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The new Steven Spielberg film, where Daniel Day Lewis looks like a photograph of the real Lincoln at least 73% of the time, is something more: it is a test.
It is a test of how much we are willing to trust the lawyerly class to govern our nation. We recognize rhetorical debates and deal-making dominating ethics and logic until the last minutes of the final vote on the 13th Amendment. The fundamental truth and benefits of human political equality is portrayed as secondary to securing postal managerships and other influence-peddling. We are taunted by how crass and dogmatic and vain is the human condition.
We are tested by this newsreel of a period film to wonder at how humanity has managed to move forward, occasionally, in the face our selfishly aggressive nature. Yet sometimes we do make progress, and this portrays such a moment, in all it’s angst.
but Independence Day is the commemoration of the adoption of the Declartion of Independence, on July 4th, 1776, by the Continental Congress.
Tonight on the network news, I listened to esteemed broadcaster Brian Williams refer to “July 4th” and the fireworks and the food, and never mention Independence Day, or its meaning in history and in the present day.
Christmas is on December 25th every year, but its meaning, whether religious or secular, is in its name, not the date.
Independence Day is about where we came from and what our forefathers did, and wouldn’t it be nice, and meaningful, to discuss among ourselves and our children how we are part of that process? That little word, “independence,” is a cornerstone of what makes America and Americans what and who we are. A discussion of how “independence” and “interdependence” relate to us in our contemporary American and global culture might be a productive way to spend “the Fourth of July.” Just saying…
Happy Independence Day!
To mark the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a flotilla of seven warships escorted the Royal Yacht Britannia through the rivers and lakes all the way to Chicago. It was a muggy July 20th in 1959, when the Brittania, then almost new, dropped anchor at Chicago’s inner harbor, heralding Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip‘s arrival, the first to the city by a reigning British monarch.
As a 16-year-old, I filmed the action from a unique vantage point — aboard my father’s little launch, as the glistening Royal Barge powered by, nearly swamping us,with Phillip waving at the pleasure boats and the Queen ducking behind the windshield to keep her curly hairdo in place. Sailors at attention stood on the bow and stern of her mahogany, silver-trimmed barge, flying the royal banner. My film is long gone (I think I cut a clip from it into a high school film project we called “An Expose of Spiriualism.”
But here is a newsreel of the event from British Pathe: http://www.britishpathe.com/video/queen-conquers-chicago
The Queen’s barge landed at the Monroe Harbor seawall, since known as the Queen’s Landing, and she crossed a red carpet across Lake Shore Drive to Buckingham Fountain, where she was greeted by Mayor Daly and Governor Stratton. A million gawkers lined the shoreline and fountain area. They paraded in open cars up Michigan Avenue, crossed the Chicago River, and proceeded to lunch at the Ambassador West Hotel.
Thomas Edison said this on New Year’s Eve in 1879, as he turned the switch on and off to thousands of incandescent lights in his Menlo Park lab.
In a way his prediction came true, in the sense that, at least in America and the advanced countries, candles are lighted mostly for special occasions, but by the poor as well as the rich.
How might his prediction prove relevant to our future today? For example, might we predict: “We will make electric cars so cheap to operate that only the rich will drive vehicles with internal combustion engines.”
I’m reminded by the following entry in The Writer’s Almanac that today is the 271st birthday of the famous scribe and biographer. Read much more about him and his contemporaries in my essay for the Chicago Literary Club, “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends’ (www.chilit.org).
“It’s the birthday of the biographer James Boswell (books by this author), born in 1740 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His family was descended from minor royalty, and they had occupied the same more than two hundred years. Boswell’s father was a judge who insisted that his son study law. So James Boswell passed his bar exams in Scotland, but he didn’t really like law and he didn’t really like Scotland. Boswell loved gossip, drinking, and traveling, and he wanted to be in London, to be in the company of the rich and famous. He also wanted to be known as a great lover, so he bragged constantly about his love life.
“James Boswell was a good writer with an incredible memory, and he started keeping a journal as a teenager, and he kept it for the rest of his life, filled with reflections and anecdotes about the famous people he befriended—Voltaire, Rousseau, Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes. Most of all he wrote about his friend Samuel Johnson. When Boswell was just 22 years old, he met Johnson, who was his idol, in the back of a bookshop. Johnson was 53, and he gave the young Boswell a hard time when he met him, but Boswell went back to visit him anyway and they soon became good friends. Over the next 20 years, Boswell followed Johnson around, and he always had paper and took notes constantly. Johnson was often frustrated with Boswell, and Boswell could be critical of Johnson, but they still liked to spend time together, and they traveled together through Scotland and the Hebrides.
“After Johnson’s death, Boswell spent years writing a biography of his friend. He used letters, interviews, as well as his own diary, of which he said, “A page of my Journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion.” Finally, in 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson was published, and people loved it. There had never been a biography like it before. Instead of a dry recitation of facts, Boswell filled his book with personal anecdotes and vivid descriptions, and overall it was fun to read, and he made Johnson sound like a real person who wasn’t totally perfect. It’s still considered one of the greatest biographies ever written, and it’s a big part of the reason why Samuel Johnson is still so famous today.”
