Leader Notes: First Impressions Matter

First impressions matter, as they open the door to a greater trust. George Washington knew this and often leveraged his physical appearance to his advantage.

Portrait of George Washington Taking the Salute at Trenton by John Faed (1899)

Portrait of George Washington Taking the Salute at Trenton by John Faed (1899)

Astride his spirited hunter Blueskin (not as steady under fire as the celebrated “Old Nelson,” a chestnut powerhouse sixteen hands high that he would later receive from his friend Thomas Nelson of Virginia a few years into the war) George Washington cut a magnificent figure riding with his aides on the road to Trenton in the early morning hours after Christmas Day 1776. Washington had long ago learned how helpful a projected image could be toward achieving one’s goals, and had been attentive to his own image ever since his youthful introduction to the wealthy Tidewater planter society. Towering over six foot two inches tall, with intelligent blue eyes set in a broad face above a proud jaw, his pristine appearance in full dress uniform at the Second Continental Congress had certainly helped to seal his commission, at forty three years of age, as commander of the fledgling American army.

Whatever inner turmoil Washington was feeling that early December morning, his men were awed by the calming silhouette of the stoic commander riding beside them in the dim light thrown by torches being kept at the ready to light the cannons. Beside him rode William Lee, Washington’s personal slave and closest assistant, who dazzled the puritan New Englanders with his exotic turban and riding coat. One Connecticut soldier remembered the scene years later. “The torches of our field pieces stuck in the exhalters sparkled and blazed in the storm all night and about day light a halt was made at which time his Excellency and aids came near to the front on the side of the path where soldiers stood. I heard his Excellency as he was coming on speaking to and encouraging the soldiers. The words he spoke as he passed by where I stood and in my hearing were these: ‘Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God’s sake, keep by your officers!’ Spoke in a deep and solemn voice.” (1)

But the wonderful thing about Washington’s leadership style was his authenticity; he truly possessed rare skills that backed up his image of commander-in-chief. Take, for example, his exceptional horsemanship. He had spent most of his adult life in the saddle, riding daily among the farms of his beloved Mount Vernon plantation. He was considered an exceptional rider even by Virginia horse-class standards, riding in an old-fashioned style. Thomas Jefferson praised him as being “the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that can be seen on horseback.” (2)

But it was while “passing a slanting, slippery bank” that Washington’s great physical strength and horsemanship were on full display. Blueskin lost his footing in the darkness and the great horse’s hind legs began to slide out from under him. Instinctually, Washington rose up in the saddle and “seized his horse’s mane,” shifting his weight and literally pulling the animal back onto its feet. (3) Such skill awed men who lived in an age when everything moved by horsepower alone.

Much of the time, Washington’s sheer physicality was enough to inspire initial loyalty and allowed him to build upon men’s first impressions of him through his honest conduct. Benjamin Rush regarded Washington as having “so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people.” (4) After seeing Washington’s calm presence in uniform at the Second Continental Congress, John Adams, never one to suffer fools, remembered that “I had but one gentleman in my mind for that important command and that was a gentleman from Virginia…whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents and excellent universal character, would command the approbation of all America, and unite the exertions of all the colonies better than any other person in the Union.” (5)

Though it seems a simple thing, Washington’s confident, commanding presence inspired his weary men in a very dark hour even if it was, in reality, his first time acting as a field commander in the war.


(1) William S. Powell, “A Connecticut Soldier Under Washington: Elisha Bostwick’s Memoirs of the First Years of the Revolution.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series. 6 (January, 1949), 102.

(2) Thomas Jefferson, quoted in Paul K. Longmore, The Invention of George Washington (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), p. 182.

(3) Ibid.

(4) “Benjamin Rush to Thomas Rushton, 29 October 1775,” in Letters of Benjamin Rush, Vol. 1, ed. L.H. Butterfield (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 92.

(5) John Adams, as quoted in Harlow Giles Unger, The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2006), 102.


Additional reading:



Recommended Readings from My 2014 Reading List

Looking for a good book? Here is a list of great history-related titles selected from my 2014 reading list…a few of the classics are old favorites of mine that I do a fresh reading of every so often.


 The Last Lion: Visions of Glory 1874-1932 by William Manchester

The Last Lion: Alone 1932-1940 by William Manchester

The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid

The 2,961 pages of this trilogy was the reading marathon of the year, but a most enjoyable journey. Winston Churchill’s life and career would be impossible to replicate in the modern era and Visions of Glory (1983) recreates the lost world of his formative years—when the British Empire was the world’s mightiest power—in fascinating detail. Alone (1988) is the best of the three, painting an intimate portrait of a great man fighting personal and political dragons from the security of his great keep of Chartwell in the calm before the storm of World War II. Journalist Paul Reid completed the final volume of the series, Defender of the Realm (2012), after the death of Manchester, a true master of the craft.


Dinner With Churchill (Policymaking at the Dinner Table) by Cita Stelzer

Through pain-staking research, Stelzer shows how seriously Churchill approached the dinner hour as a way to utilize his greatest weapons: his glittering rhetoric and his own fascinatingly idiosyncratic personality. A healthy side dish for those already familiar with the main course of events in Churchill’s life.


Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Meacham, a former Newsweek editor, showcases the many faces of the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, but focuses mainly on Jefferson the political animal.


American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham

A relevant perspective by Meacham on the founding father’s various personal views toward a God who intervenes in history and their intentions for the free practice of religion in the public square.


Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

A literary gem by the famed “Lawrence of Arabia” in his own poetic voice detailing his World War I experiences battling Ottoman Turks.


The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

James Garfield’s character and backstory are among the most fascinating threads in this work by Millard, the author of River of Doubt, another great book detailing Theodore Roosevelt’s Amazonian expedition.


The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, this book explores how a chance discovery of an ancient copy of Lucretius’s work of philosophy, On the Nature of Things, revived an interest in classicism and humanism that was foundational to the Renaissance and influenced subsequent scientific achievements like particle theory.


Revolutionary Summer (The Birth of American Independence) by Joseph J Ellis

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author focuses on the microcosmic hothouse of events unfolding in the summer of 1776.


Custer by Larry McMurtry

The Texas author, screenwriter and bibliophile sketches out a colorful profile of the glory-hungry and brazen “Boy General” and the maze of events surrounding his last hours on earth—the Battle of Little Bighorn—in a sense, the climactic bookend to the bloody history of the opening of the West.


The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Meriweather Lewis and William Clark

The is no better method to study history than to go to the primary source documents—in this case, the hand-written, water-stained pocket journals, letters, diagrams, illustrations and maps authored by the explorers as they journeyed towards an unknown horizon.


One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Bryson’s irreverent digressions on the characters, villains, heroes and events unfolding in America just prior to the Great Depression is informative narrative nonfiction at its most entertaining.


Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine St. Exupery

A most literary and moving autobiographical classic evoking the romance of the early aviation era. A personal favorite.


Walden by Henry David Thoreau

This 1854 philosophical treatise is ripe with historical details, interesting characters and a unique perspective on the wonders of the natural world.


Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Literary nonfiction is one of the best and most popular ways to bring history alive and make it relevant to those who otherwise would not read it; Hillenbrand is a modern master of the method.


The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

This first work by McCullough put his name on the map and is an eye-opening account of a regional disaster that had national consequences when tycoons like Andrew Carnegie controlled large swaths of an expanding nation during the Gilded Age.



The Hinge of Fate

“I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

—Winston Churchill*

Excerpt from Kairos: How Great Men and Women Made History

A Heinkel He III  bomber flying over Wapping and the Isle of Dogs at the start of the London Blitz, 7 September 1940 (C) IWM

A Heinkel He III bomber flying over Wapping and the Isle of Dogs at the start of the London Blitz, 7 September 1940 (C) IWM

It was a bomber’s moon. Full and bright, it illuminated the silvery thread of the River Thames thousands of feet below the boots of the German Luftwaffe pilots nosing their droning bombers through the crystalline night sky over blacked-out London. The mirrored glaze of waterway splitting open the great grassy chalk flats of south-eastern England shone through what Joseph Conrad called the “mournful gloom” rising from the river itself and “brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.” (1) The beckoning river served as a welcome navigational aide for German pilots seeking targets on either side of the river far below. A confusion of fires lit by incendiary bombs carpeted the landscape below like sapphire wild flowers, each smoke column weaving itself into a blanket of primordial darkness not seen since Roman soldiers lit the first cookfires in their rugged fortifications built on the black tidal mud in 43 AD. Only now the fires encompassed entire city blocks and the smoke rose among the beams of searchlights swaying across the dark horizon like enormous stalks of grass blowing in a silent wind.

Still the famous river, proudly branded a decade earlier as “liquid history” by one member of Parliament, needled its way through the heart of London and lapped at the stony foundations of the Palace of Westminster, once the royal home of Norman kings and the epicenter of British governance for almost a thousand years. Downstream, the portcullis gate of the Tower of London bit into the river just as it once had closed behind the backs of prisoners disembarking for a final stop at the executioner’s block. From there, the river flowed under London Bridge in its fall toward Tilbury docks 25 miles below where it swung around the vast flat hook of the North Kent Marshes before dropping below Southend-on-Sea into the open sea channel beyond.

Across the channel, only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point and filled with German U-boats lurking below long chains of floating mines, lay what Winston Churchill, the newly ensconced prime minister, called in his anachronistic style “the great aerodromes of Central Europe.” The Nazi bombers crossing the night sky above London had launched from those airfields 90 minutes earlier, exactly as Churchill had predicted in a broadcast in 1936. Then he had been a political outcast and a lone voice of opposition to the popular pacifist policies of the time. Churchill’s earlier message appeared prescient now:

“At present we lie within a few minutes’ striking distance of the French, Dutch and Belgian coasts, and within a few hours of the great aerodromes of Central Europe. We are even within canon-shot of the Continent. So close as that! Is it prudent, is it possible, however much we might desire it, to turn our backs upon Europe and ignore whatever may happen there?” (2)

But those who held the reigns of power in the British government during the years of Hitler’s rise—Ramsay McDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax—had turned their backs in favor of more popular domestic policies. They had ignored the growing problems in Europe and appeased Hitler’s bullying methods until it was too late.

