Monthly Archives: April 2013

George Washington’s First Inauguration

GW oathOn April 30, 1789, George Washington became the first President of the United States when he was inaugurated on a second floor balcony at Federal Hall in New York City.  The oath was administered by Chancellor of New York Robert Livingston, and used a Bible that belonged to St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1.  After taking the oath, the crowd below cheered, and Washington was given a thirteen gun salute.  He and Congress then went inside Federal Hall where Washington delivered his First Inaugural Address to a joint session of Congress.

Several times during the address Washington referred to his election as a “call” or a “summons” from his country, even lamenting being called out of a peaceful retirement.  Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania observed in his diary that as Washington delivered his speech, he was nervous to the point that he visibly trembled and fumbled his paper:

“This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.

“He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the fall of the breeches (corresponding to the modern side-pocket), changing the paper into his left (right) hand.  After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand.”

Washington’s repeated references to his “obedience to the public summons” do more than just communicate his hesitance to accept the office; they communicate his Lockean “social contract” understanding of the newly formed government.  In other words, Washington understood his election as the initiation of a social contract between himself and the people of the United States, and since it was initiated by the people themselves, he was obligated to fulfill his duty.  In one instance, Washington makes supplication to “that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe…that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes….”

Notably, Washington intentionally avoids making policy recommendations in his address, with one important exception.  Making mention of the Fifth Article of the Constitution, which empowers Congress to make amendments to the Constitution, Washington humbly alludes to the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

“For I assure myself that whilst you carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an United and effective Government, or which ought to await the future lessons of experience; a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for the public harmony, will sufficiently influence your deliberations on the question how far the former can be more impregnably fortified, or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted.”

This point, too, reiterates Washington’s understanding of the government as a social contract which is constantly negotiated between the people and the state in an effort to balance individual liberty with collective safety and happiness.

The image below shows the end of Washington’s handwritten copy of the address, with the benediction and his signature:  “…so his divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.  George Washington”cropped-gw-inaug-signature.gif


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Land Run of 1889

startToday, April 22, marks the anniversary of the “Greatest Horse Race in History,” the first Oklahoma Land Run in 1889.  On this day, towns like Guthrie, Oklahoma City, and Norman, sprang into existence in a single afternoon.  It also left towns like Purcell, which had swollen to be described as a metropolis by a New York Times observer due to its location on the Canadian River, the southern border of the soon-to-be-opened lands, virtual ghost towns after the official opening of the territory at twelve noon.

The Santa Fe Railroad previously Edmond Depotcut through India Territory from north to south, connecting Arkansas, Texas, Kansas, and New Mexico, stopping at small depots in Guthrie, Edmond, and Oklahoma City.  The picture at right shows the Edmond depot before the land run, followed by a photo of the Guthrie depot.Guthrie Depot

Congress had failed to make any provision for civil government in the newly opened lands, and the nearest criminal court was Fort Smith, AR, nearly 200 miles from Oklahoma City.

Certain personnel had been allowed to enter early, including railroad workers and federal marshals, but these “legal sooners” were not allowed to make land claims—in theory.  A Harper’s Weekly 33 (May 18, 1889: 391-94) columnist relates the reality of the situation as the crowd approached Guthrie at twenty minutes past noon:

I ran with the first of the crowd to get a good point of view from which to see the rush. When I had time to look about me I found that I was standing beside a tent, near which a man was leisurely chopping holes in the sod with a new axe.

“Where did you come from, that you have already pitched your tent?” I asked.

“Oh, I was here,” said he.

“How was that?”

“Why, I was a deputy United States marshal.”

“Did you resign?”

“No; I’m a deputy still.”

“But it is not legal for a deputy United States marshal, or any one in the employ of the government, to take up a town lot in this manner.”

“That may all be, stranger; but I’ve got two lots here, just the same; and about fifty other deputies have got lots in the same way. In fact, the deputy-marshals laid out the town.”

As the only lawmen within 200 miles, I don’t guess these deputy federal marshals had much reason to be too concerned about obeying the law.

All photos belong to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

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Book Review – Strong Arms and Drinking Strength

Jarrod Whitaker, Strong Arms and Drinking Strength, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2011)

Just as the war god Indra overthrew the cosmic adversary Vrtra to free the cattle and the rivers from Vrtra’s serpentine coils, so also Jarrod Whitaker’s (Associate Professor of South Asian Religions, Religion Graduate Program Director, Wake Forest University) book represents a watershed in Rgvedic masculinity studies.  In Strong Arms and Drinking Strength, Whitaker points out that the Rgvedic hymns are rife with 9780199755707androcentric language, praise of masculinity and martial acumen, references to Indra as the hypermasculine prototype which human (Aryan) men should imitate, and contentions that ritual participation—especially in the soma ritual—is essential for strengthening the gods Indra, Agni, and Soma, as well as Aryan men.  He simultaneously laments the fact that despite this abundance of material in the Rgveda, no focused study has formerly been conducted on the relationship between the ritual performances and the ways that these practices and discourse interact to construct, reconstruct, legitimize, and perpetuate the ideal of masculinity for Aryan men.

