Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

History I Never Knew: “Dixie”

November 19, 2017

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904)

It was a cold and rainy evening in New York, back in 1859, and Daniel Decatur Emmet was feeling lousy.  The Ohio-born Emmet, an abolitionist and a songwriter for minstrel shows, was warming himself by the wood stove and wishing he were somewhere else – preferably someplace that was warm, like the states of the American South.

Legend has that his wife sympathetically suggested, “Well, why don’t you write a song about it?”

A good idea, especially because Emmett had recently been hired by a company named Bryant’s Minstrels, and he had to come up with a new song, a “walkaround” for the minstrel show, within a couple of days.

Emmet sat down and wrote, “I wish I was in the land of cotton…”

Bryant’s Minstrels premiered “Dixie” on April 4, 1959. It was the second-to-last song in the show, billed as a “plantation song and dance” and placed there because they didn’t think it was going to be good enough to serve as the show’s finale. They were wrong. It was an immediate smash hit, as soon became the standard closing number for the Bryan minstrel shows.

You know what happened. “Dixie” became the anthem and rallying song of the Confederacy. It was played at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis and by General Pickett before his disastrous charge at Gettysburg.

But the song also was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln. It was played at many of his campaign rallies for the 1860 election.

Not all Southerners liked it because they knew of its Yankee origin. They inserted lyrics of their own to make it more martial, such as “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand / To live and die in Dixie.”

In 1861, a Swiss-American Confederate propagandist named Henry Hotze wrote,

“It is marvellous with what wild-fire rapidity this tune “Dixie” has spread over the whole South. Considered as an intolerable nuisance when first the streets re-echoed it from the repertoire of wandering minstrels, it now bids fair to become the musical symbol of a new nationality, and we shall be fortunate if it does not impose its very name on our country.”

Emmet, the abolitionist, expressed regret for not having worked a little harder on the song’s original composition after he saw what a success it was. He also regretted that it became the Confederate Anthem. And he never made much money from it. Had he not sold it outright for $300 to Firth, Pond and Company in 1861, he could have lived a life of luxury on the royalties.

On April 10, 1865, one day after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, Lincoln addressed a White House crowd:

“I propose now closing up by requesting you play a certain piece of music or a tune. I thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I ever heard … I had heard that our adversaries over the way had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it … I presented the question to the Attorney-General, and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize … I ask the Band to give us a good turn upon it.”

This was one way in which Lincoln showed his willingness to be conciliatory to the South – to “bind up the nation’s wounds” – and allow formerly rebellious Americans to rejoin the Union.

So next time you visit a Waffle House, remember:

“There’s buckwheat cakes and Injun batter,

Makes you fat or a little fatter.

Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.”

And there you have it. A song that, nowadays, is seen as hateful, racist and discriminatory was written by a man who was committed to the abolition of slavery. It was also a favorite of the man who freed the slaves.

And now you know the rest of the story.

A Keeper from the Annals of Sports Writing

January 22, 2016

CricketAthletes can be the most interesting of people. That’s why I like writing about them. There’s almost always a good story behind the development of their talent, their victories and defeats, and “what it all means” to them. There are very few athletes and coaches who are thoroughly bad apples. I tend to write with sympathy and empathy about most sports personalities – or at least I try to.

That said, I value “objectivity” in the coverage of teams and the description of contests. Excessive shilling and one-sided, polemical writing are repulsive; and Lord knows, we have enough of that in the coverage of politics and business.

I simply must share with you the following passage cited by American journalist Edwin Newman in his book “Strictly Speaking.” It is by an Australian sports writer who traveled to the UK with his nation’s cricket team back in the sixties or thereabouts.

The writer took umbrage at the British sportswriters’ personal attacks on the lads he was covering, even as he properly critiqued the team’s play. I like this guy’s attitude. Keep this in mind the next time an investigative sports journalist trumpets a scoop about some Patriot’s peccadillo or Bruin’s blunder.

“As an old cricketer, I am a bit of a fogey when it comes to the privacy of dressing rooms, which belong exclusively to the players, and I purposely have not stayed in the same hotels as the Australians. If players on a tour as long as this want to let their hair down occasionally, they are entitled to do so in privacy and it would be more than odd if fit-to-busting young athletes did not want to go on the rampage occasionally with a few drinks and songs.

