Treason doth never prosper; what’s the reason?John Harington (1560-1612), Epigrams, Book IV, Epistle 5
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Letter to Ben Franklin
Few people recognize John Harington, which seems a bit odd at the end of a year we’d like to leave behind us. Harington invented the first toilet. Just as few remember Charles Thompson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress whose Minutes and correspondence are preserved in the U.S. National Archives. But everyone remembers Ben Franklin.
Charles Thomson’s letter to his revolutionary colleague Ben Franklin leaps from the National as though he written it to us on New Year’s Day 2020.
When I look back . . . and view the present heartburnings, Jealousies, gloom and despair, I am ready to ask, with the poet, “Are there not some chosen thunders in the stores of heaven armed with uncommon wrath to blast those Men,” who by their cursed schemes of policy are dragging friends and brothers into the horrors of civil War and involving their country in ruin?Charles Thomson, Secretary of Continental Congress to Franklin (Nov. 1, 1774)
“The poet” from whose work Thomson drew was English poet, author and playwright Joseph Addison, whose “Cato, a Tragedy” was widely read among the colonial leaders as they moved toward the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Thomson changed Addison’s text from singular (“the Man”) to plural “(those Men”), perhaps inadvertently — memory will do that — or intentionally to fit the circumstances at hand, i.e., the English Parliament’s violations of the American colonists’ rights and freedoms under British law. Addison’s reference is singular.
Oh Portius, is there not some chosen curse,Joseph Addison, Cato, a Tragedy 1:1:21–4
Some hidden thunder in the stores of heaven,
Red with uncommon wrath, to blast the Man
Who owes his greatness to his country’s ruin?
Dealing with Madness — Singular and Plural
Both singular and plural fit our circumstances on New Year’s Day 2021.The post-monarchical Constitutional people’s republic of Ben Franklin and Charles Thomson teeters “on the very edge of the precipice.” Some of us wonder whether there a hidden thunder of wrath that will blast the Man who owes his greatness to his country’s ruin and when it will blast the Men who refuse to recognize the certified election results of every state and and the District of Columbia, and the certification of the Electoral College.
Clearing Our Eyes
Act V of Addison’s play raises the question the heirs of the American revolution have nearly forgotten to ask. But this tumultuous in-between time of transition of power puts this most important question to us, the heirs of Franklin and Thomas:
The honors of this world, what are theyJoseph Addison, Cato, Act IV, scene IV
But puff, and emptiness, and peril of falling?
New Year’s 2021 — Hope on the Edge of the Precipice
Thomson’s letter to Franklin ends with a realistic warning and a hope.
“Even yet,” he wrote, “the wounds may yet be healed and peace and love restored; But we are on the very edge of the precipice.”
Two Ways of Being Human; Two Kind of National Character
Looking into the precipice of national ruin, we face two alternate ways of being a nation and two ways of being human: compassionate/heartless; arrogant/modest; honest/scheming; caring/uncaring; vulnerable/invulnerable; phony/authentic; realistic//illusionary; serving others/serving oneself — seem clearer than when things were “normal.” The precipice is real. So is Thomson’s adaptation of Cato’s quote from singular to plural. Treason can never prosper unless we, the people, accept treason.
A Hope and a Prayer from 1774 for 2021
Even yet the wounds may be healed and peace and love be restored.Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congresses, Letter to Benjamin Franklin, Nov. 1, 1774.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, January 1, 2021.