“All Honor to Jefferson”

The author of American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People and editor of The Essential Jefferson, Jean Yarbrough recently delivered a speech to dedicate a statue of Thomas Jefferson erected recently on the campus of Hillsdale College.

It is one of the wonders of the modern political world that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Unaware that the “Sage of Monticello” had died earlier in the day, the crusty Adams, as he felt his own life slipping away, uttered his last words, “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” And so he does. Today, as we dedicate this marvelous statue of our third President, and place him in the company of George Washington, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher on Hillsdale’s Liberty Walk, soon to be joined by Abraham Lincoln, it is fitting to reflect on what of Thomas Jefferson still lives. What is it that we honor him for here today? Without question, pride of place must go to Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence. That document established Jefferson as one of America’s great political poets, second only to Abraham Lincoln. And fittingly, it was Lincoln himself who recognized the signal importance of its first two paragraphs when he wrote: “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” where it continues to stand as “a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”

Click here to read “All Honor to Jefferson”


Two Cheers for Henry Hudson

By Marc Mappen

The 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River is coming up this fall, and there will be celebratory events in New Jersey and New York, states which share the lower part of the River as a boundary.  But the 400th anniversary hoopla will not be anywhere near as extravagant and extensive as it was at the 300th anniversary in 1909.  Back then, two weeks of activity were planned for New York state, including religious services, parades, school essay contests, poetry, dedication of parks and memorials, fireworks, and a “monster naval parade” of ships up and down the river.

Why has the enthusiasm faded?  Probably because the early European explorers of the New World are held in less regard these days than they once were. Americans have become more sensitive to the fate that befell the Native Americans after the European discovery.  Matter of fact the whole concept of “discovery” has fallen into disrepute, since the Americas were already populated by millions of Indians long before the Europeans arrived. To understand the Indian perspective on this, how would you feel if Martians invaders landed in a flying saucer, wiped out a major proportion of the human population by spreading disease, confiscated the land we live on, and proclaimed they had discovered planet Earth.

It is still possible to admire the boldness of Henry Hudson.  He was an experienced English sea captain who was hired by the Dutch East India Company to search for a seagoing shortcut to China.  Hudson’s ship was the Halve Maen (Dutch for Half Moon), and was manned by a crew of Dutch and English sailors.  The ship left Holland on April 4, 1609, and proceeded to the far northern reaches of Russia to search for a northeast passage.  But Hudson could find no such route, so he changed course and sailed to North America to see what he could discover. Sailing along the east coast, Captain Hudson and his crew briefly explored Delaware Bay, and then journeyed north up Jersey shore.  One of Hudson’s officers was Robert Juet, who kept a journal in which described the territory that would one day become New Jersey as “a very good Land to fall with and a pleasant Land to see.”  For those words, one 20th century historian credited Juet with being the first Jersey shore publicist.  The Half Moon then entered the vast New Jersey – New York harbor, where on September 3 the captain and his crew found a broad river heading north into the interior, which Hudson thought might lead to the long sought northwest passage.

The trip up and down this mighty river took a month.  Once again Hudson did not a find a passage to China because there was none to find.  The Half Moon did encounter Indians, with whom the crew offered beads, knives, and other kinds of cheap goods in exchange for tobacco, beans, corn, and the furry pelts of beavers and otters. But all was not well. Said Juet about the Indians:  “The people comming aboord, shewed us great friendship, but we could not trust them.”  One of Hudson’s crewmen exploring at a distance from the ship in a small boat was killed by an Indian arrow in the neck and buried on Sandy Hook.  Days later Indians in canoes and on shore fired arrows at the ship while the crew members shot back with muskets and the ship’s small cannon; about ten Indians were killed in this skirmish.  It was an early chapter in a saga of hostility that was to last for many generations to come.

When Hudson returned to Europe after more than half a year at sea, his Dutch masters were disappointed he had not discovered any shortcut to China.  But they saw an opportunity to establish a money making colony in North America fueled by the lucrative fur trade that provided hats and clothing for Europe.  Fifty-five years after Hudson’s voyage, the New Netherland colony was conquered by Great Britain and divided up into colonies, which as a result of the American Revolution of 1776 became states in the New American nation.  One of those states was our own New Jersey.