“Cricketers of any country are no parlour saints. The Australians did not emerge with flying colours from Scotland and Northampton. They were careless in their approach to both games and at Northampton apparently offended the shop steward of the waitresses by helping themselves to cheese and biscuits.

“Manager Ray Steel, a splendid manager with discipline but no stuffiness, dressed them down in no uncertain terms over their playing approach. He did not mention the cheese and biscuits.

“My hackles rise when I think they are criticized unfairly and it often strikes me as odd how the bare one or two, who were possibly no plaster saints on the field themselves, are so eager to dip their pens in vitriol against the Australians. You would think we are not of the same stick.

“Once again, I say I am proud of these young Australians, even if they do not ask for the biscuits and cheese to be passed. “

It is what it is, and that’s telling it like it is. Good on ya, Mate.

History I Never Knew – EEEWWW! The origin of vinaigrette, and the real lives of our stinky ancestors.

April 3, 2015

I usually order vinaigrette salad dressing when I go to a restaurant. I think I’ll go back to Greek, now that I know where the term “vinaigrette” came from.

Vinaigrette Box

Vinaigrette Box

Back in Victorian times – think the 75 years or so before the era of “Downton Abbey” – fashionable ladies carried their vinaigrette everywhere. Depicted here, the vinaigrette was a little perforated box filled with aromatic herbs and a vinegar-soaked sponge. It was handy for sniffing in times of “olfactory distress.” The ladies’ attendants also found the vinaigrette handy in reviving their mistress after she had swooned and fainted for one reason or another.

Apparently, there were plenty of occasions of olfactory distress back in those days. A great deal of the ladies’ fainting must have been caused by the relentless assaults of offensive aromas.

According to “The Royal Armpits” in the latest issue of Mental Floss magazine, our forerunners stank. To high heaven, they stank. The article’s subhead wryly points out,  “We should be thankful they don’t make history books scratch n’ sniff.”

So how bad was it? Hard to imagine, but it started ‘way back before the Victoria era. People in those days thought that baths caused disease by opening the pores and allowing diseases to invade the body – the exact opposite of what happens.


Elizabeth I - never had the luxury of Dove Body Wash.

Elizabeth I – never had the luxury of Dove Body Wash.

Queen Elizabeth I once stated that she “took a bath once a month, whether I need to or not.” Henry VIII had a foul-smelling, festering wound on his lower leg; you could get a whiff of it from three rooms away. The royal doctors made it worse by tying the wound open, thinking that the sore needed to run in order to heal. They even sprinkled gold pellets onto it, keeping it infected and putrefying.

Over in La Belle France, Louis XIV, “The Sun King,” had such bad breath that his mistress doused herself in perfume to ward off the stench. His predecessor, Louis XII, once declared, “I take after my father. I smell of armpits.”

Outside those royal rooms it was just as bad, if not worse. In cities, people would simply toss the products of their bathroom visits out into the street. In 1900, in New York, there were about 200,000 horses within the city. That means a daily output of five million pounds of poop, most of which was just swept to the curb.

Louis Quatorze - could have put Scope or Listerine to mighty good use.

Louis Quatorze – could have put Scope or Listerine to mighty good use.


Wealthy Londoners employed an army of “night soil men” to cart the stuff away. They disposed of it in dumps on the outskirts of the city. One such place – typical British humour – was named “Mount Pleasant.”

The invention of the flush toilet made it even worse. In the summer of 1858, so much human excrement clogged the Thames River that it became known as the year of the “Great Stink.”

There was also the smell of death. In London, butchers killed and disemboweled animals right in the streets. One greedy British pastor sold “burials” to his flock, but didn’t bury the bodies. He stashed 12,000 of them in the church cellar, and the fumes made churchgoers pass out.

Even in churches where the dead had been properly buried, the smell of the people was too much to take. Thomas Aquinas approved the use of incense because the faithful’s odors “can provoke disgust.” In Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the people who bought the tickets in the cheap seats were known as “penny stinkers.”

