The Sacred Office

For this day, President’s Day in the United States, I started reading a book called “Founding Mothers”. So many of the voices of women pre-20th century were erased, it is a miracle we know what we do about those of the 18th century and earlier. Fortunately, many of these ladies were literate and prolifically so, and some of their letters survived, despite the fact that letter-burning was as commonplace as clearing out one’s email inbox is now.

In honor of the day (which is at this moment being dishonored and disgraced and defiled by the current occupant of the most sacred office), I finished reading a book last night about Abraham Lincoln as the commander of the army in the Civil War, then almost immediately watched the film “Lincoln”, so every person and event was still fresh in my mind. Daniel Day-Lewis so thoroughly inhabited his role as the president that for certain moments I could believe I was actually looking at Abe himself on my screen.

I maintain this site even though no one reads blogs anymore (especially personal blogs by nobodies like myself), and I receive no feedback. I just like writing. I also write in a journal, in cursive!, but trust that the content of those pages is of a completely different nature and no you will never see it.

knavery!

Can we bring this word back? It’s so much fun.

Hamilton to Laurens

I am losing character my friend, because I am not over complaisant to the spirit of clamour, so that I am in a fair way to be out with every body. With one set, I am considered as a friend to military pretensions however exorbitant, with another as a man, who secured by my situation from sharing the distress of the army, am inclined to treat it lightly. The truth is I am an unlucky honest man, that speak my sentiments to all and with emphasis. I say this to you because you know it and will not charge me with vanity. I hate Congress—I hate the army—I hate the world—I hate myself. The whole is a mass of fools and knaves; I could almost except you and Meade. Adieu

A Hamilton

My ravings are for your own bosom.
The General and family send you their love
New Bridge, Sep 12, ’80

Nine days after this letter was written, Benedict Arnold committed treason against the Continental Army and fled to the enemy side.

“I will never be satisfied”

I read this poem a couple days ago.

“Perpetual Dissatisfaction”

It is the ingratitude which blinds us
Our failure to see what we have
on the way to getting more
Our disregard for what we step over
on the way to somewhere else
Our lack of attention to the person by our side
on the way to someone else
Our dismissal of the good that we do
on the way to something greater

All that we take for granted
falls through our hands
and disappears from sight

– Mary Jo Leddy

Lil Jimmy Madison

I stumbled across this film last week when I was curious to see if anyone had ever played James Madison in a starring cinematic role. The description of the plot reads: “Ginger Rogers is the daughter of boardinghouse owners in Washington, DC who falls in love with Aaron Burr and James Madison.”

There is so much wrong with that sentence. They met in Philadelphia, and Burr actually introduced Dolley to his friend James — there was no rivalry. So the whole premise of the movie is a fabrication. But, Ginger Rogers!

Anyway, after seeing two short clips on youtube, I knew I had to see this ridiculous movie in full. I managed to find a DVD on ebay for a mere $6, and it’s on its way to me now. What was most tempting to me was this hilarious scene with Hamilton and Burr:

Alexander Hamilton, played by someone named Arthur Space, looks and speaks like an undertaker here. In reality, he was always fashionably attired and well-mannered, and never would have just stated out loud his political goals to Aaron Burr’s face. Also, the gentlemen would have addressed him properly as General Hamilton. But I digress.

Madison is played by Burgess Meredith, who if you can believe it, was still a bit too tall to play the 5′ 4″ James. I can’t wait to see this thing. The anachronisms and inaccuracies will no doubt be extensive and greatly amusing. I only wish I could watch with some other fellow history nerds. I am sure no one else I know locally will “get it.”

In my browsing I learned that among many others, James Madison has also been portrayed onscreen (usually TV) by Rob Lowe (HA!), Randy Travis, Warren Buffet (??), and Rachel Dratch.

Portraits

Last night I started reading a book about Abraham Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief during his presidency. As President’s Day approaches, I am enjoying immersing myself into the stories of presidents we once had who were honest, intelligent, courageous, and humble. God, remember that? Good times.

Anyway, I have read a lot about the Revolutionary War at this point, and looked at many paintings and drawings of the figures of that time, who typically look something like this:

America's Favorite Fighting Frenchman
Bonjour.

Paintings, they are so carefully edited to glorify and beautify their subjects! In the Lincoln book I just started, pretty much every portrait looks something like this:

Ah, the dead eyes of battle.

Photography finally showed the world the truth of war.

Oh and btw did you know that most of the casualties suffered at the battle of Yorktown in 1781 were black soldiers? And that Cornwallis sent his smallpox-infected black troops to the front lines as a form of germ warfare? Yikes.

Avid

Years ago, I despaired because I didn’t read anymore and had lost interest, didn’t have time, etc. I have now reached a rather opposite situation, and am instead quite gratified, if a little overwhelmed.

I’ve finished seven books thus far this year (two I started in 2016), and currently juggle three others. When I finish one, clearing space, I plan to start “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789” (which is for one of my two book clubs), and then try to balance the constant theme of Early America by starting a novel, probably “Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld. My stated goal for 2017 is forty books but I think I may have underestimated myself. I only read for a couple hours a day.

I have nearly eliminated TV, I think that has helped in many things, not just reading opportunities. Though next Monday, along with some distant friends, I will be re-watching the HBO John Adams miniseries, which I first watched when it initially aired in 2009. My heavy interest in that series then should have tipped me toward my current pursuit, but “certain events” waylaid me for another seven years.

Spring is coming. I wish to go find some cherry blossoms somewhere.

