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A Box of Letters: Looking at my Revolutionary Ancestors from Post-Constitutional America

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Montgomery's iconic status as America's fallen hero had something to do with this alliance between the classes. With nobility in his family background if not wealth, he had married into the most powerful clan in New York. Then two years into a happy marriage, he accepted the commission of brigadier general with grave misgivings and an ominous sense of personal doom. Yet, he brought back to life with total commitment the seasoned battlefield officer he once had been. He complained about his rag-tag army of Yankee farmers who didn't like to take orders, but he inspired them to a surprising string of victories largely by his personal example, never exposing his troops to more dangers than he did himself. The attack on Quebec City was an operation carried out by citizen soldiers that would challenge the endurance of the toughest special forces of today. At two o'clock in the morning of December 31st, Montgomery led his men into a howling blizzard along a treacherous path by the St Lawrence. Pressing on over boulders and blocks of ice thrown up by the frozen river, they struggled against the horizontal lashing snow in a race against the dawn that would reveal them to the enemy. After cutting a hole through one of the barricades in the lower town, Montgomery was first inside and led the fatal charge against a blockhouse that guarded the narrow street they had entered. With his death the campaign fell apart. The bad news spread down the east coast as fast as news could travel. From Boston to Virginia the public had followed reports of his victories, and his death was a deep wound, but his sacrifice was not one that could be wasted on defeat, and it only stiffened the rebels' resolve. Even in England Montgomery had many admirers, and he became the subject of much popular literature. Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, the most important revolutionary tract of the time, wrote a play called Dialogue between the Ghost of General Montgomery and an American Delegate in a Wood Near Philadelphia  in which the fallen general warns that making concessions to the British would be tantamount to accepting slavery. The lines below are typical of the many popular poems that appeared.

What means these tears that thus effusive flow

Why throbs each breast with agonizing Wo?

Montgomery's dead, a name to all rever'd

By patriots lov'd, by dastard tyrants feared.

More than 40 years later, in 1818, Montgomery's body was exhumed and repatriated to the United States where it was re-interred at St Paul's Chapel on Broadway amid the largest outpouring of public grief since the death of Washington. En route from Canada, the funeral ship sailed down the Hudson, past the home of Janet Livingston Montgomery, his aged widow, the sister of my two great (x4) grandmothers. Janet asked family members to leave her alone on the western porch from which she could clearly see the river. The ship stopped in front her home while a band played the the dead march and an honor guard fired a salute. When, after some time, her companions went to check on her, they found the old woman unconscious lying on the floor, having fainted dead away. She had never remarried and had spent a lifetime keeping alive the flame of her husband's memory. Among my documents is a mid-nineteenth century copy of the letter she wrote to General Horatio Gates, refusing his offer of marriage. The florid poetic language, these scenes that could have been crafted by some author of Gothic romances; it all seems so impossibly remote from modern America, but it is not really that far back in time, and the issues around which the revolutionary patriots rallied are familiar today.

The United States of 2014 may be powered by technology that the Clermont Livingstons could not have imagined, but they would recognize in the actions of our present government policies akin to those of the British elite and its military muscle. They and their revolutionary contemporaries saw certain key principles as the only reliable bulwark against the cycles of destruction that had characterized European history. They hashed it out in the Constitution. There were some basics required if the consent of the governed was to remain the underlying foundation of government: the right to be free from unwarranted searches, the right to have a sound currency produced and regulated by Congress, the people's representatives, the right to not fight in undeclared wars, which often serve private interests rather than protect the people, the right to be regulated only by laws passed by one's own representatives, the presumption of innocence, and the right to be free of criminal charges and punishments except when meted out by a jury of one's peers. The founders believed that these precepts had to be followed by a society if it was to remain free of the evils that come from unchecked power. When those wielding power ignore these fundamentals, they have become the enemy of the Constitution and hence of the United States.

