Saturday, December 24, 2011

Remember the Alamo

America remembers many great battles that represent a turning point in a conflict that helped shaped our history. We think of D-Day in World War II that turned the tide of victory toward the allies despite horrific losses. But it is a unique battle that is remembered with pride and patriotism but is also a battle that was lost and almost everybody on our side brutally killed. But that was the case in the battle for the Alamo in 1863.

The battle for the Alamo was not a conventional battle in the sense of two equally matched armies fighting back and forth to retain property. It was, to put it bluntly, a slaughter. But the brave stand of those few hundred Texans against thousands of Mexican soldiers continues to inspire us today because it was a stand against impossible odds but it was a stand that reflected the American ethic of never giving up or surrendering when there is a principle to be defended.

The siege at the Alamo actually lasted thirteen days. It began on February 23, 1863 and it was over by March 6th. It is hard to imagine today, with Mexico to our south a trusted ally of the United States but this was a battle to stop that attempts by Mexico to invade the newly forming country of the United States which was an act of war to be sure. The brave men who stood against that vast army have become American icons of bravery and the American spirit and the names listed among those killed in that fort included Davy Crocket, Jim Bowie, the commander of the unit Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis. It was Travis that inspired his men to fight against insurmountable odds and his courage is what we celebrate whenever we say that famous rallying cry that come out of this battle which was “Remember the Alamo.” Travis wrote in a letter how he defied the Mexican attackers on the eve of the final siege.

I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken. I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country. Victory or Death.

It was this brave stand that actually turned the war against this invading army to the advantage of the Americans. The outrage from the slaughter of these men inspired that famous rallying cry that we remember even now centuries later when we hear those words “Remember the Alamo”. Their stand against Santa Anna gave Sam Houston the time to organize a much more potent army which went on to deliver to Santa Anna a stunning defeat at San Jacinto which was the turning point for Texas which went on from there to victory in this war.

The spirit of Texas was never the same and to this day, Texas prides itself as a people of particular courage, boldness and a unique independence that even sets them apart from the already fiercely independent American spirit. Moreover, the entire nation looks to this battle as an example of how a few good men helped deliver a victory, even if it was at the cost of their own lives. That indeed is the true spirit of patriotism.

Manifest Destiny

America is a vast country covering thousands of square miles of land that traverses tremendously diverse climate and landscape. From high and majestic mountains, to wide deserts to vast fruitful plains that seem to go on forever, the sheer size of the physical landscape of America is breath taking.

Obviously, this was not always the case. When those earliest settlers landed on the east coast and carved out their stark settlements, they had no idea of huge expanse of land that lay to the west. It took the bold explorations of surveyors such and Lewis and Clark to report back how stunningly huge the amount of physical space that was available for America to inhabit.

At first, the very idea of becoming a nation was seemingly impossible for the early settlers to grasp. They came here to escape persecution, tyranny or to make a new home for their families. If they could have looked a few hundred years down the line into the future and seen the powerhouse of a nation that would grow up from their work in those early years, they would have been stunned that this country grew to be such a world force. So the earliest challenges of settlers and early leaders of the citizens of the young America was to grasp the scope of what they were about to set about to achieve.

But grasp that scope they did. It seemed that the physical majesty of what was to become the nation of America inspired a concept that was just as grand as the land itself and that was the concept of Manifest Destiny. Manifest destiny was the force that drove those settlers and explorers to drive their wagon trains across sometimes impossible terrain through difficult weather conditions and facing many dangers from animals and Native Americans alike to build a nation that spanned form the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

This was the dream of the early settlers of this country. They did not just see a new nation but one of importance, of an almost holy calling to become a virtual utopia of democracy and opportunity. And part of that utopian vision was the idea of a nation that spanned ocean to ocean and from Mexico to the Canadian border as well.

When you think about it, its phenomenal that a people who did not have space photographs of a landscape or high speed travel such as is common today to get a vision of a unified nation of such vast size and scope. But it was more than just physical size that spoke to the hearts and souls of those early Americans. Manifest Destiny spoke to a vision of greatness for America that was birthed in the hearts of even these early citizens.

The size of the country was to be a reflection of the majesty of the human spirit and the magnificence of the American experiment to build a nation built on freedom, the will of the people and on democracy and opportunity. Today such concepts seem ordinary and for that we can thank the early founders of this country for catching that dream together and making it a reality.

