maid Marian in the 1938 film “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” with Errol Flynn in the lead role and other familiar names like Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Alan Hale in the supporting cast. It was the first color film by Warner Brothers studios.

I don’t think it’s revealing too much about the book to say that our hero Finney falls in love with Maid Marian, rescues her, kidnaps her for ransom, but ultimately doesn’t wed her.  He points out that she always went off with Errol Flynn, so he lets Robin Hood marry her in the end.

The book’s subtitle is A Fantasy Adventure Concerning Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, and One Finney Jackson.  Nope.  It should be something like An Adventurous Story of Unrequited Love for Olivia de Havilland by One James B. Taylor.  But that little misdirection notwithstanding, I have to give Brad credit for honesty about his feelings for Olivia. Who among us did not have such fantasies as we stumbled through adolescence? I recall similar crushes that I had on Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova, and on Katharine Ross as Elaine Robinson.  (Now I rather dig Mrs. Robinson. But I digress.)

Here’s what Brad/Finney had to say after initially encountering Maid Marian in boy’s clothing, disguised as a page, and being the first of the Merry Men to recognize that she was a woman:

“Not only was she a woman, she was incredibly beautiful as well. How did I know this ‘page’ was a woman? Well, when you have seen one of the most beautiful women in the world, you don’t forget her face, even if the next time you see her she’s dressed as a boy. Yes, I had seen this woman before. Not once, but many times.

“She had made the biggest impression on me, however, when she co-starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood as Maid Marian, for this ‘page’ riding on the trail below us was none other than Olivia de Havilland…Perhaps it would be more correct to say she was the living, breathing image of Olivia de Havilland; for Robin was the exact double of Errol Flynn, yet he was Robin Hood and not an actor…

“When I was twelve years old I first saw The Adventures of Robin Hood on television, and I fell instantly in love with Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. It was my first adolescent crush, and I never really got entirely over it…To me, the beauty of Olivia de Havilland was perfection in every way with her dark hair and those eyes of hers. Those eyes! Has any of God’s creatures ever possessed such eyes?

“She could only be mine when I saw her in The Adventures of Robin Hood; and then she always went off with Errol Flynn…This time, though, I was in a position to determine whether there could be something between us in reality. As far as I was concerned, there would be.”

Well, there is something nice that develops between our hero and the lovely woman. They become good buds.  But that’s all. Along the way Robin stumbles badly and for a while seems most unworthy of her. Our hero Brad/Finney becomes of the realm’s premier swordsmen. He seems to emerge as a contender for Maid Marian’s heart.  However, as previously noted, Robin and Marian eventually wed.  Though the author refashions parts of the Robin Hood legend and rewrites some of the script of the Errol Flynn movie to suit his fancy, he leaves the legend’s essentials intact.

During his daring escapades, Brad/Finney also gets in some commentary on the history of the period. In the movie, King Richard the Lion-Hearted (a big misnomer, actually; he was a nebbish) the scummy Prince John was not yet on the throne of England. Robin Hood and his boys robbed from the rich, gave to the poor, stymied the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and kept Prince John off the throne.

In this book, John has been the king for sixteen years. And it’s Brad/Finney who intervenes with the Archbishop of Canterbury and brings about King John’s reluctant signing of the Magna Carta.

Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Claude Rains as Prince John in the 1938 film.

Robin has already told his new recruit to the Merry Men the truth about the present and previous monarchs of the realm.

“A woeful reign it has been for his subjects. He taxes everyone heavily. And those who cannot pay in gold must pay in crops. It was a foul wind that blew that accursed Norman [Gisbourne] to England’s shores seven years ago. Until then King John wasn’t so bad, but Gisbourne’s intrigues have made everything worse. The King is his puppet.”

That latter story isn’t history, because Sir Guy is fictional; he’s simply a villain who shows up in most of the retellings of the Robin Hood legend.  But by that point of the book we’re beyond letting facts get in the way of a good story.

