1738, John O’ Groats
“No, I forbid it…
“It’s not your life…
Later that year…
“Magnus,” Mr. Sinclair said, interrupting my attempt to move to the port side of the ship.
“Yes, Mr. Sinclair.”
Calmer now, but no less serious, he asked, “How did you get that scar on your forearm?”
June, 1747, Glasgow, Scotland
It was 11am. Ewan MacMillan was halfway to drunk.
“Ah, Magnus, come for a wee dram before setting out to battle the sea monsters, are ye?”
Late Spring, 1751, Fredericksburg, VA
“That’s right,” said Betty. “You should find both my brother and my mother there…”
“For whom shall I ask when I arrive at Ferry Farm?” I said.
Again, Betty Lewis laughed, knowing what most people in the area already knew.
“Oh, you’ll know him when you see him,” she chuckled. “He is, maybe, the tallest person you’ve ever met, over six feet tall. Just knock on the front door. My mother will probably answer. Ask for George. George Washington….”
Late December, 1776
His amateur army about to disappear because most of their enlistments were up at the end of December, with little hope of victory, it was hard to imagine them reenlisting. It was up to George to buy his army more time. He gathered together all the companies, the regiments, the battalions and stood before them as their Commander in Chief. I stood there, at attention, like all the other enlisted men, not knowing what the general was going to say. But my old friend needed to make the speech of a life time and…
January, 2, 1777
“…I’d rather not put him in a combat situation right away, that will surely come later. I thought this assignment would be a good way for him to begin the process of becoming a commanding officer. We’ll certainly need experienced men as we move forward. I’d like you to help guide this young man as he begins that journey.”
I was so happy to hear Hugh use the word, “guide.” Maybe THIS was the guy I had been waiting for all these years. It made sense on a certain level, an old wise man guiding his protégé, mentoring him as he begins his journey in life.
“General,” I said, “I’d like that very much. Thank you for putting your trust in me.”
“Excellent,” said Hugh. “His name is Lt. Simon MacMaster. This is a special request from General Cadwalader and I wanted to…”
“Lieutenant?” I said, about a half hour after we began talking and I thought I gained enough of his trust to ask, “If I may be so bold. How old are you, sir?”
MacMaster laughed. “I was wondering when you were going to ask. I’m 19. I’ll be 20 in a few months,” he said.
“Hmmm; I would have thought you were older,” I said. “You seem older, Lieutenant. I guess the general was right…
Lt. MacMaster interrupted me and said, “Mr. Cook. You don’t have to call me Lieutenant like that. All my friends call me Simon.”
I guess this is where the piloting and guiding started, I thought. I couldn’t let him think like that, that we were all just good friends who could call each other by our first names. Friendship had nothing to do with it. I had to be careful, though, and not come down too hard on him. Clearly, he was uncomfortable being addressed as ‘sir,’ especially by someone who was old enough to be his grandfather.
“If I may speak frankly, sir,” I began.
“No, no, no, you don’t have to call me that,” he said, swatting away the word like it was a pesky insect buzzing around his head.
I moved a bit closer to him so I could speak without being overheard by others at nearby campfires. “Mr. MacMaster… Simon.” I began.
“Yes,” he said, now more relaxed. “That’s better.”
“Simon,” I began again. “You have to stop thinking like that. I know you are uncomfortable being referred to as ‘sir’ like you don’t deserve it.”
“I DON’T deserve it,” he protested. “They made me a lieutenant just three days ago. I’ve done nothing to earn this.”
“Actually, you’re right; you’ve done nothing to deserve this. But here’s what an old goat like me can tell a young man, if he is willing to listen. It funny; it’s like all old men know this and all young men don’t. When all us old farts get together, we nod our heads in agreement, telling stories of how stupid we were as young men, one old guy trying to out stupid story the other. I hope you live long enough so you get to be an old man.”
“I’m listening. What do you have to teach me, old man? Or did you forget?”
I laughed. The kid was bright, quick. That would serve him well in life.
