Stephen Vincent Benet
The Reverend John Smeet, with his strangler’s hands and his Geneva gown, walked as daintily as he had to the gallows. The red print of the rope was still around his neck, but he carried a perfumed handkerchief in one hand.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the second in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty.
The Reverend John Smeet long puzzled literary analysts of The Devil and Daniel Webster. No record could be uncovered as to his existence. Scholarly debate raged as to whether Benet had been referring to other historical personages. The mystery was not cleared up until 1960 when his widow, Rosemary Benet, wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review in which she stated that Smeet was an imaginary character that her late husband simply inserted into the work. This was not unusual for Benet. He had invented a character called John Cotton, and even written a brief bio of him. I will now do the same for the Reverend Smeet. Continue reading
And there was Simon Girty, the renegade, who saw white men burned at the stake and whooped with the Indians to see them burn. His eyes were green, like a catamount’s, and the stains on his hunting shirt did not come from the blood of the deer.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is beginning of a series to give short biographies on each of these figures.
Born in 1741 on the Pennsylvania frontier, Girty’s life took a sharp turn when he and his brothers were captured by the Seneca and adopted by them. It would be seven years before Girty was able to return to his family. By that time Girty was a Seneca in all but skin color. At the outset of the American Revolution Girty supported the patriots, but eventually became a loyalist. Frontier patriots regarded him as a turncoat and renegade. Continue reading
Beginning for two weeks, up to Independence Day, the Bishops are having a Fortnight For Freedom:
On April 12, the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” outlining the bishops’ concerns over threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The bishops called for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom, from June 21-July 4.
Bishops in their own dioceses are encouraged to arrange special events to highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. Catholic institutions are encouraged to do the same, especially in cooperation with other Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and all who wish to defend our most cherished freedom.
The fourteen days from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this “fortnight for freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.
We here at The American Catholic are participating in the Fortnight For Freedom with special blog posts on each day. This is the first of these blog posts.
The video at the top of this post is a scene from the classic movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), based upon the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which Daniel Webster bests Satan in a jury trial to save the soul of New Hampshireman Jabez Stone. In this scene Daniel Webster addresses a jury of the damned, all villains of American history. I have always thought this speech one of the most eloquent statements of what it means to be an American.
In regard to Freedom it reminds us that it is just not a word: Freedom is not just a big word — it is the bread and the morning and the risen sun. It was for freedom we came in boats and ships to these shores. It has been a long journey, a hard one, a bitter one. There is sadness in being a man, but it is a proud thing, too. Out of the suffering and the starvation, the wrong and the right, a new thing has come, a free man. When the whips of the oppressors are broken, and their names forgotten and destroyed, free men will be walking and talking under a free star. Yes, we have planted freedom here in this earth like wheat. This is the priceless treasure that Goverment encroachments like the HHS Mandate begin to take away from us.
A scene from the classic movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), based upon the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which Daniel Webster bests Satan in a jury trial to save the soul of New Hampshireman Jabez Stone. In this scene Daniel Webster addresses a jury of the damned, all villains of American history. I have always thought this speech one of the most eloquent statements of what it means to be an American. Go here to read the passage in Stephen Vincet Benet’s short story. Below is the scene as written in the screenplay: Continue reading
On the birthday of the Father of Our Country it is proper to take a moment and reflect that in all likelihood the United States of America would not exist today but for the leadership shown by George Washington during the Revolution. The poets Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet explored long ago some of the many different paths the life of Washington might have taken which would have altered our history so profoundly. We call Washington the Father of Our Country not to honor him, but as a simple statement of fact. Continue reading
Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,
Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,
And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.
Her stiff hands were busy now with an odd piece of wood,
Sometime Westpointer, by accident more than choice,
Sometime brevet-captain in the old Fourth Infantry,
Mentioned in Mexican orders for gallant service
And, six years later, forced to resign from the Army
Without enough money to pay for a stateroom home.
Turned farmer on Hardscrabble Farm, turned bill-collector,
Turned clerk in the country-store that his brothers ran,
The eldest-born of the lot, but the family-failure,
Unloading frozen hides from a farmer’s sleigh
With stoop-shouldered strength, whittling beside the stove,
And now and then turning to whiskey to take the sting
From winter and certain memories.
