Monthly Archives: July 2014

Historian’s Almanac for July 12, 2014

Benjamin D. Maxham - Henry David Thoreau - Restored.jpg Today is the birthday of Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817.  That would make him 197 years old, if he were still with us.  Being a figure in American history rather than biblical history, he died at age forty-five, two years shy of what a male born in 1817 could expect to live.   If he was born in1917, he might have lived a little longer, but only a little.  Life expectancy in 1910 was just 48.4 for a male, not much improvement since 1817.  By 1920, it rose to 53.6.  There was more gained between 1910 and 1920, just ten years, than the eighty-three years between 1817 and 1910.

I think my first introduction to Thoreau was as a college freshman when my English Lit professor put WALDEN, OR LIFE IN THE WOODS, on her required reading list.  She has long since gone on to that great library in heaven where I hope to go one day, so I can now confess that I did not actually read the book.  I suspect she knew that at the time.

When I was assigned such an exciting book in a high school English class, I was always able to find it in a Classic Comic Book edition.  Remember those?  They saved many a high school student of my time from the painful task of reading such great classics as SILAS MARNER.  I have checked the complete list of Classic Comics and found that Thoreau’s WALDEN was never published in that format.  Since the internet was more than 30 years in the future, I am not sure how I ever wrote the required paper on WALDEN.  But I did.

I do not recall how much of WALDEN I managed to read, but I have never forgotten the opening sentence and often find myself contemplating it.  “I went out to the woods,” Thoreau begins, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

It is that last bit, “and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” that has forever haunted me.  The individual’s ongoing search to find meaning and purpose in his or her life has always interested me.  My favorite books are those written in the first person, whether fiction or nonfiction, where the main character is trying to convince himself that at the end of life’s journey he will not discover that he missed it, that he wasted the brief time allotted to him in a meaningless quest for pleasure and for treasures that in the end will rot away like a fallen tree in the forest.

“Vanity of vanities,
says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities!
All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:1; ESV).

How many people have been born and died through all the ages? The multitude has come and gone without ever being noticed by anyone except God.  They spent their whole lives in daily toil trying to avoid confronting the question of whether or not it would have been best if they had never existed.  This, I believe, is what WALDEN is really about.

Thoreau separated himself from all the distractions around him in order to learn from nature what it had to teach about the real meaning and purpose of life.  He was a romantic who took seriously William Wordsworth’s admonition to find the answers in communion with nature.

“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Thoreau spent much of his time observing and experiencing all the wonder and beauty of nature.  He did not find evidence of God’s handiwork in nature.  As a transcendentalist, he saw nature as divine.  And since man is a part of nature, he is divine.  In his retreat to Walden Pound Thoreau found what the hippies of the 1970s searched for but never found.

Strangely, Thoreau did not remain in his Garden of Eden around Walden Pound.  After two years, two months, and two days of meditation he returned to civilization, to Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived until his death in 1862.

In the conclusion to WALDEN, Thoreau wrote:  “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always walk under the mercy.

 

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Historian’s Almanac for July 9, 2014

Product DetailsOn the evening of July 8, 1893, James Cornish was stabbed in the chest during a barroom brawl on Chicago’s South side.   He was rushed to Provident Hospital, founded in 1891 by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931).

Dr. Williams was one of only four African American physicians in Chicago at the time.  A former barber and son of a barber, he decided to give up the barber’s trade and follow his growing interest in medicine.  He enrolled in Chicago Medical College, known today as Northwestern University Medical School, in 1880.  After graduating in 1883, Dr. Williams open his own practice.

At the time African American doctors were not allowed to practice in white hospitals.  So, in 1891 Dr. Williams opened America’s first interracial hospital, Provident Hospital, with a total of only twelve beds.

James Cornish was in a desperate state when he was admitted.  He was bleeding internally and sure to die.  Dr. Williams decided to act.  Without the benefit of adequate anesthesia, x-rays, antibiotics, penicillin, or blood transfusion, Dr. Williams opened Cornish’s chest.  The patient’s heart was beating 130 times per minute.  Carefully, Dr. Williams repaired a severed blood vessel and stitched up a one inch cut in the pericardium surrounding the heart.

James Cornish survived the operation.  Fifty-five days later, he left Provident Hospital to live another twenty years.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open heart surgery in medical history.  It was not until World War II that heart surgery became an accepted part of medical practice.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always walk under the mercy.

Historian’s Almanac for July 4, 2014

 

  July 4 being a holiday, I find myself with a little free time to think about why so many of my fellow citizens get excited.  July 4 is for many like all other holidays, an excuse to take a day off from their daily, and often boring, routine, to laugh, play, and eat without worrying about tomorrow.  For others, another holiday is but another opportunity to make money off the former.

Let us not forget that other group of our fellow citizens who are denied the enjoyment of leisure, because they must labor for “Ole Masssa,” helping him separate the more fortunate from their hard-earned money.  Holidays are for many just one more day in the daily struggle for survival.  An elderly gentleman who grew up in rural Mississippi during the first half of the 20th century told me that for him July 4 was just another day in the cotton field.

