Thursday, December 17, 2009

Supplying the Troops at Valley Forge

In the movie version of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Cal, played by the incomparable James Dean, wants to know if growing beans will make money when America is in World War I.

Question: Is war good for business?
Answer from a family business acquaintance: The best there is!

Generally, business prospers in war. Included are contractors, suppliers, manufacturers. It isn’t just for obtaining food, but all kinds of commodities that people want and are in short supply.

The winter of 1777 that our troops spent at Valley Forge certainly made money for some people, but not the soldiers. They were literally starving. But many people in the supply chain made lots of money, particularly contractors. These worked in a state of confusion and avarice. It was very difficult to find competent administrators for the quartermaster corps. Both the army and Congress despaired of ever finding an honest contractor.

In the Revolutionary War, nobody wanted to fight in the winter. Harsh weather, impassible roads, and a lack of supplies had Washington convinced that he didn’t want to “winter” his troops at Valley Forge, 25 mile northwest of Philadelphia. He just wanted to leave the whole area. But in 1777 the Pennsylvania Assembly wanted Washington’s troops to remain as a defensive maneuver. So the soldiers marched into a frozen wilderness. What they found was no shelter, no winter clothing, shortage of food and water, no sanitation, and constant threat of disease. A more unsuitable location could not have been found.

Washington’s first priority was bringing some rough shelter into the camp, and a basic food supply. Washington now had to rely on contractors, who knew every trick in the book.

As for delivery of food, critical from the beginning, much of it was of poor or downright dangerous quality. Some food was blatantly traded to the British, who paid in hard currency rather than accepting paper money. Attempts to install price controls only drove prices to below market value. Some farmers would not trade with the army at all; they found better markets at other locations to be far more lucrative.

With administration in confusion, constant inefficiency, and contractor dishonesty, it was no wonder that soldiers were starving. The whole situation was a disaster. It was a miracle that troops tolerated the conditions throughout this winter. It wasn’t even that severe, just normal for the time of year.

Contractor problems have always persisted. In all fairness, it’s got to be remembered that a lot of the quartermastering had to be done very quickly with little supervision. The supervisor has to ideally be a combination manager, accountant, and often engineer; above all, a wheeler dealer. Who is trained for all that?

In the current Iraq war, we have heard many times about Cheney-Halliburton contract problems. Private business suddenly working in a military setting creates special problems.

How many four-star generals come from a background of the quartermaster corps?

Fifty years ago, Blake Edwards cast Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in a light, very amusing movie, Operation Petticoat, set in the Philippines in 1941. Everything is confused; everyone is trying to deal with supplies the best way they can, which is generally no way at all. But junior officer Curtis has a flair for quartermastering. He is clever and at times quite dishonest. He delivers one line which suits his role perfectly: “In confusion lies profit”.

Washington needed the skills of a Tony Curtis character desperately at Valley Forge. Curtis would have outsmarted every contractor hands down. Probably he would have stolen enough money, and not the paper kind either, to obtain enough food and labor to make the soldiers’ lives more tolerable. For him, enemies were those who wouldn’t trade what he needed. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Friends of 1776 Holiday Wish List

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shays' Rebellion

I apologize for the interval between this post and the previous one, Pulaski, due to a personal emergency. So now I have to make up for this gap with more posts of interest to you. But I won’t tell you the subjects; they should be a surprise.

Just a year before our Constitution (1787), the new United States had a rebellion. The insurgents were farmers in Western Massachusetts. Where else? Massachusetts was always in a state of unrest and rebellion during the period of our revolution. The leader of this rebellion was Daniel Shays, a farmer of modest means, and it took everyone by surprise and alarm. The fact that it occurred at all was believed to be a major reason that our Constitution was put in place.

Shays' Rebellion was about money and debt.

The war had created a lot of profit for some in Massachusetts, particularly in Boston. There were also a lot of debts. Some of the successful investors bought a lot of the mortgage notes of the hard-working farmers. The investors had also lent a lot of money to the state. When the occasion arose, they expected to be paid, and not with worthless paper currency. They also had powerful interests in the Legislature.

However, the farmers weren’t doing so well. Harsh taxes, a depressed business climate because the war was over. That awful word, foreclosure, was facing a lot of them. They had vigorously petitioned the Legislature for relief, and got nowhere. It was time for strong action.

Shays and his followers (500 – 1000, the number is not quoted consistently, with wildly inflated rumors), many putting on their old Continental uniforms, went on the march. Destination, Hampshire County Court. This plan was quite practical. Since foreclosure was a legal process, if a courthouse was essentially shut down, that would delay any proceedings.

The farmers got little if no support. Instead, reaction was swift, punitive, and entirely hostile. Washington declared that the campaign of the farmers was disgusting. Even Sam Adams, that perennial supporter of revolt, did a complete about face and called the rebels traitors.

Hancock sat out all the trouble. Militia hounded the farmers, imprisoned them, labeled them traitors. Shays had fled Massachusetts for safety, but was declared a traitor in absentia anyway and sentenced to death.

The rebels’ cause, which seemed so hopeless, did take a brighter turn. The next Massachusetts legislature was far more sympathetic to the farmers. Some remedies at least were started. Hancock was governor again and pardoned Shays.

But the impact of their rebellion persisted. The rich were frightened; the new country was very fragile. It’s good we had the bold ideas and practical applications of an Alexander Hamilton. Financial problems continued to persist.

I think farmers have always been treated harshly, all over the world. It’s a very hard occupation, 24 / 7, with disaster just around the corner: weather, precipitation, pests, and some very hard government policies, such as estate taxes, land taxes, and regulations. Today, we have a lot of large farming conglomerates, which has given the industry much more bargaining power and political influence. These huge operations have been blasted for all kinds of reasons, but they keep our food supply steady and available. I think we have the best of both worlds today. We have the huge inventory at the local supermarket, and a growing local supply, often organic.

Growing food yourself is not easy. Your crop of tomatoes, lemons, and vegetables is not exactly cheap. There are problems from nibbling rabbits to every pest known to man. The only remedy is a green thumb. I envy people who have one.

So, zucchini ladies, your home-grown bounty is well-received by me. I like to eat. We all know that a home-grown tomato beats a conglomerate version hands down.

I don’t think the rich Bostonians appreciated their Shays farmers at all. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

December Deals of the Day - Save up to 50%!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Casimir Pulaski, Polish Cavalry Officer in Our Revolutionary War

On November 6, President Obama signed an interesting bill, HJ Res. 26. It proclaimed Casimir Pulaski, a high-ranking Polish nobleman (1745 – 1779), an honorary citizen of the United States. He is only the 7th honoree holding this title. The others are William Penn and his wife Hannah, Lafayette, Winston Churchill, Swede Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, and Mother Theresa.

In Poland, Pulaski fought in many campaigns, plots, and insurrections to try and liberate his country from domination, predominantly the Russians.

He was a fugitive from Europe, arriving here to commence a very distinguished reputation as a noted cavalry officer. Saving George Washington’s life at the Battle of Brandywine is attributed to him.

He followed our war into the South, where he fought in tough battles, including Charleston and Savannah, where he was mortally wounded in 1779.

I’m not sure that Pulaski is generally that well-known all across the country, so I was amazed how many places and events are named after him. The list is quite extensive, including counties, some cities, schools, highways, and festivals.

Pulaski is an excellent example of the committed role foreigners played in our Revolution. Lafayette and the French of course come to mind immediately.

Locally, I often notice names assigned to highways, bridges, and other public venues. Generally, I don’t recognize the names at all. They deserve more publicity. The have all contributed in some major way to be commemorated. It’s very fitting that Pulaski has been.

The President and this bill are a good fit. He calls Chicago home. The city has a very large number of Polish Americans; they exert considerable influence politically and culturally. They regard Pulaski as one of their own. –Renata Breisacher Mulry

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Friends of 1776 Holiday Wish List

With Christmas and all the other celebrations just a few weeks away, a lot of people think about gifts, friends, family, travel … I hope a lot of pleasant things.