It was 1940 now, and London was breaking apart at the seams as bomb after bomb hammered the old city night after night. The first bombs to fall on London since WWI (then they had been delivered by slow-moving plywood Gotha airplanes and eerily large Zeppelin airships) came quite by accident—at least by German accounts—on August 24 after Luftwaffe crews veered off course, although no one on the ground, including Churchill, believed it had not been intentional. Churchill hit back immediately, unleashing 40 British bombers to Berlin the next night.

This incensed Hitler. He publicly announced that the Germans were only targeting industrial sites and had assured the German people that no British bombs could touch them. Before a vast crowd of cheering Berlin women he threatened to drop “150, 180, 230, 300 or 400 thousand kilos, or more, in one night” upon the British. “If they declare that they will increase their attack on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground. We will stop the handiwork of those night-pirates, so help us God! The hour will come when one or the other of us will crumble, and that one will not be National Socialist Germany.” (3)

On September 7, the bombs began to rain out of the night sky over London like a plague of Egypt. The first raid lasted ten hours. Church bells pealed a warning across England in expectation of a German amphibious land invasion—the dreaded Operation Sea Lion. (4) No ground troops came but for 57 consecutive days and nights the bombs fell and came to be known as “The Blitz,” borrowed and shortened from the German blitzkrieg. Almost 24,000 tons of high explosive munitions were dropped in 85 major raids. The Germans would not stop bombing until the end of May the following year. Approximately 2.5 million Britons would lose their homes at some point before the end of the bombing, 43,000 would die, and more than 70,000 would be injured, nearly ten percent of them children. (5)(6) It was war at its worst, and its sudden arrival struck a near-fatal blow at the very heart of the once-impregnable British Empire.

Londoners staked out the prime real estate of station platforms of the London Underground, bedrolls and picnic baskets in hand, or slept in human chains between the subway tracks until operators cleared them to switch the current back on at 4:30 a.m.

Londoners staked out the prime real estate of station platforms of the London Underground, such as Aldwych shown here, or slept in human chains between the subway tracks until operators cleared them to switch the current back on at 4:30 a.m.

Every night Londoners huddled together in cramped cellars and basements and air raid shelters, or, if they had enough space in a garden, one of the corrugated metal Anderson shelters distributed by His Majesty’s Government free of charge if one made less than £5 a week. They staked out the prime real estate of station platforms of the London Underground, bedrolls and picnic baskets in hand, or slept in human chains between the subway tracks until operators cleared them to switch the current back on at 4:30 a.m. (7) They emerged in the morning from under bridges to find their homes replaced by craters and rubble, or commuted to work in the dark past the charred bodies of neighbors still smoking from the heat of their impact with destiny the night before.

But instead of melting into panic and chaos, as the Germans hoped (and many British leaders expected), the stout-hearted British embraced the terror. “It is a curious fact about the British Islanders,” Churchill observed, “who hate drill and have not been invaded for nearly a thousand years, that as danger comes nearer and grows, they become progressively less nervous; when it is imminent, they are fierce; when it is mortal, they are fearless.” (8) Exhausted, sore and on edge from staring Death in the face night after night, they began to savor the simple joys in life. Many came to prefer the comforts of their own home or the traditionally silent retreat of a favorite club during air raids instead of withdrawing underground. They crowded together to drink in corner pubs or ordered meals from restaurant menus reduced in size by mandated food rationing. Parents who had evacuated their children to safer sites abroad or in the English countryside sent word for them to return, preferring to spend their last hours, if they came, knitting, reading or playing records on a gramophone among family members gathered around the parlor fire. Ordinary people from all walks of life joined the Home Guard, the Air Raid Precautions service, the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence, or the Auxiliary Fire Service. Eighty men and women made up a volunteer fire brigade to protect the Christopher Wren-designed St. Paul’s Cathedral from the flames. A cohesive air of  “Blitz spirit”—resilience, defiance, stoicism, a stiff upper lip—unified previously incongruous elements of British society. A bomb falling four miles out of the sky—approximately 35 seconds of screeching terror—did not distinguish among the stratified social classes. Buckingham Palace suffered nine direct bomb hits over the course of the Blitz, on several occasions while King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family were in residence. They were all in this together.

article-2184045-0029133300000258-673_634x535Churchill, years later on his 80th birthday, standing amid banks of decorative flowers on the steps of Westminster Hall, recalled in triumph how the British embraced this Blitz spirit during their darkest hour. “Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable.” It was the sound of his voice that had marshaled them to fight in the darkest moment of that hour when they first realized they stood alone against the crush of advancing Nazi armies. “It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was the nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” (9)

(1) Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, as quoted in M. H. Abrams, ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed. (New York, London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001), 2304.

(2) WSC, Broadcast, 16 November 1934.

(3) William L. Shirer, This is Berlin (Hutchinson, 1999), 394-5.

(4) Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, London’s Burning: Life, Death and Art in the Second World War (Stanford University Press, 1994), 33.

(5) Tom Geoghegan, “Did The Blitz Really Unify Britain,” BBC News Magazine, 8 September 2010.

