The labors of Hercules

A painting sometimes identified as a portrait of Hercules the chef and attributed to Gilbert Stuart

George Washington may have been in some ways uniquely admirable as a political leader, but as a slaveholder he was no better than he found it convenient to be.  Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer reports on recently discovered documents that show how brutally Washington could treat even his most favored household slaves.  

When Washington went to Philadelphia to head the federal government there, he took his chef Hercules with him to the President’s Mansion.   Hercules’ talent as a gourmet cook made him famous shortly after his arrival in the reestablished capital, and the president acknowledged his skill by allowing him unheard-of privileges, for example allowing him to earn income by selling leftovers from the kitchen, and to use this income to dress himself in a style that gained him a reputation as one of Philadelphia’s foremost dandies.    

In the spring of 1787, Prince Louis-Philippe of France visited Mount Vernon.  He reports that the Washingtons were upset that Hercules had escaped.  Any thought that Washington might have been a benevolent master loved by his slaves should be dispelled by a conversation his manservant had with Hercules’ six year old daughter.  The servant asked the little girl if she was sad that she might never see her father again.  “Oh!  Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”  What could she have seen that would have made a little girl happy that her father had gone away, never to return? 

For many years, it was assumed that Hercules had escaped while in Philadelphia.  The Quaker city was after all the world’s foremost center of abolitionism; it might have been relatively easy for a skilled man who had collected some savings to find his way to freedom there.  Perhaps Hercules had seen freedom ready at hand, and simply taken it. 

With a recently uncovered farm report and a cache of letters it makes intelligible, we now learn a far darker story.  In the spring of 1796, a year before the end of Washington’s second term as president, a woman named Oney Judge, who was Martha Washington’s personal maid,  disappeared from the President’s Mansion.  Washington would employ detectives to hunt for Oney Judge, eventually running her to ground in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Oney Judge may have been trying to make her way to Nova Scotia, where several fugitives from Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon had already made homes.  The Washingtons then decided that it was too dangerous to try to keep slaves in Philadelphia.  When they went to Mount Vernon that summer, they took the whole establishment with them.  When they returned to Philadelphia, they returned alone. 

With the president and his lady 130 miles away in Philadelphia, there was no need for a gourmet chef at Mount Vernon.  Hercules and his sons were sent to the fields.  Evidently the demotion came as a shock to Hercules’ son Richmond, who was soon caught stealing money.  Informed of this theft, President Washington saw a plot to escape, and surmised that it might be a father-son enterprise.  He ordered Hercules and Richmond sent to the clay pits, the hardest and most degraded task given to slaves at Mount Vernon.  On 22 February 1797,  as George Washington celebrated his 65th birthday, Hercules disappeared from the plantation.  President Washington’s term was due to expire 10 days later, when John Adams was inaugurated as president on 4 March.  One might imagine that Hercules was afraid of what might happen when Washington came home.  Afraid, perhaps, that his capricious master might find new ways of humiliating him; afraid, perhaps, that he would be unable to restrain his own anger at the thoughtless and unjust treatment he had received, so that if he stayed he might do something that would lead the Washingtons to make life even worse for his children than they would make it in response to his escape.

A Funny Moment

Table of Contents

No, these aren’t questions about people such as Margaret Fell Fox and George Fox. 


They are questions about Quaker Parrots like the one pictured here.

   “A” and I laughed long and hard the first time we read these questions, because we could not help but think of our human Quaker friends, such as myself, as we read them. 

“I will pray for you”

Quaker meetings don't usually look like this anymore

Sometimes I envy my Christ-y Christian friends their habit of telling people in distress “I will pray for you.”  Coming from someone you trust, from someone whose God is love and whose worship is nurture, those words can be comforting.  The nervous chatter that I tend to fall into when people tell me their troubles comforts no one, I’m sure. 

Of course “I will pray for you” is often far from comforting.  When someone you have no particular reason to trust says that s/he will pray for you, you may hear “I know what’s good for you and am looking for an opportunity to impose that agenda.”  Or, “I wish I could use God as a means to control you and make you into the sort of person I like.” 

Last year Mrs Acilius and I visited a Quaker meeting in Seattle (Seattle-ite readers might want to know that it was University Friends Meeting on 9th Avenue NE.)  University Friends Meeting is unprogrammed, which is to say that the meeting for worship consists of whoever shows up sitting quietly together until someone feels the need to say something.  That person stands up, speaks, then sits down.  The silence resumes. 