Yes, I am very glad that our history books are not scratch ‘n sniff. And I have a suggestion for historians.

Let’s revise, once again, those notations that describe calendar eras. “BC” is now “BCE,” and “AD” is now “CE.” I say that we do away with them.

The most accurate way to depict former times is to start back at the beginning. Make the year that Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden “Year One, B.O.”

“Jews and Words” – Book Review and Reflection

February 18, 2015

Jews and WordsDid you ever wonder why the Jewish kids always did the best in high school? Did you also ever wonder how the Jewish people have not only survived but prospered and contributed untold good to humanity, despite centuries of prejudice, ostracism, and persecution?

I always wondered, and I think I know now, after reading “Jews and Words” by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salberger. It’s a tight little 204-page essay by two people who describe themselves as “secular Jewish Israelis.” At the outset, the authors declare who they are and whence they come:

“First, we don’t believe in God. Second, Hebrew is our mother tongue. Third, our Jewish identity is not faith-powered…There is not a religious bone in our bodies.

That’s pretty strong stuff to declare in a book that is, after all, about a people who are identified by their religion. I can’t imagine a Catholic author saying anything similar in a book about his confessional faith. But their ability to utter such words is, as it turns out, a logical conclusion to one of the big differences between Judaism and Catholicism – the infallible guy in Rome.

Near the end of the book, they write, “The Jews never had a pope…Because suppose we did have one, everyone would be slapping him (or her?) on the shoulder, saying that their grandfather knew his grandmother in Plonsk or Casablanca. Two degrees of separation at most. Familiarity, intimacy, contrariness – this is the stuff our communities are made of…Someone will always dissent. Our smoke will never be white. So much for a Jewish Pontiff.”

They earlier stated, “There is a Jewish theology of chutzpah. It resides in the subtle juncture of faith, argumentativeness, and self-targeting humor. It amounts to a uniquely irreverent reverence. Nothing is too holy to deserve the occasional send-off. You can laugh at the rabbi, at Moses, and the angels, and at the Almighty too.”

No, that’s not the way it was for someone who grew up Catholic. But maybe this Jewish approach to things is one of the reasons that I enjoyed being the only goy in attendance at monthly business networking meetings at a temple a few communities distant.

There’s another thing about the Jewish people that this book confirmed for me. I think I had it essentially right, but the book explains why. Before reading it, I had come to believe that one of the greatest sources of Jews’ strength and resiliency was that they remember who they are. I believed that their rituals, their traditions, their religious learning all undergird their collective identity.

The authors seem to agree. They write “Almost all societies have cherished the imperative of intergenerational storytelling. Almost all cultures have glorified the passing of the torch from old to young…But there is a Jewish twist to this universal imperative. …No ancient civilization…can offer a parallel comparable with Judaism’s insistence upon teaching the young and inculcating in them the traditions and customs of their people….Where other cultures left boys in their mothers’ care until they were old enough to pull a plough or wave a sword, Jews started acculturating their youngsters to the ancient narrative as soon as the tots could understand words, at two years old, and read them, often at the ripe age of three. Schooling, in short, began soon after weaning.”

The vessels for all that learning were the written texts. When the Jews went into the Babylonian captivity – and even before that – families understood that they must “act as relays of national memory embedded in written texts.”

So there it is – early literacy and facility with storytelling that gave the Jewish kids a big leg up on their contemporaries once the secular schooling began. No wonder they had so many honor students. And there too is the collective memory of who we are and how we got here. No wonder that the Jewish community has staying power.

That collective memory, those cultural touchstones and common points of reference, it seems to me, are fading away in modern America. It seems like there’s a lot of insubstantial fluff being taught today, mere stuff and nonsense. The Common Core, anyone?

We need a real common core, a cultural canon that every American must experience. A return to close familiarity with the Bible and all it offers would be a giant step back towards the right path.

And spare me, please, the knee-jerk, selective quoting of Tom Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists on the “wall of separation between church and state.” If you insist that the old plantation owner and slave driver’s private writings be the supreme law of the land, then bring in what he had to say about black people in “Notes on the State of Virginia.” You might have second thoughts.

