Sunday, June 26, 2016

My Revolutionary War Ancestors: George Richards

As a prominent Virginia Colonial family, George Richards (1727-1818) was with Washington at Braddock’s Defeat (1755), and with his sons in the Revolutionary War (1776). -- Historical Marker at the Site of Richards Cemetery, Florida

There are a number of difficulties with this inscription.  Even the Richards plantation cannot be placed in Virginia. According to an online message board post,
Mrs. Susan Bennett Wester, then of Hokes Bluff, Alabama wrote up the history of her ancestors. The following is given as this history in her own words: "My great-grandfather, George Richards and his brother James, came from Nansemond County, Va., before the Revolutionary war and settled at the Richards homestead, about five miles Northeast from Louisburg. The place was then Bute County, and under British rule; after 1779 it was in Franklin County and under colonial rule; later still it was and now is within the jurisdiction of the United States Government. Thus it will be seen that George Richards lived in two different counties and under three different governments and yet lived in the same house all the time. All I know of my Richards ancestors, I learned from my grandmother, who died 1844, when I was twelve years old..."
It is important to note that this is entirely consistent with other records, such as his will.  I had hoped that either the plantation or its cemetery would be indicated by a North Carolina historical marker, but such is not the case.
As for George Richards being a Revolutionary War soldier, that is also almost certainly untrue.  Contrary to what is claimed on some Internet sites, his obituary did not state that he was himself a Revolutionary War soldier, but only that six of his sons were.  (Thomas Cupples Richards, from whom I am descended, was born in 1774, so he had no part in that war.)  Furthermore, if George Richards had been in the Continental Army, his experience and social position would undoubtedly have made him an officer -- his son James was an army captain.  There are many men who answered to the name of "George Richards" and participated in the Revolutionary War -- for example, a naval chaplain from Rhode Island, whose literary accomplishments include a (mediocre) poem about the Declaration of Independence, an "Indian spy" from Virginia (who seemed to be a very promising lead, given that "my" George Richards had a son, Stephen, who was an important Indian translator in early Florida), the unrelated George Richards Minot, but most importantly, his own son, George Richards, Jr.  However, there are no good matches to the place and rank where "my" George Richards should have been expected, which is among the officers from North Carolina.

There is a wonderful extended family story from the descendants of Micajah "Cage" Davis about his adventures during the Revolutionary War with a "Capt. George Richards", and how Cage came to marry Capt. Richards's sister Martha "Patty" (or "Patsy") Richards as a reward for obtaining some cattle for the starving troops at the Battle of Cowpens.  The story includes the note
This account is in conflict with the tree that describes Capt. Geo. Richards as Patty’s father, who was a known Revolutionary War soldier born in England and it would also be unlikely that a brother would betroth his sister.
I suspect that this story somewhat exaggerates Cage's role in starting the Battle of Cowpens, but it certainly does confuse George Richards, Sr., George Richards, Jr., and James Richards.  The captain who had his hand cut off in a duel was James Richards.  George Richards, Jr., was about the same age as Cage, and since they were both privates from the same part of North Carolina (though not, it seems, in the same companies), they may well have been friends.  It is likely that when Cage's descendants heard him talk about a "Captain Richards" and about "George Richards", his friend and eventual brother-in-law, the two became confused, particularly since James Richards died in 1781, unsurprisingly not long after losing his hand and six years before Cage married Patty.