At the end, before he’s whisked back to the present, Brad/Finney gets to kiss Marian, the bride, at her wedding. But just prior to that little wish-come-true, Robin Hood gives him a small stone, a talisman, which had been a gift to him from Little John.

“It signifies a great friendship,” Robin says. “There are only two things on earth that go beyond the flight of the arrow. One is the love that comes once in a lifetime between a man and a woman. The other is friendship between two men that no force on earth can overcome.”

I’ll raise a tankard of Sherwood Forest’s finest ale to that one.

Remembering Cathy Inglese, Boston College Women’s Basketball’s Greatest Coach

July 25, 2019

Cathy Inglese, age 60, died on July 24, 2019 after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a fall at her home. The following is her story that I wrote in 2014, when she was inducted into the Boston College Varsity Club Hall of Fame. She was one of the very best. May she rest in peace.

The coach with the most wins in the history of Boston College basketball had never planned to make coaching her career.

Cathy Inglese graduated from Southern Connecticut State on a Friday. She started teaching at Glastonbury High School the following Monday. She reapplied for a full-time position the following September. They told her that of course, since she’d been a star basketball player in college, she’d coach as well as teach.

“Southern was a good program when I played there, but coaching never entered my mind. I was planning to get a master’s degree in nutrition,” Cathy said.

A multi-sport star throughout high school, Cathy had turned down offers from BC, UConn and Providence to play basketball at her parents’ alma mater. She had been a good athlete since her childhood in the town of Wallingford.  “They were outside all day long,” her mother Nancy said about Cathy and her siblings. If it wasn’t baseball or basketball, they’d be climbing trees.”

In the fall of her third year of teaching, Cathy attended a Big East coaches’ clinic in Hartford and met up with Cecilia DeMarco, head coach at the University of New Hampshire. That spring, DeMarco called about an opening for an assistant basketball coach and assistant athletic director.

“My father had asked me if I’d ever like to try teaching in college, and I figured, ‘what have I got to lose.’ I was 26 at the time. I found that I liked working with student-athletes who were away from home for the first time. I got to travel, to teach, to recruit and to sell,” she explains.

Three years later, Cathy took over the University of Vermont basketball program, which had never had a winning season. Over seven years there, she transformed both Catamount basketball and herself. In her last two seasons, UVM went 29-1 and 28-1 and made the NCAA tournament.

Off the court, she conquered her fear of public speaking and hit the circuit. She addressed executives at IBM’s Vermont facility, among others, and discoursed on topics like leadership, motivation, and teamwork.

“I learned that it doesn’t matter if you’re the president of a company or a coach. You’ve got to have goals. You’ve got to believe in yourself. And it takes time. When you bring people from different backgrounds and with different outlooks, you can succeed as long you share the same vision.”

“I was lucky at Vermont,” she said. “I got to make all my mistakes early, in things like recruiting and in the systems I tried.”

Vermont was where Inglese learned to be a head coach. Boston College was where she put that all that knowledge to work. When Eagle athletic director Chet Gladchuk came calling, it didn’t take much convincing for him to bring her on board.

Again, it took time. Three losing seasons to start off. No fans at Conte Forum. But she made it clear to Gladchuk that there should be no more games in the adjoining Power Gym either. It was going to be a big-time program in a big-time facility.

“In our first game, it was so quiet you could hear the ball bouncing. It wasn’t a great environment, but it was something to build on,” she said.

Gradually, the talented athletes started to arrive. Cal Bouchard, who wasn’t widely known to college coaches, was a recruiting breakthrough. Cathy pursued Cal her after seeing a videotape of her being interviewed on television in Canada. Bouchard’s rookie year of 1996-97 was an 18-10 campaign and Inglese’s first winning one at the Heights.

