I realized only today that the word “religion” means being bound. That’s startling, because I associate religion with boundlessness, with access to transcendent experience and possibilities. Instead religion is a limit, a binding of oneself, mainly in a spirit of reverence, although in many cultures religion is a coercive belief system that one has little choice but to conform to.
Furthermore, there is a curious double meaning in the word religion, for “being bound” means “being tied,” whether literally or figuratively (as a slave is bound to a master). But “being bound” also means heading in a certain direction, advancing toward a specific destination (as in “bound for Rio” or “bound for the Olympics”). Taken altogether, religion is a thing that both limits and orients and propels.
It’s noteworthy that reverence is the impulse central to religious practice and identity. A reverential spirit leads us forward in exploring spiritual mysteries, but reverence also entails obeisance, an acknowledgement or conviction that there exists something greater and more enduring and ineffable than ourselves. That conviction or faith corresponds to the evidence everywhere that reason can’t cover all cases: that in our souls and voices, and in the created world, we discern wonders and mysteries that no amount of intellection and tinkering can mimic or explain. Thus, even a seeker after religion is religious already.
Organized religion is just one manifestation of religion, but it is important as a reservoir of value and thought, bringing together communities of believers and giving their instinctive faith and wonder a vocabulary and form. As mass society eclipses older cultures built upon the rock of creative individuality, so too modernism is eclipsing many once-flourishing religious venues that existed for feeding spiritual fires and strengthening souls. We may still be votaries, more likely to travel alone because our bonds are loose.
Who would have imagined watching the collapse of human culture on television, the unreal news–the footage, the statistics of devastation and human suffering–flowing past on a small-scale screen, while, in another corner of the living room, our American household has paused for that welcome ritual known as “happy hour”?
As we ingest cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, our eyes follow the raging brown waters as we hear about the submersion of over one third of Pakistan, overwhelmed with floods. Yes, as we sit there, a part of us considers what it would be like to stand in a landscape where everything is lost to muddy water. How long would we last?
After a thorough segment on Pakistani suffering, the news shifts to Sudan, the African nation whose people have lost their crops to “climate whiplash,” in this case a combination of floods followed by droughts. The crops they have planted are dying for want of water, whereas immense tracts of normally arable land are useless, a dead loss, because they are still submerged or saturated with water from last year’s floods. The families have no farm animals or machinery to begin with, and, over the past year or so, they have had to watch their crops rot, to ration out what little remaining food they have to their hungry children.
A representative of Unicef is interviewed, who pleads on behalf of the suffering children of Pakistan. The nation’s minister of climate change, a beautiful knowledgable woman, tells us that the cost of climate remediation is staggering. Also that Pakistani sorrows proceed directly from the modern customs that people in our part of the world invented, built up, and at this point are hopelessly addicted to.
Every day at home and abroad, Americans witness and experience similar catastrophes. Many of us accept the drastic shift that the developed world must undertake and reorganize around if our habitat, our families and societies are to survive. Like so much else we have experienced since 2020, the accelerating pace of lethal natural disasters seems unreal. Circumstances demand that all humanity pivot, and in short order contrive a more modest and sustainable relation to nature.
Yet, now, in the eleventh hour, it is easier to continue on in our habits than to grapple with a radical resolution, to acknowledge our inescapable dependence on Earth, and to stop engaging in all that we know is degrading the planet and intensifying the suffering multiplying everywhere around.
Of the many photographs taken of Theodore Roosevelt reading, this one is perhaps the most beguiling. It was taken in 1905, when the president was on vacation. He used his time off to go bear hunting in Colorado on horseback with a small group of friends. While there, he stayed in the “West Divide Creek ranch house,” a simple log cabin.
Roosevelt was famous as a man of action. Few presidents had his love of ‘roughing it,’ though many were endowed, as he was, with physical courage and military zeal. Roosevelt’s love of adventure sprang from wanting to prove himself by facing elemental challenges. This passion fueled his love of sport (such as boxing) as well as his famous excursion toward the end of his life to find the headwaters of the Amazon. As president, he was resolute, tackling the prickliest dilemmas in a forthright, all-out way.
At the same time, Roosevelt’s effectiveness derived from his great intellectual capacities. He was a voracious reader, devouring information and knowledge like a large fish feeding with mouth open wide. He read and wrote compulsively, regardless of his official duties. Being intellectual was intrinsic to his identity. Knowledge clarified the problems he confronted, undergirding Roosevelt’s confidence and leadership skills.
