Thursday, April 22, 2010

Profound Effect

The tragedy, for the nation, is that Washington did not act upon his convictions during his lifetime. Had he freed his slaved in 1794 or in 1796, while in office, the effect might have been profound. He would have set the precedent that the chief executive cannot hold slaves. When the question of slavery arose at the Constitutional Convention and later in Congress, South Carolina and Georgia were always adamant in their opposition to any emancipation plan, no matter how long it might have played out nor how the costs might have been defrayed. Those states threatened secession. As Joseph Ellis has pointed out, "perhaps, as some historians have argued, South Carolina and Georgia were bluffing. But the most salient historical fact cannot be avoided: No one stepped forward to call their bluff." Washington the practiced Williamsburg gambler, was the man who could have called the bluff. Jefferson himself said that Washington was "the one man who outweighs them all in influence over the people."
Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 359-360.
What blows my mind about George Washington is the unique position of authority and influence he had. Based upon his own stature, he set forth examples upon which the office of the Presidency still adheres to this day. The power of his influence was beyond question. And yet in one of his deepest personal struggles - that of slavery - he was unable to move beyond politics. He could not make the one decision where his influence was needed most. As a result, he helped contribute to the ugly sin of slavery in America. Profound results take profound efforts. Washington was never able to muster up the courage to do something because his family, his politics, and his opponents were too much for him. We certainly commend the man for the manumission of his slaves in his will. However, in the end it feels like a weak attempt at justice.

How many of us fail when the attempt to make a profound effect comes across our paths? We may never be in a position of influence like Washington, but each of us has a chance to make a true difference in whatever field we are in. If the fear of people forces us to not contend with the internal struggles we have, then we - like Washington - will fail. We must make the most of every opportunity and wield our greatest strength, our influence, to fight for that which is most critical. In the end our lives will either have a profound effect on that which we deem worthy - or we will go to our graves with the hope that someone else will make the change that we ourselves were too weak to fight for.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Pursuit of Status

Virginia planters built up debts they could not repay because they expected, by rights, to live well. They created a consumer society where wealth was made visible in grand houses grandly furnished in a manner the previous generation would have gasped at. In a pattern that future generations would follow, luxuries were redefined as necessities. The pride of the planters demanded that no expense be spared to proclaim their status. British magazines fostered a taste for stylish goods, and Virginia planters followed fads with greater speed and avidity than their richer counterparts in England.
Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 89.
One of the more shocking things when reading about some of the founding fathers is their incessant need to showcase a life of wealth and luxury. The men from Virginia were seemingly the worst - as both Washington & Jefferson were known for their extravagance and incredible debt. Status was so critical, that even when the economy did not support it - debt was taken on to afford a life of indulgence. Pride was seen as more worthy than simplicity and as a result a pattern for living was developed in the United States. If the great and mighty forefathers did it - we should to.

We continue to be haunted by the same sense of need & want that plagued Washington & Jefferson. We believe we need things & we get obsessed with our image. Our standard of living continues to climb even in the face of uncertainty & struggle within our economy. What is visible becomes the measuring stick for how we view others as well as ourselves. As a result, we are left living shallow & inauthentic lives of lavish spending. The culture of the United States is tied into this. To attempt to break free from it - would require major counter-cultural thinking & actions. Which no matter how exciting that might sound, is not likely to happen. Today we are just as stuck as Washington & Jefferson were in their day.

The only option is to be willing to sacrifice our status. To not fit in. To not appeal to the majority. To not live in comfort. To recognize true needs. Counter-cultural. But who's really willing to do that???