It didn’t take much. A glass or two would thicken the dogged tongue
And flush the fair skin beneath the ragged brown beard.
Poor and shabby–old “Cap” Grant of Galena,
Who should have amounted to something but hadn’t so far
Though he worked hard and was honest.
A middle-aged clerk,
A stumpy, mute man in a faded army overcoat,
Who wrote the War Department after Fort Sumter,
Offering them such service as he could give
And saying he thought that he was fit to command
As much as a regiment, but getting no answer.
So many letters come to a War Department,
One can hardly bother the clerks to answer them all–
Then a Volunteer colonel, drilling recruits with a stick,
A red bandanna instead of an officer’s sash;
A brigadier-general, one of thirty-seven,
Snubbed by Halleck and slighted by fussy Frémont;
And then the frozen February gale
Over Fort Henry and Fort Donelson,
The gunboats on the cold river–the brief siege–
“Unconditional surrender”–and the newspapers.
Stephen Vincent Benet
The taking of Fort Henry by Ulysses S. Grant on February 6, 1862, was important for a number of reasons:
1. It opened the Tennessee River to Union gunboats and transports down through northern Alabama, effectively allowing the Union to outflank Confederate
defenses in Memphis and throughout eastern Tennessee. Continue reading
I feel that we are on the eve of a new era, when there is to be great harmony between the Federal and Confederate. I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so. The universally kind feeling expressed for me at a time when it was supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to “Let us have peace.”
Ulysses S. Grant, written just before his death
Something for the weekend. Quotations from Ulysses S. Grant to the Beatles song In My Life. A follow up to my post on Robert E. Lee, the Beatles and the Internet. Another demonstration of what a wild and wacky place the internet truly is!
Few men in American history have gone from complete obscurity to being a central figure in the life of the nation faster than Ulysses Simpson Grant. Known as Sam Grant by his West Point friends, his first two initials making Sam an inevitable nickname, Grant had an unerring ability to fail at everything he put his hand to, except for war, his marriage and his last gallant race against the Grim Reaper, as he was dying of cancer, to finish his memoirs and provide financially for his wife and children. Most great figures in our history have known success more than failure. Not so Sam Grant. He would encounter humiliating defeats throughout his life, from beginning to end.
At the beginning of the Civil War, he was a clerk, barely able to support his family. Seemingly a dull plodder, but possessed of iron determination and an uncanny ability to never let the trees obscure the forest; happily married and a firm believer in God, but subject to bouts of depression when he would grasp for the bottle; the shabby little man who, incredibly, ended up winning the greatest war in American history.
His men didn’t hold him in awe as Lee’s men did Lee; Grant was far too common and prosaic a figure for that. However, they did respect him, as this section of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, indicates: Continue reading
A scene from the classic movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster, based upon the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which Daniel Webster bests Satan in a jury trial to save the soul of New Hampshireman Jabez Stone. Prior to the trial, Daniel Webster attempts to get Jabez Stone out of the contract on the ground that the Devil is a foreign prince. Satan denies this:
Foreign!” said the stranger. “And who calls me a foreigner”? “Well, I never yet heard of the dev?? of your claiming American citizenship,” said Dan’l Webster with surprise. “And who with better right?” said the stranger, with one of his terrible smiles. “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? ‘Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American, like yourself and of the best descent for, to tell the truth Mr . Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.” “Aha!” said Dan’l Webster, with the veins standing out in his forehead. “Then I stand on the Constitution! I demand a trial for my client!”
This story is actually cited in a federal legal opinion which may be read here, and which is riotously funny in a very dry sense. I submit it to establish that some judges do have a sense of humor, at least of a sort.
Returning to the short story, I have always treasured this passage: the closing argument of Daniel Webster to the Jury of the Damned, which I think contains wisdom about patriotism and the human condition: Continue reading
Some of our readers south of the Mason-Dixon line no doubt have perhaps felt left out in my many posts regarding Abraham Lincoln. I am fully aware that great Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War, and one of the greatest of Americans, of his time or any time, was Robert E. Lee.