To millions of people, Nick Offerman is America. Both Nick and his character, Ron Swanson, are known for their humor and patriotism in equal measure.
After the great success of his autobiography, Paddle Your Own Canoe, Offerman now focuses on the lives of those who inspired him. From George Washington to Willie Nelson, he describes twenty-one heroic figures and why they inspire in him such great meaning. He combines both serious history with lighthearted humor—comparing, say, Benjamin Franklin’s abstinence from daytime drinking to Nick’s own sage refusal to join his construction crew in getting plastered on the way to work. The subject matter also allows Offerman to expound upon his favorite topics, which readers love to hear—areas such as religion, politics, woodworking and handcrafting, agriculture, creativity, philosophy, fashion, and, of course, meat. The book also features heroic yet humorous portraits by illustrator Ethan Nicolle, literally illuminating the twenty-one august figures.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
How does one compile a list of great Americans? It’s an embarrassment of riches. To narrow the field, I decided to begin with my choice for number one. I imagine, or at least I would hope, that most of our citizenry would agree by an overwhelming percentage that the first person landing upon that list is—no, not Ray Kroc, the progenitor of the McShit sandwich. No, not Miley Cyrus or Beyoncé Knowles, or even Oprah Winfrey. Jesus! Goddamn. No, people, not Jesus! Yes, he was reportedly a supercool guy, but he just doesn’t qualify as an American. I am referring, of course, to George Washington. The father of our country. I want to note that, of all the possible subjects, he easily sprang to mind first, based merely on my foggy grade school knowledge of his life’s achievements in helping to create our republic and then sticking around to lead it as our nation’s first president. Plus, he had wooden teeth! I’m a woodworker! Slam dunk—a sports metaphor, specifically basketball, meaning that the point(s) has (have) been scored emphatically!
I then began a list of other possible great Americans, basing my selections upon achievements of one kind or another that I considered to be “great” in scope. Leaders of men and women. Leaders of 4-H clubs. Activists, artists, zealots. Woodworkers, boatbuilders, farmers. Musicians. Priests. Muckrakers. Stoners. Hillary. Because after all, for the purposes of my examination, what exactly constitutes a “great” American? Runs batted in? Military victories? Humanitarian efforts? Amassing wealth? Collecting scalps? A number one single on the Billboard charts? A larder full of bacon? Ford F-250 in the barn? Well, duh.
While I continued to compile a roster of potential icons and discuss the book’s overall direction with my great American editor, Jill, I began to read anew about Washington and the birth of our nation. I was powerfully stricken when I contemplated the actual situation in which our Founding Fathers found themselves, well, foundering: faced with the choice of either a continued subservience to an overweening Mother England or a gathering of their colonial brass balls in their mitts with which to cast off the taxing yoke of England’s imperial control. Years earlier, when I learned all this history as a lad in school, I suppose the full implications of the events were lost on me, as I was not yet wielding a complete grasp of adult responsibility or governmental culpability as it applies to our daily lives.
The magnificent sons of bitches who founded our United States truly brandished a courage that is hard to fathom and a serving of foresight that very well beggars my modern imagination. Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the like saw the extremely rare opportunity to create a new “American experiment,” one in which the best organizational techniques and brewing methods could be retained from the oldguard European governments, while discarding all the more unsavory trappings (clotted cream) of the monarchies and oligarchies they’d left behind “on the continent.” These forward thinkers envisioned a nation ruled “by the people, for the people,” founded on notions like “liberty and justice for all.” Now all they had to do was liberate themselves from the iron grip of the military equivalent of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson that was eighteenth-century Great Britain.
As I will explore in the coming pages, our country’s inception had a lot of heroic nobility deservedly draped about its innovative framework, but it was also a series of events conducted by human beings, and so the intrepid experiment could not help but display some flaws as well. Not only were our fledgling American government and society crafted by human beings, but further, it must be noted with appropriate gravity, by all white dudes. With no small irony, the Declaration of Independence was composed, ratified, and signed by several Caucasian men, some of whom owned a great many slaves. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Native American tribes in the Ohio Country were being mercilessly murdered and/or driven off their ancestral lands so that “we” could eventually build the pastoral suburbs of Cleveland, an assemblage of neighborhoods that, it must be noted, really are quite leafy and serene, but are they worthy of genocide? That is precisely the stripe of conundrum I hope to probe in the following pages.