Friends of 1776 isn’t going to be left out.

So I’ve prepared a short list, what else, for your consideration and approval. Please add your personal wishes to our Web site. We are interested.

Let’s start with a few gift suggestions, books and movies / DVDs. (All citations appear at end of post.)

Obviously, a lot of books are available of interest to Friends of 1776. Many have been mentioned here before. Some are quite long, well-researched, quite scholarly. They may not be so easy to read. They often have excellent notes and bibliographies.

Here are the selections: Berkin’s A Brilliant Solution, on the formation of the American Constitution, and Kitman, The Making of the Prefident 1789, a very humorous, irreverent retelling of Washington’s first Presidential campaign. You can obtain these books with confidence that they will make good gifts.

Selecting movies / DVDs was more difficult. There is not all that much out there. I had to stretch our interest quotient quite a bit. Keeping in mind that perennial favorite, HBO’s John Adams, in conjunction with the original book, McCullough’s John Adams, three movies are suggested. All have broad appeal, lasting interest, and excellent production.

One is Amazing Grace, the biography of the British abolitionist William Wilberforce and his decades-long struggle to finally end British slave trade. In the United States, it affected how we conducted our slave trade for decades longer.

Another is that stunning remake of The Last of the Mohicans, with Daniel Day Lewis, set at the time of the French and Indian War (1757), which defined the colonies as geographical areas. This war was the foundation of our independence only twenty years later.

That bright, patriotic musical 1776 brings out effectively the many differing attitudes about independence at the 2nd Continental Congress. There was no uniformity of opinion. This movie also hints at the danger facing those who considered independence at all. This movie would make a nice gift for all ages and backgrounds.

For holiday travel, a popular pastime, consider the following: a trip to scenic Virginia, touring the homes and lands of important men in our Revolution, in addition to those of the Founding Fathers. It’s significant that of the first nine presidential terms, eight were filled by Virginians!

Now for some wishes of longer duration. Many military campaigns of our Revolution had unique locations, strategies, and outcomes. Not all were victories by any means. I would really wish that Friends of 1776 was the sponsor and organizer of a military history lecture series for the American Revolution. Of course, lecturers from the Pentagon, West Point, the Department of Defense, etc. are very welcome. But we don’t need t be greedy. Here in the proximity we have the huge Marine base Camp Pendleton and there’s plenty of talent there!

When was the last time you were in a bookstore and you really could talk books with the seller? In a book chain, are you kidding? If you have such a store, treasure it, because economic forecasts for these are always dismal.

How about a wish-bookstore, “U.S. History in Print”, well-located, smallish, its owners not dependent on it for their living expenses, or else this store will fail. But millions of well-pensioned retirees are entering the market now, so the time may actually never be better.

I don’t recommend locating and competing with an academic bookstore; students do not have money for buying books, not even for those they have to buy. I’d rather locate it in a smaller city a little off the beaten track. That’s where you’ll find browsing interest, time, and money!

Hopefully, U.S. Constitution Day (September 17, 1787) will be considered as a national holiday (as already suggested in a previous post).

A very personal wish: that Friends of 1776 holds an annual meeting, maybe around George Washington’s birthday, with lots of input, good company, and probably a speaker. All of our Founding Fathers, with very few exceptions, were very active in social activities, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t copy them.

And as a final wish, in this world today, a lot more freedom and democracy, and a lot less poverty and illness.

It’s going to be 2010.

It’s time. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

History Holiday Gifts 2009 - Shop early and Save


A Brilliant Solution: inventing the American Constitution. Carol Berkin. A Harvest Book, Harcourt Inc. 2002. 310 pp.

The Making of the Prefident 1789. Marvin Kitman. Grove Press. 1989. 358 pp.

Amazing Grace. 2007. Michael Apted, Director. Movie.

The Last of the Mohicans. 1992. Michael Mann, Director. Movie.

1776. Released in 1972. Peter H. Hunt, Director. Movie.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Your Most Outstanding Revolutionary War Personality? Mine is John Hancock

Some months ago, I was interested in which Founding Father you considered the greatest. My choice was John Adams. This may have come as a surprise, but his intellect and perseverance to the cause of American independence was unparalleled. Your responses didn’t agree with mine at all.

It’s time for another questionnaire. Just which Revolutionary War personality is your favorite? Let’s omit the Founding Fathers because the results would be badly slanted. Otherwise, your choice could be from any colony or background. Giving a reason for your choice would add a great deal.

My selection is John Hancock, without hesitation.

What, you protest, that incorrigible smuggler, making himself the richest man in Boston in the process?

Let’s not forget that smuggling was a well-established component of the colonial economic system. It was anti-British, anti-tax. Hancock always drove the British nuts.

In fact, one of Hancock’s smuggling adventures can be considered a smoldering cause of the American Revolution. In response to his ownership and operation of the wine smuggler “Liberty”, aptly named, the British sent troops to Boston (1768).

Hancock was all-business, all the time. It helped define him. He was, in my opinion, a completely contemporary man. He would have fitted right in with the CEOs of today. I don’t think of him as a man of memorable speeches or resounding patriotic words. For me, he was always a man of action.

His personality left things to be desired. He had a colossal ego, great ambition. Is this bad? Most powerful men have these qualities. I like his raw courage. He was always on the run from the British. He was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence. That made him a traitor.

Maybe it’s stretching a point, but you could consider him America’s first President. At the 2nd Continental Congress in 1776, he was the President of that Congress. He had a great deal of authority. But he never became President of the United States.

His antipathy towards Washington as commander-in-chief was not just completely unfounded. Washington had no real track record. The little he had was less than distinguished. Besides, Hancock, in typical fashion, considered himself a far better choice. This man was no shrinking violet. I like his confidence.

He went on to become governor of Massachusetts for nine terms. The great unrest of farmers in that state around 1786, the Shay’s Rebellion, was a wake-up call against uncontrolled taxation and rural hardship. When Hancock was reelected with a new, sympathetic legislature in 1788, I think he did a smart thing. He pardoned Shays and instituted a series of fiscal reforms, not a complete solution but a start.

The proposed Constitution was a real dilemma for Hancock, and I think he handled it as you would expect, considering the personal business aspect. Hancock was no Federalist; far from it. He was persuaded though to support the Constitution when he was promised a Bill of Rights (to curtail its power) and a federal office. The latter obviously would improve his financial profile.

Hancock did not live long enough (1793) to influence the pivotal financial years of the early republic after 1789. But I think his contribution would have been based on sound business practices, a solid tax code, no huge deficits and a social program which requires that everyone contributes.

Is that all wishful thinking? – Renata Breisacher Mulry

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Lottery Wars -- Book Review

Gambling can generate big news. Several days ago, Michael Hiltzik (Los Angeles Times, Business, October 19, 2009) wrote about “calling America’s bluff on online gambling”. The Internet may undergo a dramatic change. Barney Frank (D – Massachusetts, which is a very successful lottery state) is pushing legislation to repeal a federal ban on Internet gambling.

If you can’t eradicate, regulate and take a big chunk out of the wages of sin while you’re at it.

Currently, the Internet has many legal issues. There are some elements which many do not consider suitable for the Internet at all. Financially, collection of sales taxes from state to state has never been settled. For moralists and many politicians, it is considered out of sufficient public scrutiny and particularly dangerous for the young. The usual treatment? Prohibition.

Lotteries have always been part of our colonial history. In 1754, Virginia authorized a lottery to fight the French and Indian War. In 1769, George Washington managed a lottery in Williamsburg. During our Revolutionary War, they raised money for fighting. After the war, they helped sustain the new and struggling country.

Lotteries have always been at war with causes, people, and politicians. Alexander Hamilton liked them, so I guess that his support generated strong opposition. In the decades since 1776, lotteries have gone boom or bust. They have been praised or banned. Only recently, since most states now have official lotteries, they have achieved a certain respectability. After all, they support good works, such as education.