But back to Amos and Fania’s thoughts on the matter. They point out that there are “more Bible-wise atheists in Israel than anywhere else.” And that, too, is an advantage.

They go on to say “Most Western nonbelievers today have not crossed paths with the Bible as a literary text. Unlike Homer, it is not widely taught in schools. Like Twitter, it is handed down in byte-sized chunks…The paradox is clear to an Israeli eye. Today, in many secular societies, religion itself obscures this exquisite work of art from view. The Constitution of the United States helps bar it from public schools, because it is mistaken for a (wholly, solely) religious text. This is a sad cultural loss.”

Can’t agree more with that one.

I’m glad I got this book. It also has a lot of things I never knew about the women of the Bible, about the resurrection of the Hebrew language, and about the delicious brand of humor that is distinctively Jewish.

If you like to read, if you love history, if you want to know why things are as they are, and if you enjoy learning “the rest of the story,” I think you’ll like it too.

Will You Do the Fandango?

June 19, 2014

(Cultural) History I Never Knew:
Scaramouche, Scaramouche. Who is That Guy?

Scaramuccia, also known as Scaramouche or Scaramouch, is a roguish clown character of the commedia dell’arte, which began in 16th-century Italy.

A Royal Doulton mug of Scaramouche

A Royal Doulton mug of Scaramouche

Scaramuccia (literally “skirmish”) wears a black mask and, sometimes, glasses. He entertains the audience by his “grimaces and affected language.” Another such minor character is Coviello, described by painter Salvator Rosa as, (like Scaramouche) “sly, adroit, supple, and conceited”. In Molière’s “The Bourgeois Gentleman,” Coviello disguises his master as a Turk and pretends to speak Turkish. Both Scaramouche and Coviello can be clever or stupid—as the actor sees fit to portray him.

Scaramouche is also one of the iconic characters in the Punch and Judy puppet shows, which have their roots in commedia dell’arte. In some scenarios, Scaramouche is the owner of The Dog, another stock character. During performances, Punch frequently strikes Scaramouche, causing his head to come off his shoulders. Because of this, the term “scaramouche” has become associated with a class of puppets with extendable necks.

The accompanying picture is that of a Royal Doulton mug of Scaramouche.

Many of us who are unfamiliar with Italian comedy or with Punch and Judy first heard of Scaramouche in Bohemian Rhapsody:

“I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning,
Very, very frightening me.
(Galileo) Galileo.
(Galileo) Galileo,
Galileo Figaro

“I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me.
He’s just a poor boy from a poor family,
Spare him his life from this monstrosity.

“Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?
Bismillah! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Bismillah! We will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Bismillah! We will not let you go. (Let me go!)”

The fandango is a lively couples’ dance usually accompanied by guitars, hand claps and castanets.

“Bismillah” is an Arabic word that means “in the name of God.” It is used at the head of almost every chapter in the Koran.

Hey – who said you couldn’t absorb some serious culture by watching “Wayne’s World?”

The Story of the First Anecdote, and Other History I Never Knew

February 24, 2014

The Emperor Justinian

The Emperor Justinian

Justinian the Great was a mighty important guy in the history of the world.

The last Roman Emperor whose native tongue was Latin, he ruled the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 565. His armies reconquered much of the old Roman Empire that had been lost to invading hordes. He rewrote the body of law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law in many countries.

The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

Justinian’s building program included the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which was the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for almost a thousand years. After the Ottomans took over, it became a mosque. Since 1935, it has been a museum.

Like most powerful politicians who tend to their image, Justinian had a historian who crafted fawning, flattering accounts of his exploits. Procopius of Caesarea wrote “The Wars of Justinian” and “The Buildings of Justinian.” Both were published during the emperor’s lifetime. The accomplishments chronicled therein were noteworthy.

The seductive Theodora

The seductive Theodora

However, the military and architectural feasts weren’t the emperor’s whole story. Procopius also wrote “The Secret History.” It contained the really interesting stuff, including unvarnished tales about the often scandalous private lives of Justinian and his seductive wife Theodora. The manuscript remained unpublished until 1623, when it was discovered in the Vatican Library.