Hudson did not live to see any of this.  The year after exploring the river that bears his name he was once again sailing the ocean looking for a northwest passage, this time traveling up toward the Arctic fringe of North America.  Hudson, for all his admirable qualities had one fatal flaw — he was really mean to his crew.  This is a dangerous characteristic if you and your crew are on a small ship threading your way though icy waters with not enough food, thousands of miles away from European civilization.  They crew mutinied, seized their captain, and put him in a boat with those crew members who remained loyal to him.  Hudson was never heard from again and presumably perished of starvation or freezing.

It was a sad fate for the great seafarer Hudson, whose name is commemorated not only by the river he explored, but by a New Jersey county as well.

Dr. Marc Mappen is the executive director of the New Jersey Historical Commission and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of New Jersey.

Sin and Conservatism

By Michael P. Riccards

We all know the vocalizations about the “culture wars,”a phrase that goes back to Bismarck in Germany and more recently to conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan. The implications today are that there are two blocks of people with very different views of the importance of the so called American social issues. There are the coastal liberals who support gays, abortion, feminism, pornography, and loose living. Posed against them are the heartland and southern conservatives who prize Christian fundamentalism, family values, and restricted government welfare.

The recent revelations in the family lives of so many conservative clergymen and conservative, usually Republican, politicians has added to the complexity of belief. This situation underscores the overall power of hypocrisy, especially when sexual behavior is involved. The usual answer is to deplore the pleasures of the flesh, and note the ever hovering presence of sin and the Great Deceiver.

But Benjamin Edelman of Harvard Business School and New York Times’ Charles M. Blow have given us a very different view of the culture battle field. Most recent studies show that divorce rates are highest in states that John McCain carried: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Idaho, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Only Nevada which went for Obama makes the top group. Liberal New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts are actually at the bottom of the list. So those who so vigorously support family values have real problems with long lasting monogamous relationships.

The federal government has been committed to the advocacy of chastity among teenagers, rather than sex education or the easy availability of condoms to the young. If only we would discourage premarital sex, then the strong urges of the young could be tamed, especially with the right curriculum. People committed to chastity and abstaining are showing their adherence to family values once again. The problem is that those urges and the lack of preventive measures mean very high teenage birthrates especially in conservative Republican states:

Mississippi, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, South Carolina. Only New Mexico and Nevada which were carried by Obama are in the high teenage pregnancy list. Liberal New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are among the lowest rates.

The Edelman study also explores which states have the highest subscriptions to on line pornographic sites. Once again the conservative, Republican states come out far ahead: Utah, Alaska, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Dakota, Louisiana, West Virginal, Maine.  The states of Hawaii and Florida, both Obama territories, are also in that list. Once again liberal New Jersey is in the bottom group of users.

So it appears that there is a very different America behind closed doors. Our preachers preach about fire and brimstone, but we are rather permissive in our personal habits. We want the other person to be moral, straight laced, contained in their behavior. But we do not adhere to those restrictions in our personal lives. We cheer at the conservative meetings and political conventions and the supporters of family values, but neither they nor their adherents really exhibit such fidelity. It is not that those values are not to be respected; it is just that there probably should be more of an honest understanding of that area between what we do and what we truly believe. Sometimes, it appears that we are saying with St. Augustine—Lord, make me pure….but not right now.

It also should be clear that conservative clergymen and conservative politicians now use the morality card the same way that they used to play the anti-Communist card in the 1950s. It is simply a cynical ploy to win elections and garner votes, not a real commitment to the values of middle class America. Or maybe the values of middle class America have changed, and the states, once held in happy repression, are breaking out with a vengeance.

Review: “A Play on Words”

“A Play on Words” is currently playing with a collection of other American plays, off Broadway at 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY.

They who well consider the history of similar divisions and confederacies will find abundant reason to apprehend that those in contemplation would in no other sense be neighbors than as they would be borderers; that they would neither love nor trust one another, but on the contrary would be a prey to discord, jealousy, and mutual injuries; in short, that they would place us exactly in the situations in which some nations doubtless wish to see us, viz., formidable only to each other. (Federalist 5)

What do you call it when two friends, only neighbors, really “borderers,” meet together in a backyard to argue for hours about whether semantic arguments are futile, despite the obvious fact that by way of their arguing, an argument about semantics is what they’ve had? And if semantic arguments are useful, if Rusty (Mark Boyett) is right, what does either of these “friends” stand to gain? Some rhetoric from Max (Brian Dykstra, the playwright) who accuses Rusty of over philosophizing, goes something like: you would argue to the death—to the death […] I don’t know how you even get out of your own way in the morning long enough to have breakfast! Indeed, beneath the quick firing and hilarious debate a question persists: why so passionate about words?