In their inaugural documents, our Founding Fathers framed a somewhat malleable structure as a means by which the population could govern itself, truly remarkable in its place and time, which allowed the citizens of the United States to set about building, in rather short order, the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world. The seemingly limitless wealth of natural resources in our stretch of North America allowed our predecessors to excel in many fields of industry and artistry, soon surpassing the manufacturing capabilities of their European fathers and the world at large. Our young society flourished, exhibiting a gaiety and “rascally” nature that the rest of the globe found (very) briefly adorable. This was our puppy phase. In many ways, an attitude of “free-thinking” grew fulsome and took root in the burgeoning states, finally logging some long-overdue advances in civil rights for every person residing under the Stars and Stripes. Or so we proclaimed, anyway.
This writing will endeavor to examine some examples of the ways in which we as Americans have used the powers of freedom bestowed upon us to become more decent as a people, which I believe was loosely the idea when the whole shebang got started. This book will also strive to cast a light on some instances in which we have not used our powers for good and have most assuredly not become more decent.
Beyond the inspiration of my chosen historical figures (who set the bar very high for us indeed), I will illustrate for you a group of idealists who have continued to pay homage to America’s foundational principles. In their varied lives of rigorous employment, these high-minded individuals have set a further fine example of just how much good may be accomplished with active eyes and loving observation. On many levels, this collection of visionaries has inspired me with selfless choices made for the good of all the people—not just the white guys—but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
Bringing up the back of the bus are some pretty cool kids, all of whom make things like music, furniture, poetry, art, and laughter. In many ways, their creations enkindle within us the flames of gumption, as we seek each our own path to lead lives that enlarge and also depend upon the lives of others in America and beyond. Please enjoy my mixtape of great Americans, twenty-one in number, whom I sincerely hope will affect you like they do me—in a way that makes you examine your own God-given gumption and react accordingly, so that we may all end up with a little more decency and several more chuckles.
Before I began reading about Washington in preparation for this book, I had a loose idea of his life and achievements based upon a mixed bag of remembered stories and images. The Emanuel Leutze painting of Washington’s historic crossing of the Delaware River on the night of December 25, 1776, has always stuck with me as a clear representation of his military chutzpah. Having rowed a lot of boats in my day, I was astonished to see these men rowing in a river full of large chunks of ice, which would obviously be incredibly uncomfortable and difficult, especially long before the advent of “boat fuel” (canned beer).
It was that image that cemented in my child’s mind the hardships that this man endured in the securing of our original freedoms, because if you had to row across an icy river at night, it meant that shit was pretty rough. Besides that noble image, I have always appreciated the two most well-known stories about Washington, which are the chopping down of the cherry tree and the story of his wooden teeth. Long before I knew that wood, especially American cherry, would play such an important role in my own life, I was charmed, along with the rest of the suckers, by the tale of Washington’s famous honesty in the great cherry tree caper.
The story has it that as a young boy, Washington was given a new hatchet. Now, I can tell you from experience that there is really nothing more fun for a young person who likes to spend time in the woods than either a sharp knife, for obvious reasons, or, just as obviously, a hammer, and by crikey, a hatchet combines the two into one devastating tool of destruction. There are very few surfaces inside the house or out that cannot be thoroughly butchered with an energetically brandished hatchet.
Our little George knew what he was about—he set to chopping everything within reach with his new hatchet, including his father’s favorite cherry tree. When questioned on the subject, George answered truthfully, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.” His father was reportedly so moved by his son’s integrity, he chose not to punish him, stating that “honesty is worth much more than any number of cherry trees.”’Twas a winning anecdote, however apocryphal, displaying Washington’s pith from the get-go, written well after his death as part of a lionizing tribute to the great man.
Now, in hindsight, I could have shot holes in this story all day long. First of all, for a cherry tree to develop enough character, size, and, presumably, fruit yield to make it anybody’s “favorite” would take many years, with said tree developing a trunk that would be much too thick and sturdy to fall easy prey to a boy’s hatchet, no matter how robust the lad.
Second, the father of our country exhibited an adherence to the principles of gentility and politeness just about as soon as he could pee standing up (three months of age, legend has it). Little George would have known better than to destroy a fruit tree near the house, particularly one to which a family member had taken a shine. With his trademark good sense, he would have simply detoured several yards to the left of the cherry tree in question, entered the nearby forest, and made vast piles of wood chips with the chopping action of his hatchet upon any number of forest trees, deciduous or conifer, and nobody’s feelings would have been bruised in the least. I consider this particular tall tale debunked.
Now on to those storied wooden teeth. Everyone knows George Washington had terrible dental trouble, and so he had dentures made of wood, right? Wrong! Our first president did have a terribly rotten set of original teeth—while they lasted, that is, because he had lost them all by late middle age. His final lower molar served as the anchor for a full set of hinged dentures, upper and lower, until it, too, finally fell victim to the barber’s pliers, rendering our finest statesman completely toothless. As an avid eater of foodstuffs who loves to masticate red meat, not to mention the occasional churro, I shudder to imagine the complete loss of my chewing tackle.