George + Gilbert

George Washington was cold and formal — when he wanted to be. Other times, he lavished affection upon the Marquis de Lafayette, as seen in this very long letter from September of 1779. A few choice passages:

Your forward Zeal in the cause of liberty—Your singular attachment to this infant world—Your ardent & persevering efforts, not only in America but since your return to France to serve the United States. your polite attention to Americans—and your strict & uniform friendship for me, has ripened the first impressions of esteem & attachment which I imbibed for you into such perfect love & gratitude that neither time nor absence can impair

Everyone loved Lafayette, basically.

…after our Swords & Spears have given place to the plough share & pruning-hook, I see you as a private Gentleman—a friend & Companion—I shall welcome you in all the warmth of friendship to Columbias shore; & in the latter case, to my rural Cottage, where homely fare & a cordial reception shall be substituted for delicacies & costly living.

“My rural cottage” = Mount Vernon. Lol.

if the lovely partner of your happiness will consent to participate with us in such rural entertainment & amusemts I can undertake in behalf of Mrs Washington that she will do every thing in her power to Make Virginia agreeable to the Marchioness—My inclination & endeavours to do this cannot be doubted when I assure you that I love every body that is dear to you. consequently participate in the pleasure you feel in the prospt of again becoming a parent & do most Sincerely congratulate you and your Lady on this fresh pledge she is about to give you of her love.

The Marquis named his next child Georges Washington, btw.

You are pleased my dear Marquis to express an earnest desire of seeing me in France (after the establishment of our independancy) & do me the honour to add, that you are not singular in your request. let me entreat you to be perswaded, that to meet you any where after the final accomplishment of so glorious an event would contribute to my happiness—& that, to visit a country to whose generous aid we stand so much indebted, would be an additional pleasure—but remember my good friend, that I am unacquainted with your language—that I am too far advanced in years to acquire a knowledge of it. and that to converse through the medium of an interpreter upon common occasions, especially with the Ladies must appr so extremely aukward—insipid—& uncouth—that I can scarce bear it in idea.

George did not want to visit France because he thought his inability to speak French would embarrass him. I mean he had a point.

When I look back to the length of this letter I am so much astonished & frightned at it myself, that I have not the courage to give it a careful reading for the purpose of correction—You must therefore receive it with all its imperfections—accompanied with this assurance that though there may be many incorrections in the letter, there is not a single defect in the friendship of my dear Marquis

He was kind of rambling. Two paragraphs before this one he goes on for awhile about how he would like to flirt with the Marquis’ wife, but she wouldn’t be interested in an “old man.” Oh George, you cad!!

Monmouth Court House

I am watching the sun rise and drinking my coffee. The layer of light closest to the earth is a pale, fiery orange, then above it, streaks of blue and white clouds, then far above that, a long column of candy pink, then ascending to a dusty lavender, and finally twilight blue. It envelops the horizon. I know that trying to take its picture would be pointless as I do not have a $2000 camera, so I will just use my eyes, which are almost as good.

I know that hardly anyone reads this, so I suppose it’s more writing practice and personal note-taking for me at this point. When I started this blog, in the prior century, I used it as a method to teach myself HTML, and I hand-coded the entire thing, including fancy Javascript rollovers and so on. I was very proud of that and scoffed at the idea of using some kind of WYSIWYG or template. Of course back then WordPress didn’t exist. Now I am more than happy to type words into a form and press Publish. Hand-coding is an inelegant pain in the ass.

Anyway. Not a great deal to report on this day. Yesterday morning I read all about the Battle of Monmouth, 1778. Of the many accounts I have read of that day, I think the one in Washington – A Life explains it pretty well. Though he neglects to describe Hamilton’s “frenzy of valour” (but that is covered in AH).

If anyone has read this far and is interested, here is an article about Charles Lee’s court martial, and something I did not know:

His personal attacks on Washington, and those close to him, resulted in a duel with one of the men he had referred to as an “earwig,” John Laurens, the young son of the president of Congress. At the time appointed, Laurens wounded Lee in the side. Lee’s wound was serious enough to persuade him to forgo fighting an additional duel with another of Washington’s favorites, Anthony Wayne. In addition to Wayne, six other officers were waiting for their turn to duel the wounded major general, but his injury and placating letters ended his dueling career.

So, eight people wanted to shoot this guy, but only Colonel John Laurens had the pleasure.

Mood

This cute zipper pouch accurately describes how I sometimes feel about this blog.

fuck. it.

George A. Svereika

In the mid-nineties, I sometimes visited a Berkeley junkyard that doubled as a thrift shop. The outside area was full of collections of old windows, bicycles, pastel-colored toilets, and other random parts of houses that had been deemed salvageable. Inside the warehouse, there lived a collection of random junk that ranged from dusty encyclopedias to boxes of unplayable black 45s. There was a particular shelf that was cluttered with piles of papers and photographs, postcards and letters. One day I purchased some of these mementos, being a person who loved the art of the letter and still do.

I still have one of these folded sheaves of handwritten letters. They compose the correspondence of a single month — May 1945 — from a kid in the Navy called George, to his sweetheart Janie. He wrote to her almost daily. His handwriting is nice, though his spelling is imperfect, and he writes in a conversational style, slipping often into broad, sentimental declarations of love.

letters

I have wondered whatever became of the two of them. Did they marry? Someone saved these letters for fifty years. Then they ended up in a Berkeley junk shop. Did their children drop them off one day in a box, after cleaning out the garage? Are there grandchildren somewhere who wouldn’t mind having these letters? I searched the internet, finding two separate persons by this exact name, one born in 1917, the other in 1926. I have no idea which one wrote the letters I have, though his voice is closer to that of a 19-year-old sailor.

What a voyage these artifacts made, from a battleship near the end of the Second World War, to a plastic bin in my own closet. How unlikely for love letters to have ended up for sale for a few dollars, to a stranger.

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