The scene itself is not so foreign to us. Rusty and Max could be any two know-it-alls in any suburban backyard insisting on any number of ridiculous counterfactuals and factoids which evoke in us questions such as, “did the Nazi’s really have a stealth fighter jet?”, “is Walt Disney’s head really frozen?”, “how many continents are there really?”,“are hot dogs made from horses?” (no, no, seven, still, and perhaps, but I still wouldn’t eat them either way because they are full to the bun (debatably) with carcinogens and (not so debatably) with fat). Similarly, Max and Rusty spar about whether interjections like “what’s the story” transmit more meaning than more obvious interjections like “hey.” Rusty, at one point, constructs the amusing “entomology” of the word “hang” as it appears in the phrase “I don’t give a hang,” a possible reference, he claims, to the long ago lost practice of hanging moose heads and similar wall hangings on the walls of friends and acquaintances. Actually, the OED traces this particular usage of “hang” to the mid to late 19th century, approximately 1861 when it became a synonym for “damn.” To “not give a hang” is essentially to “not give a damn,” though the evolution from damn to hang is still not entirely clear. Perhaps the particular syntactic use of “hang” as “damn” evolved from semantically similar expressions which grew up in the 16th century and used “hanged” in anger or impatience to mean cursed or damned as in, “I’ll be hanged,” or, “Hangyd be he that this toun yelde, To Crystene men, whyl he may leve!” (Coer de L. 4414 in OED).

When internet browsing is not convenient, a rarefying situation these days, we know the feeling of heated debate over seemingly pointless subjects. But why do we go so far when internet browsers are out of reach? All that is at stake, after all, is the meaning of a word. Isn’t it?

A tribute to the importance of words, Max has undertaken the project of brainstorming and inscribing two diametrically and politically offensive slogans onto either side of a piece of cardboard. Enlisting Rusty in his project, he explains that the cardboard slogans are supposed to antagonize to anger, or violence, the two bordering rallies of democrats and republicans. Rusty agrees with Max on the sign’s violent effect, though on the meaning of the violence the two activists diverge.

Though Rusty and Max seem to have no problem with language as they compose two perfectly provocative political phrases for the sign, one gem being “abort Christian fetuses,” neither can seem to agree with the other on the sign’s actual function. Is the sign an unapparent symbol for unity and for the dissolution of political differences? Could it be a nihilistic tribute to the epistemic failure of language and human understanding, a single sign that literally signifies a contradiction between two opposing messages? With this in mind, Rusty applauds Max for the “extreme neutral position” that his sign represents. Max frowns on Rusty’s reading and insists instead that the sign may literally be a sign to which both crowds will be violently drawn for the purpose of beating its holder and everyone else in the bordering rally to a red and blue pulp. Max suggests that in some sense the meaning will follow in the aftermath of the extremist political gesture.

There is sovereignty to lose in an argument about words. But such arguments are not always as simple as those over the meaning of all “men”, or “natural rights.” In an absolute monarchy, the power to make decisions was owned by one person, the monarch. Decision and sovereignty are, in such a situation, inseparable. However, in a constitutional democracy the monarch, in this case the elected executive, is beholden to a set of constitutional tenets. Some theorists think of this document to be kind of like a key, ground away by the opinions of the people until it fits. When a situation arises that over reaches the language of the document, this is called the exception. In a constitutional democracy with a congress installed, discussion becomes the decider. To iterate, when discussion is synonymous with decision, interpretation then becomes a sovereign act.

Some political theorists have argued that, despite our American belief to the contrary, the interpretation and the creation of law is not a reflection of the will of the people.

Our belief is one that evokes in us the image of the Jeffersonian republic, of churning crowds all coalescing into multifarious interests for the ultimate purpose of influencing the decision through the numbers and majority of their opinions. But the true nature of American politics is increasingly positivist, that is, based upon empirical kinds of observation and independent of metaphysics. The new liberal conditions of interpretation demand in this way a separation of politics from decision, a heavier reliance on empirical evidence and the arbitration of science to corroborate in the decisions of the state. The enlightenment myth which predicates the infallibility of empirical science, in this account, supplants the traditional political gesturing of politicians and the political conscience of the people.