Dentures of the period were often constructed of hard materials such as hippopotamus ivory, bone, or even actual human teeth, often “purchased” from slaves. Some of the organic materials used in eighteenth-century false teeth are suspected to have stained in a grainy pattern similar to wood, which seems to be the detail from whence that “wooden teeth” rumor sprang. More aggrandizing!
Whatever the story’s origin, I have to wonder why we would ever even begin to feel the need to mythologize this man, whose real-life accomplishments were so goddamn impressive that I wet myself seven times reading Ron Chernow’s amazing, Pulitzer-winning biography, Washington. I suppose this is how we as a society end up remembering these larger-than-life figures, tucking them neatly into a file drawer using landmarks like “wooden teeth”—Hoover: “wore a dress”; Woody Allen: “played clarinet”; Margaret Thatcher: “had three testicles”—satisfying a need to make these historical characters more iconic. In the case of George Washington, such embroidery was entirely unnecessary, as the reality of the complex and emotional man behind his steely visage was much more engaging than a mere accessory like false pearly not-so-whites.
As a teenager, young George transcribed, as a writing exercise, some 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” I dislike very much the contrast of this task with the diversions I see pursued by modern sixteen-year-olds. That accusation includes myself, by the way. As a teenager, I didn’t have a video game in my pocket but instead ran obsessively to the bowling alley or the pizza parlor, where stood the noisome machines of escapism with names like Donkey Kong and Frogger.
Instead of burying his attention in his smartphone or video-gaming system, our nation’s future father sat laboriously scribing phrases like “3d. Shew Nothing to your Freind that may affright him.” (Translation: “Don’t freak me out, dude.”) “35th. Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.” (“Wrap it up, asswipe.”) “54th. Play not the Peacock, looking every where about you, to See if you be well Deck’t, if your Shoes fit well if your Stokings sit neatly, and Cloths handsomely.” (“This ain’t a fashion show, brah.”) “56th. Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.” (“Steer clear of the mall.”) “89th. Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.” (“Why’n’t you say that to my face, Chad?”) “92. Take no Salt or cut Bread with your Knife Greasy.” (I believe this one to be a sexual euphemism.) “101st. Rince not your Mouth in the Presence of Others.” (“Say it, don’t spray it.”)
I mean, come on! Those are amazing and also chock-full of terrific advice. Since I read these, my wife, Megan, has commended me on keeping my “knife” much less “greasy.” My own parents did an excellent job of teaching me good and decent manners, despite my irrepressible desire to this day to lie back on a table or car hood, legs in the air, and light up a fart in a most bewitching fireball. Still, I can’t help but think that we could all benefit from having to write out these simple but effective phrases, to better commit them to our respective remembering parts (noggins).
Had Washington lived in our era, he would have undoubtedly been the leader of a troop of elite Eagle Scouts as well as the star of the local football team, with a side business building post-and-beam barns. He was a renowned physical specimen in his young manhood, often impressing his family and friends with feats of incredible strength and fortitude, whilst training for a career as a surveyor of land.
The journeys he would undertake for the purpose of land speculation, sleeping on little more than a handkerchief, truly entailed the most badass of arduous outdoor living, a full century before the Thermos bottle came onto the scene with its savory payload of hot stew.
He and his peers were rugged, far beyond any toughness we might imagine today, sitting in our air-conditioning, whining about how long it’s taking Zappos to deliver our new UGG slippers from Australia. A strapping man jack like Washington would have shot and cleaned a buck, cured its hide, and sewn himself two pairs of boots in the time it would take us to update our credit card information on Amazon.
In the journal he kept of his journey over the mountains, floridly entitled Journal of My Journey over the Mountains, George Washington firmly established his lifelong habit of chronicling the important events of every campaign to which he applied his considerable energies. The sheer volume of written correspondence he produced in his lifetime is staggering, especially to the urbanized inhabitants of this modern age, to whom handwriting letters seems as farfetched as scraping leather out in the tanning shed for harnesses, belts, and shoes.
The University of Virginia houses a program entitled the Papers of George Washington, which will inventory more than 135,000 documents, a project so vast they don’t expect to be done collating and annotating it until 2023! If Washington started writing the day he leapt from his mother’s womb, that would have been five-and-a-half letters a day over his sixty-seven years of life. That magnificent bastard could write, and he did so centuries before there was a Bic to click. No, nor roller-ball, felt-tip, Sharpie, or even that old standby, the Ticonderoga no. 2 pencil!