Left-wing, right-wing, liberal, conservative, whatever one's political philosophy, these are the basics of America's social contract, where the constitutional rubber hits the road in real life, and every one of these basic ideas has been ignored and sometimes arbitrarily overruled by recent American administrations. Which begs the question: Is the government in Washington a legitimate US government or do we now inhabit the New American State, a post-Constitutional entity, a stitched-together alliance of corporate powers channeling their demands through the hollow bones of the former republic. If leading politicians simply act as if the words of the Constitution don't apply to them, what is the basis of their authority? Nothing but brute force and the power of money? So much for the rights of man.

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As we go down the Orwellian rabbit hole into which much of modern political discussion has descended, we can easily see how corruption has eaten away at the Constitution and our social contract. The modern politician, when seeking to void an underlying principle of law, resorts to semantic subterfuge, teams of lawyers and compliant judges. Declarations of war become irrelevant because we create a permanent state of war. "Terror" becomes the enemy, not some sovereign nation. Hence, the permanent warfare state emerges, allowing the country's military power to be commandeered by private interests, whether energy companies or defense contractors. It is hard to imagine any state of affairs more repugnant to the founders. A private corporation, the Federal Reserve, takes over the control of the currency, its very name concealing a deception since the word "Federal" falsely implies that the institution is owned by the public. What happened to Congress' role in issuing the currency? In 1913, a private banking cartel in secret meetings on Jekyll Island orchestrated the little understood legislation that created the Fed and the perpetually expanding debt machine of the modern financial system. Interest payments are siphoned off into the financial "industry" rather than the real economy of manufactured goods and services or the infrastructure that society needs. In this case, Congress' abdication of its constitutional role can be seen in the inflating price of items on the grocery shelves and in the desolate abandoned blocks of squalor in Detroit.

To me the whole creation of the Federal Reserve seems of questionable legality. How did a Congress, whose authority comes from the Constitution, acquire the right to turn over one of its constitutionally defined duties to another entity without voiding its own charter? Then we have the recent matter of the NSA's spying on citizens. It is hard to imagine a greater invitation to evil and corruption than a system that allows unelected bureaucrats operating in secret to access the private communications of any individual. Small wonder that prior to Edward Snowden, whistle-blowers alleging financial misconduct at the NSA were ruthlessly prosecuted in the name of national security. Then in a classic example of Orwellian double-think, Snowden is accused of treason for defending the right to be free of unwarranted searches, one of the basic issues that motivated the American Revolution. The ironically named Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act add to the train of Constitutional abuses by effectively removing another of the guarantees of the Constitution, the right to a fair trial. Are these breaches of our rights necessary to protect us from threats the founders could not have imagined? Or are they a ruse to protect criminals within the government from the power the Constitution granted to all of its citizens, the power to hold government officials accountable for crimes against the common good? To quote Dylan, "Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings/Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and then they make you king."

To me it seems that the answer is clear, that the technologies of repression have changed, but the crimes remain the same. And obvious that the hidden agenda behind the dismantling of the Constitution and various deceptions emanating from Washington is clearly the economic advancement of powerful groups with little actual allegiance to the United States and its inhabitants. It is no surprise that the destruction of the middle class, the deteriorating infrastructure and personal finances of Americans, have been accompanied by the steady erosion of the Constitution. Of course, the most complicit politicians don't repudiate our founding documents; they just ignore them and cover their tracks with the usual corrupt language of propaganda. How far down the rabbit hole we must go before we reach bottom is hard to tell. Are the government officials who signed off on the scientifically impossible account of 9/11 (as in three buildings exploding and collapsing just as in a controlled demolition because two were hit by airplanes), are these people actually traitors or just suffering from the extreme cognitive dissonance of modern times? Like the courtiers in the folk tale who happily talk about the naked emperor's clothing, are they able to see without seeing? I don't know but I do fear that our country, born in the Age of Reason, may fall apart finally in an age of treason.