The notion that science slowly assumes the role of the decider is only one view of American politics, though it seems to work very well with this play. When Max and Rusty’s seemingly endless argument is finally decided by the admission of a newspaper, it is not only the present but all debates seem to end.

Max leaving the stage, in a nihilistic huff after having based one of his assumptions on an editorial mistake, marks the passing of the day of the political rally. “Fuck it,” Max says. Literally, the day of direct action is passed and the new liberal democracy is proven the victor. “Hey,” Rusty interjects and waits as Max disappears from the stage. His interjection is pregnant with meaning, with the lonliness of the discussionless silence. It is a moment reminiscent of Beckett’s Hamm beckoning after his Clov—uncertain.

Life Challenges

By Michael P. Riccards

There is increasing sensitivity on the part of religiously oriented Americans to what they perceive as a hostile world around them. Perhaps the world is not as hostile as they think, just indifferent. And if so, they should use their religion to give them meaning. Those culture wars are raging in the United States especially during periods of religious revivalism.

But it makes more sense to try and see what the opposing forces are that so threaten people of faith. One such answer is from a Father Val Peter who was for a long period of time the executive director of Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska. He has argued that we face seven great challenges:

1. Diminished respect for authority
2. The widespread belief that one is free to experience everything
3. Cynicism
4. Mistaken ideological beliefs
5. Learned helplessness
6. Anti- intellectualism
7. Political correctness

Interestingly, he defines “learned helplessnesss” as the view that there is nothing we can do to make things better. He sees “mistaken ideology” as everything from totalitarianism, to MTV, and terrorism—a rather broad area with certainly different definitions of ideology.

One may disagree with Peter’s analysis, but he has tried to explore the sources of challenge and discontent that are so frequently spoken of, but not specified. Of course, for so many fundamentalists the real problem is the decline in authority, especially the decline in the church and the view that the Scriptures are true guides for life.

As I listen to discussions about our secular society more and more, I am confused. What are we talking about and how is it prevailing? Does it mean that we are a consumer society, riveted by greed? Or that we like our big screen televisions, and if so does that mean that we are devoid of values? Maybe it just means that we like television. What we see on television is up to us. It is also hard to tell people, in the midst of the worse recession that we have experienced in two generations, that we should not be interested in the material things of life. Recently, a clergyman told me that the collapse of the stock market showed that our true treasures are stored up in heaven. Then two weeks later he sent out a letter to the congregation saying expenses in the parish had increased markedly and so we should increase our giving.

Sometimes when I listen to these professional men of the sack cloth, I think that we are too hard on ourselves. We are a pretty good people, even if we do not at times show a respect for authority.

Prayer and the Public Arena

By Michael Riccards

I pray.  Yes, you have read it here. I pray for family, friends, people I have never met, for intercessions, for special intentions, and in thanksgiving.  Prayers are special communications with God and/or saintly people asking them to honor one’s petitions.  So I have nothing against prayer in general.  And I don’t make fun of the idea that with 6 or 7 or 8 billion people on this planet, some Almighty Being cares about my needs.  I just accept it, and move on from there.

So you will now feel less uncomfortable with my deep reservations about National Prayer Day.  The notion of a national prayer day is an old idea. President Thomas Jefferson rejected the call for such observations saying that it was inappropriate for a civil magistrate to be mandating such religious observations.  But President Harry Truman, in the midst of the Cold War against atheistic communism, decided to declare such a remembrance, and conservative Ronald Reagan and George Bush II got maximum political advantage out of it.  Now President Obama simply acknowledged it, but did not turn the White House over to the fundamentalists as Bush did.

Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey issued a proclamation, and about 50 people showed up in front of the state house to fight the forces of secularism and relativism on a rainy day. They were mainly Protestant fundamentalists who spoke about the spiritual state of the state, scriptures in the schools, the high court, cabinet and Congress, black genocide, the media, youth, the military, peace in the Mideast, children, state government, cultural assaults on the family, the economy, Spanish ministry, business, the restoration of the nation, and police and fire fighters.

I feel uneasy in appropriating prayer day and praying in a civil observance.  First, prayer should be a very personal and special call to God, and not a rallying cry for my political agenda.  Second, it is not the purpose of the president or the governor to mandate that I “pray for […].”  That really is none of their business.  But it does not mean that religious beliefs do not influence what people do in politics, or what they say on high occasions.