A great deal can be learned from George's will, which I give here in full.  
In the name of God, amen. 
I, George Richards of the county and state aforesaid, being of sound mind and memory, do think proper to make this my last will and testament in manner and form following: 
Item 1st: I give and bequeath unto each of my sons: Joshua Richards, Stephen Richards, and George Richards, the sum of one dollar each.
Item 2nd: I give & bequeath to my Daughter, Patsy Davis, one bead and furniture her choice, one bound tea table, her choice of my chests, my loom, & all the thereunto belonging and also one third part of all my personal property of whatsoever nature or kind it may consist in, with the exception of my Negro woman, Hicksey, to her, and her heirs, assigns for ever. 
Item 3rd: I give & bequeath unto my son, Thomas C. Richards and unto my Grandsons, John & Jeter Hog, sons of my Deceased daughter, Jane Hog, the remaining two thirds of all my personal estate of whatsoever nature and kind it may consist in except the aforesaid Negro woman, Hicksey, that is to say, I give to Thomas C. Richards the one half of the two thirds of my estate hereby given to him, his heirs and assigns for ever. The other half to be divided between John & Jeter Hog on their arrived at lawful age and in the event that of them should dye before they arrive at lawful age, it is my will and desire that the survivors share the whole estate,hereby intended to be divided between them, to then, their heirs, and offspring for ever. 
Item 4th: It is my will and desire that my Negro woman, Hicksey, Who has been a faithful and dutiful slave, be liberated and set free and I hereby request and enjoin it on my Executor after named to use all lawful means in their power to have her emancipation and set free, but should my desire to have the said Negro woman, Hicksey, set free prove abortive, it is my will & desire that my son, Joshua Richards shall have the said Negro woman, Hicksey not doubting, but he will endeavor to comply with my will or maintain my said Negro woman, Hicksey on easy terms and not on the of real bondage and that he will act towards her the part of a friend more than that of a master. 
I hereby nominate and appoint my friends, Amus Jones, John Perry (_____) and _______ Gordon executors to this, my last will & testament. Whereof I have hereunto set my hand this 17th June, A.D. 1818. 
Witness Present, 
Nath Hunt 
John Thomas 
George Richards seal (his mark) 
There are a number of hints that make me think I would not have liked George Richards, Sr.  For one thing, there is this from DAR records:
Patty Richards married Micajah Davis in 1784, despite not having the approval of her father. George was a wealthy man and wanted a more affluent husband for Patty. 
The year is off, but that is no reason to suspect the thrust of the statement. It is backed up by this:
In 1784 Micajah married Patty Richards. Her father being a wealthy man, opposed the match on the grounds that young Davis was a poor man- -though he owned a good plantation- - and was so enraged that he never gave her anything until his death, at which time she received the old homestead and several negroes, besides other property...
Allowances must be made for the age and the culture of the day, and whatever breach may have opened due to the marriage was clearly closed by the time of his death, as his will is generous to Patty; but he still comes across as a bit of an arrogant jerk.

One other factor bothers me more than it would most people.  George Richards was a Freemason, and Masonry requires oaths that can only be made flippantly by disregarding God as a reality, but which if taken seriously make Masonry a distinct religion.

Finally, not only did George Richards own several slaves (the 1800 census shows him with 13), but the obsession in his will with his "Negro woman, Hicksey, Who has been a faithful and dutiful slave" has a distinctly creepy feel to it, one that brings to mind the "relationship" between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  If George were really so solicitous for Hicksey's freedom, I see no reason he could not have freed her during his lifetime, but he no more did that than Jefferson gave Sally Hemings her freedom.  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Tragedies and the Genetic Fallacy

Q:  Suppose you were an Israeli living in 1995, and that you thought that Yitzhak Rabin's take on the Arab/Israeli Peace Process was dangerously naive, and that to support it would put your family and your country at risk.  What should you have thought about it after Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Admir, who violently opposed the process?

A:  You should have thought that the Arab/Israeli Peace Process was dangerously naive, and that to support it would put your family and your country at risk.

The reason is simple:  nothing changed that should have affected your conclusion.  You would have based your assessment of the Peace Process not on the personal virtue of Rabin or Admir, but on the trustworthiness of the two parties, the terms of any agreement, the ability of the leaders to ensure that their sides lives up to their obligations, etc.  The assassination might make a Palestinian question the ability of Israeli leaders to prevent outrages by Israeli citizens, but -- in spite of the shock, outrage, and even metaphysical horror the assassination created in the hearts of so many Jews (whether in Israel or elsewhere) -- it should not have changed the opinions of Israelis with regard to the Peace Process.

Yet in the real world, it certainly did affect Israeli opinions to an extent that I found utterly astonishing.  I do not approve of everything Israel does, and also I see a distinction between Israeli interests and American interests, but I give the Israelis a lot of credit when it comes to certain things, such as understanding the importance of air power and making rational decisions in matters related to their national survival.

