Tag: history

A Revolutionary Cemetery

Across the street from our house in Warwick, Rhode Island, beyond the backyard of our neighbors, an old cemetery was perched atop a small hill. The cemetery was surrounded by a low stone wall. A rusty iron gate opened into the cemetery on one side of the wall, but I never remember using the gate. We always just hopped the wall. The cemetery itself was strange and a little scary to the ten-year old I was at the time. I never dreamed of visiting it at night. Gravestones were scattered about, almost at random. Bramble and thorny vines seemed to overgrow the center of the cemetery so that only the outskirts were bare. Trees loomed over the entire space, which couldn’t have been more than half an acre.

The name of the cemetery was Carpenter-Wightman Cemetery. I didn’t learn that until decades alter. Walking around the cemetery was strange. The ground had a hollow thud to it as we stepped through it. Many of the graves were so weatherworn that it was impossible to read the inscriptions on them. But there were several graves that stood out. They weren’t larger than the other, or brighter. They all had a dull, aged look, but these specific gravestones had rusted bronze emblems buried into the earth before them. They were, I eventually learned, markers signifying that the person buried there was a veteran of the American Revolution.

I thought about this cemetery a lot as I read Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming, the first of a three-volume history of the American Revolution. I’ve read many histories of the Revolution, and Atkinson’s was vivid, especially where the battles were concerned. I find that he really tries to put you in the midst of the fighting to see what it was like rather than to glorify it. War is gruesome, and it was the description of one battle after another, that had my thoughts returning to the cemetery on the hill. For instance, Atkinson writes,

Sparks ignited the powder, first tearing off the rammer’s arm, then detonating with such violence that six men “were blown all to pieces by imprudence,” a passing mariner named Christopher Prince reported. “Their legs, arms, and bodies were all separated, so much so that we put them all on two handbarrows and carried them up to the Bowling Green, and dug a hoel and put their remains in it and covered them over.”

As a kid, walking through the cemetery, I didn’t think much about the history of it. Today, I get something of a shiver to think that I was standing in front of the graves of men, some of whom were fighting for the American cause, others simply because that’s what they thought they should do.

Aside from the battles, it was interesting to read so many descriptions from the diaries of people living in that period. Atkinson located so many diaries from the period that it seemed that everyone kept a diary. A single diary, of course, can give a skewed view of any situation, but in aggregate, I think they help to form a good picture.

Once again, history demonstrates that behaviors we think are new and strange, behaviors we sometimes don’t understand, are not new at all. They are just new to us. One example came early in the book, when discussing smallpox in Boston:

A report in late March noted that thirty-eight smallpox patients were quarantined on a hospital scow in the Charles River, “some distance from the wharf.” Freeholders voted to continue a recent ban on inoculations; many now feared that it posed a greater risk of epidemic than natural infection.

How many people in that little cemetery, I wondered, were planted there because of smallpox?

One amusing line came from King George III, who supposedly,

once asserted that seven hours of sleep sufficed for a man, eight for a woman, and nine for a fool.

My favorite parts of the book, however, were not the pitched battled, but rather the descriptions of the people involved, be they ordinary citizens, just trying to make a living, or the extraordinary people whose names we know today. This book wasn’t among my favorite books on the Revolution, but every book serves a purpose. This one put me in mind of that cemetery from my youth. It also suggested further investigation of two other people I’ve often been curious about: King George III, and Henry Knox, the bookbinder-general.

In November, a massive 800-page biography of King George III is coming out, titled The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III by Andrew Roberts. It’s on my to-buy list. I also picked up Henry Knox’s Noble Train: The Story of a Boston Bookseller’s Heroic Expedition that Saved the American Revolution by William Hazelgrove. This is the great thing about the butterfly effect of reading. Even books that don’t completely wow me can still lead me in new and interesting directions.

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Visualizing History and Science

Yesterday, I walked across the Beringia with a branch of Ancestral Native Americans, ancestors to the First Peoples. Later, I boated with them down the western coast of North American, several thousand years earlier. In both cases, I took note of what I saw around me, even though none of that was described in the article I happened to be reading in the May issue of Scientific American. I marveled that this was all happened 15,000 years before what history books typically describe as history. I watched as some of the people stopped to form settlements while others continued south. I watched their struggles a they emerged from colder climates into more mild ones. I couldn’t understand what they said, but I saw an occasional smile, heard and occasional laugh, or a shout of anger.