Many more star athletes and successful seasons would follow. In her 15 years at the Heights, Cathy amassed a record of 273-179.  Among the highlights was the Big East championship in 2004. Inglese’s fifth-seeded Eagles won four games in four nights at the Hartford Civic Center, including a 51-48 semifinal conquest of nemesis Connecticut.

Cathy’s teams also had seven NCAA Tournament bids, and three advances to the national championship tourney’s Sweet 16. In 2005-06, the first year in the ACC, the Eagles lost their last five contests but still qualified for the NCAAs. At the Albuquerque Regional, they defeated Notre Dame and then top-seeded Ohio State, to once again make the round of 16.

Erik Johnson, now the head coach at BC, was Cathy’s assistant in her last three seasons. He marvels at the attention to detail and her meticulous planning that frequently brought victories over more talented opponents.

“I learned from her that that there’s no magic formula to winning at a high level. But every little thing matters. So we might not have players that are as big or as fast as North Carolina’s, but we could beat them because we made fewer mistakes. We moved the ball better, we were better prepared. Our fundamentals were better,” he said.

Clare Droesch was a free-wheeling shooter, a high school All-America when she arrived in 2001. For her, it was a struggle in adjusting to the Inglese way.

“She was an X and O coach who would look for five or six passes before the shot. It was hard, but it finally clicked for me in junior and senior years. When you bought into the system, it worked,” said Clare.

“We were one of the highest-percentage teams in the country. Coach did an amazing job of building offenses and defenses with the players she had.  When she saw potential, she’d push you to the limit of what you could be.”

Brooke Queenan, who played on all three of Inglese’s Sweet 16 squads, adds,

“I’ve never had a coach with her work ethic, and how goal-oriented she was. She demanded that from all of us.”

Interviewing Cathy at her home in Rhode Island in 2014

The team went 21-12 in 2007-08, Cathy’s final year at Boston College. After departing, she took a year off, then became head coach at the University of Rhode Island. Kingston wasn’t Chestnut Hill, though, and it didn’t happen for Cathy’s Rams. After five seasons, she moved on to explore other options including athletic administration, non-profit development, and leadership consulting.

The world hasn’t heard the last of Cathy Inglese, and it will be a long time before any coach in any sport at Boston College compiles a record of success like hers.

Men of July 4: Adams and Jefferson

July 4, 2019

Comrades in the struggle to found the American nation, then bitter foes in the nasty and brutal election campaign of 1800, and finally dear friends and eloquent correspondents in their long retirement years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson deserve all of the praise and honor that history has conferred upon them.

This is not to say that they were models of perfection. Each had glaring personal flaws and quirks; each made mistakes in the wielding of power in his respective and various roles. Both men died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  James Monroe, the fifth president, also died on that date in 1831.

Jefferson is credited with writing the Declaration; noted for his ability with words, he did write the first draft.  But it was then edited by a committee comprising Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.

Adams was a skilled writer as well; he could have done a good job with the first draft too. While he later groused about the political mileage that Jefferson got from his reputation as the Declaration’s author – wondering, in 1805, if there was “ever a coup de théâtre that had so great an effect as Jefferson’s penmanship of the Declaration of Independence” – he also knew that it was important for the 13 colonies to have a Virginian be a visible leader of the breakaway from King George. Support from the rich, agrarian South was critical, and the South was rife with loyalist slave-owners for whom life was just fine the way it was.

So, what were these two gentlemen really like? What did they think, and feel, about themselves and their lives, after they had retired from public life? The following excerpts from letters they exchanged in 1812 tell us a good deal. (And would that letter-writing still hold as important a place in society now; we would all be better off and, I dare say, a little more civilized.)

Jefferson to Adams

Monticello, January 21, 1812

Dear Sir,

[your letter] carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ahead ever threatening to overwhelm us, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port.  Still we did not expect to be without rubs and difficulties – and we have had them.

[after noting several issues that led to the War of 1812, he continues] And I believe we shall continue to grow, to multiply and prosper until we exhibit an association, powerful, and wise, and happy beyond what has yet been seen by men.