Therefore, adding a new book, The Lottery Wars, to the Friends of 1776 library, seems timely and well-worth reading. The title describes the contents as “Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution”. In spite of the millions who consider gambling a sin, it has never stopped.

This book makes for some very interesting reading. It is crammed full of facts including names and dates. It does not really write about gambling wars as a straight historical text. Rather, it focuses on winners and losers, who gambles and how, and the public fascination with those who win. What is that really like?

A great deal of The Lottery Wars focuses on the public side of lotteries, the business, including many pages exclusively on Joan Borucki, appointed California State Lottery chief in 2007. Her chief goal was to improve the whole financial position of the lottery, and therefore generate more revenue for the state, including education. The California lottery had been badly lagging. Better distribution of sales became very necessary. Tickets went into Big Retail. The $20 lottery ticket began to be accepted.

There is talk of privatizing the whole operation. States would get their money, up front, lots of it, but that would be it. Then the owner keeps the profits. There are a lot of financial and ethical issues with this proposal.

The book differentiates well between how official government regards the lottery and the players’ view. With government, you don’t consider sin, but marketing, growth, sales; it’s a business seminar. The player wants to know how much are the tickets, where are they, what are the prizes. A winner comes well-prepared with an attorney, tax accountant, financial advisor, who else knows what.

Groups, often employees, buy tickets together. I like this; there’s better organization and planning this way. More people have a chance to win something. The office football pool is a popular private lottery. You put your money in, if you win, you get everyone’s. I hope there are no expenses.

Do I gamble the state lottery? No, but I do participate in sweepstakes, a private lottery, run by Publishers’ Clearing House. This has gone on for years. There are good prices for popular magazines I sometimes order. Then I’m entered into the sweepstakes. Actually, I don’t have to order anything, just send in the entry. The payouts are quite high. Will I win? Are you kidding? But when I do, I’ve already made big plans on how to spend the money. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution. Matthew Sweeney. Bloomsbury, 2009. 295 pp.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gambling in America

Gambling, gaming, cards, lotteries, racing – they were an integral part of daily life during America’s Revolution. Frequenting gaming parlors and taverns was considered pleasant entertainment for aristocratic gentlemen. They were sophisticated and good company. Whatever criticism was out there, the general population cast away its doubts and gambled also.

Washington gambled all his life. He did what well-bred gentlemen did. After all, that’s what he wanted to be.

In the years since, public perception has varied widely. Lotteries, for instance, have achieved a certain respectability because they can help fund civic projects. In 1777 our Founding Fathers realized the value of lotteries to try to fund a war for which they essentially had no steady revenue. Lotteries weren’t a tax, which boosted their approval.

Today, most states run a lottery. The pay-off is good, it’s all legal, and it’s very easy to play. How much revenue for the state is generated is never completely clear to me. Schools are supposed to be large beneficiaries.

America is addicted to gambling, on anything, anytime, everywhere. Ominous facts about its effects on society have never made any difference. During our prohibition years, gambling (and alcohol) just went underground.

Washington’s troops carried their playing cards into battle. In lean times, they gambled who would get something to eat, even acorns. Washington, in a fine show of hypocrisy, was so concerned about rampant gambling in the ranks that he sent out orders to try and curtail the excessive wagering.

Gambling became an established part of US history. The Mississippi river boats plied their trade successfully. In the “Old West” every community had its representative gambling parlor, with entertainment, liquor, and probably ladies of easier virtue. Men, when not chasing outlaws, were playing and quarreling over poker. Today, casinos have become a glittering destination for serious card playing, slots, good food and accommodations, and of course, entertainment.

Alexander Hamilton, our new country’s money man, had practical ideas on how to sell lottery tickets. Make the tickets cheap. Concentrate on big pay-offs. And for state lotteries, sell ticket by their borders to entice neighbors.

Gambling was always part of our earlier culture. It helped found the colony of Virginia. There was always great dissent, as noted previously.

Americans were so fond of playing cards that when the Stamp Act (1765) included a tax on playing cards, it aroused fury. Our Declaration of Independence was declared only eleven years later!

Is it a sin, to use that potent term, ruining the very fabric of our society? Well, consider a front page article in the LA Times 10/16/2009, describing how a 97 year old woman and two sons in their sixties live in a ’73 Suburban on the streets. Among the items on the dash: lottery tickets.

Private lotteries – the raffle – are very prevalent today. Generally, they are smaller, entry is much cheaper, prizes are smaller, well, mostly. You buy a fifty cent raffle ticket, win a dozen prize cupcakes, and everyone is happy You betcha! –Renata Breisacher Mulry

Smuggling and the American Revolution

Monday, October 12, 2009

Revolution -- Movie Review

I am very afraid of revolutions.

They are violent, unpredictable, original rebels often end up as strongmen or dictators. Just consider Castro. Or more recently, the strong man of Chechnya, Kadyrov. Usually the evils of a previous regime are substituted with a situation just as bad or worse.

There are great hordes of refugees; many lives are ruined for ever.

Our Revolution produced a huge contemporary upheaval in France, 1789. That started out to bring freedom to the citizens, but what did they get instead? The Reign of Terror.

I don’t think France ever really recovered. In the next century, it lost part of its mainland, Alsace-Lorraine, to the Germans. Sure it got it back, at the end of World War I, but at a terrible price.

Revolutions in the 20th century involved millions; we still live with the effects of those in Russia and China and many others. Often there is a raging civil war which accompanies them. There are smaller revolutions usually focused on a specific group of people. They are designated as rebellions, insurrections, civil unrests, military coups.

Much closer to home, Mexico was riddled with revolution till practically World War II. A civil unrest in Sri Lanka has just concluded after decades. In Spain, Basque separatists still surface periodically to inflict terrorist damages.

Do Revolutions produce anything of value? Probably, very very little. But usually the average revolutionary follower is pretty desperate. There likely is no way to redress glaring problems and injustice. Consider the case of Russia. The last Tsar likely would have gradually adopted a more constitutional monarchy. Nobody was willing to wait for this. Instead, the rebel leaders promised people the moon, prosperity, a new order, freedom. None of this happened.

Then what is the amazing difference between our revolution and others? Most significantly, ours did not produce a dictator. We finished a war, signed a peace treaty, wrote a permanent constitution and concentrated on domestic affairs. Our issues with George III and Great Britain were over. Today, our former adversary is considered our oldest and strongest ally. Where else do you find that?

Revolutions have produced some memorable books and movies. The classic A Tale of Two Cities captures the danger of the French Revolution. The romantic Dr. Zhivago plays at the height of the horrendous Russian Revolution. The Spanish Civil War is the the background for Hemingway’s tragic For Whom the Bell Tolls. Marlon Brando portrays the Mexican Revolutionary Zapata in Viva Zapata.

The American Revolution has produced countless history books and documentaries, but I don’t find that much entertainment. So I wanted to mention that I just finished watching a rather interesting movie, with an unusual history. It was made originally in 1985, but was not well received at the time. Revolution: Revisited has just been remastered, with narration and a new introduction.

Al Pacino plays the lead, a very reluctant common revolutionary foot soldier. It’s not his fight, he states often; he doesn’t understand the burning issues which have mobilized people into revolt. He is press ganged into service, separated from his young son, who was tricked into joining up for a few shillings.

The American forces are ragged, ill-treated. They have nothing. But their cause is noble and patriotic; at least that’s what the recruiters tell them. I thought the plight of the common soldier was well portrayed.

What Pacino wants is to just find his son. His wife and other children perished with “fever”. He is doubly desperate. His sole support, a boat, has been commandeered from him with a worthless US chit. He doesn’t read, which would help him understand official-looking documents. The movie script is not strong or that logical. Pacino does find his son, and now they can plan to escape the bedlam around them. A fiercely patriotic girl, but from a loyalist family, turns up in a few confusing scenes. Confusion in some movie scripts seems to be a hazard for me. Strong regional accents don’t help.