July 4 is an important day of remembrance in the life of American civil religion.  It is a day to celebrate and relive patriotic myths.  Much of what most Americans believe happened on July 4, 1776 is just that, myth.  It just didn’t happen the way our parents said it did.

The Continental Congress did not sign the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.  Yes, I know that seeing is believing and you have seen the painting by John Trumbull depicting the members of the Continental Congress signing the Declaration of Independence, but that is just an example of “putting a spin on the news,” 18th century style.  As historian David McCullough states in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of John Adams, “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”

The historical truth is that the Continental Congress voted on the colonies’ independence on July 2.  For those who want further proof, the PENNSYLVANIA EVENING POST reported:  “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”  History contradicts Jefferson and Adams, both of whom said the signing took place on July 4.  But we are not surprised to learn that those two honorable politicians were capable of telling a lie, or should I say, “correcting” the historical record?

John Adams expected July 2 would become the day for celebrating America’s independence.  In a letter to his wife Abigail, he expressed his belief that July 2, 1776 would be celebrated as the greatest moment in American history.  “It ought to be commemorated,” he wrote, “as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

As for Thomas Jefferson being the author of the Declaration of Independence, there is both truth and falsehood.  Jefferson received the commission only after both George Washington and John Adams refused it.  Jefferson was a great admirer of the English philosopher John Locke and “borrowed” much of what he wrote from Locke.  In fact, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence sounded so much like Locke that James Madison commented “The object was to assert, not to discover truths.”

Pointing out that much of our traditions associated with July 4 are patriotic myths is not meant to in any way diminish the importance of our ancestors’ struggle for independence or their accomplishments.  The United States is not all that we would like for it to be, but we need only watch the evening news to be grateful that we live here rather than most parts of the world.

In closing, I wish to note a few other events that occurred on July 4 in past years.  Both Jefferson and Adams died on July 4, 1826, and James Monroe died on July 4, 1831.  The deaths of both Jefferson and Adams on July 4, 1826 were taken by many as a sign of God’s providence in the founding of the United States.  If that be true, then the fall of Vicksburg to Union forces on July 4, 1863 was a sign of God’s judgment on the Confederate States of America.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always walk under the mercy.

Product DetailsThis being the 100th anniversary of World War I, or the Great War as it was known until a second great war in the middle of the century made it necessary to refer to it as World War I and the second as World War II.  Many historians point out that the two wars were really one great world war with a twenty year ceasefire separating them.  Indeed one of the best known, the late Oxford University historian A.J.P. Taylor, spoke of the two wars as the First and Second German Wars.

The 100th anniversary of what was the most significant event since the fall of the Roman Empire in the West at the end of the fifth century A.D. has caused a frenzy among book publishers.  Numerous books on every aspect of the Great War, from its causes to the failed peace that ended it, have already appeared.  We can look for many, many more to come as we relive the war over the next five years.

As one who has taught university level courses on modern European history, including specific courses on the Great War, I am not surprised by the sudden interest.  Of all the many wars in history the Great War is considered the prime example of the foolishness, the madness, and the absurdity of all wars.

There was no reason for the war.  None of the powers who at one point or the other became involved in it had any reason for going to war, except perhaps the United States.  A victory for the Central Powers would have been a financial disaster for America.  Then too, one must add the naïve bungling of an overly idealistic president with virtually no knowledge of foreign affairs, one who ignored the informed advice of his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, to stay out of the war.  President Wilson thought he could lead the world into a future where everyone loved everyone and no one was either prideful or greedy.  The experienced and more realistic British Prime Minister David Lloyd George likened Wilson to Jesus Christ.

From the beginning of the war, historians have debated who was responsible for starting it.  It is a favorite subject of academic and popular historians alike.  Every year several books appear arguing for this or that one’s responsibility.  The consensus tends to be in line with what David Lloyd George said in his memoirs:  “The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without a trace of apprehension or dismay.”  Put another way, the European great powers found themselves in a war no one wanted, with victory as the only way out.

Many individuals are seeking a book of some sort that will provide a very readable summation of all the varied aspects of the war.  I can think of no better volume than R. G. Grant’s WORLD WAR I:  THE DEFINITIVE VISUAL HISTORY FROM SARAJEVO TO VERSAILLES (New York:  DK Publishing, 2014).

As with all of DK’s publications, WORLD WAR I is a visual feast, a museum between book covers.  I can best convey my own enthusiasm for this book by quoting Publishers Weekly:  “He [Grant] presents information in an accessible manner and makes it easy to peruse a rich array of articles, detailed maps, and images. The selection of images builds a remarkable portrait of the war. This is a broad, moving, informative account of the war that’s perfect for both the young, budding historian and the well-versed WWI reader” (March 24, 2014).

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always walk under the mercy.