Affairs of Honor: Political Culture of the Founding Generation

affairs-of-honorJoanne B. Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), is straightforward and compelling. In it, she argues that the political culture of the United States’ first generation of congressmen under the constitution of 1788 was based on a strong sense of personal honor, governed by “a grammar of political combat.” Because there were no formal political parties, representatives had to try to best represent their constituents in an unfamiliar environment, while working with people from diverse regions whose loyalties or support could never be fully known or assured.

Joanne B. Freeman is a professor of History specializing in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American History at Yale University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Affairs of Honor won the Best Book award from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

Freeman uses many primary sources to flesh out her argument, including the diary of William Maclay, a member of Pennsylvania’s first two-member delegation to the U.S. Senate. Maclay’s diary was a convincing way to illustrate his contemporary political culture because he seemed to be an observer more than a participant, and was therefore in a good position to critique it. Maclay was not without his biases, however. He was an outsider who was critical of the non-republican nature of congress, and that certainly led him to highlight certain aspects of the political culture that played into his own viewpoint.

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Barbarian Virtues: An Incomplete Critique of American Imperialism

barbarian-virtuesIn Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917, Mathew Frye Jacobson explored the American perception of ourselves and the foreign peoples we came into contact with at the turn of the last century, as empire building and immigration expanded our interaction with the outside world. The title comes from a quotation by Theodore Roosevelt calling on Americans to not abandon their hearty roots in the quest for civilization, and to “keep the barbarian virtues” in order to escape from decadence.

Anxiety over civilization and barbarity characterized American culture at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Jacobson, political culture during this period was “characterized by a paradoxical combination of supreme confidence in U.S. superiority and righteousness, with an anxiety driven by fierce parochialism.” The paradox stemmed from the United States’ economic dependence on an influx of labor from peoples that were considered to be inferior. Popular media characterized these people as barbarian others in need of the fatherly hand of the civilized United States. The labor and resources of the “barbarians” were invaluable in propelling this country to a position of power.

It is not the uniqueness of this relationship that Jacobson finds interesting. As he points out, these attitudes have long roots in American culture. The scale of these endeavors is what sets this period off from the past. Industrial production, mass population movements, expanding and active government, and a developing mass media characterized this time of explosive growth and involvement in the world. But in order to facilitate such involvement, the old attitude Americans had taken toward American Indians and, to a lesser extent, Mexicans, needed to be refashioned for use overseas. The people of Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Panama all had to be seen as “pawns in a vast geopolitical game.” This shift in perspective took a conscious cultural effort to accomplish.

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Bread and Gravy

On my recent trip through the South, I played some folk music for the ride and came across this catchy tune, “Bread and Gravy.” I found several different versions online, but couldn’t find the lyrics to this particular one, performed by J.E. Mainer & The Mountaineers with Morris Herbert on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007). The song laments the effect of high inflation, as the dollar becomes so worthless his family can only afford to eat bread and gravy, even though everyone is working. At a time when everyone has a smartphone, it’s hard to imagine being so poor things like meat, milk, and butter are unaffordable luxuries. When you think about it, gravy is just melted fat thickened with wheat flour or cornstarch. My grandma used to save the grease from cooking bacon and other meat and reuse it. Imagine pouring that on dry bread for flavor every day of the week!

bg3I read in the paper this mornin’
That a dollar just ain’t worth a dime
We used to pay cash for our roast beef
And can afford pork chops sometimes
We used to eat liver and onions
With these two we never went wrong
But lately I’ve noticed a difference
And that’s why I’m singin’ this song

On Monday we have bread and gravy
On Tuesday it’s gravy and bread
On Wednesday and Thursday it’s gravy on toast
But that’s only gravy on bread
Friday it’s rye bread ‘n gravy
On Saturday it’s whole wheat instead
Sunday’s a treat, ’cause we can’t wait to eat
We have gravy without any bread

[We’d settle for beans after this Sunday.
Kinda cheap, you know…]

My pa’s making more than he ever
My ma’s babysittin’ at night
My brother’s a working, he’s raking in dough
Somehow the picture ain’t right
Now everyone’s working at our house
You can’t count the money we’ve made
The high cost of living has got us
Say, Bill, could you spare a steak?

On Monday we have bread and gravy
On Tuesday it’s gravy and bread
On Wednesday and Thursday it’s gravy on toast
But that’s only gravy on bread
Friday it’s rye bread ‘n gravy
On Saturday it’s whole wheat instead
Sunday’s a treat, ’cause I can’t wait to eat
We have gravy without any bread

Spirit of the Alamo Lives On

In 1835, no one would have believed this small Catholic mission in southern Tejas, Mexico would play a pivotal role in the struggle for Texas independence. Yet from February 23 to March 6, 1836, around 200 Texans holed up in the Alamo Mission fought an army of 1,800 Mexicans under the command of General Santa Anna. Although the small Texas force was ultimately defeated, “Remember the Alamo” became a rallying cry for Texas independence. Today, the Alamo is one of the most visited destinations in the country. It is considered hallowed ground, and many visitors have returned with tales of spine tingling encounters with the unseen.

Originally known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, a Spanish Franciscan priest named Antonio de Olivares established the Alamo in 1744. The missionaries abandoned it in 1793. Ten years later, the Spanish Army converted it into a fort. After Mexican independence, it was occupied by the Mexican Army until General Martin Perfecto de Cos surrendered it to the Texan Army in 1835. In early 1836, the Mexicans returned, and a small force led by Colonel James Bowie and William Travis, which included pioneer hero Davy Crockett, defended the fort for two weeks against General Santa Anna’s siege. All of the defenders were killed, and the Mexican Army tore down most of the walls surrounding the mission.