The existence of The Secret History had been known earlier. It was mentioned in a 10th Century Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda. In that encyclopedia, the Secret History was referred to by the Greek word “Anekdota,” or in Latin as “Anecdota.” Both of these mean “unpublished writings.”

Procopius of Caesarea

Procopius of Caesarea

The earliest meaning of “anecdote” in English was thus “Secret, private, or hitherto unpublished narratives or details of history.” Only later did the word come to have its present meaning: “The narrative of a detached incident, or of a single event, told as being in itself interesting or striking.”

Justinian and Theodora, perhaps the Western World’s first Power Couple, didn’t have to worry about paparazzi, bloggers, or Facebook. Their naughty antics remained secret for nearly a thousand years. But the first anecdote, starring them, eventually found the light of day.

So, my friend, be careful what you write and what you post, lest you too have your own anecdotes become known to all the world.

Hashing Out the History of the Hashtag

October 28, 2013

The Hashtag - Now Indispensable to Twitter Users

The Hashtag – Now Indispensable to Twitter Users

When you were memorizing your facts back in grade school, did you ever wonder why “lb.” is the abbreviation for “pound?” Makes no sense at all, does it?

And nowadays, do you puzzle over why the robocall operator wants you to hit the “#” symbol on your keypad when she says “press pound?” That doesn’t make much sense either. Are you supposed to bang hard on that little key?

Well, they do make sense after all. Nothing happens without a reason. Here’s the rest of the story.

According to the book Shady Characters by typographical historian Keith Houston, the”#” sign evolved in England during the Middle Ages. Scribes and scrivener-accountants needed an abbreviation for “libra pondo,” which means “a pound by weight.”

They would write “lb” on their documents, and to signify that the term was a contraction, they would append a tilde: ~. Over time, hastily-working record-keepers corrupted “lb~” to “#.”

That’s how the “#” came to be known as the pound sign, but the versatile little symbol has had many other uses as well. Its most recent duty has been as the Twitter hashtag, but it has also meant “number” and “checkmate.”

The symbol’s official name is the “octothorpe.” According to one believable story, it was also used by medieval British cartographers. “Octo” is the Latin prefix for “eight,” while “thorpe” is an old Norse word meaning “field” or “farm.” Thus, if you saw a “#” on one of their maps, you’d know that it was a village surrounded by eight fields.

Roger Maris: 61 Home Runs in 1961

Roger Maris: 61 Home Runs in 1961

And while we’re at it, it’s World Series time, so here’s another. Do you, like me, think that Roger Maris’s brilliant achievement of 61 home runs in 1961 should not by sullied by an asterisk? If so, we can draw a bit of consolation whenever that little “*” shows up. That’s because the asterisk comes from the cuneiform symbol meaning “heaven.”

Roger was a good, clean-living guy. He belted all those homers in an era long before the damnable performance-enhancing drugs arrived. If anybody deserves a place among the baseball deities, it’s Roger Maris. He was a star among stars. Just like you see in the heavens above.

My Old Year’s Resolution: No More “Happy Holidays”

December 3, 2012


We are now in the final month of 2012. As the old year winds down, it’s the “Holiday Season,” which began with our day of Thanksgiving on November 22 and ends on New Year’s Day, January 1. It is a happy and festive time for all of us.

For the rest of this old year, however, I am going to try very hard not to say “Happy Holidays.” Why, may you ask? Patriotism, I reply.

On December 2, the first Sunday of Advent, Christians lighted the first candle of their advent wreath: the candle signifying hope.  Four more candles will follow, in succeeding weeks leading up to Christmas. Saturday evening December 8, our Jewish friends will mark the first of Chanukah’s eight days when they light the shamash , the menorah’s “server” candle, which they will then use to light the other eight candles. Christians are preparing for the birth of their Savior; Jews are commemorating the re-dedication of the temple after fighting to secure their religious freedom.

Advent Wreath

Advent Wreath

The reverence for tradition and the celebratory spirit that we find among Christians and Jews at this time of year should not be, in my opinion, a reverence and spirit that is limited to homes and houses of worship, or shared only with those of one’s same faith.  Rather, it ought to shine forth from every household, burst forth from the hearts and lips of every man and woman in America, whether they practice a religion or not.  These holidays are quintessentially American holidays.