It’s been exactly a decade since the outmoded Electoral College system of electing our Presidents, with the aid of the Supreme Court, handed the Presidency of the U.S. to a man who lost the popular vote in the nation by the population of Milwaukee. It was a close election all right, and the finger on the scale of history tipped the balance away from the people’s choice.
It’s happened three times before in our history, and it will happen again, and again, until the Electoral College is eliminated or marginalized. The electoral college was a political compromise made in the founding days of the republic, when it was feared that the common man, in the days before mass media, could not know enough about the candidates to make an informed choice. So now, in all but two states, electors unknown to the people cast all of each state’s electoral votes for the winner of the popular votes in that state, throwing out all votes cast for the opposition, and in effect dumbing down the national electoral votes, so they do not necessarily reflect the overall popular will. How dumb is that?
Before leaving for China, Dennis West, publisher of our beloved local paper here in Wisconsin, said if I did a photo of me reading The Beacon, on the Great Wall of China, he’d run it in the news. We’ll see. Here’s the pic — it was a drizzly, misty day, and I had to climb a million wet stone steps and take a ski lift to get up there, but it was so cool to actually be at this historic site. And here’s a shot of another good-looking dude in the no-longer-Forbidden City area of Beijing.
It’s the birthday of Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield, England (1709). When he was 54 years old, he was in the back parlor of his friend Tom Davies’ bookshop in London, and he was introduced to a 23-year-old Scotsman named James Boswell, who had been trying to meet Johnson for quite a while. Johnson was intensely suspicious of Scottish people, and found Boswell annoying. But eventually they became good friends.
For years, Boswell kept notes on Johnson’s mannerisms, habits, decisions, thoughts, appearance, and everything about his life. In the meantime, Samuel Johnson had a great career. He wrote essays and sketches for magazines, poems, and biographies. And then a group of publishers asked him to create a definitive dictionary of the English language, and he accepted the challenge. The French equivalent, compiled by the AcadémieFrançaise, was slotted to take 40 years and was being created by 40 scholars. The French took six years just to work on the letter “G.” In contrast, Johnson announced that he could single-handedly do the entire project in three years.
He didn’t manage it quite that fast — it took him seven years — and he did have six mechanical assistants. But it was still a huge undertaking. Published in 1775, it had more than 42,000 entries.
Johnson’s dictionary made him famous, and it is his most long-lasting achievement. But he is best remembered not for anything he wrote, but for the biography that Boswell wrote about him. Published after its subject’s death, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) is considered the precursor to modern biographies because it was the first to truly describe its subject as a whole person, not just a catalog of achievements and events.
To learn more about Johnson, read my essay, “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends.” Go to chilit.org, click on “Roll of Members,” click on “E,” then go to my name, Charles Ebeling, and click on title of essay.
From an article by Jeremy Schulman on Media Matters:
Here’s one particularly inflammatory portion of what Newt Gingrich calls D’Souza’s “stunning insight”:
“Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father’s dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is governed by a ghost.”
It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The British had invaded and captured Washington on August 24th. After successfully destroying the White House, the Capitol building, and a lot of Washington, the British moved on to Baltimore, and had no interest in occupying it — they just hoped to destroy as much as possible, as a symbolic victory.
The British made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and took over the plantation of the town doctor, Dr. William Beanes, who was elderly and well-liked. A young lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was incensed when he heard that Beanes had been captured and was being held on a ship, so he set off to rescue him.
Key was accompanied by John S. Skinner, an agent for prisoner release whom President Madison had sent along. The British commander, General Robert Ross, finally agreed to release Beanes after the Americans showed them some letters written by wounded British prisoners saying that Dr. Beanes was taking good care of them. But he wouldn’t let the three men leave until after the attack on Baltimore. They had to get on a sloop behind the British fleet and wait to see what would happen.
At Fort McHenry in Baltimore, there was a huge flag, 30 feet by 42 feet, easily visible from the British ships. Each of the 15 stars measured two feet between the points, and the stripes were two feet wide. A Baltimore seamstress and her 13-year-old daughter had sewn the flag by spreading it all out on the malthouse floor of a local brewery.
The British attacked Baltimore throughout the day on September 13th, and that night they sent more than 1,500 bombs, rockets, and cannon balls across the water at Fort McHenry. But Baltimore had been preparing for war for the past year, and it was well defended. Suddenly, the British stopped firing. From their boat, Francis Scott Key and the other men had no idea whether the British had succeeded or given up and retreated, and they could no longer see the harbor now that the sky was dark. So they had to wait all night, until the sky was light enough to see which flag was flying over the fort. And of course, the next morning the American flag was there.
Francis Scott Key scribbled down some ideas for a poem on the back of a letter that he was carrying. He was released later that day, and the next day, September 14th, he finished writing “Defense of Fort M’Henry,” which would later become the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in a room at the Indian Queen Hotel.
Within five days, the poem was printed and circulated all over Baltimore with the directions that it should be sung to the tune of an English song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” No one is sure exactly who figured out that the lyrics fit the tune of this popular drinking song. A well-known actor, Ferdinand Durang, stood on a chair and belted it out to an appreciative crowd at Captain McCauley’s tavern and became the first person to publicly sing what is now the national anthem of the United States.