The ubiquitous gray of U.S. history’s early writers.

My favorite American.

My favorite American.

Lying beside a swimming pool, trying for a case of skin cancer while I sip over-priced, watered-down fancy drinks has never appealed to me. 

When I go on vacation, I want to learn about the areas I visit; how long they’ve been there, who started it up and what went on long before my feet touched this earth. 

I’ve just come from such a vacation; a 9-day bus tour of our nation’s capitol where we toured elegant national treasures like the Library of Congress, The Supreme Court, the Capitol, the splendid National Cathedral, Arlington National Cemetery and all of the symbolic war memorials. My head and heart are full of memories and thoughts that affected me bone deep. 

In the gift shops and bookstores I couldn’t resist browsing through and buying a few interesting little books like The Slave Narratives of Virginia, and George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, The Quotations of Abraham Lincoln, Narratives of Sojourner Truth, and a magnet that lists Thomas Jefferson’s Ten Rules. 

As I perused these at night in my hotel room, it was interesting to envision what I was reading against some of what I’d heard tour guides share throughout the day. Some of it was fun, and some of it was simply incredible for the inconsistencies in what some of our great early leaders wrote, as compared to how they lived. 

We’re only human, all of us, I realize, but the phrase “Do as I say and not as I do,” kept invading my thoughts. 

I have to admit I laughed out loud when I read Washington’s 2nd Rule of Civility: 

“When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered.” 

I mean—how in blazes could the rap singers function if they couldn’t touch themselves “down there,” while performing these days? (Admit it; you are laughing right now.) Robin Williams’ comedy routines would have encountered their share of issues with this one as well. 

Or, how about this gem, his 7th Rule of Civility: 

 “Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dressed.” 

What a hoot! Ninety-seven percent of our high school and college students—and the majority of Hollywood would die if they tried to obey this one. You see more skin at the mall or in a movie, than you do in a hospital ward these days. 

35th Rule of Civility: “Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.”       

        Ohhhhh, Congress? Are you listening? Do you understand the meaning of this one? 

38th Rule of Civility: “In visiting the sick, do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.” 

        Hmmm . . . Something tells me George wouldn’t approve of WebMD.com. 

I refuse to pick on Abe Lincoln. He’s my main man and always will be. 

But allow me to weigh in on Thomas Jefferson for a bit, since I’m feeling analytically ornery this week. 

I acquired this fridge magnet with Jefferson’s Ten Rules, which he compiled in 1811 as instructions in conduct to his twelve-year old granddaughter, Cornelia. 

  • Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
  • Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
  • Never spend money before you have earned it.
  • Never buy what you don’t want because it is cheap.
  • Pride costs more than hunger, thirst and cold.
  • We seldom repent of having eaten too little.
  • Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
  • How much pain the evils cost us that never happened.
  • Take things always by the smooth handle.
  • When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, count a hundred. 

Pretty good rules for self-governing, I’d say. 

But—but!—did you know that Jefferson employed 130 slaves on his farm to do the work. So, to my way of thinking, that kinda’ negates the ol’ ‘Never trouble another for what you can do yourself,’ mantra, wouldn’t you agree? 

And that ‘Never spend money before you have earned it,’—wellll . . . allow me to inform you. Even though Thomas Jefferson was a marvelous book and record keeper, the man liked to spend the pesos the way our current government likes to print greenbacks. He left his family in debt by an estimated $100,000. They had to sell off holdings to make good on said debt after his death. 

All snarky joking aside, there was one aspect that I could not escape upon learning of the numbers of slaves that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did keep, and the question I would pose to both of them, were I given the chance would be this: 

How could you possibly justify your slave ownership against the following words? 

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. 

This thought bugged me the whole of this vacation, and always will.

 

For female slaves on the estate of George Washington.

For female slaves on the estate of George Washington.

 

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10 thoughts on “The ubiquitous gray of U.S. history’s early writers.

  1. Your trip sounds wonderful–and so educational. I like Jefferson’s Ten Rules. The issue of the Founding Fathers having slaves is indeed puzzling, but then I wonder what inconsistencies future generations may charge us with.

    • Thanks for reading, Patty. We all know they–the future generations–will charge us with many–and rightfully so—both from the governmental side–and the family-unit and/or societal side. They will probably wonder why we never figured out that marginalizing ANYBODY at all–is morally and universally wrong. So goes the stained human condition I ‘spose.

  2. Great post. I have always been a history buff. I have always admired our founding fathers. Your points on slavery bring up one rule I live by; Never judge people of the past by the rules of today. And, don’t believe everything they say about Thomas Jefferson.

    • Thanks for reading it this week, Frank. That definitely was part of our discussions throughout the week. Those times were “then” and how we look at things “today” cannot be compared, but–the question does arise—those people had all the factors of being human: arms, legs, etc. just like the whites–and their blood, too, was red. How could anyone possibly not have considered them to be simply—human beings?

  3. Rebecca–Sounds like a great trip! Wish I could go, too. Have you read “Founding Brothers, the Revolutionary Generation” by Joseph J. Ellis? One particular chapter “The Silence” sheds a lot of light on the founders’ grappling with the slavery issue. One review calls that chapter “painful reading.” ~Ann

    • Thanks, Betty. As you can see, it was a loaded vacation week of activity–both physical and mental. I fail to see how anyone can miss the opportunity to run the comparisons. They practically knock you in the head at every turn. The city is just beautiful and I am so proud of our elegant memorials and buildings out there. I do consider them our national treasures and I appreciate the level of symbolic thought that went into what they represent. Gives me some hope. If we could just get more citizens on board with that level of thinking now—we might stand a chance.

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