“No, I didn’t forget. Here’s the truth.
Yes, when I call you ‘sir’ or anyone else calls you ‘sir’ you’re right, you don’t deserve it. The secret is…it doesn’t matter. All that matters is you ACT like it matters; ACT like you deserve it. You’re an officer now; you have to behave like an officer. If being called ‘sir’ is uncomfortable for you, then it’s time to grow up.
You will grow into the job when you act like you deserve it. If you don’t respect yourself and this new position then how can you expect someone else to respect you? That’s how people get shot. When they don’t respect their leaders, bad things happen. It’s like Aesop said, ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’”
“You sound like my teacher. You’re about the same age, I think. You talk just like him.”
“Who is your teacher? Where do you go to school?” I asked.
“I’m not in school anymore. My teacher is Dr. Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey. He’s the president there. He decided to close the school back in November because of the approaching conflict. It looks like he was right.”
“And that’s why you are now in the army?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, a sadness now overcoming his eyes. “I couldn’t return to my home in Newark. Two lobsterbacks are quartered in the house where I grew up.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, I think you made the right decision. Earlier this afternoon General Mercer told me he thought you were a fine young man with a promising future. If this country is going to grow up and become the land of freedom we hope it will become, it’s going to need good, strong, young men like you to make that happen.
I’ve known General Mercer for a long time and he has a reputation for being truthful. I don’t believe he would say that if he didn’t believe it. I think he was right offering you a commission. I think you will make him proud. I know you will grow into your new position, just fine.”
“That’s nice of you to say that…”
He paused, thinking through his further response, given all I had said.
“It’s very nice of you to say that…Sergeant.”
I smiled at his more formal response then slapped him on the back as a lighthearted touch of affirmation. “You see, Lieutenant, you’re growing into it already.”
I would have been happy closing out our little teaching moment right there. It was a natural place to stop; a time to feed the fire, maybe to get up and check the other fires and men. Now that I earned young Lieutenant MacMaster’s trust and he began to talk, all of his pent up knowledge, arrested mid-lesson back in November, came gushing out. He couldn’t stop talking. Not when he had such a willing co-learner in me.
That’s how I looked at it. There was a lot I could learn from this smart, young man. After we talked well into the early morning hours of January 3rd, seemingly about everything, we went to a new place I found strangely interesting. It was an abstract area, more of the mind and spirit than the earth. It began with one request:
“Tell me about this Dr. Witherspoon at your college,” I asked.
“He is from Scotland. He thinks it’s important for all citizens to be grounded in a moral philosophy, not just ministers. Moral Philosophy is a required course. If you want to become a magistrate, or a doctor or a minister, everyone has to take this course.”
“I am afraid I don’t know much about religion,” I admitted.
“Then, you would like Dr. Witherspoon. He says the development of virtue is what’s important for a society to become vibrant. You can become a virtuous man by spiritual means or by pursuing a more natural law, a more temporal path. No matter what path you take, it’s vitally important for citizens to develop a moral philosophy.”
“Can you give me an example?” I asked the young thinker.
“Here’s how I see it,” he began. “Why do you do good things? Answer: because you are rooted in virtue. Good things flow out of that root. And why do you do bad things? Answer: Because you are rooted in bad things or do not know the existence of that which is good. In either case, it represents a lack of virtue. Virtue can come from a spiritual place, like religion, or a more temporal place, a more natural law; The law of common sense. It isn’t the lack of religion that is the root of our problems, it’s the lack of virtue.”
“Lieutenant, is this War for Independence a virtuous war? Is that even possible?” I asked.
“I believe Dr. Witherspoon would say: ‘Yes, it is.’ He speaks of liberty and the rights of man. Those are virtues worth dying for. You can build a country upon these ideals. I don’t know if he said it just like that, but that’s what I believe.”
“Lieutenant, it sounds like your Doctor Witherspoon is a virtuous person and your College of New Jersey is a place for virtuous people to gather together and learn. I hope they will still be around after tomorrow once the cannons and muskets are finished sowing destruction. “
“I do too, Sergeant, I do too.”