As for France and England, with all their preeminence in science, the one is a den of robbers, the other of pirates. And if science produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine, and the destitution of national morality, I would rather wish our country be ignorant, honest, and estimable as our neighboring savages are.

But whither is senile garrulity leading me? Into politics, of which I have taken final leave. I think little of them and say less. I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.

[after talking about his own health and his pleasure in his grandchildren, he concludes] I should have the pleasure of knowing that in the race of life you do not keep, in its physical decline, the same distance ahead of me that you have done in political honors and achievements. No circumstances have lessened the interest I feel in these particulars respecting yourself; none have suspended for one moment my sincere esteem for you; and I now salute you with unchanged affections and respect.

Adams to Jefferson

Quincy, February 1, 1812

Dear Sir,

Your life and mine for almost half a century have been nearly all of a piece, resembling in the whole, mine in the Gulf Stream, chased by three British frigates, in a hurricane from the northeast and a hideous tempest of thunder and lightning, which cracked our mainmast, struck three and twenty men on deck, wounded four, and killed one. I do not remember that my feelings in those three days were very different from what they have been for fifty years.

What an exchange have you made? Of newspapers for Newton? Rising from the lower deep of the lowest deep of dullness and bathos to the contemplation of the heavens and the heavens of heavens. Oh that I had devoted to Newton and fellows that time which I fear has been wasted on Plato and Aristotle, Bacon, Acherly, Bolingbroke, De Lolme, Harrington, Sidney, Hobbes, Plato Redivivus, Marchmont, Nedham, with twenty others upon subjects which mankind is determined never to understand, and those who do understand them are resolved never to practice, or countenance.

Your memoranda of the past, your sense of the present, and your prospect for the future seem to be well founded as far as I can see.  But the latter, i.e., the prospect for the future, will depend upon the Union: how is that Union to be preserved? Concordia res parvae crescent, Discordia maximae dilabuntur. [Small matters thrive with concord, great things fall apart through discord.] I will not at present point out the precise days and months when, nor the names of the men by whom this Union has been put in jeopardy. Your recollection can be at no more loss than mine.

“…But conquerors to now so easily disappear, battles and victories are irresistible by human nature. When a man is once acknowledged by the people in the army and the country as the author of a victory, there is no longer any question. Had Hamilton or Burr obtained a recent victory, neither you nor Jay nor I should have stood any chance against them or either of them more than a swallow or a sparrow.

I have read Thucydides and Tacitus, so often and at such distant period of my life that, elegant and profound and enchanting as is their style, I am weary of them. When I read them I seem only to be reading the history of my own times and my own life. I am heartily weary of both, i.e., of recollecting the history of both: for I am not weary of living. Whatever a peevish patriarch might say, I have never yet seen the day in which I could say I have had no pleasure, or that I have had more pain than pleasure.

[After telling of his daily activities and his family, he concludes] I cordially reciprocate your professions of esteem and respect. Madam sends her kind regards to your daughter and your grandchildren, as well as to yourself.

P.S. I forgot to remark your preference to savage over civilized life. I have something to say upon that subject. If I am in error, you can set me right, but by all I know of one or the other I would rather be the poorest man in France or England, with sound health of body and mind, than the proudest king, sachem or warrior of any tribe of savages in America.

And Now This Editorial Comment

In my opinion, Thomas Jefferson is one of the “great” presidents, but I think that history has been a little too kind to him and much too dismissive of Adams.  T.J. was undoubtedly more personally appealing, more clever, and certainly more snake-in-the-grass politically adept than the grouchy, curmudgeonly, and more highly-principled Adams.   David McCullough’s biography of Adams has done something to rectify that imbalance.

But whatever…would you not like to sit down with these two men, perhaps at the Colonial Inn in Concord or the Michie Tavern in Charlottesville, over beers brewed by their pal Samuel Adams, and just listen to what they have to say? I can think of no better activity for the Fourth of July.