(6) Richard Holmes, In the Footsteps of Churchill; A Study in Character (Basic Books, 2005), 219.

(7) Margaret Gaskin, Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940 (Harcourt, Inc, 2005), 63.

(8) WSC, The Second World War, Vol 1: The Gathering Storm (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), 354.

(9) WSC, Speech, 30 November 1954.

*WSC, Storms, 666





A History of Shadows

It is an unfortunate trait of the passage of time that only what is recorded is known as the “true history” from our collective past.

It is for this reason that history textbooks focus mainly on those who were once famous, wealthy or powerful—those who had the intention and means to write or be written about during their own lifetimes.

But even these records fall short. What we know of history in the academic sense is often only a shadow of a past reality that does not resemble anything of what was once flesh and bone.

What else can we do but use our imagination when all the momentous successes and sorrowful tribulations experienced during a well-spent lifespan can be reduced to a shoebox of faded photographs and stuffed in a forgotten corner?

Our need to fill the vacuum that is left after a generation is extinguished is why the history shelves of commercial bookstores sag with distorted profiles of subjective discoveries injected with the modern political or personal viewpoints of their authors.

As the noted historian Jacob Burckhardt observed, history “is on every occasion the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another.” (1)

But the true story is exponentially larger than the historical record. Most of the great men and women who have walked the earth are unknown to history.

Though their voices are now silent to us, many of our ancestors seized the unique opportunities of their day—their personal kairos moments—to make their quiet corner of the world a better place.

The exploits of these “silent” great men and women often filled the oral histories of their families until, with time and distance, they faded away completely.

Sometimes, though, a partial record of these actions remains due to their close proximity to other great events where the historical spotlight shines more brightly.

For example, the first great Theodore Roosevelt was not the man we see on Mount Rushmore. By his own admission, the greatest man the 26th President of the United States ever knew was his own father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.

Roosevelt’s famous son and namesake would later write in his biography, “I never knew any one who got greater joy out of living than did my father, or any one who more whole-heartedly performed every duty; and no one whom I have ever met approached his combination of enjoyment of life and performance of duty.” (2)

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr

By all accounts, the first Theodore, with his china-blue eyes, chestnut hair and full beard, was an energetic lion of man with a sensitive soul.

“My father worked hard at his business, for he died when he was forty-six, too early to have retired,” said his son. “He was interested in every social reform movement, and he did an immense amount of practical charitable work himself. He was a big, powerful man, with a leonine face, and his heart filled with gentleness for those who needed help or protection, and with the possibility of much wrath against a bully or an oppressor.” (3)

Though he moved freely among the most elite circles of New York society, Roosevelt became best known to his friends for his charitable work. He worked tirelessly to improve the lives of those suffering around him and constantly recruited wealthy friends to sponsor his philanthropic efforts.

Though he helped to found the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, much of his philanthropic work was done behind the scenes. Even with four demanding children of his own he would spend most Sunday nights among the orphans of the Newsboys’ Lodging House and was involved with other organizations such as Miss Sattery’s Night School for Little Italians. (4)

His quiet work benefited the lives of an unknown number of men, women, and children, but was even more far-reaching in ways well beyond what he could possibly know at the time.

More than twenty years after Roosevelt’s death, his son, then governor of New York, met the governor of the Alaska Territory, John Green Brady, at a conference. Brady, who was then governor of 570,000 square miles of American soil, had been born in squalor at the lower end of Roosevelt Street in New York. (5)

Vigorously shaking the younger Theodore Roosevelt’s hand, Brady, a Yale graduate, said, “Your father picked me up on the streets of New York, a waif and an orphan, and sent me to a Western family, paying for my transportation and early care. Years passed and I was able to repay the money which had given me my start in life, but I can never repay what he did for me, for it was through that early care and by giving me such a foster mother and father that I gradually rose in the world until I greet his son as a fellow governor of a part of our great country.” (6)

Without the benefit of his son’s future fame the first Roosevelt would likely be an obscure figure in the history of New York city, but it was great, big-hearted men and women like him who quietly shaped the world we know today. Their efforts, though often unrecorded, built the country where an orphaned newsboy could rise to become a governor.

There is tremendous value in learning all we can from the records that have been preserved for us, but the stories we have lost are the ones that would likely be the most interesting.


(1) Jacob Burckhardt, Judgements on History and Historians, Section 84: Introduction to the History of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, 1929. oll.libertyfund.org/titles/burckhardt-judgments-on-history-and-historians

(2) Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography, New York: Macmillan, 1913; Bartleby.com, 1998. www.bartleby.com/55/. 

(3) Ibid. 

(4) Peter Collier with David Horowitz, The Roosevelts: An American Saga, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. 29.

 (5) “Ex Gov John G. Brady Dies: Once a New York Waif, He Was Alaska’s Executive for Three Terms.” New York Times, December 19, 1918.

(6) Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, “My Brother Theodore Roosevelt,” Scribner’s Magazine, February, 1921, 132.


The Mainspring of Exertion

The sport of beursault developed in the Middle Ages to train military archers in the use of the longbow. Detail from the Luttrell Psalter, circa 1320-1340, in the British Library.

