Wonder and Feigning Knowledge

(if you are viewing this via email, the website has a recording of this poem and commentary; click the title above)

I have been where Ta-Nehisi Coates was. He tells about reestablishing his friendship with wonder. At a conference in Aspen, Ta-Nehisi met a retired gentleman who told him…

“he’d taken his dog and driven out to the Continental Divide to watch the wildlife. I did not know what the Continental Divide was, and I did not ask. Later I felt bad about this. I knew, even then, that whenever I nodded along in ignorance, I lost an opportunity, betrayed the wonder in me by privileging the appearance of knowing over the work of finding out.”

— Brad Hepp, April 26, 2023

Why DID Washington Cross the Delaware?

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851 (Public Domain image)

You’ve seen the painting…. A noble George Washington leading his troops as they cross the ice-choked Delaware River. If you’re like me, you recognize the scene but don’t remember ever studying the background.

I recently listened to an audio book version of David McCollough’s “1776.” McCullough’s reading of his own book is pleasant, devoid of the false energy some readers bring to the narration of other’s writing. In fact, it is the apparent honesty and accuracy of McCollough’s portrayal that give “1776” much of its value.

The salient points of the book for me are

  • McCullough’s description of King George III and the pressures that came to bear on him in his decision to quash the American rebellion
  • McCullough’s description of George Washington’s outstanding qualities that made him the obvious choice to lead the American army despite his lack of battlefield experience.
  • The early American victory in driving the British from Boston
  • The amateurish American failings that led to British victory in New York
  • The desperate situation of the Americans and the morale-boosting victory at Trenton following Washington’s bold crossing of the Delaware in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas 1776

So, why DID Washington cross the Delaware? Here’s what emerges from McCullough’s narrative…. The troops under General Washington were dwindling at an alarming rate. It was the “Fiscal Cliff” of 1776. He had to take bold actions to re-invigorate what troops were left to him. Unlike the pusillanimous politicians of 2012, Washington risked all to lead his young nation to victory.

While I listened to the audio version, and highly recommend it for anyone who has more time to listen than to read, the illustrated print version of the book would surely be invaluable. I do not know the geography of either Boston or New York well enough to envision McCullough’s description of the battlefields.

Review of Robert Merry's "A Country of Vast Designs"

Robert W. Merry’s “A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent” was a great Audible book to listen to at the end of the recent Presidential election. This book chronicles the political struggles underlying America’s expansion by territorial acquisition during the Polk administration, 1844-1848. Back then it was Democrats versus Whigs. A Republican, I was reeling from the recent election, and ready to find fault with the mid-nineteenth century Democrats. As I listened to the background stories of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, it slowly dawned on me that the Democrats of the 1800s would be most comfortable in today’s Tea Party. They believed in de-centralized government, sought strict-constructionist judges, and were guided by a belief in American exceptionalism.


One reviewer of this book did not enjoy reading about the “insignificant politics of Polk’s presidency.” I’ll admit that the boy in me would like to see more action, fuller descriptions of the Mexican War, a travelogue of Zachary Taylor’s and Winfield Scott’s invasions of Mexico–especially Scott’s march from Veracruz to Mexico City. One garrison he established on his route was my birthplace: Puebla, Mexico.

Listening to this book helps me understand that history is more than the story of generals and battles. Apart from political wrangling, there would be no armies, no declarations of war, no peace treaties. By 1844, when Polk was elected to the US Presidency, politicians were already engaged in the arguments that would lead to the Civil War. Polk navigated the increasingly treacherous waters of abolitionism and states rights. He figured out ways to make progress in fulfilling his goal of territorial expansion despite the competing forces that would rend the nation within two decades.

Robert W. Merry paints vivid portraits of the various political figures. In Merry’s narrative, their intelligence, courage, and persistence contrasts favorably with shallow motives and shortsighted actions of action figures like Santa Anna, Zachary Taylor and John C. Frémont.


I look forward to reading another book that Robert W. Merry published four years earlier: “Sands of Empire Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition.” The title of this 2005 book suggests that Merry is not a fan of what some regard as American imperialism. Yet his account of the Mexican War and the conflict with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory is measured and non-judgmental. He does not glorify politicians who opposed the Mexican War as a moral outrage. He carefully lays out many of the best justifications for the war with Mexico and the conflict with Great Britain. There was simply insufficient settlement by their own people for the Mexicans or Brits to justify their ownership. In the case of Mexico, there was little semblance of political order in the decades after they won independence from Spain (1821). They were in no position to protect what settlers they did have in their Northern lands. This was in large part the justification for Texas’ War of Independence with Mexico (begun in 1835).


The Audible Book version of “A Country of Vast Designs” is narrated by Michael Prichard. I see that Prichard has narrated MANY books. With good reason. He is a terrific narrator. In some sections of Merry’s account his writing style seems influenced by the flowery style of mid-nineteenth century prose. It would be hard NOT to reflect the style of his best contemporaneous sources. But Prichard deftly differentiates between Merry’s style and the grandiloquent speech of men like Edward Everett, one of the nation’s foremost orators (famous for the 2-hour speech preceding Lincoln’s 2-minute Gettysburg Address). He also does a good job suggesting accents of colorful old politicians and generals. Prichard successfully reflects Merry’s vivid portrayals in his reading.