The soma ritual involves the ritual pressing of an ephedra-based plant, mixing the resulting juice with milk and ghee, and making an offering of it to the gods Indra, Agni, and Soma.  The gods are depicted as drinking large quantities of soma, which strengthens them to perform their manly and martial deeds.  The ritual also involves the human participants drinking the soma, which is likewise said to make them strong and manly in participation with the gods.

Whitaker is careful to note that the physiological effects of the drink are irrelevant to the study at hand.  Drawing on the work of ritual and social theorists such as Catherine Bell, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault, Whitaker explains the ancient soma ritual as a way for Aryan poet-priests to encode specific male roles into men, embedding ideals such as martial prowess, political influence, and control of resources into the very idea of manhood.  They accomplish this by reproducing masculine, androcentric, and martial ideals over and over with each ritual performance, creating an image of the ideal Aryan man as virile and powerful, by socializing them in the patriarchal ritual tradition, and by maintaining control of the ritual, economic, and political relationships within the community.

Beginning from a basic understanding that biological sex does not determine an individual’s conformance to socially and culturally constructed gender norms, Whitaker explains that Rgvedic masculine ideals are not imposed by the poet-priests upon unwilling Aryan men, nor do they make up a monolithic social system that is accepted uncritically.  On the contrary, based on limited evidence of delineated class structures in the Rgvedic period, Whitaker suggests that the ritual performances included poet-priests, warriors, and chieftains, and that the distinctions between these “classes” were usually blurred.  Instead, Whitaker follows Bell’s definition of ideology, explaining that these ideals are embedded by a process that depicts certain social and cultural practices as “natural” and right.”  Furthermore, the strategic practice of the soma ritual does not only reflect meaning, it is part of a Foucaultian “discursive formation,” which plays a direct role in constructing what it means to be a man in Aryan society.  Finally, Whitaker explains why Aryan men participate in the ritual performances and accept the dominant ideology of masculinity despite the fact that it calls for them to act violently and to put themselves at risk of injury or death by pointing to Bourdieu’s notion of “symbolic capital.”  This symbolic capital is a sort of cultural currency which may be accumulated in the form of prestige, fame, or honor, and which, if deployed strategically, may be converted into monetary capital.  Symbolic capital legitimizes its holder in a way that is not articulated explicitly; rather, it is “misrecognized” in a way that allows the privileged to remain in power and to legitimate the otherwise arbitrary system of power.  In this way, Whitaker argues that Aryan men participate in the soma ritual in order to gain symbolic capital, social legitimacy, political authority, and economic prosperity.

If you are not into all this theory, do not be discouraged; Whitaker’s argument actually proceeds quite philologically.  The first three chapters focus on word studies which examine the way which the poetic discourse of the Rgveda encodes meaning into the bodies of Aryan men.  The first chapter concentrates on the common terms used for “man” (nar) and “manhood, masculinity” (nrmna, paumsya).  It argues that Rgvedic poet-priests use these words to simultaneously reflect and recreate a dominant androcentric ideology by closely aligning the identities of human men to those of the gods Indra and Agni, the exemplars of masculinity.  The second chapter centers on and examination of the terms vira and virya (cognate to English virile, virility, through Latin vir (man) and Proto-Indo-European *uiHro), which communicate a man’s role as warrior and his power and strength.  The use of these terms creates a society in which a man’s primary role is that of a warrior, where his body is a commodity, and where his primary way of gaining resources is through violence.  The third chapter focuses on the specialized term sura (big/strong man, champion), and its use to describe Indra, his cosmic battle with Vrtra, and the relationship between strength and control of natural and symbolic resources.

These chapters admittedly get a little technical, and having no background in Sanskrit, I do not possess the tools to evaluate the quality of Whitaker’s translations.  I can say, though, that the main thrust of the argument is never lost, and his use of the Rgvedic stanzas is for the most part clear when you make use of his translations.  For me, though, the action is in the fourth chapter and the conclusion.  In these chapters, Whitaker brings together the understandings of the words studied in the previous chapter and brings them to bear on the soma ritual.  Whitaker concludes:

It is in the act of drinking soma that ritual practitioners directly influence, if not control, individual bodies and political institutions.  Furthermore, in continually expressing political power by way of physical metaphors and reducing such power to the body, poet-priests make any direct claim for political authority contingent on physical invigoration from ritual substances and rhetoric, and on a ritually constructed understanding of the male body (156).