Photographers accompanied Roosevelt on his Wild West vacation. This allowed the public to see another side of the president, barren of conventional symbols of prestige. Yet beneath the ratty clothes and ridiculous hat, Roosevelt’s big-heartedness, joie de vivre, and seriousness remained much in evidence. The dog on his lap joined the Roosevelt household, when Teddy took him back to the White House to stay.
On the 4th of July, 1776, the British subjects of thirteen colonies in North America declared through a makeshift congress that they were gunning for total independence from Britain. They were already in a state of war against the British, but it was a defensive war against occupation, a war without aims.
Since the fighting had broken out a year earlier, representatives of the American colonies had applied themselves to the problem of how to win the war, a war against one of the world’s great military powers. The Declaration successfully articulated the colonies’ grievances against the British Crown. It presented a catalog of grievances against the monarchy, using the language of natural rights to justify throwing off a remote government that Americans feared would reduce them to “slaves.” The Declaration legitimated war on the grounds that the British government did not represent the will of Americans. Britain’s colonial system condemned Americans to live under an authority that was not of their own making, in which they had no voice.
The Declaration was a radical document, a glorious aspirational document that, beyond firing up the colonists, has inspired oppressed people to seek independence, equality, and self-determination down through the years. With its ringing assertion of each person’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and its rejection of government without “the consent of the governed,” the Declaration gave the colonists a sound philosophical justification for rejecting British rule. Their rebellion was justified because becoming a self-governing nation was their aim.
Inspiring in its idealism, the Declaration was never intended as a blueprint for national government. The Continental Congress that approved it never approached the stature of the English system of King and Parliament that the colonists threw off. The Declaration’s fiery phrases recalling past grievances couldn’t sustain the Revolution as it dragged on. Having put the super-capably George Washington in charge of the war effort, Congress became diffident. Enthusiasm waned. Each state wanted what was best for itself, and no state wanted to give up much of its newly gained independence for the sake of a more powerful collectivity.
General Washington had to beg and cajole Congress for the basics to keep the Revolution going. Valley Forge was the shameful nadir of the states’ indifference and irresponsibility. Continental troops, encamped there for the winter, perished not from battle but for want of human necessities such as clothing, shelter, and food. Washington despised the Continental Congress for its weaknesses, blaming it for a war that was unduly costly and long.
Peace and independence came after eight tedious years. Congress’s deficiencies became even more glaring once the colonists’ common enemy, Britain, had been expelled. The fragile nationhood achieved through the Revolution began crumbling, as citizens and states grew tired of the extraordinary effort that acting in concert as a nation required. Returning home, Washington confronted his own near-bankrupt condition. He faced the same uncertain prospects that all Americans faced, after shunning membership in an imperial economy that, for all its faults, had helped power American prosperity.
No wonder that Washington and other leading Revolutionaries put their weight behind the Constitution of the United States, which, in 1789, with the consent of the states then extant, became the supreme law of the land. In subsequent decades, as the nation grew, western states sought admission to the United States, voluntarily placing their states under subjection to the Constitution. States like Texas, briefly an independent nation, eagerly sought to become part of the US, its sovereignty pale beside the Constitutional Union’s advantages.
All this matters because aggrieved Americans now justify their anti-federalism by quoting phrases from the Declaration, as if they do not realize that all that they owe to the Constitution, all the benefits and protections that have accrued to them and their states, thanks to this transformative Founding document. Oddly, people who don’t know the history or limitations of the Declaration misuse the fiery document that Thomas Jefferson wrote as a young revolutionary hungry the very self-government that Americans gained.
The glorious heights this nation and its people have attained since the War for Independence rest entirely on the Constitution. The individualism and liberty that the Declaration makes so much of would have come to nothing had the United States not subsequently embraced a strong centralized vision–the Constitution, which spells out the federal system of self-government and individual rights we live by now.
It’s disturbing to hear anti-federalists railing against the federal government using phases from the Declaration. These benighted citizens come across as yahoos. The Constitution, not the Declaration, supplies the legal basis of government. It ensures our freedoms, balances our interests, and gives us sufficient power to be self-governing. The Constitution, not the Declaration, is the font of all present-day rights, court decisions, and laws.
The Declaration of Independence was never intended to pit Americans against one another or to attack the representative self-government that, thanks to the guarantees of the Constitution, is the birthright of all Americans.
After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on 14 April 1865, his body was carried by train to Springfield, Illinois, where Mary Todd Lincoln, his widow, had determined the late president would be buried. The progress of his remains by rail was sedate and lengthy, as his casket was paraded through many cities and the funeral train traveled at a top speed of 20 miles per hour. Lincoln’s journey to the grave was an unprecedented national spectacle, as tens of thousands of citizens turned out to view his cortege.