Nor am I making an observation about this being a multi cultural, multi- religious society—although it surely is and has become more so lately.  I don’t just pray in church, but often by myself…but that is really my business, and not that of the government or its elected officials.  If they pray, I guess that is good, but I am more likely to judge them by how they make important decisions than how many hours they spend at prayer ceremonies, beating their breasts in front of others, for it is only your Father who knows your heart.

I also think that prayer in the public arena lends itself to clergy using religion to push their own agendas.  I could not notice without disdain how the National Catholic Prayer Service turned into an anti-Obama rally, featuring reactionary justice Antonio Scalia and the extremist bishop of St. Louis who has decided to chastise Catholics for voting for Democrats.

That is the problem with the fusion of church and state. In the end they both grow weaker and more vulnerable.  Jefferson was right—there should be a wall of separation which in turn protects them both.  Bishops and ministers who preach the politics of division are as bad as presidents who use the Bible to perpetuate anti Moslem stereotypes.

Charting A Moral Stance


Some forty years after Vatican II, Catholic newspapers are still plagued by the question in letters to the editor as to whether there is salvation outside the Church. Usually it is laypeople who insist that only their own co-believers can reach salvation or can benefit from Christ’s redemption. This preoccupation with other people’s spiritual life is becoming almost compulsive in the Church. And it is reaching a heightened sensibility among the American bishops who have become virtual employees of the Republican party, actually encouraging if not demanding that “moral Catholics” had to vote against Obama. When a majority of Catholics supported the Democrats, the bishops were stunned. One said it was an example of self interest winning out over social morality that is people were more concerned about jobs and security than abortion, stem cell research and gay marriages. The bishops have turned against the president, even though the most liberal state abortion law in the country was signed by then Republican Governor Ronald Reagan in California. When Notre Dame University invited Reagan back, and made a big celebration marking the anniversary of the film about Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, not a single bishop rebelled at the invitation. Now right wing Catholics have deluged that University for inviting Obama and giving him an honorary degree. The Church and other fundamentalist groups are creating all sorts of delays over the secretary designate of Health and Human Services because she is a Catholic and yet favors the right to choose. When Clinton nominated for the same post, Donna Shalala, a nominal Catholic who favored the right to choose, no opposition was forthcoming. The bishops just seem to have it in for Obama.

In order to make it up the Church’s career ladder, priests must toe the narrow line of the restoration popes—John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They wish to restore the Church as it was, before Vatican II. Actually Pius XII was more liberal than these devotees of the past. What is troubling the hierarchy, especially in the Curia, is the notion that the Western world is becoming increasingly secular. The reasons are rampant consumerism, atheism, and philosophical indifference. Even once orthodox Catholic countries like Ireland, Spain, and Poland are moving in those directions, it is alleged. But the real reason is the Church is less relevant. Because priests have to pass so many litmus tests to become bishops they are increasingly out of touch with their parishes and dioceses. The major Catholic television and radio network, EWTN, is to the right of Opus Dei which sees heresy in the least doctrinal deviation.

But the real threat is conscience, the right of people to make up their own minds—a right upheld by Vatican II and by St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the medieval Church. Now the Gallup foundation is showing that fewer Catholics in the United States believe in the Catholic hierarchy’s position on a number of moral issues than do non-Catholics! Even with regular church going Catholics, 24 percent of them find abortion morally acceptable, 53 percent find embryonic stem cell research acceptable, 53 percent approve of premarital sex, and 48 percent felt that having a baby out of wedlock is acceptable. The response of orthodox commentators is that there is obviously a “failure to catechize.” One must re-examine one’s conscience—that is re examine it until one reaches the same conclusion as the hierarchy.

Recently, convert Tony Blair in England noted that Catholics as a group do not have the anti-homosexual views of the Holy See, and he urged the pope to re-examine his position. One spokesman for the Vatican has said the pope is not anti-homosexual. It is just that homosexuals are inherently disordered. Gosh, why would they take umbrage at that characterization? The response of one commentator, George Weigel, is that Blair was improperly catechized before he was admitted to the Church. There it is, that word again. And he blames the bishop of Westminster in England for Blair’s ignorance.

A good friend of mine was pastor of a church that had a banner over its door—“Welcome to All.” I told him that he should add “Except gays, divorced, those engaged in contraception etc.” I preferred the banner over a Catholic church door in Washington DC—“Welcome all sinners.” In any case, I think the right to conscience is in good shape in America, and although we may be commercial and worldly, we are still spiritual and humanitarian. And that is pretty good.