The sport of beursault developed in the Middle Ages to train military archers in the use of the longbow. Detail from the Luttrell Psalter, circa 1320-1340, in the British Library.

There are beautifully landscaped gardens scattered throughout the countryside of northern France and Belgium dedicated to the local archery sport of beursault.


Developed in the Middle Ages to train military archers using longbows, beursault requires an archer to shoot well in various situations made difficult with changing wind and lighting conditions.

An archer strolling on the path encircling a traditional beursault garden will suddenly come upon a narrow open corridor cut between rows of trees or well-manicured shrubs set in flower beds. Rows of timber or masonry wall panels, varying in height, and interlaced among the greenery on either side, usually shield this corridor from other areas of the garden.

By regulation, the open space between the panel blinds is only five and a half feet across.

Down this open range the archer will spy a round black and white target—known as a butt—placed at the far end of the corridor, a little over fifty yards away, and paired with a similar butt at his feet.

In modern beursault competition, to score a maximum number of points, the archer must shoot a single arrow down this leafy gauntlet and center it in a zone less than two inches wide on the opposite butt.

It takes tremendous skill to shoot an arrow down the cramped space, especially if overhanging branches or other obstructions create a tunnel that constricts the arrow’s natural flight arc.

A special moment occurs when the beursault archer successfully sinks an arrow into the center of the butt at the far end of the corridor.

Many things must act together in perfect synchronicity to achieve this success: a proactive mind, a sharp eye, keen senses in tune with the environment, and the disciplined focus of an athlete controlling a skillful release technique developed from hours of practice.

And, perhaps, a little luck to hold it all together.

As such, at the instant of release, the beursault archer is a physical metaphor of a larger concept the ancient Greeks called kairos, the critical moment in time where opportunity intersects with fortune, or, more colloquially, “the right place at the right time.”

Frederick Douglass, in a famous speech titled “Self-Made Men” that he first delivered in 1859 just prior to the Civil War, also used the allegory of an arrow to analyze the trajectory of a human life in matters of luck, success and fortune. “The scene presented from this view is as a thousand arrows shot from the same point and aimed at the same object,” he said. “United in aim, they are divided in flight. Some fly too high, others too low. Some go to the right, others to the left. Some fly too far and others, not far enough, and only a few hit the mark. Such is life. United in the quiver, they are divided in the air. Matched when dormant, they are unmatched in action.”

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass circa 1847-52

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass circa 1847-52

But Douglass—a former slave who by then had, through hard work, determination, and the sheer power of his pen, risen to become one of the most famous and eloquent opponents of slavery in America—rejected the theory that luck alone separated the lives of great men and women from the mass of less successful people around them.

A voracious reader of history who knew many of the great men and women of his own time, Douglass recognized that “it is one of the easiest and commonest things in the world for a successful man to be followed in his career through life and to have constantly pointed out this or that particular stroke of good fortune which fixed his destiny and made him successful.”

With keen intellect, he scrutinized and criticized those who made apologies for their own lack of effort. “If not ourselves great, we like to explain why others are so,” he said. “We are stingy in our praise to merit, but generous in our praise to chance. Besides, a man feels himself measurably great when he can point out the precise moment and circumstance which made his neighbor great.”

His “main objection to this very comfortable theory is that, like most other theories, it is made to explain too much. While it ascribes success to chance and friendly circumstances, it is apt to take no cognizance of the very different uses to which different men put their circumstances and their chances. Fortune may crowd a man’s life with fortunate circumstances and happy opportunities, but they will, as we all know, avail him nothing unless he makes a wise and vigorous use of them.”

Opportunity was important but exertion was “indispensable” to the son of an illiterate slave who had worked hard at every opportunity to educate himself as a young man, often at the risk of his own life.

Douglass, from hard-won experience, knew well the stubborn fact that the process of learning from the past of others and then rolling up the sleeves to “Work! Work!! Work!!! Work!!!!” was the key to future personal success, regardless of the trials or tragedies experienced along the way.

A kairos moment would then provide the necessity required for what Douglass called “the mainspring of exertion.”

“The presence of some urgent, pinching, imperious necessity, will often not only sting a man into marvellous exertion, but into a sense of the possession, within himself, of powers and resources which else had slumbered on through a long life, unknown to himself and never suspected by others. A man never knows the strength of his grip till life and limb depend upon it. Something is likely to be done when something must be done.”

If we, like Douglas, make a close study of history, we will realize that the people who lived before us often succeeded in the extraordinary moment of their lives because of how they regularly worked and conducted themselves in their ordinary moments.

They were once skilled archers in the beursault garden of history who found success in the right place and the right time.

This knowledge can inspire us to emulate their most valuable aspects—courage and determination, character and integrity, knowledge and enthusiasm, loyalty and sacrifice, self-dependence and a proper work ethic—and adopt them into our own daily life.

These are simple virtues, but virtue can be the hardest thing to come by in a hard moment unless it is regularly practiced into muscle memory. This is the best we can do to prepare for our own kairos moment when it comes—and it will.

In the end, these lessons found in the exploration of kairos moments are the greatest contributions our very human predecessors gave to us—and to history.