Pacino is never converted to the revolution’s patriotic cause. Oh sure, the end of the movie expresses some inspiring sentiments, but I found them superfluous.

This is one man’s story. However, the end of this movie has a scene which I thought was good and very accurate. Pacino is shortchanged on his military pay. Worse, the 150 acres of land he has been promised are non-existent. The have been speculated away to help pay for the war. So Pacino, at the end, still has nothing. This scene shows well the classic case of a hapless citizen trying to deal with government bureaucracy. You may root for these citizens with all your might, but you know they don’t stand a ghost of a chance.

The musical score by John Corigliano throughout is good.

There are quite a few crowd scenes which seem amateurish. The extras are not well directed. One encouraging thing, though: I liked this movie a lot better the second time around.

My rating: a B-. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

What is Our Bill of Rights?

We had another constitutional milestone to commemorate this September.

On September 25, 1789, the 1st U.S. Congress sent twelve constitutional amendments to the states for ratification. This was completed on December 15, 1791. The first ten became our Bill of Rights. The United States had become a nation.

Many outspoken proponents of U.S. independence from Great Britain were fervent anti-Federalists. Patrick Henry was a strong opponent. Good Lord, we had just fought a long and bitter war to secure our independence, and now we should turn around and become again subjects of a powerful central Federal government? We had our Articles of Confederation between the states; people were doing fine. A Federal government would only diminish the power of the states; maybe eventually make them disappear altogether.

However, the formation of a Bill of Rights was supported by many anti-Federalists, including John Hancock. They saw that a recitation of citizens’ rights would serve as a powerful antidote against any central government’s attempt to usurp states’ authority. A Bill of Rights would be our protection against large, corrupt government.

I feel that maybe a lot of deals were struck in state legislatures during the ratification process. The Federalists felt that a Bill of Rights would vastly improve citizens’ confidence in a new government: it didn’t have carte blanche to do whatever it wanted.

Yesterday, I heard the expression “Bill of Rights” on a radio news show. It really caught my ear! If you think about it, we don’t hear the expression all that often. The fact that the first ten amendments are our Bill of Rights may not be recognized all that often either. Also, these amendments are referred to by number, such as the 1st, freedom of speech, the 2nd, right to own weapons, etc.

What concepts do these amendments predominantly contain?
1. No restriction by Congress on free speech, religion, the press, the right to assemble.
2. The right to own weapons.
3. Military can’t be billeted in peoples’ homes, without permission. This was very pertinent at the time of our revolution.
4. No unreasonable search and seizure. This amendment has received a lot of attention because of car searches.
5. No accusation for a crime without a formal indictment. Due process. No double jeopardy. No taking of private property for public use without just compensation. The latter has received a lot of attention. The emphasis is on just.
6. A speedy and public trial. To see witnesses. Counsel for defense. Right to counsel was treated quite casually until the Gideon decision in 1963.
7. Trial by jury.
8. No excessive bail. No cruel or unusual punishment.
9. Certain rights not denied to the people. All the rights not set out by the government.
10. States’ rights.

I have not found the Bill of Rights printed independently from the Constitution in sources I’ve used, except in the classic Miracle at Philadelphia*.

Looking over this list, I’m going to say that the Supreme Court spends a lot of time debating the meaning and limitations of amendments 1, 2, 4, 5, and 10.

All of the amendments have over the years been legally examined, debated, tweaked, and even restricted. It depends on the philosophical make-up of the current court. Many amendments have been added since 1791. Certainly, our 13th amendment outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude would find a place in the Bill of Rights today.

Most of the Bill of Rights is taken more or less for granted by us. This is good, because it shows that the bill is firmly a part of our national structure. A lot of the world doesn’t have a semblance of a Bill of Rights, including no freedom of speech, no free press, no freedom of assembly, no speedy public trial. What a permanent credit to so many individuals at the time of our revolution who saw the Bill of Rights as protection against repressive and corrupt government.

People propose adding new amendments all the time, often for the most partisan of issues. Let’s resist this urge! Amendments should be few and far between. Otherwise, we’ll be forced to double the size of the Supreme Court to figure out what all this new legislation really says. – Renata Breisacher Mulry


*Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May - September 1787.Catherine Drinker Bowen. An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, 1966. 346 pp.

Gideon's Trumpet

Retained by the People: The "Silent" Ninth Amendment and the Constitutional Rights Americans Don't Know They Have

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Madness of King George -- Movie Review

The Madness of King George has an outstanding cast, excellent production, beautiful music adapted from Handel. It received the Art Direction Oscar in 1994. I wouldn’t buy it as a gift or even watch it for any type of relaxing entertainment. The theme of this movie is far too intense. I didn’t enjoy watching it, but I’m glad I did. Nigel Hawthorne is outstanding as King George.

George III was the last King of America. Our Declaration of Independence paints a scathing portrait of him, evil, tyrannical, all the reasons for the American Revolution. Much of this is unwarranted.

We weren’t so much anti-monarchy; we just didn’t want George III. In fact, at the constitutional debates, the proposal to have a king was actively discussed.

The subject of this movie is why did George, at the mid-point of his long life (1738 – 1820) begin to exhibit such strange behavior and how did people handle it? It is at times quite a terrifying story.

The movie begins in 1788. The king still refers to America as the “colonies, and his powerful Prime Minister Pitt reminds him that America is now a new country.

George is showing increasing signs of his life-shattering illness. We now believe that the illness was porphyria, which causes irrational speech and bizarre behavior. There are remissions, which George experienced. The disease has never been completely diagnosed in him, although the suspicions are very strong. Symptoms may have been present years before.

It exposed him to the appalling medial treatment of the time. His high rank did not protect him. As his symptoms at times intensified, there was a lot of political talk about establishing a regency with his eldest son, George, indolent, immoral, championed by Fox, a leading political leader strongly disliked by the King. The Prime Minister, Pitt, was against it. King George knew that Fox had a very bad influence on his son.

The medical treatment at times became very harsh, and the movie spares nothing to describe it. George showed great courage against hopeless odds. I feel great sadness for him.

The movie is described as a comic biopic. I couldn’t disagree more. Oh sure, there are amusing comments, but generally the mood is very dark. The genuine affection between George and his wife is very touching. It does not diminish, although the doctors separate them in his illness.

The movie ends of a brighter note. The Kin is in remission, so there is no need for a regency. He waves and basks in the roar of the cheering crowds. His family is with him, even the regent, whom the father heartily despises.

Today, the British monarchy is fully constitutional, which means it doesn’t have a lot to do. It receives visitors, goes on vacations, and sometimes makes goodwill tours. There is also parliamentary protocol which sometimes needs attention.

Above all, the tabloid-featured Royal Family is very good for tourism. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Media Mania from FriendsOf1776: Sweet Liberty; 1776; The Patriot; Liberty! PBS Series

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Commemorating our Constitution

I wish today was a holiday.

On September 17, 1787, the mostly upper-class, propertied men at the Constitutional Convention had finally come out of their political hiding and were told that the Constitution was complete. It could now go to the states for ratification. It needed nine states to approve this.

The outcome was no sure thing. Federalists and Anti-Federalists were in strong disagreement for the need of a central government at all. Many strong Anti-Federalists believed that the final outcome of the Constitution would be to get rid of the states altogether. Many esteemed patriots, including John Hancock and Patrick Henry, were very much against ratification. There was strong interest in how three larger states would vote.

In Massachusetts, John Hancock, was very outspoken about his lack of support. But ever business-minded, he was a late convert. The possibility of a Federal appointment and a Bill of Rights were two issues important to him. Madison worked constantly to accomplish the latter.

The results in Virginia and New York were very close. Patrick Henry, powerful orator as always, felt that Virginians were doing very well under the Articles of Confederation, and didn’t need a Constitution at all.

