Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Amazing Grace

We went to see Amazing Grace last night. It's the story of William Wilberforce, the British MP whose long campaign resulted in the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. It includes great performances by Ioan Gruffudd (as Wilberforce) and Rufus Sewell (as Thomas Clarkson) among others. I think Albert Finney's electrifying performance alone makes this a must-see movie. He has a small role as John Newton, a slave trader who, after repenting, became an Anglican priest and wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.

All of this might sound dry as toast, but it is a great movie about a largely unknown chapter of history. From our vantage point it can be hard to understand why such an obvious evil as slavery was so difficult to abolish, but the issue was entangled with other concerns of the day -- concerns like war with France and the revolutionary movements cascading across Europe. The movie effectively explains the broad historical context without ever becoming just a documentary. It's a reminder of the horrors of slavery, the ability of men (even great men) to defend great evil in the face of fear, and the rare courage it takes to not only speak truth to power but to tirelessly work for change.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Franklin Pierce, 1804 - 1869

"The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men."
-- George Eliot
Last week, the U.S. News magazine cover story was The 10 Worst Presidents . The article ranks New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce as America's fourth worst president. This of course is just the latest such poll, but Pierce is a perennial "favorite" on 10 worst lists. President from 1853 to 1857, he was a Northern Democrat with Southern sympathies. He supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which effectively repealed the delicate Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Missouri Compromise had, for thirty years, regulated the expansion of slavery in the western territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act "established that settlers could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery". The results were guerrilla warfare in "Bloody Kansas", an emboldened pro-slavery faction, and eventually, the Civil War.

In a way Franklin Pierce is a symbol of nineteenth century New Hampshire's ambivalence toward slavery. Although there were no slaves in New Hampshire in the early 1800s, by Pierce's time the growing New Hampshire textile industry depended on a steady supply of cheap cotton. Many New Hampshire citizens, indeed much of the North, seemed willing to turn a blind eye to slavery in the South as they reaped the economic benefits from afar. But in 1856, possibly because of the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act, New Hampshire voters demonstrated a profound change of heart. Abandoning the Democratic platform, they backed John Fremont of the newly formed Republican party. Fremont was strongly opposed to slavery. Of course, Fremont lost to James Buchanan, but in 1860, New Hampshire voters again backed a Republican, this time a man named Abraham Lincoln.

In his own bumbling manner then, Franklin Pierce achieved the opposite effect he intended. The Missouri Compromise was a devil's bargain that tried to preserve the union at the expensive of protecting slavery. Pierce's support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act tipped the balance in favor of slavery. Without condoning Pierce's policies, we can thank him for speeding up the inevitable: Civil War and Emancipation.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

We're All Americans Now

We're All Americans Now

The Granite Town, a history of Milford, NH, includes lots of interesting tidbits of small town life. This one recently caught my eye:
A human interest event that occurred [in 1913] was the death in October of "Jimmy the Reb," whose real name was Edward T. Bartol. Born in Louisiana in 1842, Bartol had served on the Confederate side in the Civil War ... He had lived in Milford for twenty-five years when he died and had no relatives in the South to claim his body. Two local Civil War veterans' organizations, the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Sons of Union Veterans made arrangements for his funeral and burial ... The two organizations placed a gravestone to mark the resting place of Milford's only Confederate veteran. A Confederate flag was placed on the grave one year, but there was some objection to this, so eventually an American flag and flowers were placed there each Memorial Day.
I took the picture above this weekend. Apparently, to this day, veterans' groups still place an American flag on Bartol's grave.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Henri Renaud, 1890 - 1957

It's been seasonably cold in New England this week. Daytime temperatures are stuck in the teens and twenties. When the wind picks up, it numbs faces and sends people scurrying for cover. I say it's about time. Although I've enjoyed this mild winter as much as anyone, there's been something missing; a figurative cloud hanging over us. The cold weather this week has set things straight.

Believe it or not, one of the things I've missed is cold weather running. I realize most people don't understand the attraction of running outside in the cold. When I run during the day at work, people question my sanity. I could try to convince you we cold weather runners are an incredibly hardy lot, a cut above the rest, but I'd be lying. After all, most of us depend on layers and layers of high tech clothing to stay warm. Compared with Henri Renaud, we are pampered pretenders.

A hundred years ago, Henri Renaud could be seen running through the streets of Nashua, New Hampshire on cold winter nights. Still in his late teens, Henri was employed as a mill worker by the Nashua Manufacturing Company. Since he had to be at work by 6:30 AM and didn't get home until after 6:00 PM, he had to train at night. After a meager supper, he would hit the streets. I'm guessing he did so in all kinds of weather. I know he didn't have the benefit of the high tech running clothes we have today. People must have thought Renaud was crazy -- until he entered and won the 1909 Boston Marathon.

Although Henri Renaud must have trained through the cold 1909 winter, the weather on race day was a different story. According to the April 20, 1909 edition of the Nashua Telegraph race day was hot:
The temperature rose to 97 degrees, with the sun melting tar in spots. Ninety-one of the one hundred sixty-four entrants did not complete the distance, and nine men who led at various times during the first twenty miles all dropped out. Renaud was in fifty-third place in Framingham, twenty-eighth at the half way mark, and third after twenty-four miles. But, after he passed his last two opponents, he turned on the burners and won by almost four minutes.
In an interview Renaud said:
"When I started I was nearly choked with dust, but when we got going a little, I did not mind it so much. I ran my own race and refused to be coached by anybody, for I knew just what I could do and how fast I could run the distance. Some fellows wanted me to drop out, as they said I was all in when I reached Wellesley, but I am an American for speed, and a Frenchman for gameness, and I guess that will hold them for a while."
Remarkably, the city of Nashua has largely forgotten Henri Renaud today. There is no monument, park or school building with his name on it. He is well known in local running circles, but I think his story, if it were better known, could be an inspiration to everyone in the area. Despite working long hours during the day and unfavorable training conditions, he worked hard at his sport. Despite hot temperatures on race day and doubters on the sidelines, he ran his own race and won the Boston Marathon. Henri Renaud is an unsung local hero. Perhaps he is an American hero.

For more on Henri Renaud, see Allan Rube's Henri Renaud page.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Long Exposure Experiments

I didn't intend for this to be a photo blog -- really I didn't -- but lately I've spent a lot of my precious free time playing with photography. The following tabblo is a result of some experiments with long exposures. It's a bit of a gimmick, but I'm having fun slowing down the shutter speed to capture the motion of water.

I may eventually get back to writing longer posts. I have a lot on my mind about software development, about our home improvement experiences, and about a few other topics of general interest. But good, thoughtful writing is hard. It is so much easier to step outside and snap some pictures. I hope you enjoy them.