 For the complete text of “Self-Made Men” visit http://www.monadnock.net/douglass/self-made-men.html


Ike the Loser

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers in England on the evening of June 5, 1944, as they prepare for the D-Day invasion. (Library of Congress)

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers in England on the evening of June 5, 1944, as they prepare for the D-Day invasion. (Library of Congress)

Not all kairos decisions are made on a small stage.

On June 4, 1944, Dwight D. Eisenhower, as the Supreme Commander of all Allied expeditionary forces preparing to invade German-occupied Normandy during Operation Overlord, brooded in his rain-beaten Army trailer knowing he alone was in charge of the largest invasion in world history. At this moment he commanded over 3 million men—over half of them American. (1)

The surprise invasion, two years in the making, consisted of over 10,000 aircraft, 7,000 sea vessels, a night-time airborne assault of nearly 24,000 troops, and a seemingly infinite amount of supporting resources. (2)

No one felt the pressure more than Eisenhower. A reporter who interviewed “Ike”—a nickname stemming from his boyhood days in Abilene, Kansas—that day observed he was “bowed down with worry…as though each of the four stars on either shoulder weighed a ton.” (3)

Every ashtray in his trailer was “full to overflowing” (4) as Eisenhower bolstered his strength with cigarettes from one of the six packs he smoked a day (5), each paired with a constant stream of black coffee.

The next day, Ike walked around the air fields to visit with the paratroopers as they steeled themselves for the battle ahead.

Wandering alone among them, and helpless to do anything more, he asked their names and joked about their jobs, their favorite sports, their wives and girlfriends.

He queried one private, wanting to know if the man was scared.

“No, sir!” came the emphatic reply.

“Well, I am!” Eisenhower said with a sly grin, soliciting cheers from the men huddled around him. (6)

The notebook draft of the greatest speech Eisenhower would never give.

The notebook draft of the greatest speech Eisenhower would never give.

In his pocket, tucked in the folds of his wallet, was a scrap of paper he would never use—a speech scratched out earlier that afternoon in his modest trailer to deliver to the world in case his decision was the wrong one:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone. (7)

He had underscored the last two words—mine alone.

As a good leader, Ike had planned for every contingency, but, as a great leader, he had quietly prepared to become the biggest loser in history. He would take full responsibility for whatever lay ahead.

Fortunately for him—and for the history of the world—kairos luck would shine on Ike’s leadership qualities the next day, June 6, and the successful D-Day invasion would become a turning point in the war against Hitler.

Eight years later, the American public would like Ike, and his great character trait of responsibility, enough to make him the 34th President of the United States.

(1) Michael Korda, Ike: An American Hero (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 42.

(2) Ibid, 36.

(3) John C. McManus, The Americans at D-Day: The American Experience at the Normandy Invasion, (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2004), 116.

(4) Kay Summersby, Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight David Eisenhower (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), 188.

 (5) Merle Miller, Ike the Soldier: As They Knew Him (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987), 603.

 (6) McManus, The Americans at D-Day, 130.

 (7) Harry C. Butcher diary, June 8, 1944, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas.



Founding Fathers Friday: A Woman’s Touch

Abigail Adams 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blythe

Abigail Adams
1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blythe

“If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women.”  Abigail Adams to John Adams, August 14, 1776.

John Adams looked upon his wife as an equal helpmate at every station of his life in an age when such an attitude was not necessarily expected of men.

She deserved it. She was wise, warm, pragmatic and virtuous, advising him in a variety of matters both practical and passionate.

The intimate couple exchanged over 1,100 letters during intermittent separations over the course of forty years.

Abigail’s intellectual prowess often shines through in her letters to her husband, family and friends. These letters are remarkable, especially given the fact that she was never writing for a public audience.

She often quoted maxims by Shakespeare or classical philosophers in between items of gossip in her correspondence, once quoting an observation by the English essayist Sir William Temple on the nature of kairos—“it is an observation of a ‘Statesman that Some periods produce many great Men and few great occasions. On the contrary great occasions and few great Men!’ I believe that great occasions will make great Men, all out of talents which would other ways be dorment”—in a letter to her daughter-in-law. (2)

Her letters reveal her critical influence in the lives of the two great men within her own family. Her husband recognized that he would not have reached the presidency without her, and she wielded similar powers over her son, John Quincy, the sixth president of the United States.

One of the most enduring examples of her influence is found in a letter she wrote to 12-year-old John Quincy while he was accompanying his father on a diplomatic mission to Europe during the American Revolution.

“These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. Would Cicero have shone so distinguished an orator if he had not been roused, kindled, and inflamed by the tyranny of Catiline, Verres, and Mark Anthony? The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All history will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruit of experience, not the lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities, which would otherwise lie dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman. War, tyranny, and desolation are the scourges of the Almighty, and ought no doubt to be deprecated. Yet it is your lot, my son, to be an eyewitness of these calamities in your own native land, and, at the same time, to owe your existence among a people who have made a glorious defence of their invaded liberties, and who, aided by a generous and powerful ally, with the blessing of Heaven, will transmit this inheritance to ages yet unborn.” (3)

Abigail Adams displayed an incredible knowledge of history long before she realized her own leading role in the founding history of the United States.