The The Federalist Papers were a strong advocate for ratification. But it’s important to realize that ratification was not a public election, although the secrecy of the deliberations was completely changed to a very open process, including an active press.

Our Constitution, in a sense, marks the end of our revolutionary war period. The aim for a separate country free from Great Britain had been realized. Now America had to face new and daunting challenges alone.

Among these was the explosive issue of slavery, which lasted another 78 years! – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The American Revolution Produces Our First Constitution, the Articles of Confederation

On September 17, we can commemorate our national Constitution, 1787, the one in solid place today, the one that is always being scrutinized, what does it say? That’s what the Supreme Court does.

But less than ten years before, some influential Americans, central government proponents, were looking for a more solid direction for the states, which were going their own way. People weren’t too unhappy about it. After all, they were Virginians or New Yorkers first, or whatever their location, before joining any states’ federation for the common good! And they certainly didn’t want to fund any central government! That was an open invitation to corruption. Look at why they were fighting Great Britain; to be free of that uncontrolled power.

The 2nd Continental Congress began to consider the Articles of Confederation, the “United States of America”, in 1776 – 1777.

It was an attempt to designate what, if any, role could be better handled by the states together. From the beginning, dissension between the central versus anti-central government supporters was intense. Funding for a Confederation was actually non-existent, because the states generally never paid their assessments. The states retained enormous power. Over the long run, the articles would be untenable.

They were not ratified until 1781, over the contentious issue of how new states should be admitted. The 13 articles withered on the vine. Their most ferocious critic was, you guessed it, Alexander Hamilton. His message was, “I told you so!”

He saw, that with their financial structure, they were doomed. After a few years, many of the delegates to the Confederation government showed little interest in the proceedings.

There was nothing democratic about how delegates were selected. Many you could identify as machine politicians. The franchise was restricted to those with power and property. No others need apply. Changing this has been unbelievably slow. Consider that women didn’t get the vote until 1920 and poll taxes weren’t eliminated until 1964!

I believe that war (World War I and Vietnam here) seems to produce great domestic changes.

There is some technical quibbling on whether the Articles are a constitution at all. Well, they sound awfully like a constitution to me! The states are all included; the same articles apply to all of them. They are intended to be perpetual, not change every three months. There are rules on how and when delegates may serve. We have that in our present constitution.

A difference is that the powers retained by the states are far greater, although this issue is not completely resolved today.

The Articles did consider some very important issues though. Their main purpose was to prevent states from individually waging wars, making alliances, running as individual countries. There were questions if states could retain armies and navies. Militias were okay. Did citizens had the right to move unhindered from state to state? Issues such as extradition for criminals were considered. The Confederation was to be the final arbiter of disputes between states and it alone could regulate currency. Today, we take these issues either for granted, or look to our Supreme Court to resolve them.

Since the states still held the “power of the purse” and Alexander Hamilton’s objections were correct, it was time for something new. So in 1787, we wrote our second constitution. It’s the one that’s around today.

Please note: I found very clear and engaging testimony in the following source: Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., 2002. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Causes of the American Revolution: Part 6 – more on Boston, the Boston Massacre

Massacre is a very ominous word.

Some of history’s most notorious events have this term attached to them. It certainly doesn’t fit what happened in icy Boston on March 1770.

We know relations in Boston and the “British Garrison” had deteriorated rapidly since 1768, when British troops were posted in the city after a serious smuggling incident.

Much of Boston’s volatile street rabble had practically declared open warfare on the British soldiers. This rabble was manipulated by radicals (including Sam Adams) to further their agenda. This was basically “get the British out of Boston, Massachusetts and the rest of colonies”.

In March 1770, the situation in Boston came to a head, with predictable results.

A street mob, many after heavy drinking, was itching for a fight. So they harassed a lone sentry, pelting him with snowballs and chunks of ice. Ten British reinforcements were no match for the menacing crowd.

This was a typical schoolyard bully situation. Pick on someone weaker, taunt them, the victim is outnumbered anyway. Then start the attack.

This was a very, very unfair fight. The results came soon enough. Captain Preston, the British commander, no rookie, was very nervous. The situation was out of control.

A British shot was fired, whether by accident or panic, who knows? Then there were a few more shots. Five Bostonians lay dead.

“Massacre” was the roar of the mob. The British had fired without provocation, wantonly. They will pay for their dastardly deed. Of course, radicals had now just the situation they could exploit, which they began immediately.

For me, the real story starts now. Even today, when a dreadful crime has been committed, and the criminal awaits trial, even with our Constitution and legal safeguards, who would want to defend the obviously guilty person? Forget the process, let the trial begin, pass judgment now.

Fortunately, this doesn’t happen. Of course, the quality of the defense can vary widely. A good lawyer can literally make the difference between life and death. The British soldiers got a very lucky break.

They got the best defense, John Adams, with Josiah Quincy. Adams had no love for the street crowd. He was always very suspicious of the opinion and motivation of any mob. That wasn’t law, that was anarchy.

He did feel that anyone should be defended for a criminal charge, certainly the British. After all, it was a long-held principle of justice.

I don’t feel that the verdict of acquittal for all but two of the soldiers is so amazing. The stories of the witnesses fluctuated widely. Even the jurors must have realized evidence must have some validity, not vary from person to person. Can you imagine the grilling the witnesses got from the defense team?

However, the “Massacre” incident’s notoriety did not subside. Other colonies took up the alleged outrage. The familiar story persists to this day.

However, it does show that even if all you face is an expensive speeding ticket, it will probably pay you to hire a good lawyer! – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Causes of the American Revolution: Part 5 – Boston

Sunday, August 30, 2009

George Washington & The Making of the Prefident 1789 by Marvin Kitman

“Summer reading” is a pleasant tradition, along with holiday movies, Easter brunch, and many others I know you enjoy. I’d like to hear about some of them.

The Los Angeles Times carried a list of books President Obama took on his vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. Included are a couple not considered exactly light reading – John Adams by David McCollough and Tom Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

Bookstores often feature crowded tables full of books, many of them classics, considered good candidates for “summer reading”.

Confess now, did you really read all the titles you brought with you? War and Peace doesn’t count!

I am really enjoying Kitman’s The Making of the Prefident 1789: The Unauthorized Campaign Biography. It’s a very funny, very clever, very readable spoof on George Washington. As the Father of our country shall we agree he’s fair game.

What makes a book readable for me? I can open it at any page and find continuity, the book maintains a lively pace, and generally the chapters are short. Kitman’s book is all of the above.

The back cover carries the following description of the book:

In The Making of the President 1789, humorist and self-appointed historian Marvin Kitman satirizes the contemporary “campaign insider” book while making the case that George Washington was not only “First in War, First in Peace” – he was also first among the Founding Fathers in gambling, drinking, and social climbing. And that’s not to mention his weakness for the Founding Girlfriends.

In an irreverent exposé of how the Mount Vernon Machine engineered the first presidential election victory, Kitman sets out to answer the questions: “How is it possible that a man with virtually no military experience becomes a general? He loses more battle than he wins and becomes a war hero? He has absolutely no political opinion in the most sophisticated intellectual period of our history? He has no ambitions, and he wins?”

Washington looked good, married well, that usually means rich. He engaged in wealth-inducing activities such as land speculation. His constant debt was respectable because after all, it was tied to being a large landowner and planter. Above all, he developed the right social graces, cultivating influential people around him.

He was never insignificant.

Even wearing his splendid uniforms was a powerful campaign tactic. His constant professed modesty got him elected unanimously as our first president. Washington had the luck to be in the right place at the right time.

Will I have the chance to read more in these waning days of summer? I have selected Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I could finish it by the time of the World Series.

We can’t bet on it. But betting always carries with it the element of surprise. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

John Paul Jones and His Role in Our American Revolution

Our Founding Fathers excelled in their accomplishments and importance.

Others also contributed a great deal to the outcome of our revolution – men such as Sam Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry.

