Nov. 13, 2010

It's Sunday Morning in Early November

by Philip Schultz

and there are a lot of leaves already.
I could rake and get a head start.
The boy's summer toys need to be put
in the basement. I could clean it out
or fix the broken storm window.
When Eli gets home from Sunday school,
I could take him fishing. I don't fish
but I could learn to. I could show him
how much fun it is. We don't do as much
as we used to do. And my wife, there's
so much I haven't told her lately,
about how quickly my soul is aging,
how it feels like a basement I keep filling
with everything I'm tired of surviving.
I could take a walk with my wife and try
to explain the ghosts I can't stop speaking to.
Or I could read all those books piling up
about the beginning of the end of understanding...
Meanwhile, it's such a beautiful morning,
the changing colors, the hypnotic light.
I could sit by the window watching the leaves,
which seem to know exactly how to fall
from one moment to the next. Or I could lose
everything and have to begin over again.

"It's Sunday Morning in Early November" by Philip Schultz, from The God of Loneliness: Selected and New Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1787 that Thomas Jefferson (books by this author) said, "The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

There was a big uprising of small farmers going on in central Massachusetts at the time, an event known as Shays' Rebellion. They were rebelling because their farms were being foreclosed and repossessed by wealthy urban bankers, who were in debt to European creditors. Countries like France had lent money to America while it was fighting its Revolutionary War against Britain the past decade — and now they wanted to be paid back, in gold and silver. Banks could not gather the money they needed fast enough, so they started trying to make thousands of small farmers pay up at once on their farm and house mortgages. The farmers could not manage to do so, of course, and so the lenders confiscated their lands. They used the powers of the local courthouses to enforce the seizure of property.

Angry and indignant farmers in Springfield, Massachusetts, tried to occupy the local courthouse to prevent it from processing repossessions. And so the government prepared a militia full of soldiers to guard the courthouse; some war heroes from the Revolutionary War even came out of retirement to help lead the militia, which was financed by Boston merchants and sent in by the government of Massachusetts. But a man by the name of Daniel Shays decided that he'd lead a band of rebel farmers to the courthouse, and get there before the militia sent from Boston could. His farmers didn't have any weapons, so they planned to raid the Springfield Armory along with way and pick up guns to fight with.

It turns out that the government's militia was short on weapons too, and also had plans to stop at the armory. And the militia got to the armory first, and was waiting when Shays' band of untrained men arrived. The militia general ordered that a warning shot be fired. Two cannons rang out, and they killed four of Shays' rebels and wounded another 20. The rebels fled, were captured in about a week and imprisoned, fined, or condemned to death, though most were granted amnesty the following year.

Thomas Jefferson was in France when this happened; he was serving as the U.S. ambassador there. George Washington and the rest of federal government in the United States were very distressed by the rebellion, but Jefferson was far less worked up about it.

In addition to his fiery words about fertilizing the Tree of Liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants, he wrote on this day in 1787: "God forbid that we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. … If [the people] remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty."

It was exactly two years later — on this day in 1789 — that Ben Franklin (books by this author) wrote his famous phrase, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." The words were actually just the second half of a sentence he'd written in a letter his friend Jean-Baptiste LeRoy. It was shortly after the United States Constitution had been ratified, and his entire sentence was this: "Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency, but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

His iteration of the sentiment is by far the most famous, but it was not the first. More than half a century earlier, in a book called The Political History of the Devil (1726), Daniel Defoe wrote, "Not the Man in the Moon, not the groaning-board, not the inspiration of Mother Shipton, or the miracles of Dr. Faustus, things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believed."

Franklin's line is a recurring favorite for American bloggers come mid-April. A Washington Times article once quoted Franklin's words about the inevitability of death and taxes before proffering the advice: "Well, there is one way to avoid capital-gains taxes on investments — hold them until you die." Laura Ingalls Wilder included Franklin's quote in one of her Little House on the Prairie children's books, and Margaret Mitchell put this spin-off of it in Gone with the Wind (1936): "Death, taxes and childbirth! There's never any convenient time for any of them."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of St. Augustine, (books by this author) born in 354 in Thagaste, which is now in Algeria. He is best known for his Confessions, a 13-book autobiography of his life and conversion, considered to be the first memoir in Western literature.

It's the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850). He was a sickly, moderately successful essayist and travel writer, living in France, when he fell in love with a woman after one look at her. The woman was Fanny Osbourne, an American, and she was unhappily married. After a few months in Europe, she returned to California, and Stevenson decided to drop everything and go persuade her to divorce her husband and marry him. He collapsed on Fanny Osbourne's doorstep. She divorced her husband, and they got married and moved back to Scotland.

One rainy summer afternoon, Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island to entertain his new stepson, and in a single month, he wrote his first great novel, Treasure Island (1883). It's been in print for 127 years.

He's also the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), about a scientist who invents a chemical that changes his personality from a mild-mannered gentleman to a savage criminal. Those two books made Stevenson rich and famous. He spent the rest of his life traveling from one place to the next, and he finally settled on the island of Samoa.

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