Yet, even as they mourned, conflict over Lincoln’s final destination brewed. On the one hand, the leading lights of Springfield had formed a plan to place his body in a tomb in a highly visible location that could be seen from a train. These men, acting without consulting Lincoln’s widow, raised $50,000, bought 6 acres of land, and set crews to work night and day building a vault that would be ready to receive Lincoln’s body on May 24, the date appointed for his funeral. This tomb, located on land called “the Mather Block,” was built into the hill where the Illinois statehouse stands today.
Their plans did not sit well with Mary Todd Lincoln. She recalled Abe once saying that he would like to be buried at Oak Ridge, a secluded rural cemetery two miles away. Mrs Lincoln had a terrible time convincing the prominent men who had backed the Mather Vault to commit to burying Lincoln at Oak Ridge instead. Eventually, though, she prevailed. On the day of Lincoln’s funeral, his remains were laid in Oak Ridge’s receiving vault. More funds were raised and a fit memorial to Lincoln rose. An imposing granite obeliskwith a statuary group at its base declared the location of his resting place. Lincoln’s body was moved from the receiving vault to this tomb in 1874.
Two years later, a group of men taking orders from Chicago counterfeiter Big Jim Kennally tried to steal Lincoln’s body. Kennally wanted the body as ransom for $200,000 in cash and the release of his partner-in-crime, convicted engraver Benjamin Boyd, then doing time in the Illinois “pen.” When Kennally unwittingly hired a government informant to join in as a grave-robber, the plot was exposed.
The incident prompted the tomb’s custodian, John Carroll Power, to form a secret band of local men to help him guard Lincoln’s remains. Power and his men managed to move Lincoln’s heavy cedar-and-lead coffin from its proper spot to an undisclosed hiding place in Memorial’s basement. The remains of the three Lincoln boys who had predeceased their father remained in the upper burial chamber. When Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882, her body was interred there too. Paradoxically, the secrecy surrounding the exact location of Lincoln’s coffin (hidden downstairs under a woodpile) fed doubt as to whether it still contained his corpse.
In 1899, Robert Todd Lincoln, the Lincolns’ only surviving child, visited the memorial and directed that the entire structure be razed and rebuilt. Abraham Lincoln’s coffin and those of his family members were removed from the memorial and buried nearby in a temporary grave (shown in the foreground of the picture above). In April 1901, several photographers were on hand to record the proceedings as Lincoln’s heavy coffin (said to weigh between 400 and 500 pounds) was lifted out of the grave and re-interred in the new and improved memorial. Over a hundred people and several children watched as a crane operator opened the temporary grave, removing the enormous stone slabs covering it, and revealing the Lincoln family coffins for all to see.
Yet, even after the day’s events, which restored the Lincoln family remains to the relative safety of the new vault, Robert Todd Lincoln was not entirely satisfied. He remained worried that his father’s remains could be stolen or desecrated. So, he decided to have a steel cage constructed around his parents’ coffins, deep underground. Once the coffins were placed inside the cage, several feet of concrete would be laid above it, thick enough to insure their inviolable repose.
By September 1901, a crew was ready to execute this plan. Local dignitaries were called together to witness this final transfer of Lincoln’s remains. At this point, a spontaneous impulse arose among the group to open Lincoln’s coffin and verify the presence of his corpse. Though opinion was divided, those in favor of opening the coffin prevailed. Two local workmen were called out to cut open the section of the coffin lid over Lincoln’s head. The crowd of 23 witnesses recoiled from the wave of a shockingly strong smell. Then, as one, they instinctively leaned in to see what was inside.
Lincoln’s visage was completely recognizable. Covered with a powdery white chalk (taken to be a funerary cosmetic), Lincoln’s flesh had turned a deep leathery bronze. His whiskers, hair, and mole were all intact, though his eyebrows were gone. Spidery bits of yellow mildew clung to the broadcloth suit he’d been buried in. (He had worn it a week before his murder to his second inauguration.) His gloves (which he hated to wear) had disintegrated, along with his pillow rest and a small flag that had been placed on his chest, but not his bow tie. Some theorize that the body was in a remarkably good state of preservation owing to the repeated embalming necessary to preserve it during its long journey west in 1865.
Image: Photograph by Guy R. Mathis,
“Removing Lincoln’s Body, No. 9,” from this source.