As a former student of Dr. Whitaker’s, the only disappointment I had with this book was the failure to bring the argument home as he did in class.  I distinctly remember him  commenting in class that this is not only about ancient India; we have many contemporary issues which are highlighted by the study of ancient religion.  There are specific ways that the argument applies to modern constructions of masculinity, which will be evident to the perceptive reader, but which Whitaker did not make explicit in the book.  Symbolic capital is earned by men who “act like men,” by playing football, owning a fast car, making a lot of money, tolerating pain, suppressing emotion, or by holding his liquor well.

Whitaker’s book brings to light an aspect of Rgvedic studies that had previously been neglected.  It also makes a valuable contribution to the field of gender studies.  It will be appreciated by Vedic scholars, general religion students, as well as those casually interested in religious and masculinity studies.

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Book Review – The Praetorian Guard

As part of the interview weekend for Ph.D candidates that I attended at Baylor University in February, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Carey Newman, Director of the Baylor University Press.  He was kind enough to pass out free books to those who attended.  I received Sandra Bingham’s The Praetorian Guard.  I read it, enjoyed it, and have decided to make it the inaugural book review on this blog to express my gratitude to Dr. Newman.

ImageSandra Bingham, The Praetorian Guard, (Waco:  Baylor Press, 2013).

In this well-written and thoroughly researched book, Sandra Bingham (teaching fellow, University of Edinburgh) investigates the Praetorian Guard, the elite Roman military force whose primary responsibility it was to protect the emperor.  Bingham, however, takes special care to point out the many and varied other duties that the guard also performed both in the city of Rome as well as in the field.

Bingham finds the genesis of the guard in the republican period, when military commanders used praetorian cohorts as their personal bodyguards in the field.  In the republican period, however, troops were not allowed to enter the capital, so it was an intentional demonstration of power when triumvirs Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus entered Rome in 43 BCE, separately and on three consecutive days, each with his own praetorian cohort.  After Octavian’s victory at Actium, he took over Antony’s praetorian cohorts, combining them with his own to create the imperial Praetorian Guard.

From this beginning under Augustus, Bingham traces the history of the guard until its disbandment in 312 CE by Constantine.  She focuses especially on dispelling the notion that the guard functioned exclusively as a bodyguard for the emperor.  Instead, the presence of these elite troops within Rome proved convenient for Augustus and subsequent emperors, because they delegated many and varied tasks to the guard.  The guard was probably involved in crowd control and security at large events from very early.  In addition, certain members of the guard, called speculatores, were regularly involved in clandestine activities, including couriering imperial correspondence and spying on people deemed to be a threat.  Epictetus reports that a spy might “sit down next to you and start to denounce the emperor.”  Then, having the security of the other starting the conversation, you join in, “and are immediately carted off to prison.”  The speculatores were also regularly involved in the guarding and execution of prisoners, especially of condemned political prisoners, in order to ensure their inability to communicate with their followers (for example, the imprisonment of Herod Agrippa under Tiberius; Mithridates under Claudius, and the apostle Paul under Nero).

In 6 CE, Augustus formed another group of the guard, called vigiles, which was permanently responsible for fighting fires, and may have also been involved in policing the streets at night.  Ironically, the actions of the vigiles in setting preemptory “counter-fires” in an attempt to bring the famous blaze of 64 CE under control may have added fuel to the rumors that Nero had started the blaze himself.

It was essential that the guard’s allegiance was to the person of the emperor himself, for many of these tasks required immediate obedience, tact, and secrecy, and they were often unsavory or even illegal, such as the execution of a member of the imperial family.  The loyalty of the guard was secured by doubling the rate of pay of regular legionaries and shortening the terms of service, by the payment of large donatives by the emperor upon his accession, and by the prestige of being a member of the guard and the benefit of living in Rome rather than being stationed in the provinces or on the frontier.  The importance of the guard’s loyalty to the emperor is self-evident, but the point is driven home by the occasions on which the guard or its prefects were involved in assassination plots (for example, Gaius, 41 CE; Nero, 68 CE; Galba, 69 CE; Commodus, 192 CE).

Bingham’s book provides valuable insight into the history, organization, and duties of the imperial Praetorian Guard.  She makes liberal use of both primary and secondary sources, and the abundant endnotes provide the studious reader with ample resources for further reading, without interfering with the flow of the narrative for the more casual reader.  As the only full-length treatment of the guard in English, Bingham’s book is sure to be welcomed by classicists, military historians, and all enthusiasts of Roman history.

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