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Encounter with Experience

His [George Washington] skills as a surveyor did not go unnoticed by William Fairfax, who dispatched the teenager to the frontier to chart the lands Fairfax was selling to settlers. George's encounter with the frontier shaped him profoundly. In the first place his treks through the wilderness toughened him physically, until he could endure almost any trial brought by terrain or weather. Making his way on foot through the Pennsylvania woods in winter, he journeyed through snow for a week, then tumbled from a raft into an icy river. From all this he emerged intact, whereas his companion came down with frostbite.
Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 60.
Experience is the greatest teacher. It prepares people in ways that no teacher, book, or information source can. Washington was prepared for his future by his experience as a youth. His time spent surveying in the bitter cold helped prepare him for battle during the French & Indian War as well as the American Revolution (think Valley Forge). He was toughened, shaped, and developed by his time on the frontier. Without that experience, it is hard to tell if Washington would have been the man he needed to be later in life.

A lot of times experience is not the most fun. I would rather avoid the times in my life that I feel uncomfortable, upset, frustrated, in pain, or simply waiting for something to happen. Yet it is in my experiences that I have the greatest potential to learn. If I allow myself to be profoundly shaped by them - I will have the greatest chance at contributing great things in the future. Too often I find myself complaining about what I am going through instead of recognizing the great potential of my trials & experiences. I can either use them to learn, grow, and develop OR I can become jaded and cynical about them. Either way I will be shaped for my future. The question thus becomes which of those options is the better one.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Struggle & Achievement

Yet it's hard to look at Moses Brown's long course of struggle and achievement without concluding that his life was a tragic one. He lived to fulfill his destiny as a lawmaker and a moral leader. By dint of determination and perseverance, he'd won many battles in his greatest moral struggle, writing the first laws against slavery and the slave trade, and bringing the malefactors to the bar of justice. He had awakened the social consciousness of his community and engaged the apparatus of the government to secure the demise of the institution of human bondage. But it was all to no avail.
Charles Rappleye, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, The Slave Trade, and The American Revolution, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 343.
When Moses Brown made slavery the central issue of his identity he did so with great risk. After all, most of his contemporary culture stood against his stance. Most Americans, even those uncomfortable with slavery & the slave trade, chose to stand idle and silent on the issue. By making it his identity, Moses was putting himself on the line for his beliefs. If he failed to make a dent, his life inevitably would be deemed a failure. And despite all his efforts & accomplishments - in the end slavers & the slavery continued on past his lifespan.

However, when looking back it is hard to view his life as a failure in my mind. He stood strong for what he believed in and fought valiantly for it. The fact that his own personal brother stood against him and fought against his every move had to sting. Yet he persisted in pushing for more legislation and a stronger cultural stance against the ills of slavery & the slave trade. The laws and legislation he created might have been without power - but that is not to say they had no value. In the face of certain defeat, he still chose to press on. When we choose to fight for the beliefs & values we determine our necessary for culture, we must remember that we may have to stand alone AND we might never accomplish what we desire to. But that should never stop us from putting it all on the line for those beliefs. True defeat only happens when we pessimistically admit defeat & never try.

Moses Brown might have failed to make true change - but his fight for that change is still admired today.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Incapable of Compromise

John respected Moses and cultivated his friendship, but he was never going to allow that consideration to restrict his decisions in business or in politics. Driven, self-directed, skeptical of and perhaps incapable of compromise, John might try to seek accommodation, but always in the end he listened to his own counsel.
Charles Rappleye, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, The Slave Trade, and The American Revolution, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 239.
When should people seek compromise & accommodation? That becomes the question when studying the lives of John & Moses Brown. What issues beg the need for compromise? What issues need a stubborn, unyielding mule stance? The two brothers constantly met up against one another in a battle of wills for the ages. Although time (and simple logic) would show the error of most of John's battles - the sheer audacity of his dissent is simply amazing. His driven personality made things happen. He desired relationships & harmony - but he was unwilling to allow either to dictate the decisions he made.

