Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas at Monticello










“As it is for many people today, Christmas was for Jefferson a time for family and friends and for celebrations, or in Jefferson's word, "merriment." In 1762, he described Christmas as "The day of greatest mirth and jollity." Although no documents exist to tell us how, or if, Jefferson decorated his Monticello for the holidays, Jefferson noted the festive scene created by his grandchildren. On Christmas Day 1809, he said of eight-year-old grandson Francis Wayles Eppes: "He is at this moment running about with his cousins bawling out 'a merry Christmas' 'a Christmas gift’ Etc."

 “During Jefferson’s time, holiday celebrations were much more modest than those we know today. Socializing and special food would have been the focal points of the winter celebrations rather than decorations or lavish gifts.” For example, visiting and receiving friends was most common, as Martha Jefferson Randolph wrote to Jefferson on January 1, 1796, “We have spent the holidays and indeed every day in such a perpetual round of visiting and receiving visits that I have not had a moment to my self since I came down.”

 “The customs that we think of today as traditional ways of celebrating Christmas, particularly the decorating of evergreen trees and the hanging of stockings, derived from a variety of national traditions and evolved through the course of the 19th century, only becoming widespread in the 1890s.”

“References indicate that at Monticello, as throughout Virginia, mince pie—filled with apples, raisins, beef suet, and spices—was a traditional holiday dinner favorite. Jefferson wrote to Mary Walker Lewis on December 25, 1813: "I will take the liberty of sending for some barrels of apples, and if a basket of them can now be sent by the bearer they will be acceptable as accommodated to the season of mince pies." Music also filled the scene. The Monticello music library included the Christmas favorite "Adeste Fideles."
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 http://www.monticello.org/reports/life/christmas.html

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Thankful People















Over a year following the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and after experiencing a hard winter, the new colonists enjoyed a bountiful harvest. Early in October of 1621, the Pilgrim Governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native Americans. They invited Squanto and the other Indians to join them in their celebration. Their chief, Massasoit, and 90 braves came to the celebration which lasted for 3 days. They played games, ran races, marched and played drums. The Indians demonstrated their skills with the bow and arrow and the Pilgrims demonstrated their musket skills. Exactly when the festival took place is uncertain, but it is believed the celebration took place in mid-October.

After the founding of our Republic, on October 3, 1789, an historic proclamation was issued by George Washington during his first year as President. It sets aside Thursday, November 26 as "A Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer." The text of his proclamation follows:

“WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;-- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best."

Seventy-four years later, on October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for the observance of the fourth Tuesday of November as a national holiday (subsequently changed to the fourth Thursday).

As Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

At this harvest and Thanksgiving season, may we as Americans continue to be a thankful people, and as Washington implored us toward the Almighty, “may [we] then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country.”

J. David Gowdy

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Civil and Religious Liberty



The Liberty Tree was a famous elm tree that stood in Boston, near Boston Common, in the days before the American Revolution. The tree was a rallying point for the growing resistance to the rule of England over the American colonies. In the years that followed, almost every American town had its own Liberty Tree—a living symbol of popular support for individual liberty and resistance to tyranny.

Just as the growth of a tree, and its fruits, are dependent upon its roots, civil and religious liberty are inseparably connected. One cannot exist or prosper without the other. As George Washington stated in his Farewell Address,

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness ‑these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

As Washington states, America’s political prosperity is supported and based upon the “dispositions and habits” of religion and morality. They are the “great Pillars of human happiness.” And, no matter how educated minds may denounce or differ, America’s greatest virtue, National morality, cannot “prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

One cannot expect justice without mercy, brotherly kindness without charity, nor freedom without responsibility. In this regard, Washington also said, “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” Virtuous principles eschew prejudice and discrimination, confirming the universal truth of the Declaration of Independence that, "all men are created equal." Virtue encompasses characteristics of good will, patience, tolerance, kindness, respect, humility, gratitude, courage, honor, industry, honesty, chastity and fidelity. These precepts serve as the foundation for individual and societal governance.

The fruits of the tree of liberty are individual rights and privileges, including life, justice, security, freedom to worship, and the “pursuit of happiness.” The Constitution and Bill of Rights were established to protect both civil and religious liberty. The roots of the tree were planted in the pure soil of virtue and morality. We cannot partake of the fruit without nourishing and protecting the roots.