I can only speak for myself, but this is what happens inside my head when I read. Whether it is a novel, a book on the history of computing, or a science article on genetic and archaeological discoveries about how the Americas were populated, they somehow come alive in my mind. Reading an Isaac Asimov essay on, say, an electron, I am swept into its orbit, where the electron itself appears as a big world. Reading an article on supernovae, I don’t see the words, but instead, I’m hovering somewhere on the outskirts of the unfortunate star, impervious to harm, but able to witness the blast, and see the shock waves forming.

Thinking about those people crossing the land bridge into North America, I imagined them seeing deer flitting about. In my mind, their reaction wasn’t much different than the reaction I had this morning when several deer crossed my path on my morning walk. I paused to observe them, I watched their movements, curious about their behavior.

Maybe this is what is meant when someone is said to be a visual thinker. It is just how my mind has always worked. Science isn’t a bunch of equations and theories in my mind. It is a narrative, a story that unfolds as I read, and one that I see as clearly as I see the stories that unfold from novels, or history, or virtually any other type of reading I do.

When I think about evolution and genetics, it is less about the theories, though I think I understand them quite well, but more about the practice. There is Darwin, hip-deep in muck, collecting samples. There is Mendel, bent over his garden, gnarled hands touching every budding pea plant.

In science articles, timescales often become incomprehensible. How it is possible to imagine 15,000 years, or 14 billion years, when I haven’t even lived half a century? My mind plays little tricks to convey these distances, but I doubt any of them really get the message across in a comprehensible way.

There is so much history and science to read that it seems impossible to come close to scratching the surface on most of it. Perhaps one of the most profound and delightful reveries I have when considering these vast histories is that they are just a spec in the potential histories out in the universe. If other intelligent life exists somewhere else, just think of the histories they carry with them, multiplied over and over again. Are there common threads? Is Romeo and Juliette a uniquely human story? Is the struggle for rational thought a battle fought again and again, in those rare and delectable places, as Throeau once wrote, “in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia’s Chair, far from noise and disturbance”?

Independence Day

For the last 19 years, the first thing I think about on July 4 is not the birth of the country, it is death. In one of the most remarkable coincidences in the history of the country, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, which happened to be July 4, 1826–the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That was 194 years ago today.

When the first fireworks began cracking last night, my thoughts rolled back to the scene that David McCullough portrayed in his biography of John Adam:

At Quincy the roar of cannon grew louder as the hours passed, and in midafternoon a thunderstorm struck–“The artillery of Heavan,” as would be said–to be followed by a gentle rain… Adams lay peacefully, his mind clear, by all signs. Then late in the afternoon, according to several who were present in the room, he stirred and whispered clearly enough to be understood, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

That scene was powerful enough in my mind to spin a story around it, one in which a time traveler brings Jefferson and Adams together in their final hours to witness the bicentennial celebration from Liberty Island in 1976. The editor to whom I submitted the story liked it, but said there was something wrong with it and he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I mentioned this to my friend, Michael Burstein, who asked me to send him the story, confidently stating he would figure out what the problem was. He got back to me shortly there after, sheepishly proclaiming that while there was definitely something wrong with the story, he too, couldn’t figure out what it was. I eventually trunked the story, but I think about it every Independence Day.

I have the vaguest memories of the bicentennial celebration in 1976. I was living in New Jersey at the time, four years old, and fascinated, so far I can remember, with the fireworks. A year later that fascination had turned to fear. I don’t remember being afraid of the fireworks, but the reporter and photographer that captured me in this photo which appeared on July 7, 1977 remembered on my behalf:

At some point, I lost my enthusiasm for big fireworks celebration on the Fourth of July. They always seemed crowded, parking was difficult, the weather was often less than conducive to the event, and it was generally more trouble than it was worth. The notable exception to this was our annual summer treks to Maine, where the small coastal town we visited hosted a delightful New England Independence Day celebration. It started early on the town square with a costume parade, hot dogs, cotton candy and lemonade. Later in the afternoon, the town band performed all kinds of patriotic tunes. Finally, when darkness settled, everyone in the small town gathered at the town dock for a fireworks display while another band entertained the crowds and the small ice cream shop kept us cool. I enjoy those celebrations immensely, not the least because I could walk everywhere and not worry about finding a parking space.

Two years ago, on a family road trip, we had a perfect view of the fireworks celebration in Nashville, Tennessee from our hotel room. This was perfect since earlier in the day it had hit nearly 110 degrees in Nashville. I didn’t mind that experience either.