It was from this knowledge that she gleaned the value of character in a kairos moment. She instilled these virtues in her husband and son as only a woman could.

It was she who fanned the embers of their ambition in hard times, reminding them when the going got tough that it is kairos character that makes men—and women—great.


(1) Abigail Adams to John Adams, Weymouth, June 16, 1775.

(2) Abigail Adams to Catherine Johnson, Quincy, August 18, 1810, as quoted in John P. Kaminski, ed., The Quotable Abigail Adams (Massachusetts Historical Society, 2009), 62.

(3) Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, 12 January, 1780.

Additional reading: Adams Family Papers, an electronic archive, http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/


Bird Woman

Albert Bierstadt 1866 A Storm in the Rocky Mountains-Mt. Rosali

Albert Bierstadt 1866
A Storm in the Rocky Mountains

That winter was unusually bitter at Fort Mandan on the Missouri River, so cold, in fact, that the river froze solid enough to allow the great herds of bison then wandering freely over the prairies of what is now North Dakota to meander from bank to bank without breaking through the ice. (1)

Despite the cold, life continued on as it normally did in the five bustling villages of the indigenous Mandan and Hidatsa nations situated just upriver from the cottonwood palisade fort.

It was there, on February 11, 1805, just as the sun was dipping low on a clear horizon to the west, that a 16-year-old Shoshone woman named Sacagawea—captured from her own people years earlier—delivered her first child into the world after a long and painful delivery, assisted by a secret rattlesnake potion and the more scientific efforts of an American Army captain named Meriweather Lewis. (2)

Lewis and another officer, William Clark, were wintering among the Mandan before continuing their journey west with three squads of enlisted men hand-picked for an exploratory expedition commissioned two years before by President Thomas Jefferson.

There have been few journeys in history like it before or since. The members of the Corps of Discovery would travel more than 8,000 miles through some of the most rugged and isolated terrain of the western United States, all the while creating around 140 maps and documenting precious details of the natural world and indigenous cultures along the way.

It was a journey that would test the inner mettle of the hardiest infantrymen, but the young Sacagawea, hired on as a translator, would match these men step for step, all the while laboring for her infant son and less hardy husband, a French trader who had won her in a bet from her captors.

She was known to them as “Bird Woman.” Despite exercising limited power over her own situation, she would display indispensable reserves of dignity, loyalty, and perseverance.

On more than one occasion the success of the venture would hinge upon her efforts. She would save the expedition’s prized records from a capsizing boat, convincing Lewis to ascribe to her “equal fortitude and resolution with any person on board at the time of the accident.” (3)

Her calm presence among the men would be a sign of peace to hostile parties along the way, and, as translator, she would become the mouthpiece for a westward-looking nation that was not even her own.

It was in August that same year, on top of the Continental Divide, that fate would select her for a great kairos moment to save the expedition and spare, in all likelihood, the lives of the men with her.

At a low point of the journey—out of food and critical supplies, and needing horses to proceed—the explorers were confronted by a band of suspicious Shoshones led by a warrior named Cameahwait.

Sitting down to a parlay with an extremely tenuous outcome, Lewis plied Cameahwait with gifts, using Sacagawea as an interpreter.

Truth suddenly became stranger than fiction when Sacagawea recognized Cameahwait as the brother she had known in the years before her capture. Jumping up, she “ran & embraced him & threw her blanket over him & cried profusely.” (3)

Softening, an astonished Cameahwait agreed to cooperate with the group’s mission, supplying them with provisions, horses, and guides through the rugged mountain passes between them and the sea.

The site where the parley occurred later became known as Camp Fortunate, near what is now Dillon, Montana, a physical reminder of the role that kairos, and an extraordinary young mother, played in the destiny of a republic.

Clark would later praise Sacagawea in a letter to her husband, “Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatiguing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back deserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her.” (5)

1814 Map of the Lewis and Clark Track Across the Western Portion of North America

1814 Map of the Lewis and Clark Track Across the Western Portion of North America


(1) Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 191.

(2) Meriweather Lewis, Journal Entry February 11, 1805. http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/index.html

(3) Ibid. May 16, 1805.

(4) Ambrose, 277.

(5) Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents: 1783-1854, 2nd Ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), vol. I, 315.


Founding Fathers Friday: The Beehive

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze 1851Chances are good you have his face in your wallet or purse right now, but when did George Washington really become the father of our country?

America as we know it might not exist today if Washington had made a different decision than he did at 3 a.m. on the morning after Christmas, 1776, while sitting on a beehive stuck in a frozen riverbank in New Jersey.

We might then know of Washington as a mere footnote in history, “a little paltry colonel of a militia of bandits,” known only to scholars and enthusiasts as another obscure leader of a failed resistance movement. (1)

Alternative histories aside, a closer look at Washington that morning, when he led a ragged group of desperate men across the Delaware River in an attack on the British at Trenton, reveals a man at the end of a rope.