By: J. David Gowdy

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness


To Thomas Jefferson, among the greatest blessings of happiness at Monticello were the “comforts of a beloved family.” Foremost among them, of course, was the presence of Martha, who was her father’s housekeeper, his hostess, and his intimate companion. Next in importance were the grandchildren. An elderly scholar in a house with eleven children, give or take a few, of all ages, may not sound like an infallible receipt for family comfort, but this scholar had his own quarters and enjoyed inviolable privacy. Moreover, Jefferson never became “elderly.” Keen intellectual curiosity, invincible optimism, and directness remained with him to the end of his life, and his rapport with the children around him was extraordinary. In the complicated arena of politics he had sometimes relied on his friend Madison to steer a course between the ideal and the politically possible. He could be patient, but he had no love of political maneuver. “Political party hatreds,” he had told Martha, “destroy the happiness of every being here.” (1) This was from Philadelphia as secretary of state. Always the company of children had come as a blessed relief.

The children, too, looked forward to every moment with Grandpapa; they had perfect confidence and could absorb all that he had to offer without the slightest sense of constraint… His granddaughter, Ellen [Coolidge] wrote this in a letter to Jefferson’s biographer, Henry Randall:

I was found of riding, and was rising above that childish simplicity when, provided I was mounted on a horse, I cared nothing for my equipments. … I was beginning to be fastidious, but I had never told my wishes. I was standing one brig day in the portico, when a man rode up with a beautiful lady’s saddle and bridle before him. My heart bounded. These coveted articles were deposited at my feet. My grandfather came out of his room to tell me they were mine. . . . My Bible came from him, my Shakespeare, my first writing table, my first Leghorn hat, my first silk dress. . . . Our Grandfather seemed to read our hearts, to see our invisible wishes… (2)

He also played games with the children. Virginia recalled that “cross questions” and “I love my love with an A” were two that she learned from him; they, in turn, would teach him some of theirs. “He would gather fruit for us, seek out the ripest figs, or bring down the cherries from on high above our heads with a long stick, at the end of which there was a hook and a little net bag. . . .” (3) Never had the famous Jefferson ingenuity been put to better use.

When they were all together Jefferson would take out his violin, and Jeff remembered “my grandfather playing . . . and his grandchildren dancing around him.”

By: J. David Gowdy
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Quoted from: Elizabeth Langhorne, Monticello: A Family Story (Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1987), chapter 23.
Notes:
1. Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, Philadelphia, May 17, 1798 (Bear, Family Letters, 162).
2. Ellen Wayles Coolidge to Henry S. Randall
3. Randall, Henry S., The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Derby & Jackson, New York, 1858), 3: 350.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

True in the Decisions of Youth

The year is 1757. George Washington is 25 years old and is engaged in the French-Indian War. Near Charlottesville, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter, has just died at age 49 at his home in Shadwell. Young Thomas is only 14 years old -- the third of ten children and the oldest son. While his father was not well educated, he made sure that Thomas received schooling and had books to read. With his father gone, what would he decide to do with his future? Years later, speaking of this time in his life, Jefferson wrote to his grandson:

“When I consider that at fourteen years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely, without a relative or a friend qualified to advise or guide me, and recollect the various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time, I am astonished that I did not turn off with some of them, and become as worthless to society as they were. From the circumstances of my position, I was often thrown into the society of horseracers, cardplayers, foxhunters, [as well as] scientific and professional men … and many a time have I asked myself … "Well, which of these kinds of reputation should I prefer--that of a horsejockey, a foxhunter, … or the honest advocate of my country's rights?"

Thomas made his choice to be an ‘advocate of his country’s rights’ … and pursued an education in Williamsburg. He bought many books. Under the guidance of Dr. William Small, who taught natural history, Jefferson discovered Bacon, Newton, and Locke, studied science and philosophy, bowed the fiddle, debated ethics, and polished his manners. Along with Professor Small, Jefferson also learned from another mentor, George Wythe. They quickened Thomas’ interests in the world, interests he would apply to a variety of subjects including weather, music, mathematics, paleontology, surveying, education, literature, physics, architecture, art, history, medicine, law, religion, government, and agriculture … they opened his mind.