Yes, July 4 is rightfully regarded as America’s biggest day. It celebrates the birth of our nation. But I suggest that the Christmas and Chanukah holidays are just as important. They remind us why the birth of America even took place.

Here is how the Bill of Rights commences: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…” Only after the people’s religious rights and liberties were addressed did the Founding Fathers go on to add freedom of speech, of the press, of the right to peaceably assemble, of the right to petition for redress of grievances.

The longing for religious freedom brought people to America. The securing of the right to that freedom was the very first building block of the Bill of Rights.

This is the time of year that we are – or should be – remembering and celebrating that freedom.  And to me, “Happy Holidays” just does not do an adequate job; it is a bland and artificial substitute that purposely avoids any religious impulse or feeling.   “Merry Christmas,” or “Peace of Christmas,” or “Happy Chanukah” or “Chanukah Sameach” are so much better, and so much more American.

And so, here’s my Old Year’s resolution. For the rest of December I’ll do my best to eschew “Happy Holidays.” But I will be wishing happiness for those I greet, while keeping in mind the blessings we all enjoy in our lives in this great and noble land.  My words of greeting: “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Chanukah.”

“We the People” say “Thank you, Gouverneur”

September 25, 2012

Those mighty opening words!

September 17, 2012 came and went without fanfare. That’s unfortunate. It was the 225th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.  Constitution Day is one of the least-acknowledged events on America’s calendar, and it just shouldn’t be that way.

Don’t take it from me. Let George Washington remind you of how significant the completion and ratification of the Constitution was.  As president, he issued a proclamation – to accompany a resolution of Congress – declaring November 26, 1789 as the first Thanksgiving Day. It was to give “thanks” for the new Constitution.

We should be thankful for it as well, and September 17 of each year should be an occasion of thoughtful and appreciative reminiscence, if not a national holiday.  I’d like to take this occasion to belatedly raise a glass in salute to one of the most unsung heroes of early America, and the most important influence on the final form of United States Constitution, the remarkable Gouverneur Morris.

Our Constitution has a total of 4,440 words. It is the oldest, and the shortest, written Constitution of any major government in the world.  Every word of the Constitution counts, especially “We the People,” the mighty and telling first three words of the Preamble. Those were the words of Morris, the wealthy, womanizing aristocrat from New York. He did much, as one of the Founding Fathers, to help bring forth the new nation.  Those three words were his greatest gift to us all.

Gouverneur Morris: “Penman of the Constitution”

Gouverneur Morris actually disdained democracy.  That word, in fact, does not appear in the Constitution. When Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts remarked, at the Constitutional Convention, that “The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy,” Morris agreed. He thought that only landowners should be allowed to vote; a broad voting franchise would entrench the rich in power, in his view.

The people never act from reason alone,” he said, in one of his 173 speeches – more than anyone else – at the Convention. “The rich will take advantage of their passions and make these the instrument for oppressing them.  Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich, who will be able to buy them.”

So how did that man fashion the enduring document that has secured the rights of all individuals for the past 225 years?  He was on the right side of all the issues that truly mattered. He was an ardent nationalist; he believed that the only hope for survival of the new country was for it to be bound together as one nation, not a confederation of sovereign states. He also hated slavery, and he was a passionate believer in freedom of religion even though he was no churchgoer himself.

As one who writes and edits for a living, I am a big fan of Morris.  My earlier blog post, which you can read by clicking here, recaps his life and career. There’s no need to repeat it.  But since I did that post, I have read Richard Brookheiser’s biography, “Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution.” The book describes how Morris’s skills as a writer and editor brought the Constitution into being.

William Samuel Johnson, Chairman of the “Committee of Stile.” He delegated the committee’s responsibilities well.

Morris was the star performer on the “Committee of Stile,” a group of five men selected by a Committee of Detail to “frame” all of the resolutions that the entire convention had approved.  The chairman of the committee was Dr. William Samuel Johnson, a 60-year old lawyer from Connecticut. The others were Rufus King, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.  Only one could do the writing, though, and they delegated it to Morris.