The defense of the Alamo became legendary, and today what is left of the original mission is maintained by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the Texas General Land Office as a “Shrine to Texas Liberty.” It is a National Historic Landmark and a major tourist destination in downtown San Antonio, attracting more than 4 million visitors every year. In 1939, the Texas Centennial Commission erected a marble and granite monument on the Alamo Plaza carved by Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini called the Alamo Cenotaph, or “Spirit of Sacrifice.” Its inscription reads, Continue reading “Spirit of the Alamo Lives On”

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a clean, colorful, and vibrant movie about the disconnect between war and the home front, fantasy and reality, but trips up in the execution. Its much-praised frame rate of 120 frames per second (twice the previous record) isn’t really justified by the film’s simplistic plot, and in some ways it looked like a film school project. Its stereotypical portrayal of soldiers undermines what it gets right about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. Overall, it’s entertaining enough to watch but not something you’ll come back to again and again.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, a 58-year-old writer from North Carolina. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment about it in relation to the film. While I was watching the movie, however, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that this story wasn’t written by either a former soldier or someone who served in the Iraq War. “This is what a Hollywood screenwriter thinks soldiers sound like,” I thought as I listened to the dialogue. Turns out my suspicions were correct, which explains why the soldiers were so painfully stereotypical. A writer often falls back on stereotypes or popular tropes when not informed by personal experience.

The film’s portrayal of the disconnect between soldiers and civilians, however, is very insightful. It’s hard to describe the oddity of being involved in something like the military, especially if you have been deployed in a war zone. Everyone has an opinion about it, even though they have no direct knowledge or experience. Even comments from someone who supports the troops and the war effort can seem awkward and embarrassing, and this film captures that beautifully.

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Feasting at God’s Table

Father Divine, Conspicuous Consumption & Racial Harmony

father-divine-bible
George Baker, Jr., “Father Divine”

In American culture, health and prosperity has long been wedded to the consumption of food. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was the ability to eat what one wanted and when that defined an American family’s assent into the growing middle class. It was no accident that there appeared in America during the 1920s a man who offered salvation through the act of eating. Father Divine, professing himself to be God incarnate, urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message crossed racial lines because he appealed to shared traditions in American culture, traditions like conspicuous consumption, Charismatic Christianity, and the Protestant work ethic.

Father Divine’s movement was at its height during the Great Depression. At a time when scarcity affected millions, this eccentric preacher offered men and women a taste of the American dream―for the price of personal sacrifice and loyalty. He provided Americans across the country, both black and white, rich and poor, the perfect confluence of food, religion, and spectacle to distract them from the harsh realities of everyday life. He offered hope that racial unity and personal perfection could be achieved through the union of religion and the dinner table.

The Importance of Food in America

Americans have always given special significance to food and drink. When the first European colonists arrived in North America they encountered a land teeming with wildlife. At Plymouth Colony in 1621, a storm left the beach covered with piles of lobsters two feet high. “They were so plentiful and so easily gathered that they were considered fit only for the poor,” Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont explained in Eating in America. The storm left pools of crabs all along the shores of Virginia. Commenting on the abundance of fish at Jamestown, Captain John Smith wrote, “we tooke more in owne hour than we could eate in a day.” The colonists wondered at the size of the salmon, strawberries, and lobsters in the New World, and the Pilgrims, finding the luxury of clams and mussels tempered by their abundance, fed them to hogs.[1]

With origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the act of breaking bread with friends and neighbors had long been ingrained in religious ritual. Therefore, it was a feast the Pilgrims shared with the Wampanoags after their first arduous winter in New England, which eventually inspired the creation of a national holiday, Thanksgiving, centered around the consumption of large quantities of food. John Smith celebrated his first Christmas in the New World around the dinner table with the Powhatans and noted, “we were never more merry nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowle and good bread, nor ever had better fires in England.”[2]

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Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute

Located at 310 Genesee Street in Utica, New York, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute is an enjoyable art museum with several notable pieces, including a Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dalí, and Picasso. It also has a fine collection of 19th-Century American painting and sculpture, as well as an annex showcasing the 19th-Century home of James and Helen Williams, “Fountain Elms”. I’m not a fan of modern art, but it was nice to see some pieces by prominent artists at a smaller art museum. Similar institutions would charge visitors to see such “high profile” pieces, but the M.W.P. Arts Institute only takes donations to see its general collection.

A special exhibition of Steve McCurry’s photographs will be on display until December 31st. Steve McCurry is best known for his haunting photograph of a young Afghan Girl with piercing green eyes taken in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1984.

The World through His Lens: Steve McCurry Photographs is an exhibition of more than 60 large-scale photographs by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. It costs $10 general admission, or $5 for students, and is free to children under 12.

According to their website, “McCurry’s evocative images reveal collective human struggles and explore diverse societies across the boundaries of language and culture. Organized around universal themes of personal adornment, place, and ritual, exhibition will include unforgettable images from across six continents and spanning ancient traditions, international conflict, and vanishing cultures.”

This a unique opportunity to see his photographs up close, as the M.W.P. Arts Institute is the only venue for this exhibition.

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