A Post for the First Day of Summer 2019

June 21, 2019

(This blog post originally appeared in 2011. It’s a favorite of mine, so here it is again, slightly updated.)

“Solstice” means “Sun Stands Still.” This year the summer solstice took place, and summer officially began, at 8:00 EDT, June 20.

“Midsummer Night’s Dream” was all about events in and around the summer solstice.

Kansas City Ballet’s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Hippolyta remarks:

“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

And then the moon, like to a silver bow

New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night

Of our solemnities.”

 

And  Theseus, soon to wed her, directs his servant Philostrate:

“Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments;

Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth;

Turn melancholy forth to funerals;

The pale companion is not for our pomp.”

 

The ancients called the Midsummer moon the “Honey Moon” for the mead made from fermented honey that was part of wedding ceremonies performed at the Summer Solstice. Perhaps the most enduring modern ties with Summer Solstice were the Druids’ celebration of the day as the “wedding of Heaven and Earth“, resulting in the present day belief of a “lucky” wedding in June.

They also celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, when couples would leap through the flames, believing their crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump. The bonfires were also thought to protect against evil spirits, which were thought to roam freely when the sun turned southward again.

Da Vinci’s Saint John the Baptist and his Wort

To thwart the evil spirits, pagans often wore protective garlands of herbs and flowers. One of the most powerful of them was a plant called ‘chase-devil’, which is known today as St. John’s Wort and still used by modern herbalists as a mood stabilizer.  Some people believed that mid-summer plants, especially Calendula, had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night.

Religious party-poopers couldn’t stay away, though. In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (you remember the hospital named after him in St. Elsewhere) warned recently-converted inhabitants of Flanders against the age-old pagan solstice celebrations.  He said,  “No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.”

As Christianity entered pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities. The Gospel of Luke said that John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus, and because Jesus was born right after the winter solstice, Saint John had to have been born right after the summer solstice. Saint John’s Day is June 24.

Many medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The church needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter. And so observatories were built into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. A hole in the roof admitted a beam of sunlight, which would trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was also carefully marked.

Sherm Feller

So, as the Jamies sang, in the song written by long-time Red Sox public address announcer Sherm Feller,

“It’s Summertime Summertime Sum-Sum-Summertime!”

Happy summer!

Two Welcome News Items: This is Your America, and Mine. Thank You for Reminding Us, Robert Smith and Diane von Furstenberg.

May 23, 2019

Three cheers – no, make that three times three times three cheers – for Diane von Furstenberg and Robert F. Smith.  They are the principal actors in two recent good-news stories about America.  Let’s tune out the political stink-bombers and the nabobs of negativity, and let’s listen to them.

Mr. Smith

Mr. Smith, a graduate of Morehouse College and its 2019 commencement speaker, announced to the school’s graduates that he would pay off their student loans. That will take an estimated $40 million of his multi-billion dollar personal fortune that he amassed in a career in investment banking.

Ms Von Furstenberg, daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, came to America at age 22 with a baby in her womb and a suitcase full of dresses that she hoped to sell. DVF-branded goods now sell in 70 countries. She chaired the recently-concluded fund-raising campaign that brought in $100 million for a new museum of the Statue of Liberty.

The immediate beneficiaries of Mr. Smith’s gift are the graduating seniors. No longer saddled with loan payments, they will be free to launch their careers, build their own fortunes, and start their families.  I’m sure that all those young people have said “thank you,” but the proof of their sincerity will lie in how well they go and do what he advises.

He prefaced his message by saying that his contributions would put a little fuel in the bus, and continued,

“You don’t want to just be on the bus. You want to own it and drive it and pick up as many people as you can… [by your doing so, the United States become a place where access to education is determined by] “the fierceness of your intellect…Be intentional about the words you speak, how you define yourself, the people you spend time with.”