Ultimately, this is a mixture of the genetic fallacy, which judges an assertion based on who supports it rather than on its own strengths, together with the modern cult of the victim.  Regarding the latter, society is all over the place when it comes to "blaming the victim".  Usually, for example, there is no hesitation in blaming a drunk driver who drives into a tree, let alone another vehicles -- unless the driver happened to be a celebrity, or the room is full of family members claiming that society is to blame for not protecting the driver from his addictions.  As a rule, though, it is taboo to claim that a victim was less than perfect, and doubly taboo to claim that a victim shared any responsibility for his own fate.  Even so, it is just silly to pretend that disagreeing with a victim's political opinions is "blaming the victim"; but that silliness is commonplace.  The reaction to the assassination of Rabin is just one example among many.

This was brought to mind, of course, by the shocking member [EDIT:  "murder", not "member"!] of British MP Jo Cox.  It is right to condemn her murder, and it is right to mourn her death, but I hope that Britons who vote to remain in the EU (which I expect would have won the vote anyhow) will do so for reasons related to the good of the UK, and not as some misguided memorial to Jo Cox. 

EDIT 24 JUNE 2016:  The British have in fact voted to leave the EU.  This surprises me a great deal.  I really thought Scotland was more likely to leave the UK (which did not happen) than Britain to leave the EU.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Bigfoot and Planet Nine from Outer Space

47 Ursae Majoris b v5

47 Ursae Majoris as imagined by Debivort.  The proposed "Planet Nine" might look similar to this.

What should we make of the claim that there is an unknown entity lurking on the fringes -- an entity that would not overthrow everything we think we know about our place in the universe but would give it a tweak -- when the evidence in favor of the entity falls short of what is normally demanded for such things, but is sufficient to be suggestive?  This is an inherently "fuzzy" question, because ideas like "sufficient evidence" and "suggestive evidence" are at least partially subjective.  In such a case, it is important to have some estimate of the background noise of false positive observations; how likely is that the suggestive evidence is something other than a collection of false positives?  The answer to that question will determine how much confidence we have that the claim will eventually be verified, and our degree of confidence will strongly influence how much money, time, and effort we devote to the search.  However, in the absence of better evidence (or a better analysis of the existing evidence), it would be foolish to commit to either the proposed entity being real or to it being unreal.

From the title of this post and from the very vague language I have used, it is clear that I think it is worthwhile to compare and contrast the claims that there is an indigenous North American ape and that there is a large planet in our solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune.  The similarities are obvious.  The standard proof needed to name a new species is possession of a type specimen -- a body that makes it clear that the new species is both real and distinct from other named species.  There is no type specimen for a Bigfoot, only a collection of sightings, photographs, and footprints -- and it is certain that most of these are either frauds or cases of mistaken identity.  Likewise, the standard proof needed to name a new astronomical body is a series of direct observations from which the orbit can be determined in some detail.  There are no direct observations of "Planet Nine", only observations of small objects beyond Neptune that may have been perturbed by the gravity of the hypothetical object.  Yet the reception by the scientific community of the two proposed is very different.  Why?

I can only come up with three good reasons to treat the astronomical case differently than the biological case.  
  1. The first is that astronomy is much, much, much more mathematical, so that it is possible to calculate (subject to a handful of reasonable assumptions) what size and type of telescope would be able to see the hypothetical planet.  This means they are able to give an explanation for why Planet Nine has not yet been seen.  In fact, the team that proposed Planet Nine has even attempted to calculate the odds that the orbital irregularities of bodies like Sedna are due to something else, though I suspect they underestimate those odds.  In contrast, as far as I know there has been no serious attempt to quantify how many "Bigfoot sightings" we should expect each year if Bigfoot is not real and all the "sightings" are mistakes or hoaxes.
  2. Related to the first point, the hypothesis of Planet Nine is falsifiable.  If sufficiently powerful telescopes exhaustively search the area of the sky indicated but fail to find Planet Nine, astronomers will just shrug their shoulders and move on.  Belief in Bigfoot, on the other hand, seems to be perpetually content with fuzzy photos, dubious footprints, and the accounts of alleged witnesses.
  3. Finally, the evidence for Planet Nine is objective, available to everyone, and impossible to fake.  The interpretation may or may not be correct, and how convincing it is in its current form is a somewhat subjective question, but anyone with a large enough telescope can confirm the raw data.  This is not really true for Bigfoot evidence.  Eyewitness accounts are entirely subjective, and the credibility of footprints depends on how they were discovered -- a process that cannot be independently repeated.

These are important differences, and all told, I consider the Planet Nine hypothesis both to be better science and to be proven correct.  Regardless, it is important to be prepared for the possibility that either hypothesis may be false and also for the possibility that either hypothesis may be true.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Who Are the Real National Heroes?