2016, Back on Coll
“Magnus, come on inside.” said the voice.
Where was I? Where are the soldiers? Did they leave, without us?
I looked past the fire, now gone cold. Behind it I saw what looked like a blue dome, with a small light coming from its inside.
“Magnus… You need to get some sleep,” said the voice, again, now seeming like it came from within the blue dome.
There was movement on the blue dome and a portion of a black line separating two different parts began to move, making a ZZZZZZZZ sound as it moved.
The dome opened and the face of an older man emerged, a man with a white beard, calling my name.
“Magnus, it will be dawn… shit… Magnus, you look terrible. You need to get some sleep, son. We’ve got a big day today. That taibhsear will…”
Late January, 1777
“Good morning, Sergeant,” said the doctor.
“Good morning, Dr. Rush.” I replied. “Lt. Lewis told me you are handling the arrangements for General Mercer’s burial. Thank you for assuming that responsibility. I wish to accompany you on your trip to Philadelphia today, if that’s alright?”
“Yes, Sergeant, of course; I assumed you would be making the trip. That is why my friend here also decided to make the journey to General Mercer’s funeral. He said he would like to talk with you.”
Though I did not know him, nevertheless, I reached out to shake this stranger’s hand for he seemed to know me, or at least he knew of me.
“Good morning, Sergeant Cook. My name is John Witherspoon. It is nice to make your acquaintance. [turning now to Lt. Lewis] And good morning to you as well, Mr. Lewis. Don’t stop what you’re doing; we have to make our best time to Philadelphia. But it is good to see you again. I am sorry it has to be under these circumstances. We can talk later. [now turning back to me] Lt. Lewis is one of my students.”
“Dr. Witherspoon is the president of the College of New Jersey,” said Dr. Rush. “I have known John since, let me see, when was it…?”
“1760 when we first met,” said Dr. Witherspoon. “But it’s now been nine years since you twisted my arm and kept twisting until I relented and agreed to leave Scotland and come here.”
“Yes,” said Dr. Rush. “I was rather relentless, wasn’t I? But you’re here now and we’re better for it.”
“Sir,” I said, addressing Dr. Witherspoon, “I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage. How is it you know my name and wish to talk with me?”
“When my old friend came to my home last night to inform me of the passing of General Mercer, we had a chance to talk for a few hours, catch up on a few things. He had the sad obligation to inform me of the death of Simon MacMaster. Mr. MacMaster was also one of my students. Dr. Rush also told me that one of General Mercer’s final orders was to assign his own orderly to accompany Mr. MacMaster on the occasion of his first command and that you were with him the night before he died. Is that correct, Sergeant?”
“Yes, Dr. Witherspoon,” I said. “That is correct. We stayed awake all night, fueling the fires around the campsite, hoping to deceive the British. He was a fine young man.”
“Yes, he was, Sergeant; yes he was,” said Witherspoon, newly saddened at the memory of his star pupil’s death. “I feel I owe it to his parents to write and tell them all I know of his passing. Sergeant, if you would be so kind, would you accompany me in my carriage for the ride to Philadelphia? I’d like to learn all I can of Mr. MacMaster’s final hours. Dr. Rush and Lt. Lewis can handle the wagon.”
“Dr. Witherspoon, I would be honored to accompany you,” I said. “We talked about a lot of things: the war, of course, but also about Moral Philosophy. I was not familiar with it at first. But Simon was a good teacher. He spoke very highly of you, sir. I might add.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cook. Yes, I think Simon would have made a very good teacher. I think he would have done well at whatever path he chose. Now, we’ll never know.”
George Lewis finished harnessing the horses to the wagon. It was loaded with all our supplies as well as the draped corpse of General Hugh Mercer. The four of us were ready for the cold, day long journey to Philadelphia...