Many have criticized Manifest Destiny as greed or empire building. And to be sure, mistakes were made and many people died or had their individual destinies hurt in the wholesale rush to the west that America experienced in its early decades. But what is not diminished is that sense of calling and that sense that America was put here for something great. That calling lives still in the hearts of all true Americans as we find out how we too can help our country fulfill its Manifest Destiny to be a voice for freedom and liberty in the world. Let’s hope Americans never loose their sense of calling and destiny. Because if that dies away, something holy and magnificent will die with it.

John F. Kennedy

In the life of this great nation, a few of its presidents have emerged from the pack as truly historic and memorable even more than others. Of course, the presidents from the generation of the founding fathers certainly fit that bill including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And presidents that served the country in times of great crisis also are deeply honored in memory. But in recent memory, there probably no other president that brings up emotions of respect and admiration as much as that of John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy seemed to capture the hearts of the American people in a way that was unique in presidents before or since. Part of it may have been the era in history that the country was in when he became the President of the United States. The historic time between 1950 and 1970 was a time when the largest generation of youth, now known as the “baby boomers”, was coming of age. With them a new youth movement brought a sense of optimism, a “can do” attitude and to some extent a sense of revolution. They were looking for new ways of seeing things, a new vision of the future and new leadership and John F. Kennedy was the perfect man of the hour to provide that leadership.

So much about Kennedy’s presidency has an aura of romance and almost a fairy tale excitement of it. From the naming of his family estates “Camelot” to the love affair that the public had with the strikingly beautiful presidential couple, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy. That touch of magic extended to everything he did and virtually everybody in his family including his younger brother Robert who was idolized as well and almost certainly would have served as president had he not been tragically assassinated during his early bid for that office.

But this was not to say that Kennedy was not a phenomenal leader. He faced serious challenges. The Cuban Missile Crisis may have been one of the most frightening show downs between a nuclear Russia and a nuclear America that has ever happened in history. When it became clear that Russia was beginning to build bases in Cuba and arm them with those terrible weapons, this was no time for a weak president. Had Russia been able to bully Kennedy or intimidate the young president and put those missiles in Cuba, it seems certain that the outcome of the cold war would have been one of failure rather than success. But Kennedy was not bullied or intimidated and using the power of his office, Kennedy stood his ground and stood ground for all Americans and forced the Russians to remove those missiles.

But this was not the only great accomplishment of Kennedy’s administration. It took a leader who had great vision and ability to inspire a nation as nobody else than John F. Kennedy could to set the sights of the nation on landing on the moon. But Kennedy put that desire and that high calling in the hearts of his people and the nation rallied to finally see that man step out on the moon and declare, “This is one step for man, a giant leap for mankind.” That was one of the proudest days in American history and it was Kennedy who inspired us to that kind of greatness.

As much as the life and leadership of John F. Kennedy perfectly exemplified the optimism and youthful zeal of a generation, his tragic assignation changed the country forever as well. On that sad day of November 22, 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down America’s beloved president, the hearts of Americans changed forever.

This was one of those days that almost everybody who was alive at the time, from school children to grandfathers remembered where they were when they heard the news. Since we laid to rest this great leader, the presidency itself has never been the same. While Americans will always respect their presidents, that sense of adoration for the man in the White House disappeared forever. But the thing that did not disappear was the ongoing adoration of the man, John F. Kennedy, who inspired a generation and a nation to look forward to greatness and in the famous words of his inaugural address in 1961…

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

George Washington

It is impossible to reflect on the truly great leadership that has been one of the real blessings of this nation without including the name of George Washington in that list. In fact, in almost anyone’s “top ten” list of truly great presidents, Washington would almost certainly top the list. His stature in American history is legendary and the respect Americans have for this their first president borders on adoration of myth.

In fact, there is a lot of myth and some humor about our first president that reflects the love people have for this great leader. From the many quips about his supposed wooden teeth to the thousands of places around the nation that proclaim “George Washington slept here”, to the mythical story of how he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac as a child or his response when he was caught cutting down a cheery tree and responded to the accusation “I cannot tell a lie”, Washington’s myth is strong in the national memory of this great leader.

Washington never set out to become the greatest president of all time or even to be in a position of leadership in the new country he helped to start. He was the one who originated the concept of a “citizen president” and he believed so strongly in that concept that he refused to run for a third term because his time as citizen leader was over. This tradition was sustained with little exception until it was codified into part of our constitution in the form of the 22nd amendment.

But before Washington was a great political leader, he showed his tremendous leadership skills on the field of battle. He learned the art of warfare serving honorably in the French and Indian war and his influence and the respect he had earned during that conflict netted him the title of commander and chief of the American Army when the continental congress created that role in 1775. Small wonder when he ascended to the presidency some years later, he carried the responsibility of commander and chief with him to the presidency where it continues to reside today even though few of our modern presidents have the military credentials of Washington.