Every year, the winners of major sports championships are invited to the White House, presumably because they are some sort of "national heroes".  (More realistically, it's a photo op for both parties, but the photo op needs an excuse.)  It would really be more appropriate to invite people who jump onto subway tracks to save a stranger from an oncoming train.  Of course, such incidents would have to be investigated first, because unsavory types would stage such events in order to arrange a meeting with the president.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Intrinsic Evils and Politics

I frequently see Catholics trying to draw a distinction between the Democratic and Republican Parties on the basis that whatever the evils of the Republican Party may be, they are not intrinsic evils.  This indicates a misunderstanding of what "intrinsic evil" means. It does not mean something that is distinguished by being a very serious wrong; the word for that is "grave matter" -- the phrase you will see if you look up the bit about mortal sin in paragraph 1857 of the Catechism. You can think of this as being something analogous to a felony in secular law.

Something that is intrinsically evil is not distinguished by the magnitude of the evil, but by the fact that the act cannot be separated from evil; it can never be an acceptable means to a good end. The parallel would be to an unconstitutional act.

Most intrinsic evils are closely tied to grave sins, but many grave sins involve doing something that might, under other circumstances, be permissible. For example, Catholic Tradition (as mentioned in the Catechism) allows for the possibility of capital punishment under certain circumstances, but obviously many evil governments have used capital punishment as a way to murder their opponents, or those from whom they wished to steal.

When some Catholics refer to non-negotiable principles, they are introducing yet another category. These have to do with the intersection between moral theology and secular politics. It may be a mortal sin to miss Mass (it is clearly a grave matter), but few if any priests or bishops would want the government enforcing a law that everyone must attend Mass on Sundays and days of obligation.

Saying that a particular sin is not an intrinsic evil does not mean it is not important or that we can safely ignore it in a political context. Think back to the four sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance: (1) willful murder, (2) the sin of Sodom, (3) oppressing the poor, and (4) denying workers their just wages. Number 4, for example, is not necessarily an intrinsic evil; it may come in the form of giving the workers SOMETHING, just not what they are due. Noting that it "cries out to Heaven for vengeance", though, is a pretty good indication that it's serious, and it clearly is something that the government should have some role in preventing.

Here's a hypothetical. Let's say a candidate was running on a platform that included a nuclear strike against North Korea before North Korea develops nuclear-tipped ICBMs. This would be a dangerously stupid idea, but not an impossible one. It would arguably not involve an intrinsic evil, but it would be unambiguously wrong (violating principles that have been spelled out for centuries), and its consequences would certainly be catastrophic for the Korean Peninsula, and potentially for the whole world. I don't doubt that priests and bishops would make it clear that such a strike would be a non-negotiable evil that no Catholic, Christian, or even sane person should have any part of.

Bringing these back into the realm of politics, it is an indisputable fact that the Democratic Party is deeply committed to defending practices that are intrinsically evil.  An individual Democrat might not support these planks of his party's platform, but he obviously does not find them so objectionable that he leaves his party.  The Republican Party's grave evils tend to be things like the support of unjust (and even unconstitutional) wars and torture.  These may not be intrinsic evils, but a serious Catholic can no more ignore them than the evils of the Democrats.  Finding a candidate one can support in good conscience is not easy these days, and in many races it may be impossible.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Don't Embarrass Yourself with a "Clever Zinger"

I understand that some short statements can be a kind of rallying cry to one's friends or an act of defiance against one's foes, and I also understand that many people may be unaware of the arguments for or against a position.  That said, if you are dealing with a person or a group of people who are obviously committed to a particular belief, the odds are overwhelmingly strong that they will be aware of any argument against them that is short enough to fit on a bumper sticker, and they probably have spent a good deal of time developing a response to it.  If you use your quip with the expectation that it's a magic bullet, you'll just end up looking foolish.

Understand that this applies to all sides of any serious question.  I've seen "zingers" deployed against Catholics, against Protestants, against Atheists, against Muslims, against Democrats, against Republicans, against pro-lifers, against abortion supporters, against Capitalism, against Socialism, ... the list just goes on and on.  By all means, take a stand on issues that are important to you, just don't assume you are the first to bring up an important point, or that your challenges are unanswerable.