One man stood and told the group what he does during silent worship.  He thinks of a person he knows and cares about.  He tries to picture that person in his mind’s eye.  He holds that mental image, the person in front of a plain background of white light, as clearly as he can for as long as he can.  That’s his way of praying for someone.  Since there are no words involved, he doesn’t wish anything on the person. 

I’ve tried this meditative exercise  quite a few times now, and I can recommend it.  Not only do I not spend that time thinking about ways to turn the person I’m thinking of into a different sort of person, but after a few moments any desire I may have had to control the person fades away.  Instead, I become more willing to listen to whoever it is I’m thinking of, to accept him or her as s/he is and to respect his or her own power of decision. 

I think this is where silent meditation in general has an advantage over language-based forms of prayer.  If we are to live life as it comes at us and to accept people as they are, it will be because we are able, first, to distinguish between those few things we ought to control and the infinite number of things we ought not to control, and, second, to show respect to that which we ought not to control.  We should respect other individual humans, other cultures, other countries; non-human animals, non-animal life, and the ecological systems in which they thrive; the world of the past, the possibilities of the future, and the immensities of space.  I’ve often thought that the reason I’m more relaxed outdoors in a natural setting than inside my apartment or my office is that when I’m in a space that belongs to me, my eye constantly lights on things I might control, or that I have controlled, or that I should control.  There’s the computer; I might control that, and do any number of things.  There’s a bookcase; I bought those books and put them into order on the shelves.  There’s a pile of papers; I should file them in an orderly way.  Outdoors, I see the trees, the soil, the sky; they get along quite all right without my control. 

When we produce language, whether by speaking or signing or writing, we are faced with a continual series of decisions, of factors subject to our control.  Which words we use, how we structure those words into sentences, which other participants in the conversation we acknowledge and how we acknowledge them, these are all matters we try to control precisely.  Language, in turn, is a tool we use to control our world, by classifying knowledge, developing social networks, and crafting tools.  Language can be a tool we use to control each other.  Because language is so bound up with the idea of control, no one who prays in words is ever more than one step away from trying to cast a spell.  Silent meditation, on the other hand, is a way of letting go, of renouncing control.  Through it, we become more aware of our surroundings as they are and less concerned with the way things used to be or the way they ought to be.  Silent meditation may be a tool of some kind, but it certainly is not a tool for remaking the world in one’s own image.  In silent meditation, we may even let the world remake us.

An unlikely speculation about Mr O

florida avenue meetinghouseThe BBC’s outgoing North America editor, Justin Webb, writes:

The other fascinating development in recent days has been the end – or not – of the Obamas’ search for a church.

I have suggested it before but let me lay it on the line here in black and white: THE MAN IS A QUAKER. He may not yet know it but that is where his search should end. There is a lovely Meeting House somewhere around Dupont Circle as well so he could get there easily.

I think the meetinghouse Webb is referring to is the one on Florida Avenue, which was originally built so that Herbert Hoover, the first Quaker to occupy the US presidency, would have a grand place to worship. 

Elsewhere, Webb identifies himself as “the product of a Quaker school so am incapable of lying.”  So I suppose he must be in earnest, though I can’t seem to find why he thinks that Mr O is a Quaker.  Perhaps it has something to do with his ethnic background.  The country with the largest number of the world’s Quakers is Kenya, B. H. Obama, Senior’s homeland; though virtually all of them are members of the Luhya tribe of western Kenya, not the Luo tribe from which the elder Mr O sprang.  Despite the similarity in the names “Luo” and “Luhya,” the two peoples are quite unrelated.  So I doubt that would be it.

Looking back, and further back

nostalgiaThe June and July issues of Chronicles, the rightwardmost of my regular reads, include a couple of pieces that seem to acknowledge that the basis of conservatism is nostalgia.  That isn’t so bad, I suppose; everyone feels nostalgia, and people who are nostalgic for the same things can share a bond, and can sometimes nurture a gentleness together. 

June: Roger McGrath reminisces about his childhood in a thinly populated, mostly rural California.  He makes it sound like paradise, or like a place a rambunctious boy might have preferred to paradise.   