When commanding the troops during the revolutionary war, a famous incident that has been captured beautifully by artists was his decision to cross the Delaware in New Jersey to stage a surprise attack and win the battle against the British. It was yet another brilliant maneuver that showed his firm grasp of military strategy and only served to add to his fame and reputation as an outstanding leader of men.

After the war, Washington again was interested in retiring from public life but he was never one to turn away when his nation needed him. And needed him it did as he presided over the Continental Congress to assure the successful drafting of the US Constitution. Of the many great accomplishments of his life, his ability to provide leadership and inspiration to that assembly to produce this masterpiece of American political ligature would certainly be ranked as perhaps his finest hour.

George Washington was rewarded for his superior leadership skills when he was given the awesome responsibility of serving as the nations first President of the United States. His wisdom and insight into what the nation needed at east stage of its early development made him the man of the hour for a struggling republic. Few recognize that one of his greatest contributions to the presidency was recognizing that the nation was torn and weary of war. So using his considerable influence and negotiating skills, Washington signed a number of important treaties that resulted in years of peace that were needed to turn the country from thoughts of war to thoughts of building a great nation.

Washington never tired of providing leadership for two terms as the first American president and it was he who decided not to serve a third term and returned once again to private life. But his impact on the nation and the world was profound and long lasting. It was the kind of nation shaping influence that truly earned him the title associated to him to this day of “father of the nation.”

The Boston Tea Party

There are some events that took place during the historic time when America was declaring its independence from England that are so historic, so iconic that they have taken on the status of myth and legend as much as history. And certainly the Boston Tea Party fits that description. This is such a stand out event in American history that it is common to see school children reenact it during elementary school plays or skits. And the participants names including John Hancock, Paul Revere and John Adams have similarly become classic heroic figures in American folklore and history.

But the events of December 16, 1776 were not fable or myth but real and important parts of the development of the American Revolution that was crucial to the early foundation of this country. The situation of taxation that was being imposed by Brittan on goods that were coming into the colonies was one of serious stress on the colonists because they had no control over those taxes. And that tax situation was made more extreme with the relationship between the British government and the East India Tea company who was receiving tax breaks for their goods that would place them at a competitive advantage in the Americas.

These kinds of preferential treatment only aggravated the already tense relationship between the colonies and Britain and many in leadership over the American states saw the way England was handling the situation as conspiratorial to try to hurt the economy of the growing new country and to impose restrictive rule through taxation on the colonies and the colonists. That is why that famous proclamation “No Taxation Without Representation” became one that is historic for the outrage against the English that took the colonies into revolutionary war that eventually lead to the independence of the American colonies and the beginning of a new country.

Finally on Thursday, December 16, 1776, decisive action needed to be taken. And our forefathers were nothing if not known for bold and decisive action in the fact of tyranny. The East India Tea Company had docked the HMS Dartmouth in Boston harbor full of a fresh import of tea for the colonies. It was time for the colonists to make a statement that this unethical and immoral use of taxes on tea was for all intents and purposes an act of war and they were going to treat it as such.

Badly disguised as Indians, the brave colonists boarded the HMS Dartmouth and her sister ships, the HMS Beaver and the HMS Eleanor and skillfully and efficiently dumped the entire delivery of tea into Boston harbor. All totaled, over forty five tons of tea went into the water that night. It was a stunning blow. But more than that it was a slap in the face of the British government and a gauntlet laid down that their attempts to rule the colonies b tyranny were not going to be tolerated any longer.

This event was pivotal in pushing the hostilities between England and the colonies past the “nuisance” stage and setting forces in motion for war. But more than that, it was such a bold statement of defiance that many colonists were inspired to join the increasing chorus calling for war and independence.

For loyal Britains, the idea of separating and forming their own country was hard to grasp. But the leadership of the men who planned and executed the Boston Tea Party demonstrated a new independent spirit. This was the kind of backbone, the sense of pride and independence that was to come to define the American spirit in years ahead. But it took the courage and boldness of this little band of men to demonstrate that being trod on by a foreign tyrant was not something we had to put up with.

It made a statement to England and to the colonists at the same time that revolution was possible and they really could think of themselves as free people who would bow to no king. From that time forward the independence of America was inevitable. These visionary leaders showed us an America that gave power to its people, not to kings or governments and the result in how America works and our lives are lived is the direct outcome of bold protests such as the Boston Tea Party.