I never got the fireworks bug as a kid. I know quite a few kids my age right now who still have the bug and can’t wait to light off firecrackers, fountains, ground-spinners and sparklers. I prefer to imagine the celebrations in Quincy, Massachusetts 194 years ago, with cannons accompanied by nature’s own fireworks, thunder and lightning. Indeed, I sometimes think that the perfect Independence Day celebration would be a loud, flashing thunderstorm passing through just as night falls over the town, a humbling reminder that despite all of our independence and freedom, we are still at the mercy of the whims of nature.

May 28, 585 B.C.

Since it is May 28 and I happened to remember on the day, for a change, I thought it worth mentioning to both history and astronomy buffs, that at May 28, 585 B.C., the Battle of Halys took place. This battle is significant for two reasons.

First, the battle stopped abruptly when  solar eclipse darkened the battlefield. This was taken as an omen that the gods wanted the fighting to cease.

Second, because the dates of solar eclipses can be predicted, it is the earliest historical event to which the date is known to such precision.

Actually, the battle is significant to me for a third reason, which involves the story that I have been working on for the last few months, in which the history of the battle and the eclipse that abruptly ended it, both play a small, but significant role.

Astrologers are constantly claiming the stars shape the fortunes of humanity. I think the battle of Halys is a perfect example of this, although I am certain it is not what the astrologers mean when discussing the dawning of the age of aquarius.

Leap day

Today is my ninth leap day (1972 was a leap year, but I was born after February 29 so I don’t count that one. Leap day always makes me think of the history of leap day, which in turn gets me thinking about the intricacies of calendars and of keeping time in general. Man, the hoops we’ve jumped through to keep the calendar in line with the seasons!

Thoughts on Our Oriental Heritage

I often wonder why I find history and science so fascinating. With science, it’s what Richard Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out”. We learn how the universe around us evolved and how it all works. With history, I suppose, it’s similar, except instead of learning how the universe works, we learn how people work–or rather, why we are the way we are. Durant’s inaugural book in the Story of Civilization looks tries to tell this story by combing through 4,000 years of the history of mankind, with a specific look at the birth, evolution and eventual death of the oldest civilizations.

Reading the book, I noticed patterns. There are those people in history who stand out, whose names we remember for thousands of years, good or bad. Amenhotep. Ashurbanipal. Alexander. Darius. Buddha. Confucius. And there are the millions of everyday people. We get specific details about Alexander and generalizations about the masses. But even from those generalization, we have some inkling of how people lived. What fascinates me is how little has changed in human nature. The problems that men struggled with 4,000 years ago are the same problems we struggle with today. The everyday concerns and stressors are still there. Putting food on the table. Supporting our families. The moral codes ignored equally well today as they were thousands of years ago, whenever it is convenient to do so. The question becomes, what does it mean to be civilized? Reading history, one begins to wonder. We think of ourselves as more civilized today than at any time in the past, but there were periods of time when the standards seemed higher.

I find fascinating reading about people with stoic qualities. I don’t know why this is. I was impressed by those Buddhists who gave away all of their possessions and sought peace and tranquility in the wilderness. I was impressed by those generals and warriors who treated their enemies with a dignity and respect almost unheard of today. I was impressed by the quality and quantity of literature and art developed by these ancient civilizations. Art was as important to civilization 4,000 years ago as food and trade. Today, it seems to take a backseat to just about everything else.

When I got to the end of the book, I found myself wishing there was more, and glad to recall that 10 more volumes existed for me to pour over. Will Durant has an impressive writing style, a keen insight, a witty sense of humor, and an almost bitter sense of irony, especially when comparing mistakes of the distant past to similar mistakes being made all over again today. The first book in the series was incredible, I’ve never before read a history book quite like it. I felt as though I learned more history in 40 days than I learned in 12 years of grade school and 4 years of college. I highly recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by history.


I left China behind this morning at around 5:30 AM and at once started on the last part of Our Oriental Heritage, Japan. Keeping in mind that this particular book was published in 1935 (and therefore written some years before), I found this passage particularly interesting:

The third act is modern Japan, opened up in 1853 by an American fleet, forced by conditions within and without into trade and industry, seeking foreign materials and markets, fighting wars of irrepressible expansion, imitating the imperialistic ardor and methods of the West, and threatening both the ascendancy of the white race and the peace of the world. By every historical precedent the next act will be war.
pp. 829, emphasis mine.