After Dr. Small departed for England in 1764, Jefferson continued under Wythe. Commuting from Shadwell with bundles of books, Jefferson devoted five years to his study under Wythe and emerged in 1767 among the elite of the lawyers, a man of polished politeness, taste, and unblemished behavior. Thinking on what he learned in his twenty years at Williamsburg, an aging Jefferson described his personal experience there as "the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America." He had become a community leader, and would eventually take his role in the leadership and governance of his state and of our nation. Thomas Jefferson stood true in the decisions of youth.…

By: J. David Gowdy

See Colonial Williamsburg: http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/jeffart.cfm

Monday, July 20, 2009

True in the Crucible of Power


The year is 1783. The place is Newburgh, New York. After over six years of conflict and battles, the Revolutionary War is finally over. As a peace treaty is being negotiated in Paris with Great Britain, a perilous moment in the life of our new American democracy is occurring. Officers of the Continental Army are meeting to discuss their grievances and consider a possible revolt against Congress. They are angry over the failure of Congress to honor its promises to the army regarding salary, bounties and life pensions. The officers had heard that the American government was going broke and that they might not be compensated at all.

On March 10, 1783, an anonymous letter was circulated among the officers of Washington's camp. It addressed those complaints and called for a private meeting of officers to be held the next day, to consider possible military solutions to the government’s problems and its financial woes. When he learned of this, General Washington wisely forbade the officers from attending the unauthorized meeting. Instead, he suggested they meet a few days later at the regular meeting of his officers. Meanwhile, another anonymous letter was circulated, this time suggesting that Washington himself was sympathetic to their claims. Some of the officers wondered if Washington would lead them in another rebellion for their cause ….

And so, on March 15, 1783, Washington's upset and frustrated officers gathered in a church in Newburgh, effectively holding the fate of democracy in America in their hands. Unexpectedly, General Washington himself showed up. He was not entirely welcomed by his men, but nevertheless, spoke to them … He reminded them of their mutual sacrifices, and expressed gratitude for their “cheerful assistance and prompt obedience” while serving together in the war of independence. He pledged to help them obtain amends for their grievances. Then he firmly stated: “…let me [summon] you, in the name of our common country, … to express your utmost horror … of the man who wishes, under any [false] pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.” He closed by encouraging them to “patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings.”

This speech was not very well received by his men. The question of a military overthrow still hung in the balance. If Washington decided to join his men, he could march on Philadelphia and become King of America. As we know, such events had happened before in history. That, however, was the furthest thing from his mind. After a long silence, Washington took out a letter from a member of Congress explaining the financial difficulties of the government. After reading a portion of the letter with his eyes squinting at the small writing, Washington suddenly stopped. … His officers stared at him, wondering. Washington then reached into his coat pocket and took out a pair of reading glasses. Few of them knew he wore glasses, and were surprised. "Gentlemen," said Washington, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."

In that moment of unreserved honesty, Washington's men were deeply moved, even shamed, and many were quickly in tears, now looking with great affection at this aging man who had led them through so much. Washington read the remainder of the letter, then left without saying another word. … After a long silence, his officers then voted unanimously to submit to the rule of Congress. Thus, the civilian government was preserved -- and the young experiment of a republic in America continued on … George Washington stood true in the crucible of power.
By: J. David Gowdy
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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Independence Now, Independence Forever


Written by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence stands as a timeless statement of human liberty, rights and equality. Adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the signers of the Declaration pledged to it their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Jefferson said, “The Declaration of Independence... [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.”[1] The Declaration is America's first and foremost founding document. It sets forth our understanding of human rights based upon the principles of natural law, and the legitimate authority and purpose of government. The first three sentences constitute its most significant and oft-quoted words:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams said (as quoted by Daniel Webster):

“But whatever may be our fate, be assured . . . that this Declaration will stand. It may cost treasure, and it may cost blood; but it will stand, and it will richly compensate for both. Through the thick and gloom of the present, I see the brightness of the future, as the sun in heaven. We shall make this a glorious, an immortal day. When we are in our graves, our children will honor it. They will celebrate it with thanksgiving, with festivity, with bonfires and illuminations. On its annual return they will shed tears, copious, gushing tears, not of subjection or of slavery, not of agony and distress, but of exultation, of gratitude, of joy. Sir, before God, I believe the hour is come. My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I begun, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment, Independence, now, and Independence for ever!”[2]

May we remember the Declaration and its immortal words as we celebrate this Independence Day.
By: J. David Gowdy
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[1] Jefferson to Samuel Adams Wells, 1819, ME 15:200.
[2] The Works of Daniel Webster, 4th ed. (Boston, 1851), 1:133–36.