Also among them is John Paul Jones, dubbed “the Father of the American Navy”.

He was born John Paul in Scotland in very modest circumstances. At 13, he was already apprenticed in the British navy. He showed very quickly that he was a brilliant sailor, full of daring and cunning.

John Paul Jones wreaked havoc on British shipping during the Revolutionary War. He didn’t wait for enemy shipping to come to him – he went where it was located in Great Britain and inflicted his damage there. Astute superiors saw his skills and advanced him to larger and larger vessels.

John Paul’s life was often a contradiction. He had intense ambition, craving to impress those with higher rank and above all, background. Benjamin Franklin was his long-time friend. There were times when John Paul Jones was a celebrity with honors from foreign countries, the toast of many in Europe.

Two incidents determined why he came to the colonies in the first place. They occurred in Tobago in the West Indies. An unfortunate murder charge for the death of someone under his command put a price on his head. Jones always claimed it was self-defense. One of his crews threatened mutiny.

John Paul literally fled, leaving everything. Jones was added to his name when he arrived in the colonies, to give him a better chance of escaping the law in Tobago.

Once here, he began to make the rounds of the shipping business. He disclaimed any allegiance to Great Britain and became an ardent patriot. Not too many questions were asked of those who pledged all their effort to our Revolutionary War.

Any of you that have knowledge of ship structure and capability at the end of the 18th century have a real advantage understanding John’s victories, many against much more powerful ships. Vessels were very complicated, requiring detailed knowledge to keep them running in top shape. Jones had all that. Often he would perform needed repairs himself when necessary. On the ships under his command, he was everywhere, always came up with a plan, got top performance from his crews, and never just barked orders from a cabin.

He wanted to make admiral. The greater his success, the more jealousy he created. Some superiors were his dangerous rivals.

Jones’ most celebrated naval battle was with the powerful British HMS Serapis, when his own Bon Homme Richard (named for Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac) sank. It was at this engagement when Jones is reputed to have exclaimed his most famous quote, “I have just begun to fight”. Those words probably explain his naval philosophy and style better than any other.

He wanted fame, and got it. But it didn’t last.

Foreign engagements, such as for Catherine of Russia, were not successful. Other American sailors got the plush assignments. Jones faded from view and seemed forgotten.

We know he was very ambitious. Well, so was George Washington.

I think ambition is probably an intrinsic requisite for anyone striving to attain the top. But Jones and Washington used ambition very differently. Washington was intent on always being where the power brokers were, the social giants, the political leaders. His conduct was a success. He was sought after, admired, made President. Jones’ life took a very different direction. He was most of the time on the high seas, away from the influential people who could advance him. Later in his life, it made him bitter that he was not appreciated as he felt he deserved.

He died at 45 in France, and buried there without any real recognition and fanfare.

It took until the beginning of the 20th century for us to give him the honors he so justly deserved. The Naval Academy at Annapolis established a grave site for him, appropriate for a hero of his magnitude.

Even my minimal knowledge of 18th century shipping does not detract from my interest in Jones’ biography. It would certainly make a splendid movie. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

John Paul Jones from A&E Biography

More personalities from Thomas Paine | Daniel Boone

John Paul Jones on

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Our Constitution, an outstanding achievement of our American Revolution

With a new Supreme Court justice in place, as usual there’s been a lot of discussion about our Constitution.

It is often portrayed as something mysterious whose every word needs explanation. I don’t see it that way at all. The words seem simple, to the point. Of course, today when every social ill looks to the Constitution for remedy, those words have to be stretched very far.

What is the role of our Supreme Court regarding it? Do all our constitutional experts shed new light on the Constitution’s meaning? What does our Constitution really have to decide?

Even with lifetime appointments no one can predict how a justice will vote, or which cases will be hard, or if a new amendment is being loudly promoted.

Many cases submitted for constitutional review are never heard at all. A lot are sent down to lower courts, for further review.

Just four years after the end of our revolutionary war (1783), why did we need a federal government, with its operating manual, a constitution? After all, the states already had their Articles of Confederation, which I will describe as a friendship pact between them. However, some rather amazing developments had occurred. Some states had their own currencies; sometimes duties and fees were extracted from other states when their goods reached borders; obviously the situation could not continue. Worst of all, there was no way to raise revenue for general purposes, such as maintaining an army.

I know that any country without a system of reliable taxation won’t last very long. But when the concept of a Federal Republic was proposed, there was intense suspicion, some of the strongest coming from ardent patriots of the Revolution itself, for instance Patrick Henry. Any federal republic or government would only swallow up the power of the states, and grab all of it for itself. A federal government would soon become corrupt and dictatorial. Of course, the federal versus states conflict persists to this day. It occupies a lot of constitutional experts. You can just imagine what controversy it raised in 1787. After all, a huge war was just fought to liberate the colonies from the power of Great Britain.

In spite of the enormous dissent, a constitutional convention was organized in, where else, Philadelphia. Delegates were very different from the familiar leaders of our revolution. Some of the delegates were professional politicians. Many were not that well-known, or promoted. Many delegates did not even have clear directions from their colonial legislatures. The convention saw the rise of two very prominent post-revolutionaries, Hamilton and Madison. They were the outstanding architects of the Constitution.

There was no call for unanimity. If anything significant came out of this convention, it didn’t need to be ratified by every colony.

The proceedings were to be held in secret. Fear about the interference of the public rabble was one compelling reason.

In spite of strong reasons to justify the need for secrecy, I just can’t really accept it. The feeling that any government “hides” facts is very strong for the average citizen.

The concept of a Federal government got great advertising. From 1787 to 1788, The Federalist Papers by Hamilton and Madison, and to a lesser degree Jay, laid out why a Federal government would benefit the new country enormously.
The fact that the constitutional deliberations had so many problems makes the final results so outstanding. Miracle At Philadelphia, a prominent book on the proceedings, is an accurate description.

Many amendments have refined and expanded the Constitution over the years. There is nothing static about this document. This is its strength and potential weakness. A call for a new amendment crops up quite frequently. Many of these call for Congressional legislation, not the Constitution!

The final constitution was accepted by the convention on September 17, 1787. I don’t understand why this date is virtually ignored, not even noted.

That needs changing. How about a fixed – as is July 4th – holiday? Now that should be a popular idea with the American public! – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May - September 1787. Catherine Drinker Bowen, an Atlantic Monthly Press Book, 1966.

From the beginning: the French and Indian War from Friends of 1776

Sunday, August 9, 2009

PBS – DVD – Liberty!: The American Revolution (1997, 2004 DVD edition)

I don’t think the American Revolution is an easy story to tell. This war was long, fought at many locations. Often, there were dramatic results.

In the New York City campaign, we see Washington at his lowest ebb. His is desperate for long-term enlistments. Only after his limited victories at Trenton and Princeton do we see him as we usually see him, confident, in-charge, victorious. It was all uphill for him after that.

In some colonies, we had more of a civil war than a campaign against a foreign adversary.

After a few years, France was entirely funding our war for independence.

Given all these circumstances, I think PBS with Liberty! The American Revolution has done a bang-up job in presenting our revolution in six superbly-edited episodes up to our Constitution. It is clear, entertaining, well-presented. I enjoyed it very much. It is worth noting that all the words spoken by the actors come from speeches and writings of the specific period.

It would have been even better if the series existed with more episodes. Also, I found the last one, on the Constitution, somewhat wordy and lacking in some drama. But by 1787 new, powerful men were on the scene, such as Hamilton and Madison. Former revolutionary firebrands such as Patrick Henry were more subdued.

Did we rush into a constitution and federal status for our colonies? Maybe so, although dire economic circumstances required combined action. After all, peace with Great Britain was only declared in 1783, and we already set up a new republic in 1787!

I think all great political changes generate back-burners, where unsolved issues end up to smolder until they explode later. In 1776, slavery ended up on the back burner. Ten years later, nothing had changed. Then it took another eighty years to have the back burner explode, at a ghastly cost. Our Civil War was the federal answer to an issue that had been smoldering for decades. Which issues do you think are smoldering on back burners today?

