I do not understand people who are not amazed by history.
I suppose there could be a combination of factors for this strange ailment. People could have been taught history was nothing but the dates of battles and a succession of wars 1. People could have succumbed to the bitterness held towards people who are guilty of living in another age and so become cynical towards the subject. Or perhaps our never ending pursuit of more math and science has caused our human capacity to appreciate story to diminish. Whatever the reason, I find it a sad state of affairs. A people without history have no story, and a people with no story are easy to manipulate.
I enjoy soaking in history, and making connections between current impulses and what has transpired before us. I relish in hearing stories of the past, both ugly and beautiful, because I learn from both triumphs and mistakes. I could sit and enter into conversation about historic figures for hours, both learning from others and teaching what little I know. In fact, my love of history is a part of my personality which keeps me grounded in faith — I find the sins of the church as illuminating as our faithfulness.
On Friday, in Philadelphia’s Old City, I found myself immersed once again in a conversation about the Revolutionary rector of Christ Episcopal Church 2, Rev. Jacob Duché. He was a supporter of the Revolution but, according to the popular legend, was turned into a Tory during the occupation of Philadelphia and abandoned the cause to save his own life. He became an example of a “Summer Soldier” in the mythos of history.
During my conversation with a Docent at Christ Church, however, I learned this was not the case. Rev. Duché did urge Washington to surrender in the Winter of 1777. But it wasn’t because he’d abandoned the cause. Rather, it was because he felt the cause itself had been derailed.
Few Americans realize the brutal nature of the American Revolution, perhaps because the size of the battles were so small when compared to other wars. But the Revolution was a civil conflict which pitted neighbor against neighbor, and often saw militia units arresting suspected Tories without warrant or legal authority 3. The breakdown of the rule of law so dismayed Rev. Duché he feared the Revolution would never achieve the aims to which it was dedicated.
After returning to England, Rev. Duché continued to look after the spiritual interests of the newly independent states, and acted as a go-between for the parties negotiating the establishment of the Episcopal Church of America. After the ratification of the Constitution, Duché returned to America, where some in the government hailed him as a man of high moral character for standing up for his principals.
It’s stories like this one which spark my interest. In the 18th Century Rev. Duché abandoned his “party,” because he felt it had lost sight of its own principals. For this he was accused of treason, and his property confiscated. And we see the same going on today. People who dare to threaten the hegemony of their party ideology by confronting it with its own principals are derided as traitors 4, mocked, and even threatened with violence. No where was this evident so much as in the recent Senate health care vote, when Senators Collins, Murkowski, and McCain drove a nail into the hyper-partisan Republican Obamacare repeal. For people who feel we are engaged in a political civil war, in which guiding principals have become secondary to “winning,” this was a betrayal of the highest order. In reality, they showed, much at Rev. Duché showed in the 18th Century, people of conscience still exist.
We need more of them to stand up.
For more photos from my explorations in Old City, Philadelphia see my SmugMug gallery.
- Which is how American history is taught, much to my dismay. ↩
- Had I not needed to head to lunch with my wife, I might still be there in conversation. ↩
- Which led to reprisals, and then further illegal arrests, and so on. New Jersey was rampant with this type of back and forth aggression by both Loyalist and Patriot militias. ↩
- Or worse, in our ideologically polarized society, “moderates.” ↩