Thomas Fleming builds a scholarly argument to the effect that early Christians were not pacifists.  I often suspect that Fleming has a grudge against Quakerism.  I’m not sure where he would have picked up such a grudge- he grew up in a family of atheists, so it isn’t rebellion against his parents.  But this article seems like a detailed response to some or other Quaker tract.  And he frequently denounces many practices that are associated with Friends, such as silent worship.     

In a piece lamenting the rapid decline of global birthrates over the last 20 years, Philip Jenkins makes an interesting suggestion.  Most demographers claim that when religious beliefs lose their social power, people choose to have smaller families.  Jenkins suggests that the arrow of causality should point in the opposite direction.  Perhaps it is the fact that people have fewer children that disinclines them from taking religion seriously.  “Without a sense of the importance of continuity, whether of the family or of the individual, people lose the need for a religious perspective.”  He quotes the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski.  Safranski claims that a drop in birthrate

results in a dramatic lack of maturity in the way people choose to live their lives… For childless singles, thinking in terms of the generations to come loses relevance.  Therefore, they behave more and more as if they were the last, and see themselves as standing at the end of the chain. 

George McCartney praises Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road as a biting satire of self-styled “nonconformists” who congratulate themselves on their superiority to others while they are in fact utterly conventional.  McCartney condemns the recent film of the same title as an example of the sort of thing Yates was ridiculing.  He praises Eran Riklis’ film The Lemon Tree, the story of a Palestinian woman who insists on taking care of the lemon grove she inherited from her father even after an Israeli cabinet minister appropriates the land in which it grows for his own private use.  Her refusal to give up her ancestral claim is the sort of thing that warms the reactionary hearts of the Chronicles crowd, and I suppose it reflects the kind of nostalgia that a person really could build a humane politics around. 


The Peace Testimony

I read an article in Quaker Life Magazine’s September/October 2008 issue called Renewing the Quaker Testimony of Peace.  The article was written by long time world peace worker Landrum Boling.  It is an excerpt from a speech he made that can be found on  The article starts in true Quaker fashion by calling for self reflection.  “Who are we?  Where are we going?  What are our basic values and purposes?  What are our ultimate goals?  What are our most important daily interests and responsibilities?  What are the real guidelines, spoken and unspoken, by which we live?  He writes that, “we are called to search for new and better ways, strategies, processes and procedures by which to work more effectively towards achieving the highest purposes that inspire us.”  He uses reflection along with question when thinking about, “Renewing the Quaker Testimony on peace.”  Next, he cautions Quakers against being prideful about their long standing commitment to peace.  He writes.  “The doctrine of nonviolent resistance to war and to other manifestations of hatred, oppression and violence, have been taken up by both evangelical and mainstreams Christians, by Jews and by Muslims.  It is widely supported by Buddhists and Hindus.  Gandhi, we remember, was a devout practicing Hindu.”  He ends the article with the biblical points that Quakers use for guidance with the issue of peace.   


The Atlantic Monthly, October 2008

This issue‘s cover features a controversial picture of Senator Crazy John McCain. 

Hail the Leader!

Hail the Leader!

 The controversy mainly has to do with the photographer’s other images of McCain.  The Atlantic defended the image above. 

The legend, “Why War is His Answer,” seemed eerily apt- the magazine arrived in the same mail as a gift from a friend (thanks, cymast!) a Quaker “War is Not the Answer” bumper sticker. 

Interesting points after the jump.


Long live the blog!

Lefalcon, how are things in Mukalla?  It sounds like quite a change from Aden. 

Monday night I attended a meeting of Ball State’s Orthodox Christian Fellowship.  As you recall, I’d attended once last year and had been meaning to go back.  Someone I hadn’t seen there before asked me if I was an Orthodox Christian.  No, I said, I’m a Quaker.  This was a bit of an exaggeration; I haven’t joined the Friends Church yet, but am planning to do so.  This drew a puzzled look.  “I’m very comfortable with Quakerism and can’t imagine being anything but a Quaker, and that’s precisely why I want to learn more about Orthodoxy.  I want to make sure that I’m not just looking for an excuse for being the sort of person I already am.”  “Well, Quakerism and Orthodoxy are certainly opposite ends of the sprectrum.”  I agreed.  For example, the Orthodox always tend towards the most elaborate possible liturgical forms, while Quaker liturgy consists of sitting still.  

At any rate, the theme of that meeting was  the New Year.  Because 1 September is New Year’s day in the liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church.  In that spirit, I declare my New Year’s resolution to be posting more stuff on this blog.