My ongoing excursion into the past has made me proud of my country's history but very fearful for the future. I am admittedly not an objective  party. I am not an historian. I am entirely prejudiced by a desire to see in these stories an alternative to the drab narcissism of strip-mall America, of "reality TV" and the incessant inanities of the corporate media's talking heads. I am tempted to attribute my own problems to the evils of the empire and not accept responsibility for those I have caused myself, and a journey up the Hudson Valley in the 1700s is a fine escape indeed. I hoped to find in these older generations some inspiration and encouragement, proof that some political movements could have really be borne of noble intentions. Nevertheless, I honestly do think the people I have encountered by opening that box of letters were by and large decent and courageous. Some of them were slave owners who had the prejudices of the age, but one, Elizabeth, the wife of Francis Lewis, signer of the Declaration, risked her own health to insure the religious rights of a slave who had worked for her for many years, and he in turn had risked his own safety to smuggle supplies to her while she languished in a British prison. We are all trapped to some extent in time, and these people lived in an age when much of the world was unknown. Eventually, their revolution would help lay the groundwork for the abolitionists.

Yes, only men could vote, but the letters I have seen between spouses express a kind of love and respect between partners that one does not often see today. Clearly the religious convictions of Judge Robert Livingston and his wife Margaret did not dampen the passionate love they felt for each other. I have little doubt how the Judge would feel about bureaucrats in the NSA being able to access his private communications. Nor do I doubt how Richard Montgomery would feel about drone strikes in Pakistan that have destroyed wedding parties in an undeclared war. Hold all the political correctness and liberal mea culpas. I believe our country was founded by some extraordinary people at an extraordinary moment in history and that we are very much in danger of disgracing our heritage irredeemably. They gave us the Constitution because they knew how flawed we humans are and will remain, not because they were saints but because they wanted a level playing field for their own ambitions and the pursuit of happiness.

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To look at our present dilemma with the aid of a modern metaphor: the founders left our society with an operating system composed of three branches of government, but the system has been infected, the internal instructions disrupted by the viruses of deceitful language and and corrupted codes. Now the whole system is at risk, frozen up and unable to respond to the very real threats that do exist. The currency declines as digital dollars prop up Wall Street balance sheets but do not pay for real improvements in infrastructure or increase the material productivity of the country. Normal folks are scanned and searched at airports and have to fear that their most private lives are being monitored if not by government officials, by companies looking to influence their spending patterns. The treasury is depleted by uncounted billions of defense dollars and entanglements in foreign, often-engineered conflicts, but the "security state" is helpless and silent as a plume of radioactivity from Fukishima uncoils through the Pacific ocean, heading towards the west coast like some mythic dragon of cosmic proportions.

George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States in New York City on April 30, 1789. Chancellor Robert Livingston, son of the Judge, the "Robert" mentioned in the letter quoted above, swore in the new president. Curiously, at the last minute, the presiding officials realized that there was no bible handy on which Washington could place his right hand, so someone was dispatched quickly to the Masonic Hall to fetch one. They had, however, carefully prepared the oath this first president as well as our most recent one was required to take. It is written in clear simple language and needs no army of lawyers to tell us its meaning.

"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

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Long time recording and performing songwriter and musician. BA from Harvard. Appalled at a lack of reality based news coverage in the face of systemic threats to society. I have done a variety of jobs in addition to my various musical projects. (more...)

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A Box of Letters: Looking at my Revolutionary Ancestors from Post-Constitutional America


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Beautifully written, with purpose and c... by John Coster on Tuesday, Jan 28, 2014 at 1:36:48 PM
While I respect your ancestors and poetic idealis... by BFalcon on Wednesday, Jan 29, 2014 at 8:26:37 AM
That's no fairy tale.  Those are nothing mor... by Bob Davey on Saturday, Feb 1, 2014 at 11:10:40 PM
Appreciate your admiration and patriotism. It was... by BFalcon on Sunday, Feb 2, 2014 at 1:11:43 AM
Thank you. Seldom do I encounter such logical and ... by martin weiss on Thursday, Jan 30, 2014 at 9:13:41 AM
I don't know how you wrote all that. You covered ... by Bob Davey on Saturday, Feb 1, 2014 at 10:29:47 PM
Do you also deny the author of the article the qua... by BFalcon on Sunday, Feb 2, 2014 at 1:28:06 AM
First of all, Thank all of you for reading my art... by John Coster on Sunday, Feb 2, 2014 at 11:12:56 AM