Even the greatest deeds of brave men can be forgotten in the mists of time – even when those deeds have a direct impact on how our world is organized today.
O’Brian based Aubrey on a Royal Navy captain of two centuries ago, Thomas Cochrane. Lord Cochrane’s exploits were at least as great as those of the fictitious Aubrey, and hardly less than those of Britain’s greatest naval hero, Lord Nelson. But while O’Brian admitted that Cochrane was the inspiration for Aubrey, he did not tell us before he died in 2000 whether he had a real-life model for Maturin. The answer, I think, lies in the handsome bird that I see now beyond our sun room window.
Given the grandeur of its lofty aspirations, the play inevitably fails on some levels, like the idea of America itself. But the failure is spectacular, memorable and exciting.
Nevertheless, it is a considerable shock to read indictments of Washington in the letters of Patriot leaders such John Adams, Dr. Benjamin Rush and even Thomas Jefferson. Though some of these remarks were valid criticisms of specific decisions on the part of Washington, the reality of his wartime situation stands in marked contrast to the adulation later heaped upon him. As Abraham Lincoln would experience during the Civil War, Washington was frequently distrusted and damned during his lifetime, often by political colleagues and fellow officers who should have known better.
Bernard Cornwell, who has written a masterful novel about Agincourt, tackles the American Revolution and its realities in his new work, The Fort. You won’t find any shellacked heroes here. His patriots range from the committed few to the mercenary many and include a host of men who have been shanghaied (“Impressed” was the term of the day) into serving their country involuntarily.
Yet another of his discoveries turns out to be a lost watercolor by one of America’s greatest 19th century artists, Winslow Homer — a painting which had literally appeared out of nowhere one day in Southern Ireland, abandoned next to a dump heap! The work had been miraculously rescued by a local fisherman.
The “Era of Good Feeling” that followed 1815, however, was of short duration. The issue of slavery could not be banished, as the crisis that erupted in 1819 over admitting Missouri as a slave state showed. Even Jefferson, the “Sage of Monticello,” began to have doubts about the future, fearing that the “Empire of Liberty” that he and the other “Founding Fathers” had created might not survive “the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons.”
A famous double portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows members of the Dilettanti Society sipping away while making rude gestures about vaginas while holding up gemstones from classical antiquity and admiring painted Greco-Roman vases.
It was brutal stuff. Massacres, scalpings, crops burned, winters with only salted meat to eat – and this on both sides. Again Boone survived this melee, but it took a great deal of guile to do it. When his daughter Jemima was kidnapped by a Cherokee and Shawnee war party, for instance, he needed his backwoods know-how to track them down quickly and shoot the offenders.
Sir Benjamin Thompson, a.k.a. Count Rumford, is probably most familiar to modern ears as the inventor of the Rumford Fireplace. Yet that honorarium does not begin to cover the career – tinkerer, teacher, soldier, and spy – of this poster child of the Enlightenment.
Over the preceding two centuries, Ellis notes, a number of English, Scottish, and French thinkers had generated a large body of political knowledge that undermined the medieval worldview about government, society, and even human nature itself. Further, that the American people were the beneficiaries of this accumulated wisdom – “it had yet to be called the Enlightenment,” Ellis reminds us – which, although it had its origins in Europe, was now destined to enjoy its fullest implementation in America…
In twelve short years – from 1788 to 1800 – the world changed, with the late eighteenth century emerging as one of the most momentous, if restless, eras in human history. In Russia, a great dynasty would be toppled; in France, revolution and the guillotine would hold sway; and, in America, the nascent democracy would enter the most critical period of its short existence.
As contemplated by Ferling, few, if any, colonial Americans escaped the impact of hostilities. Wars were frequent and while many men soldiered, many of these same soldiers died. Still others, the least fortunate in some respects came home from the wars, but not in one piece, physically or mentally. Nor were those who bore arms alone in experiencing the terrors of war. Civilians who dwelled on the exposed frontier in wartime lived with the constant fear of a potential surprise attack, and virtually every citizen, in every generation, and in every colony paid war taxes, tolerated wartime scarcities, endured war-induced inflation, and struggled through postwar economic busts.
The seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophical movement that came to be known as the Enlightenment was once the crown jewel of the western intellectual heritage. It promised lives based on order and reason. It seemed to offer the promise of human perfectibility. Such claims, however, have for some time not gone unchallenged.