He completed his redraft in four days. Morris compressed the first draft’s 23 articles into seven.  He followed faithfully all of the resolutions, but his editing eliminated superfluous wording and added clarity and simplicity. Here is just one example, from Article 1, Section 10, in which he reduces the word count from 61 words to 36.

The early draft reads:

“No State, without the consent of the Legislature of the United States, shall…keep troops or ships of war in times of peace…nor engage in any war, unless it shall be actually invaded by enemies, or the danger of invasion be so imminent, so as not to admit of a delay, until the Legislature of the United States shall be consulted.”

Morris’s tightened version reads:

“No State shall, without the consent of Congress…keep Troops or Ships of War in times of peace…or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as to not admit of Delay.”

So it was throughout the redrafting. Though he was a lawyer, Morris avoided the excess verbiage that lawyers seem to love.  His rewording was invariably concise, direct, and clear.

But the Preamble was the one place where he did not have to follow any resolutions. Instead, he wrote it from scratch. Rather, he rewrote it from scratch, and in so doing he made clear for all time that the powers of the government derive ultimately from the people. He also pointed out the purpose of the government that was being formed, which the Committee of Detail had neglected to do.

The Committee of Detail’s version of the preamble went, “We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts…” and so on through Georgia “do ordain, declare, and establish this Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity.”

This wasn’t good enough for Morris. It was, first of all, a roll call of states. It also neglected to say what the ends of the government were, or why it existed in the first place. And you know how he fixed it.

Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts delegate who refused to sign the Constitution.

“We the People of the United States…” begins his preamble. It’s not the 13 states that are the source of legitimacy and power of the government. It’s the people of the entire nation.  This was Gouverneur Morris’s statement of nationalism, and his lasting bequest to us.

Not everybody agreed with the wording. Patrick Henry refused to attend the convention, and wrote “That poor little thing, we the people, instead of the states.”

Just as importantly, Morris wrote why “We the People” are doing it. Earlier drafts and suggestions had had vague and off-point purposes such as “the exigencies of government” and “the common benefit of the States.”  Morris swept them all away with: “In order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The style is poetic even while it remains spare. The subtle rhymes of “insure/secure” and “tranquility/liberty/posterity” along with the alliteration “provide/promote” give the Preamble an appealing and memorable ring.  “We the People” are establishing this government, and here’s why.

The government that Morris and his fellow conventioneers built and secured with that Constitution has endured for more than two centuries.  It will continue as long as “We the People” elect representatives who carry out the mission of the government as stated in the Preamble, who act in the interests of the entire nation. There is no guarantee that we will do that.  Our record over the past several decades is mixed at best.

Most of the framers knew that their finished work was not perfect. After the Convention’s final meeting, the 81-year old Benjamin Franklin, oldest of the signers, was asked by the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia what kind of a government had been formed. His reply was, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

In 1803, Gouverneur Morris wrote to a friend, “In adopting a republican form of government, I not only took it as a man does his wife, for better for worse, but what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all of its bad qualities.

For doing so, and for writing the immortal words that established our sovereign role in this great and lasting enterprise, “We the People” say “Thank you, Gouverneur.”


March 18, 2012


People who like Robert Frost’s poetry have read about it. Our friends up North in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, are living through it.

This is Mud Time. That’s what we call it here. But in over in Russia, it’s Rasputitsa.

That’s the time of year, in both spring and fall, when heavy snow or rain make the unpaved roads of that vast country impassable.  Rasputitsa did much to defend Russia from invading hordes led by Napoleon and Hitler, sucking horses’ hooves, wagon wheels, truck tires, and tank treads into gooey mire.  People of Russia – at least those who’ve been allowed to learn their country’s true history – must have an appreciation for Rasputitsa, even as they hunker down and eat borscht until their roads dry up.

If you think ”Rasputitsa”  sounds like the surname of that shadowy figure Gregory Rasputin, you’re right.  But the word itself probably came from the Russian root “put,” which means “road” or “way.”  A “rasputye” is a place where roads converge. “Rasputitsa” came to mean “muddy road season.”