John Steele Gordon’s “A Thread Across the Ocean”

I first encountered John Steele Gordon in an excellent lecture of his that was adapted for Hillsdale College’s Imprimis Magazine. A born educator, Gordon is able to “bring alive” seemingly mundane history and tie diverse threads into a cord that tugs on one’s understanding of past–and current–events.

In “A Thread Across the Ocean,” Gordon introduces the characters, business principals, and technology involved in the mid-1800s effort to lay a telegraph cable across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The most notable character is Cyrus Fields. Despite repeated–and costly–failures, Fields did finally achieved a lasting connection in 1866.

I listened to the Audible Books narrated version of this book. While the narrator, Scott Brick, was good, I do wonder if the author himself couldn’t have done even better.

Some of the more interesting take-aways for me were:

  • The importance of the corporation as a risk-reducing entity to encourage investment.
  • The value of trial and error alongside careful planning and engineering. In unforeseen errors one learns WHAT needs to be engineered.
  • The mutual benefit of private and public funding in large endeavors. When the British government learned that one timely communication (regarding deployment of troops) had saved it the better part of the money it might have spent on the transatlantic cable, it promptly invested substantial public money. But private investors made sure the project was profitable.
  • The earliest steamships could not carry sufficient coal to power them on long voyages. Not until Isambard Kingdom Brunel launched the mammoth SS Great Eastern in 1858 was there a steamship large enough to efficiently lay the transatlantic cable.

Benghazi and the Lesson of Coventry

Anthony Cave Brown’s “Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story Behind D-Day” was published in 1976, just a year after many of the documents concerning intelligence-gathering in WWII were de-classified.

Much of Bodyguard concerns the Allies’ penetration of Germany’s secret messaging that relied on the Enigma machines. The Allies’ codebreaking, known as “Ultra,” was an ability they could not let the Germans know about, lest the Germans should change their encryption. In Brown’s second chapter, he describes the heartbreaking choice Churchill had to make between protecting Coventry from an impending German air raid–and thus tipping the Germans off that their codes had been broken–and letting the raid go on unimpeded, so that the Germans would continue relying on their compromised encryptions. Brown writes that “Ultra gave Churchill and his advisers at least 48, possibly 60, hours warning of the devastating raid that was planned for Coventry…How important was the security of Ultra? was it more important than the security of a major industrial city? It would be for Churchill alone to decide.”

Coventry did suffer significant damage and loss of life. Some have denied the accuracy of Brown’s account, claiming that Churchill didn’t really know that Coventry was the target. But this story is only one of dozens in Brown’s book illustrating heart-wrenching dilemmas faced by the Allies as they conducted secret warfare against Hitler’s Germany.

The Lesson of Coventry: don’t think you know why leaders are doing what they are doing. Don’t think you know it AFTER they have done it. Don’t think you know it even when documents come out! Accurate history takes a long time to establish, and in some cases will never be established.

The recent, tragic embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya comes to mind. Did President Obama willfully–and needlessly–refuse to protect American lives? The lesson of Coventry keeps me from assuming I’ll ever know the real answer, no matter how much I distrust this president.

Why Did Constantine Become a Christian?

In the Audible Books Modern Scholars lecture series on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Thomas F. Madden takes on the question of whether or not Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was genuine. While this is in no way the main subject of the lectures, it is a fascinating question, especially in light of what followed on Constantine’s conversion: Christianity went from being an officially persecuted religion, embraced by 15% of the populace in 313 to being THE official religion of Rome, embraced by almost the entire Roman empire by the end of the fifth century.

Here is how Madden’s argument goes:

Constantine did not convert to Christianity to hold on to power or help the empire. Arguing for this ulterior motive–political expediency–doesn’t work because

  • It forces one to ignore Constantine’s letters and the accounts of his contemporaries or assign them all to a massive conspiracy.
  • It doesn’t make sense. Why convert to a religion that was at that time viewed as harmful to the empire? Why convert to a religion that refused to accept the imperial cult, which would have assigned deity to Constantine?

Some object that Constantine was not baptized until he was on his deathbed. Madden argues that this actually provides evidence FOR the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion

  • People in high position delayed baptism until they were on their deathbed because of the view then that sins committed AFTER baptism might not be forgiven, thus ruining one’s chance of entering heaven. So, his delayed baptism was evidence that Constantine really believed that Christianity was a religion that affected his eternal state.
  • If Constantine’s conversion was insincere, why did he not
    • Get baptized right away? This is really a reiteration of the point above: if his belief was merely feigned, he had no reason to delay baptism.
    • Avoid baptism altogether? What political expediency could there have been for him in getting baptized on his deathbed?