“…It wasn’t the best learning environment,” I began. “No food for two days, no sleep that night, everything was cold and wet. It wasn’t like I had a whole school term to learn the material. Simon tried to cram as much into my head that night as he possibly could. I’m surprised I remembered anything, let alone something as deep as Moral Philosophy.”
“But you did learn,” said Witherspoon, “and for that I give all the credit to Simon. Tell me, Sergeant, if there was just one thing to remember from that night, one point above all points Simon made, what would that be?”
I had to think back. So much else happened between then and now that the high point of the night was already beginning to recede into my consciousness, as something from my distant past. But it came to me and I answered Dr. Witherspoon as best I could remember.
“I believe he would want me to remember one word; VIRTUE. Everything comes back to that,” I said.
Witherspoon smiled broadly because Simon MacMaster, his star pupil, nailed it. Though he was gone and had but one student, Simon’s innate ability to teach had passed this golden truth on to another. And where there was one success, surely there could be others.
“Yes, Sergeant, I believe our young man got it right. If we only had one word to put forward, a word to solve our ills, we would be hard pressed to find a better one than VIRTUE.”
I was getting interested, as I’m sure Simon did at one point when he first met Dr. Witherspoon. And here I had a whole day, locked tightly with him in a carriage bound for Philadelphia, a whole day to pick his brain. I was not going to miss this opportunity.
“…Simon asked me a question that night. He said, ‘what kind of people would we need to become if we wanted this country to still be around twenty years after we’re gone.’ I thought about it for a moment and said, ‘Probably people you can trust. People who tell the truth.’ Something like that. He said I was right. He said that’s exactly what you might have said. Is that right? What did he mean?”
“You didn’t come to those conclusions because of something you read in a book. You came to those answers on your own because they just seemed right to you. It was Common Sense. Is that correct?” asked the Doctor.
“Yes, it is.” I replied.
“And I bet you didn’t come to those conclusions because you read it in the Bible or a minister told you to think like that. Is that also correct,” he asked.
“Yes, that’s true, I don’t come from a very religious background,” I said.
“Sergeant Cook, you are a fine example of the point I’ve been making for years, that the pursuit of virtue is not limited to people like me; ministers, readers of the Bible, Christians who go to Church. We follow a path of faith to get us to virtue. But there is another path one can take and you seem to be on that one, a path of reason.”
People of faith and people of reason do not have to be in conflict with one another, because faith and reason themselves are not in conflict. Faith and reason work in conjunction with each other to build a path towards virtue. They work together so we MUST work together. It must be so if we are to continue to build the virtuous nation we declared into existence six months ago.”
“That is so difficult,” I said, playing the devil’s advocate. “Just look at all the different people we have here in the colonies. There’s the peace loving Quakers. Then there are the savages, like many of our own countrymen from Scotland, I’m sad to admit, people who are nothing more than vicious brutes. There is the Church of England and the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists, the Catholics and the Jews, the Germans and the French, the Spaniards and the Russians, not to mention the loyalists and the rebels. And what of the African slaves? This is who we are, all different religions, all different tribes and clans. You and I both know how savage one clan can be to another when we disagree and come in conflict with each other.”
“Then America needs to think of itself as a new clan. We need to create for ourselves a new shared identity,” said Dr. Witherspoon. “It will be a clan forged from the brokenness and distemper we know so well from the countries of our birth. We don’t want to go back to that life. Our new clan will not be bonded by blood or lines on a map or common religion but by an inalienable birthright: fidelity to a virtuous idea. Our clan proclaims “all men are created equal,” not because it is the will of the King, but because it is a self-evident truth. It’s common sense. Everyone gets the same start. Everyone is entitled to grow up knowing their life shall not be taken from them without due cause. Everyone may revel in their liberty and seek their life’s happiness as best they see fit.”
“That sounds like a clan I’d like to be part of,” I said.
“A lot of people like the idea,” he said. “That’s why they fight for their Liberty, so this noble idea may one day become the law of the land. But it can all fall apart in short order if the people surrender their virtue and behave like their former selves. A Civil Society can only be built by Civil Individuals. It always…”