What impresses me about the passage is the ability of the author to see so clearly where things were heading. Maybe everyone in 1930 could see war with Japan on the horizon, but I don’t think so. We tend to be too inwardly focus to see the signs until right before it is upon us. It takes a historian, one with the vast context of all of history laid out before him, to see and identify the patterns and cast off a warning that we should learn from history lest we repeat our mistakes again and again.

The Japanese have studied our civilization carefully, in order to absorb its values and surpass it. Perhaps we should be wise to study their civilization as patiently as they have studied ours, so that when the crisis comes that must issue either in war or understanding, we may be capable of understanding.

Why is the quest for knowledge good?

Reading the chapter on Confucius, I came across the most remarkable passage, attributed to the sage. It is a passage that from the ground up, instructs a nation to be a nation of highest virtue. What it all seems to come down to, according to Confucius, is knowledge. Why is the question for knowledge so vitally important? Because

The ancients who wished to illustrate the highest virtue throughout the empire first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their own states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, the first cultivated their own selves. Wishing to cultivate their own selves, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their own selves were cultivated. Their own selves being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy.

Is this a recipe for success if I’ve ever heard one? Imagine how, for instance, this applies to us today. Would anyone consider our current state of affairs tranquil and happy? So we look to our leaders and ask are we being rightly governed? And so forth and so on down the line until we get to the investigation of things. Are we learning enough? Are we exploring enough? Not just our world but our history, our culture and our selves? There is a natural order to the progression of investigation up and up through our selves, our family, our government to tranquility and happiness. I think Confucius was on to something here.

And then there are the Hindu materialists…

In rather sharp contrast to the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Jews and Persians, this, which reminds me of something that several of us might have heard in Ray Linn’s 12th grade philosophy class:

Out of the aphorisms of Brihaspati came a whole school of Hindu materialists, named after one of them, Charvakas. They laughed at the notion that the Vedas were divinely revealed truth; truth, they argued, can never be known, except through the senses. Even reason is not to be trusted, for every inference depends for its validity not only upon accurate observation and correct reasoning, but also upon the assumption that the future will behave like the past; and of this, as Hume was to say, there can be no certainty. What is not perceived by the senses, said the Charvakas, does not exist; therefore the soul is a delusion, and Atman is humbug. We do not observe, in experience or history, any interposition of supernatural forces in the world. All phenomenon are natural; only simpletons trace them to demons or gods. Matter is the one reality; the body is a combination of atoms; the mind is merely matter thinking; the body, not the soul, feels, sees, hears, thinks. “Who has seen the soul existing in a state separate from the body?” There is no immortality, no re-birth. Religion is an aberration, a disease, or a chicanery; the hypothesis of a god is useless for explaining or understanding the world. Men think religion is necessary only because, being accustomed to it, they feel a sense of loss, and an uncomfortable void, when the growth of knowledge destroys this faith. Morality, too, is natural; it is a social convention and convenience, not a divine command. Nature is indifferent to good and bad, virtue and vice, and lets the sun shine indiscriminately upon knaves and saints; if nature has any ethical quality at all it is that of transcendent immortality. There is no need to control instinct and passion, for these are the instructions of nature to men. Virtue is a mistake; the purpose of life is living, and the only wisdom is happiness.
Our Oriental Heritage, pp. 418-19

Looking back on it, I’m surprised that we didn’t cover this. Maybe I just don’t remember.

From the pages of Our Oriental Heritage…

Another great Will Durant quote, this in the midst of a chapter on the mental elements of civilization (emphasis is mine):

The Polynesians had a calendar of thirteen months, regulated by the moon; when their lunar year diverged too flagrantly from the procession of the seasons they dropped a moon, and the balance was restored. But such sane uses of the heavens were exceptional; astrology antedated–and perhaps will survive–astronomy; simple souls are more interested in telling fortunes than in telling time.

I couldn’t have said it better myself!


So today is 9/11, six years later. The day has faded a great deal in my mind and if it weren’t for my diary, I probably wouldn’t remember any details. And sometimes, I think it’s better that way.

Here in the office, it’s a poignant day for many people. The north side of our building looks down directly on the Pentagon and there were many people in the building who saw the plane go into the Pentagon. It’s a kind of somber day here, therefore, not helped much by the rain.

Also, it’s Tuesday, and if I remember correctly, September 11, 2001 was also a Tuesday.