In thinking about Smith’s extraordinary generosity, I was reminded of the Gospel passage in Luke 17, the story about Jesus healing ten lepers who called out to him from the side of the road.  The ten went to show themselves to the priests as he instructed, and they were cured. Only one of them, a Samaritan, returned to thank him.

“Were not all ten cleansed?” Jesus asked. “Where then are the other nine? Was no one found except this foreigner to return and give glory to God?”

Then Jesus said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well!”

Let me suggest that these newly-minted Morehouse graduates will show their own gratitude, will become like this Samaritan and be truly well, if they heed what Mr. Smith says. Then will his gift’s benefits multiply without end; it will become, as I’m sure he hopes, a gift to the country that was so good to him.  It’s up to them now.

 

Ms. von Furstenberg

The fruits of Ms von Furstenberg’s charitable endeavors will go to a much broader audience.

Somewhere between three and four million people visit the Statue of Liberty every year.  The expanded museum will, in the words of a Wall Street Journal editorial, give those visitors “a richer insight into the beacon of freedom’s place in American history and culture.”

In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar magazine, she suggested that Lady Liberty is a reminder to all people of the friendships between nations. Not necessarily, she adds, friendship between the governments of nations:

“…not their leaders, their people. The Statue of Liberty was given to us by the people of France to commemorate the centennial of the American Revolution at a time when they were disappointed by their own political situation. The French Revolution started not long after the American Revolution, but the result was very different: the Terror, and then Napoléon and the Second Empire. So the French looked to America as this utopic democracy.”

As to why she agreed to chair the fund-raising drive and to use her connections to the world’s rich and famous, von Furstenberg points to a passage in her own book about her life. That passage quoted her mother: “God has saved my life so that I can give you life. By giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch, my flag of freedom.”

“…I was lucky and privileged to become the woman I wanted to be. Now that I’m older, I would like to spend the rest of my life using my voice, my knowledge, my connections—anything I have—to help all women become the women they want to be.”

So once again, praise and thanks for these two great Americans. Both of them are doing good after having done well; they’re examples of people who have realized the much-clichéd “American Dream.”

To bring up another overly familiar term, are they “giving back?” I must say that I don’t particularly like that way of looking at things.  To me, anyway, it suggests a direct return of a favor, a repayment of a debt, a quid-pro-quo.

Perhaps that’s true here, in a broad sense. They’re giving something back to the country that allowed their talents to blossom and them to earn their fortunes. But I prefer to think of what Mr. Smith and Ms von Furstenberg are doing is simply expressing their gratitude.  It’s gratitude for the opportunity to be the best that each of them could be.

We still don’t see enough of that gratitude nowadays, just as they didn’t see much of it in the biblical times depicted in the gospel of Luke.

So I say again, three times three times three cheers.

Book Review: The Animal’s Companion

May 8, 2019

People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story

By Jacky Collis Harvey

Author Jacky Collis Harvey

When you read a book by Jacky Collis Harvey, you learn a lot. And with the way she writes, deeply researched and with wit and erudtion, you also have fun as you learn.

Bonus: you also get to know Jacky as a person, because she puts so much of herself into her books. Reading her is like a leisurely date with a new, intriguing friend at the Dog and Duck, or maybe afternoon tea at the Savoy.   When you’re in such a setting with an interesting woman, the best thing to do is to sit back, let her do the talking, drink it all in, and go home wiser and happier.

Jacky’s first book, reviewed here, was Red: A History of the Redhead. There’s no need to tell you the color of her hair, which placed the chip on her shoulder and the flash in her eye.

Her newest work is The Animal’s Companion: People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story.  Ms Collis Harvey is one such companion. She loves animals. With passion and appreciation.  She prepares the reader for what’s coming when she writes, in the introductory chapter,

“As I look back, all of the most important lessons in my life were taught by animals: the realities of love and loss and the impenetrability of death, which could take a warm, breathing living flank and overnight turn it into something lifeless, cold and solid; the imperatives of sex; the largeness of care and responsibility…Growing up a redhead made me bold; but it was growing up with animals that made a liberal out of me.”

