What You Know

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  Mark Twain

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H.L. Mencken

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

“Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.”

“Puritanism.  The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

“Immorality: the morality of those who are having a better time.”

“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.”

“Every man is his own hell.”

“A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married.”

H.L. Mencken Quotations

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An American Spartacus

Recently, a senator claimed he was having his Spartacus moment, indicating that he was going to the mat for some principle, risking being expelled from the Senate because of his unruly behavior.  That was hardly the case.  It turned out to be quite a joke on this “brave” politician, as the supposed confidential information he said he was revealing at his own risk had already been approved to be released.  Hardly Spartacus; more like unintentional, egg-in-your-face comedy.

But there has been a true American Spartacus in our history, even though he himself was not a slave nor a black man.  His name was John Brown, an abolitionist but with a puritanical, visceral hatred of that “peculiar institution,” American slavery.

Financed by a cabal called the “Secret Six,” a small group of well-off abolitionists in New England, John Brown went about acquiring 950 pikes and 198 Sharps Rifles for a planned slavery revolt that was meant to be triggered by his attack on the United States Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry — an attack on a federal facility in order to make a statement but also to acquire even more weapons with which to arm slaves that, he believed, would swarm to such a cause based on the notoriety of seizing such a conspicuous target.  All of this was pretty much identical to the way slaves all over ancient Italy had swarmed to join Spartacus after his initial successes against Roman legions.

John Brown attempted to start a massive slave revolt with a band of 21 souls in the attack on Harper’s Ferry, which included 5 blacks.  The plan was a simple one: to arm the expected throng of rebellious slaves, take refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains with them, and from there make calculated attacks on slave plantations deep into the South until slavery itself would come crumbling down.

To trigger the tidal wave of rebellious slaves, John Brown sent a party of 6 men — 3 whites and 3 blacks — north of Harper’s Ferry to liberate the slaves in several plantations.  One plantation was targeted in particular, that of Colonel Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, who had in his possession a sword given by Frederick the Great to George Washington to commemorate the American Revolution.  John Brown intended to use that sword as the symbol of the planned slave uprising.  Lewis Washington, his liberated slaves, and the symbolic sword were all brought back to Harper’s Ferry.  John Brown would brandish the sword during the ensuing siege.

John Brown’s plan was a simple one but also an overly ambitious one, for the anticipated massive response by slaves never materialized — neither slaves nor black freedmen flocked to the cause, as John Brown had expected — and John Brown and his would-be emancipators instead found themselves trapped in Harper’s Ferry by a federal force sent to quell this incipient rebellion, a federal force ironically under the command of Robert E. Lee.

John Brown had asked Frederick Douglass to participate in the attack on Harper’s Ferry, and Douglass has declined, thinking that such an attack was suicidal and the height of folly, but of John Brown, Douglass subsequently wrote: “His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine.  Mine was as the taper light, his was as the burning sun. Mine was bounded by time.  His stretched away to the silent shores of eternity.  I could speak for the slave.  John Brown could fight for the slave.  I could live for the slave.  John Brown could die for the slave.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of John Brown and his impending execution: “That new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,–the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.

There are many who think the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C.  They are mistaken.  The very first shots were fired at Harper’s Ferry.


John Brown

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

“John Brown’s Body” — the Song

Frederick Douglass 1881 Oration on John Brown and Harper’s Ferry

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Thomas (“Tom”) Paine — The Forgotten American Revolutionary

At a very critical moment in the direction of the Continental Congress, before a majority of the delegates to that congress were committed to the idea of complete independence from the British crown, Tom Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense.  If it had been published today, they would say that it “went viral,” for that is what happened with this explosive diatribe against the hereditary government of kings and titled aristocrats.  It could well be said that the United States owes its creation to this author whose pamphlet, at that decisive moment, persuaded the majority of delegates to the Continental Congress that nothing short of full independence from the crown was acceptable.  The pamphlet literally led directly to the creation of the United States as an independent nation with its democratic, representative government.

But this English-born, naturalized-American revolutionary was not done with the American Revolution — he was also very actively involved in the subsequent French Revolution that began in 1789.  In response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Tom Paine wrote his rejoinder Rights of Man to refute the points made in Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and its overthrow of hereditary government.

There are many well-known written rhetorical statements by Tom Paine that few realize today were his.  For instance, he began each of his series of pamphlets titled The Crisis, written during the darkest days of the American Revolution, with the familiar line: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”   Here is a representative sample of Tom Paine quotations — you can get a sense from them of how important principles were to this man who was a true revolutionary in thought as well as in deed:

  • A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.
  • A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be.  Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.
  • An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.
  • Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be true.
  • I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.
  • It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself.
  • If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.
  • One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests.
  • My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.
  • Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

In addition to advocating representative and democratic government and decrying as outmoded the hereditary government of kings and titled aristocrats, Tom Paine the revolutionary had many novel public-welfare ideas that were well ahead of his times, including advocating:

  • Graduated income tax.
  • Free public education for children
  • Financial assistance to the elderly, i.e., an early version of a social security program.
  • Providing a one-time payment for those just starting out in life at the age of 21.
  • Work relief program for the poor.
  • Financial support for the poor.
  • Financial support for young couples giving birth.
  • Financial support for young married couples.
  • Allowance for burials for the indigent.
  • Opposition to property as the prerequisite for the right to vote.
  • Opposition to slavery.
  • General anti-war sentiment on the grounds that war unleashes terrible and often unpredictable consequences.
  • Deism in religion (i.e., believed in the existence of one benevolent god),  but was highly critical of Christianity and the Bible as pure mythology, as critiqued in his book The Age of Reason.

Tom Paine summarized his beliefs as follows: “I believe in one God and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.  I believe in the equality of men, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, having mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy.”

In retrospect, it is curious how little attention Tom Paine — a pivotal figure in both the American Revolution and the French Revolution — gets for having played such a crucial role in the creation of our modern democratic, representative government.

Thomas Paine

Common Sense by Thomas Paine

Rights of Man by Thomas Paine

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What do you get for a one dollar contribution? My gratitude.

If you enjoyed the post, you can help me keeping blogging along with just a one dollar contribution. You can contribute more by increasing the quantity — each increase by 1 is an additional dollar. Thanks for your support in this blog-eat-blog world.