Quietly celebrating the Fourth with a history book
July 5, 2005
Jimmy Ibbotson, a Woody Creek neighbor and friend, gave me a book that turned out to be the perfect companion to cuddle up with during the Fourth of July weekend and also an excuse to avoid the tourist tsunami that sweeps over my beloved Woody Creek Tavern each summer at this time.For whatever reason – age is my leading suspect – I have become very uncomfortable around large crowds. Maybe I have become the victim of paranoia. All I know is that I no longer enjoy being around large groups of people, especially strangers, and this valley fills with very strange people in the summer. I really wanted to march with local veterans in the Aspen parade, to show support for my fellow veterans and for those troops fighting and dying in that insane quagmire created by our president in Iraq. Unfortunately, my weird aversion to crowds ruled out such participation. At any rate, the book Jimmy gave me is “Founding Brothers,” by Joseph J. Ellis, who is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. Ellis focuses on events that followed 1776, events that had the potential to reduce the infant American republic into a small group of diverse and uncooperative units. As Ellis points out, among those early Americans there was “an obsessive suspicion of any centralized political power,” yet such a power was critical to governing this new nation. The problem was that the very “arguments used to justify secession from the British Empire also undermined the legitimacy of any national government capable of overseeing such a far-flung population” in America. That is a quandary we are still dealing with. After 229 years, arguments regarding a central authority vs. state’s rights continue to ring through the land.At this point it is necessary to call attention to the fact that I am not anything close to being an expert in this arena. As I write this, on the Fourth of July, I have managed to read only about one-third of Ellis’ book. This is a slow read, as I find myself continually going to other sources in order to identify certain individuals and events. While reading this, it became brutally obvious that I spent too much time staring out the window during American history classes in high school and college. I’m not certain I can somehow rectify my inattentive behavior as a youth by reading this book, but, what the heck, it’s worth a try.And considering that the men currently in power in the White House tend to easily disregard history, taking a look back might be a healthy course for the nation. In his now famous “Farewell Address” in 1796 (which was never given as an address but was published in all major American newspapers of the time), George Washington placed an emphasis on national unity. Washington was America’s No. 1 icon by far. “He was,” wrote Ellis, “the American Zeus, Moses, and Cincinnatus all rolled into one.”In retrospect, it is obvious that had Washington been as vain as some of the men who currently wield power in our nation, he could have served as president until he died. Instead, he set the precedent of two terms and gracefully stepped down. FDR broke that precedent during World War II, and in 1951 the Constitution was amended to limit presidential terms to two terms. I say a quiet prayer to Congress for that!According to Ellis, Washington’s “Farewell Address” was a plea for a “politics of consensus serving as a warning against single-issue political movements, or against the separation of America into racial, ethnic, or gender-based constituencies.” With only a hint of hindsight, it is clear that we have pretty much ignored Washington’s words. Our Civil War is the classic example of what Washington feared and while we are not on the verge of another such war, we are teetering on the brink of becoming a nation fractionalized by single-issue political movements. Sadly enough, we have political leaders who are ideologues, zealots who are not consensus-builders but who seem determined to widen the divisions that exist. While an entire nation has begun to sense their incompetence, as reflected in endless national polls, they refuse to budge on a single issue.Washington didn’t touch on religion as a potential threat to this nation’s stability, but religion has become a major issue on the political scene, an issue with the potential to become more divisive than any our nation has ever experienced. And sadly enough, George W., our compassionate-warrior president, has discovered a powerful voter base among the more extreme religious elements. Worse yet is the fact that he is milking that constituency for all it is worth, and at the same time he is fanning some potentially dangerous flames.We don’t have to look any further than the Middle East to understand how tragically deep religious divisions can cut. But ideologues such as George W. seem to operate with myopic precision, disregarding the potential consequences of their shortsighted acts.George Washington was the most popular man in America of his time, a consensus builder in a young nation that could have disintegrated. Now, 229 years later, we have a nation supposedly divided into “blue states and red states.” This is not a good sign!But I am glad Jimmy gave me this book, a great read on the Fourth of July. If only I could get a copy to George W. Maybe Barbara could read it to him?This is the 318th article in a two-part series devoted to the community of Woody Creek, a place where you can honor the Fourth without lighting a single firecracker.