Okay, Jacky, so tell me more about yourself and those animal friends.

Here’s one passage that I loved; I felt myself shivering in the cold right alongside the author, and feeling her primal fear:

“…if you are a woman. The psychological effect of walking with a big dog padding along obediently beside you is intoxicating. The world opens up, no matter how timid by nature you may be yourself…Fergus, my wolfhound, and I used to set off into the murk of winter fields and winter evenings without hesitation. And then one particular evening, he off his leash and me holding a flashlight rather than a burning brand, Fergus saw something at the side of the fields that caused a growl to rise from within his chest that was both the deepest and most horripilating sound I have ever heard an animal produce. It was like listening to the ominous drawing-back of the sea before the crash of some terrible wave. My own hackles were up at the sound of it, never mind his. My nerve ends soaked with adrenaline in nanoseconds – the kind of atavistic response you forget the human body is still capable of producing.”

Later on in the book, after telling about the ways that literary and historical luminaries, like Samuel Pepys, King John, Plutarch, Elizabeth Barrett and Alexandre Dumas cared for animals, she relates how she unhesitatingly ponied up £3,000 for emergency medical care for her cat, Miss Puss. The cat made it and lived another seven years, though it cost what she said was “more money than we had in the world” at that point.  In declaring that the little creature’s emotional value to her was far beyond any vet’s bill, she speaks for just about all people who have pets of their own.

Each of the book’s chapters deals with a different theme in the life of humans who love animals: Finding, Choosing, Fashioning, Naming, Communicating, Connecting, Caring, Losing, and Imagining. Her own anecdotes, observations, and philosophical musings crop up frequently, but not so much that the book seems to be about her. She strikes a nice balance and re-introduces the reader to many familiar names of animal lovers from history, literature and art.

The 26,000 years in the book’s subtitle refers to the approximate age of the fossilized footprints of a boy and his dog in the Chauvet cave, rediscovered in France by archaeologists in 1995. That, the author maintains, is the oldest known evidence of a human as an animal’s companion.

Federico Gonzaga: “notoriously bad husband material.”

That’s a great answer for Final Jeopardy, so keep it in mind. But more amusing, and an example of Collis Harvey’s fine eye for history that we can relate to, is the story behind Titian’s painting of Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Federico was on the make and targeting Margherita, heiress to the Marquis of Monferrato. Problem was, as Collis Harvey relates, the Gonzagas were “notoriously bad husband material,” and the heiress was hesitating.

So what to do? Commission a painting of yourself with a cute, fluffy little dog, looking longingly up at you while extending a supplicating paw. The little dog is there “to say that she has nothing to worry about, that as a husband Federico will be both faithful and protective…to reinforce the message that he was benevolent and trustworthy, neither of which in fact was true.”

Readers also hear from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Renoir, the Book of Job, Alfred Hitchcock, Friedrich Engels, A.A. Milne, William Blake, Lord Byron, and Horace Walpole.  All in all, this book is a delightful romp through the ages. It even feels that you’re taking that romp in the company of your own beloved pet. Several times along the way I felt the presence of my sweet golden retriever Molly, who’s been gone from this earth for more than a decade.

Yes, we do learn great life lessons from our dealings with animal friends. Those intertwining lives can also bring broader lessons for society as a whole. In the final chapter, after discussing animals’ rights and reminding readers of Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering writings on the rights of women, Collis Harvey muses,

“What was once, in its demand for equality and respect, the cutting edge of social change is now a given across most of the planet (and will get all the way there too)…We are coming to recognize that we cannot claim rights without also granting them; not insist upon them for ourselves without acknowledging them for others.”

Good thought. Good lesson. Good book.