Things had never looked bleaker for the American patriots. Washington had even admitted as much in a recent letter to his brother John Augustine Washington, writing “I think the game is pretty near up.” (2)

Even the weather seemed to be conspiring against Washington. He sat brooding on the rotting overturned crate that had once been a local farmer’s beehive as a furious winter storm hampered the crossing.

With almost nine miles still between him and Trenton, any attack now would be hours after sunrise. Despairing, he contemplated calling off the attack.

His kairos moment appeared before him here, now, as he sat on the beehive in the middle of the night. He must make a decision.

And so he did.

Above all else, the most prominent characteristic Washington displayed that morning was a complete sense of resolve to see his idea through, even in the face of ever mounting obstacles.

The passing hours had given Washington time to fall back on the iron willpower that constituted so much of his character. He would later tell John Hancock, “I determined to push on at all events.” (3)

One anonymous eyewitness is said to have noted in his diary, “I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now…He stands on the bank of the stream, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined.” (4)

To Washington, his determination to follow through on the success or failure of the gamble was very personal. Much of what constituted his iron will that night grew out of who he was as a man. He was truly an exceptional man, but what made him extraordinary was his natural ability to do so many ordinary things so very well, and keep doing these things when it counted.

Washington and his aides, who had worked to compile excellent intelligence on the ground in New Jersey, had earlier realized that the British were momentarily weak. America’s fortunate reversal at Trenton came about because Washington was quick to recognize this seemingly small opportunity in those weeks before Christmas 1776.

But Washington alone could make the most out the available opportunity because his great determination and flexibility also made him the strongest survivor (three other attacks across the river failed that night).

The defeat of the British at Trenton paved the way for Washington’s subsequent victory at Princeton and completely reversed America’s fortunes in the Revolutionary War. The twin victories sent shockwaves reverberating throughout the British Empire and awakened a new respect for Washington and the American cause.

That morning—by sheer determination—Washington summoned enough rebel energy to drive a flying shuttle through the loom of the British defenses when the right opening occurred, and by so doing, created one of the greatest kairos moments in American history.

On the beehive see Richard Ketchum, The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1973), 252.(1) Edward Tatum, Jr., ed., The American Journal of Ambrose Serle, (New York: New York Times/Arno Press, 1969), 35.
(2) GW to John Augustine Washington, Dec. 18, 1776, in The Writings of George Washington 6:396.
(3) GW to John Hancock, Dec. 27, 1776, in WGW 6:442.
(4) The authenticity of the often quoted “Diary of an Officer on Washington’s Staff” is the subject of debate among recent scholars. It is often attributed to Lieutenant Colonel John Fitzgerald, one of Washington’s aides de camp, but no original has ever been found. Regardless, in this case, Washington’s resolve is self-evident and the description rings true. See David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press), 422.


A Ray of Light

Before there was Steve Jobs and the iPhone there was Johannes Gutenberg, who died today in 1468.

Gutenberg, a German goldsmith and engraver, invented a mass-producing movable type printing press that sparked a revolution in the marketing of communication which laid the foundation for no less than the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment.

Daniel J. Boorstin called Gutenberg “a prophet of newer worlds where machines would do the work of scribes, where the printing press would displace the scriptorium, and knowledge would be diffused to countless unseen communities.” (1)

For the first time in European history, ordinary people could enjoy classics by Aristotle, Caesar, or Plutarch, along with simpler works like Aesop’s fables, that could be purchased cheaply in the local marketplace.

Without question, this spread of literacy and learning to the masses permanently, and sometimes violently, changed the social makeup of Europe in a manner similar to how social media is currently revolutionizing certain areas of our own modern world.

Other inventors, chiefly the Chinese, had experimented with printing prior to Gutenberg. So what was it that set him apart and led to his crucial success?

Like Jobs, whose most sparkling inventions occurred after being fired from Apple, Gutenberg displayed a dogged determination to perfect his product to the level of art in the face of crippling trials, all while operating under a shroud of secrecy to keep his competitors at bay.

Gutenberg’s typecasting device, ingeniously simple, took years to perfect and a huge amount of capital, all of it borrowed from impatient investors.

He obsessed in the details, determined to ensure his printed page was precise in its design and brilliant in its color.

Unwilling to rush his unfinished product to market, Gutenberg lost a lawsuit in 1455 that required him to pay a fortune in fees and cost him all of his materials and equipment, including pages from the Bible he had long been working on.

Still determined to succeed, he persuaded a new investor to advance him a full set of printing equipment, and carried on.

The result of his perseverance can be seen in the Gutenberg Bible, a copy of which is on display in the Library of Congress.

A vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible owned by the U.S. Library of Congress

A vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible owned by the U.S. Library of Congress

It is truly a work of art. Bibliophiles agree that this first book printed in Europe is still among the most beautiful.

As Boorstin points out, “the technical efficiency of Gutenberg’s work, the clarity of impression and the durability of the product, were not substantially improved until the nineteenth century.” (2)

Legend has it that the idea for the press had earlier come to him “like a ray of light” but it was Gutenberg’s determination that brought that light to a dark age. (3)

It was a kairos moment that changed the world.


(1) Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (New York: Random House 1983), 510.

(2) Ibid, 515.

(3) James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed (Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company 1985).