This PBS series gives a good balance between our political war with its endless petitions to George III and Parliament with no solutions, and the military history of our revolutionary period.

I do feel, though, that the British war against us was doomed from the start. As early as 1777, Burgoyne, a crack British general, had serious problems keeping his ace troops supplied. No wonder I heard that what finally won World War II for us was Detroit and its endless assortment of trucks. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Liberty! The American Revolution DVD on Amazon

Excellent soundtrack to Liberty! featuring Mark O'Connor

Download Mark O'Connor tracks

1776 – Movie Review from
The Patriot – Movie Review from
Sweet Liberty – Movie Review from

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Causes of the American Revolution: Part 6 – The 1st Continental Congress 1774

When any group, political, business, social, sees a problem, what’s usually the first line of action?

Call a meeting!

In 1774, our American colonies did just that.

Their relationship with Great Britain was a huge problem, and deteriorating.

Fifty-six powerful colonial representatives (all except Georgia) met in Philadelphia for two months. What came out of that meeting was the colonial agenda for the future, independence from Great Britain completely, whatever the cost. That probably meant war.

There was a wide difference of opinion among the delegates. The first group were radicals, including the champion rabble-rouser, Sam Adams. Their view prevailed ultimately.

Popular support for their position was by no means universal.

This is a fact which I really had to recognize. Generally, we think of the American Revolution as being widely supported. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The position of the moderates was defeated by only one vote.

They did not favor independence. The colonies should rather pledge allegiance to the British royalty, but little else. It resembles a more modern dominion status such as Canada. The moderates’ defeat caused understandably many hard feelings and some outright defections to the loyalist cause.

The staunch conservative loyalists wanted only to maintain our British connection.

Somehow, problems would be resolved. Loyalists existed all over the colonies. Many were concentrated in the South, and when war came, the British looked to them for active support.

Their position as a group was intolerable. Hounded and persecuted, property seized, thousands fled to Britain in Canada. It is not a pretty story. No wonder the American Revolution is often designated as a civil war. There were no good-will overtures such as Lincoln extended to Confederates at the end of our Civil War.

The British believed, not incorrectly, that they would win the war in the South, with help from many loyalists. But in war, the unexpected seems to happen. A stronger French involvement on our side and amazing maneuvers by American generals changed the military picture. Also, after years of war, the British had increasing problems keeping its distant army adequately supplied.

After 1774, colonial attitudes had hardened. The colonies had their own political and economic agendas. In a few years, there would be a Federal constitution. Colonial borders would see vast expansion.

And to bestow true legitimacy on this Congress, it set its second meeting for May 1775. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Causes of the American Revolution, an ongoing series
Part 1 – The French and Indian War
Part 2 – The Stamp Act
Part 3 – Samuel Adams, 1722 – 1803
Part 4 – Tom Paine and Common Sense
Part 5 – Boston

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book Review Mini-post: Boone – A Biography, Robert Morgan

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007 538 pp. Includes extensive notes, bibliography.

This book provides a detailed, balanced treatment of the life and character of Boone, but certainly not the semi-fictional Boone created by the media.

The media has been kind to him, contrary to for instance Jefferson; I think the latter has taken a beating in recent years. Morgan’s biography is not the easiest reading. He includes a great deal of information on Boone’s many business dealings in land with a very large number of clients. Many of these transactions were unsatisfactory.

Sources for Morgan were provided by many contributors, including relatives. The source authenticity must always be questioned.

The focus on Boone’s public life, rather than just his exploration and life on the frontier, succeeds in defining Boone as basically a moral, kindly man. I wouldn’t call him a saint, but he wasn’t a sinner, either.

Writing biography automatically sets up a need to include and explain everything possible about the subject’s life. Some types of biography are very popular, particularly if the subject is in any type of show business. These biographies embellish rumors, then add depth and mystery where actually none may exist. Even a provocative title can set up great expectations. They are not trashy, just not scholarly. I enjoy them very much.

Choosing a more obscure subject may generate a lot of interest. Some years ago, a biographer, instead of choosing a blockbuster subject such as Winston Churchill, chose his mother, Jennie. It was a great success.

How does Morgan relate Boone’s long life (1734 – 1820) to the American Revolutionary War?

He shows that America’s frontiers were fighting their own war, predominantly against hostile Indians hired by the British. The frontier did not end its war when the colonies did. Essentially, there were two wars. Boone’s was part of the frontier war. His family’s Tory sympathies existed, although the extent is unclear.

There is good information on Boone’s later years in Missouri. It is not definite if he ever returned to Kentucky. He was treated with great honor and respect. There was always interest in his years on the Kentucky frontier.

This biography fills a gap. Boone needed some serious study, not more entertainment wearing a coonskin cap. 2007 is not a moment too soon. –Renata Breisacher Mulry

Hardcover Edition

Paperback Edition

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Daniel Boone (1734 – 1820)

Boone became a legend in his lifetime. An adventurer, a man with many skills, much sought-after to tell about his wilderness experiences, he is a genuine American folk hero.

Forget the cartoonish coonskin hat. It was never part of his attire.

He is referred to as an icon.

Already as an adolescent, Boone had a reputation as an outstanding trapper and hunter. There was good money in furs and hides, not only for food but as a source of cash. They were good currency.

He established a reputation as an excellent surveyor.

Boone learned tough times early. Already in the French and Indian War, he was a teamster in Braddock’s disastrous campaign (1755), and barely escaped with his life. His exposure to danger never diminished throughout his years on the frontier.

The Appalachians were Boone’s frontier. He first reached Kentucky in 1767. His long life included extensive exploration and discovery, in a wilderness full of resources and beauty, before coal mining perpetually changed its face. He endured periods of extreme violence, great family tragedy, injustice and disappointments.

Many people, including his extended family, were part of his life, but I consider him ultimately a solitary man.

America has always had a frontier, always looking west. The boundaries of the original colonies were a challenging, dangerous area. Boone really extended the whole concept. He opened up territory which was formerly unknown to American colonists. Before and through our Revolution, we had to fight for and defend our frontiers, from the British, French, and continual attack by Native Americans.

Our struggles to maintain what little frontier we had settled was a war almost in addition to the battles of the American Revolution being fought further east. Actually, our frontier battles did not automatically cease when we signed our peace treaty with Great Britain. Few settlers had the courage to choose Kentucky as a future home. The ones who dared faced unbelievable hardships. Many left, never to return. Boone’s efforts were unceasing to establish some stability in the few settlements that existed. He saw periods of some success and also utter desolation.

America’s fascination and quest for frontier has always been a deep part of our psyche. We were never content to just develop the colonies as we knew them. The ultimate reason was our insatiable search for land, free, or cheap, able to be obtained through speculation or maneuvering. George Washington and Patrick Henry were heavy speculators.

Land was wealth, opportunity. If handled advantageously, land could make fortunes, and did. But if handled naively and poorly, land’s value would vanish overnight leaving the owner impoverished and full of debts.

Boone was a solitary hunter of great reputation. He moved his growing family continuously, often to very primitive conditions. Sometimes he was absent for years. His skills were great, but he had no head for business and apparently not a whole lot of interest.

Land claims, just as today, legitimate or phony, were a constant threat to the landowner. The larger the holdings, the more claims. Boone was careless. He neglected basic procedures such as paying taxes. Judgments were always being recorded against him. He was constantly in debt. Sometimes he managed to settle debts years after they were due, or others did. I think this carelessness was a definite flaw in his character. Being scrupulous in business details is not evil.

But Boone just wanted his life opening up a frontier. If too many settlers appeared to be coming, he became unhappy. He learned an early lesson in ecology. As more settlers came, Boone had to travel further and further into the wilderness to locate abundant game. Over hunting had produced its predictable results.