Which begs the question of how much stubborness must a leader have? The reality is that being a person of compromise can often make you weak & incapable of making the tough calls and forging ahead. Seeking & cultivating relationships may win you friends - but in the end you'll be passed over for the promotion. John Brown got things done. He was wrong in a lot of areas - but he got things done. In the end what is the real value in society - compromise or action? Which of those should we seek in ourselves & in our pursuit of teaching character development? And if at the end of the day it is our counsel we end up listening to anyway - have we really even showed any true compromise?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


The reference to slavery was commonplace for the colonial protests against Britain: back in 1764, in his Rights of the Colonies Examined, Stephen Hopkins had proclaimed that "those who are governed at the will of another, and whose property may be taken from them by taxes...without their own consent...are in the miserable condition of slaves." In the years since, the metaphor had become ubiquitous: the acts of Parliament would end in "perpetual slavery," "unmerited slavery," "vile ignominious slavery." The obvious connection to the actual practice of slavery by those same liberty-loving colonists was rarely mentioned.
Charles Rappleye, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, The Slave Trade, and The American Revolution, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 143.
For the colonists, the idea of liberty was what they talked about, dreamed about, and eventually fought about. As Patrick Henry would later exclaim, "Give me liberty or give me death!" The ability to live & act according to one's own will is a very precious thing - especially in the design of democracy. No one would deny the truth to the colonist's fight. But it was their oversight that sticks out looking back. The life and lack of liberty for the slave community was seen as a miserable condition. However, to change that was never as important as the personal fight for liberty.

Hypocrisy. Everyone is guilty of hypocrisy. We truly believe in something and yet do not have the guts or intellect to live up to our own high standards & beliefs. At what point does our hypocrisy speak louder than our beliefs? Part of the problem lies in our narrow scope. In aiming to achieve our goals we often focus on our own selfish needs and wants to the detriment of others. That does not mean our goals are wrong...just short-sighted. In attempting to accomplish big things, we must seek the greatest good; not only for ourselves but for the community at large. Liberty is not truly liberty unless all are able to benefit from its blessings.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Racism & Economics

While the logic of the colonial economy was driving the Browns to enter into the African trade, there was little in the way of moral stricture to hold them back. At that time, in the years before the Revolution, the idea that there was something wrong with trafficking in humankind was still just a glimmer on the ethical horizon...slavery was an accepted part of everyday life in the colony, and in the life of the Browns...In Providence, slaveholding was a mark of the elite...Within the home, slaves lived out of sight, in attics or dank basements, or physically apart, in outbuildings and barns. In those churches that admitted Blacks, they were consigned to balconies where they could not be seen...Yet in the north as in the south, slavery was always characterized by the tools of the trade, the manacle and the lash, and by mutual mistrust rooted in the master's arbitrary and total sway.
Charles Rappleye, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, The Slave Trade, and The American Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 56-58.
Slavery will always be one of the darkest stains upon American history. What makes it even more difficult to grasp is how a collection of people dedicated to the ideals of liberty and democracy could tolerate keeping their fellow people in human bondage. What seems to be clearly seen from this time period though is that economics drove human decision making and lifestyle choices. Slavery became acceptable because it helped support the colonial economy. Slavery was kept up because people strove to be a part of the economic elite who owned slaves. The disparity between Black & White was continued as it gave power and wealth to one side.

Today the idea of human trafficking might seem absurd and awful to most, but the reality is that it still exists in a variety of forms. It will continue to exist & be accepted as a result of people's desires for economic & cultural superiority. Cultural change struggles to adapt, just as it did in the 18th century, because people cannot fathom choosing ethics over economics. In our push for realizing our "dreams" we willingly will cast aside others in our pursuit of wealth & power. As we did with the slaves in colonial America, we will keep societal plagues "out of sight" in order to comfort our willingness to be whores to money.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The question becomes then, how do we change the tide? If even the so-called moralists (note in Rappleye's account that even churches contributed to the racism & slavery issue) refuse to make a stand, who will? We have to become uncomfortable with our thirst for wealth - if we ever hope to make a real difference in the dilemma of racism.