Some people mistakenly believe that Rasputin’s surname means “licentious.” That’s not true, though the guy who is popularly called “the mad monk” was almost certainly that, in his dealings with women of the Court and elsewhere in St. Petersburg.  A similar Russian word, “rasputny” does carry that meaning, and its noun form, “rasputnik,” describes a man who might be described nowadays as a lecher.

Nicholas II

Rasputin is a common name in Russia. But as for the man himself – he was a mysterious character who held mesmeric sway over Alexis, the hemophiliac son and only male heir of the hapless Czar Nicholas II.

Rasputin arrived in St Petersburg from Siberia around 1905. An itinerant preacher, he had a reputation of being able to heal people through prayer. Doctors of the Imperial Court had been unable to help the lad, who was great grandson of Queen Victoria. Rasputin was able to make Alexis feel better, every time the boy hurt himself or began to bleed. It was probably through some form of hypnosis. He may also have used leeches, and he said to stop using aspirin – a good move because aspirin is an anticoagulant that made matters worse.

The Czar called Rasputin as “our friend” and a “holy man.” The trust that built up for him gave the guy a lot of personal and political influence at the court. Local nobility and the Orthodox Church leaders couldn’t stand him, of course, but had a hard time of it because he became an official of the Czar’s administration.  He was accused of many things – unbridled sexual predation, undue influence over the royal family among them.  These allegations were largely accurate.

Czarina Alexandra, of German-Protestant descent, thought God spoke to her through Rasputin.  Rasputin spoke of salvation as depending less on the clergy and the church than on seeking the spirit of God within. He also claimed that yielding to temptation – which for him meant sex and alcohol – was needed to proceed to repentance and salvation.

During the years of World War I, Rasputin’s drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and willingness to accept bribes and having his critics dismissed from their posts showed what kinds of guy he was.  He became the focus of accusations of unpatriotic influence at court. The unpopular Czarina was accused of spying for Germany.  Rasputin was against the war effort; he claimed that he had a revelation that the Russian armies would not be successful until the Czar personally took command.  The bumbling Nicholas did so, with dire consequences.


While Nicholas was away at the front, Rasputin’s influence over Czarina Alexandra increased. He persuaded her to fill governmental offices with his own handpicked candidates. He also cohabited with upper-class women in exchange for granting political favors.  At that same time, Russia’s economy was declining rapidly. Many people blamed Alexandra and Rasputin. A group of conspirators finally murdered him in December 1916 after several attempts – he had been poisoned, shot, beaten, and finally drowned in an icy river.

You know the rest of the sorry history. Russia withdrew from the war, the Bolsheviks seized power, the Czar abdicated and was eventually murdered in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. There followed nearly a century – and counting – of profound evil, mass murder, plunder, pillage and assorted human tragedy wrought by Lenin, Stalin and so many of their successors.

Gregory Rasputin is a bit player on history’s grand stage. But was he really? Nicholas, the wrong man to come to power at an especially wrong time, probably would have screwed things up anyway.  Still, I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different had the imperial court’s doctors been successful in treating the poor little Czarevitch, and if Gregory Rasputin remained out on the steppes, just conning peasants out of their money and their honor. Rasputin may well have influenced the history of the world much more than he deserved to. We’ll never know.

If this story and era are of interest to you, I recommend Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie. The author also had a hemophiliac son, and he decided to research the story of Russia’s last imperial family. It is a good read.

So next time your car is bogged down in the mud of a northern New England spring, remember that it’s just Rasputitsa.  You’ve got it bad for the moment, but it could be worse. Warm days will come, the roads will dry, and you’ll be on your way to the gorgeous scenic vistas of the Green Mountain and Granite States. They’re worth the effort.

And one final editorial comment. The Ipatiev House, a grand edifice in a backwater town in the Urals, remained standing until 1977 when bozo Russky premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered it destroyed, lest it become a revered place and shrine to the Romanovs.  Like most bad guys throughout history, Brezhnev was a craven coward.  He would have fled from a fistfight with Granny Clampett. But what he most feared was the light of truth.

No matter how painful the truth may be – truth from history or in the present day – we must never fear it.  And we must never cease our search for it.

Truth will set us free. It still has not yet set the people of Russia free. But it may yet – and let us hope it does.