From 1775 – 1783, he was a militia officer in the Revolutionary War. From time to time, Boone also served in government, without much enthusiasm. His solitary tendencies and pleasant adaptability when required were not the qualities which he needed to wheel and deal in government. Maybe an astute business sense would have made him a more effective legislator.

I don’t think he was a vengeful person. In politics, participants remember their injuries to use as bargaining chips later.

His frontier years always exposed him to the dangerous proximity of Indians. In league with the British, they were constantly ready to capture or kill Americans. At one point, Boone was the captive of the Shawnees and even became an “adopted” son. He was not unhappy.

Even with all his hardships, Boone lived into his eighties, surrounded by family who took care of him. His stories from the frontier were very much in demand. He had finally moved to Missouri in 1799. Initially, he was under the jurisdiction of the Spanish and very honored and respected. The Louisiana Purchase changed his fortunes once again.

The American frontier was changing and expanding. No one was better equipped to deal with this than Boone. He had opened up our first western frontier in Kentucky decades before.

Please note: I don’t know how much interest exists about Daniel Boone today. Therefore, it is significant that a detailed biography was published in 2007; this will be briefly reviewed next. Also, a long-running TV series from the mid-sixties based fictionally on his life is available; it was very popular with children. TV doesn’t offer this kind of entertainment today, based loosely on history. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Meanwhile, back in the city, revolution stirs in Boston

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Children Reading About the American Revolution

I once heard that if you want to learn something about anything, get a kid’s book on that subject. There’s a lot of merit in that advice.

The personalities and events of the American Revolution can be explained to even very young children. How is this information being presented?

Wrapped in large print, decreasing according to age, basic; very simple, short sentences, with many pertinent facts omitted. And therein lies the catch. Pertinent facts are the links which carry events forward, which explain why certain events turned out the way they did. Young readers want facts, but the reasons behind them may not be included at all. They probably like the story of the Boston Tea party, but don’t read much about the long list of grievances that lead up to it.

The selection of personalities featured seems quite random. It’s not just about Founding Fathers. Some selections may even seem a trifle gimmicky. A harsher critic would probably agree.

For instance, a title featuring Paul Revere is all his ride, most of the time. After all, he is a cult figure as much as a historical personality might allow. We know that Revere’s purpose was to warn notorious Patriots such as John Hancock to avoid capture by the British at all costs. That might have changed the American Revolution. But this very pertinent fact is really not brought out at all. But information needs to keep moving for young readers, and introducing too many personalities certainly won’t do this.

Please don’t think my intention is to disparage juvenile biography. Absolutely not. Anyone can get information this way quickly and simply. That is a real value.

Another example, John Hancock, comes to mind. A title praises Hancock for signing the Declaration of Independence first. There was a reason for this, which is really not mentioned. Hancock was President of the Congress that adopted the Declaration; he had a great deal of power running the show. So it wasn’t surprising that his name would be prominent on that document.

Some of the Revolutionary War personalities were interesting. They are all important, but not on the Founding Fathers’ tier. Information on Patrick Henry was surprisingly complete, with heavy emphasis of course on his “give me liberty or give me death” speech. I think we can call that the most famous quote of the war.

Abigail Adams gets her own volume, mostly discussing her long correspondence with husband John Adams. I doubt that the later correspondence of Adams and Jefferson is discussed as much.

For adolescent readers, the print gets smaller and the treatment longer; a George Washington biography is complete, although the title “Frontier Colonel” seems to indicate only his early checkered military career. He is never treated too harshly.

A volume on John Paul Jones gives basic facts on someone not mentioned all that often. Once you reach biography for adolescents, there is competition for the fact-seeker. A simple, short handbook can often give you the information very concisely and quickly.

The Internet of course has become a font of all knowledge but may not save one time over just checking an index.

Landmark Books (2002) has a lavishly illustrated history Liberty!: How the Revolutionary War Began (for adolescents) listing all the familiar reasons quite completely. However, it has no real advantage over a simple handbook or encyclopedia, designed for general reference.

I read an adolescent biography on Daniel Boone (subject of a forthcoming post) completely and I found that certain portions were very violent. It brings up again a perennial dilemma, how much violence should be included in items marketed to young people? The times of Daniel Boone were incredibly violent. Those who attempted to settle in frontier Kentucky lived in constant danger from many sources. This Boone biography stresses this very effectively.

I’m glad juvenile biography titles are available. I hope more personalities from the American Revolutionary War will be featured. I’ll look forward to reading their titles, too. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Sterling Point Books | Landmark Books

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor: July 4th, 2009

Please read the Declaration on July 4th.

Consider the well-known words at the beginning:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

And later, the Second Continental Congress declares

That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved

And the stirring words of its conclusion:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The American Pyrotechnics Association recommends a dozen more fireworks displays (in addition to those well-known cities such as Boston and New York). Listed are Addison, Texas; Branson, Missouri; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Stone Mountain, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Falmouth, Massachusetts; Las Vegas; Nashville; Oahu; South Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Source:
San Diego Union Tribune, 6/28/2009.

Does your community have a spectacular or very original display? Please send comments.

Whatever your plans, you will enjoy them. Even a massive thunderstorm, at the end of a sultry day, will fit right in. I remember storms like these in Washington, D.C.

It’s a grand day for our national party. –Renata Breisacher Mulry

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sweet Liberty – Movie Review

Alan Alda is a highly-regarded entertainer. He has been featured in many performances, including his memorable role in MASH. His audience appeal has never faded.

I don’t find many movies set at the time of the American Revolution.

There is a minor movie, Sweet Liberty, made in 1986 by Alda, in which he acted and also wrote and directed. I heard a loose rule (at UCLA Extension) that in general a triple credit will guarantee the movie will not be outstanding. Different talent needs to be brought in. That’s probably what happened here, because Alda has not pulled the movie off successfully.

But its theme had potential. A college history professor writes a noted book about the American Revolution. His book is serious. Then the author hits the jackpot: a company is going to make a movie out of the book and come to town in South Carolina to film it.

But to the author’s increasing horror, the movie will not resemble his book at all. Instead, it will be a sexy spoof, relying on big box office draws (played by the reliable Michael Caine and Michelle Pfeiffer) to carry the action. Since the hometown has a Revolutionary reenactment, there are plenty of local extras (and their bright uniforms) waiting in the wings. For the production company, things look good. Everyone welcomes its arrival, including the governor. You’d expect this in a small town. It’s a big deal.

The script meanders; characters are introduced who really contribute nothing to the action. Even Caine, who is featured as a hopeless womanizer when off-screen, lacks sparkle. Some of his scenes are somewhat bizarre.

The author’s girlfriend plays it cute but trite. Their scenes together seem irritating. The dotty characterization of the author’s aged mother is superfluous and embarrassing.

I liked the portrayal of the townspeople, naïve and enthusiastic, overcome with the presence of celebrities.

Of all the characters, the director, sharply played by Saul Rubinek, gives the most style to his performance. One can completely decipher his mindset. For him, the author is an unfortunate human being who must be ignored at all costs; the actors are a bunch of temperamental, ignorant children; the townspeople / extras are a temporary affliction whose pesty suggestions are routinely dismissed with “I can’t use it”. The director just wants to be left alone.

Toward the end of the movie, the pace notably quickens. When the author unleashes his planned sabotage during shooting, the director is not defeated at all. He has placed additional cameras all over the set so the show will go on.

The cool, glamorous wife of Caine appears, and the hopeless Don Juan now is the appropriate husband of a wife who is totally in charge. Her small role is a very effective episode in the script.

The author’s girlfriend is glamorous and pregnant at the movie premiere. She has abandoned her feisty, independent personality. Not a highly original touch, but plausible.

As for the townspeople, they have the best time of all. Their fifteen minutes of fame are probably over, but they are not grieving. Their town will never be the same. They have awarded all their personal Oscars to Sweet Liberty. –Renata Breisacher Mulry

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