George scribbled those many thousands of letters and journal pages with a quill and ink, folks. And not only was his body of work prolific, but he was quite the wordsmith as well. As I perused selections of his letters, I was delighted by adjectives such as scurrilous, acidulous, obdurate, opprobrious, contumelious, and vituperative, almost all used to exclusively criticize or dress down others who had fallen short of his high standards on the battlefield or in the statehouse.
I, for one, greatly enjoy stumbling upon such colorfully descriptive wordings (even when they’re directed at me), because they require me to seek out their meanings and pronunciations in the dictionary. (This is how I had learned, by the ripe age of seven, words like misconduct, shenanigans, insubordination, and then as a result of those, the subsequently juicy confiscation, misdemeanor, castigation, retribution, and, finally, paddle, bludgeon, or glory-board.)
As mentioned earlier, his manners were impeccable, as he strove to succeed not only among his Virginian neighbors and peers but in the eyes of the British Crown as well, since King George still controlled the activities of his colonies from across the wide ocean. Knowing no other governmental entity in his life, our young protagonist naturally aspired to impress the Crown in hopes of rising to a place of esteem. Unbeknownst to either party, the fates were crafting in George Washington the perfect weapon to be brandished against Britain herself in the impending, inevitable war for America’s freedom.
In 1753, Washington was thrown into the fray in a very substantial way. Colonial France and England were both laying claim to the enormous Ohio Country (modern-day Ohio, Indiana, and parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia), desiring not only to claim the land but also to secure the lucrative fur trade with the Native Americans.
An order came to the colonies from none other than King George II himself, calling for a valiant envoy to hustle west to see if the French were building forts where they shouldn’t be. If so, the bearer of the orders was instructed to ask them to peacefully depart. Makes sense, right? “Oh, apologies, monsieur. We did not realize zat you British fellows would like zis land. Allow us to just collect our accoutrements and we will scoot along, begging your pardonnez-moi.”
In the quite likely event that the French would not just meekly vamoose at the invitation of the British colonists, the envoy was then instructed to “drive them off by force of arms.” As you may have surmised, these orders fell to none other than our virile, vigorous hero, who was a mere twenty-one years of age. Can you imagine the weight of this responsibility? I cannot. I am forty-four at the time of this writing; I like being trusted by my superiors (my wife, my director, my publisher) with responsibility, and I can’t begin to fathom it. At twenty-one, I was impressing my playmates by successfully discerning between my butthole and a sizable gopher hole in the ground, say, four to five out of seven tries on the average.
Remember, at the time, Washington’s superiors were the British royalty. He had no inkling that he was soon famously to become the loyal servant of the citizens of a fledgling country. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to fathom the complications involved in the settlement/conquering/theft of North America by the three main European strengths—England, France, and Spain—with the added factions of myriad indigenous tribes trying their level best to literally hold their own against the avaricious white newcomers.
Washington’s ability to navigate these treacherous hinterlands successfully and arrive safely back on the East Coast gave the strapping young buck a galvanized, heroic sheen, which played no small part, one assumes, in his subsequent appointment to command the Virginia regiment in the French and Indian War, part of which was known as the Seven Years’ War. Washington distinguished himself as a leader of men, not so much through any one clear performance but more through his perseverance and discipline, costing the Virginia settlers less in casualties than the other colonies. It was during this conflict that he began to accumulate knowledge of British military maneuvers, information that would serve him very well in the coming Revolution.
It also didn’t hurt his chances of landing a choice, wealthy bride in the form of one Martha Custis. Given our country’s current population, I suppose I would have surmised that the colonists were not opposed to procreating, or “cultivating tubers,” but I was not prepared for Chernow’s report of an early mail order made by the newly wed Washingtons to a London apothecary: four ounces of Spanish fly! Also recorded in their possession were the books Conjugal Lewdness: or, Matrimonial Whoredom, by Daniel Defoe, and The Lover’s Watch: or, The Art of Making Love, by Aphra Behn. Right on, George and Martha! Spill the wine!
Sadly, these titillating helpmeets did nothing to aid the Washingtons in producing any offspring of their own. A 1751 bout with smallpox is thought to have possibly rendered the baby-maker of our country’s father ironically sterile. It certainly could not have been for lack of desire upon the part of George, since he could not have spoken of Martha in a more lascivious manner than he did in this favorite phrase of approbation: “Virginia ladies pride themselves on the goodness of their bacon.” I don’t know about you, but I can think of few more boner-inspiring turns of speech.
In any case, Washington was by now one of the most well landed of the Virginia elite, with a young family and a plantation to manage. These responsibilities must have weighed quite heavily when he was called upon to serve in the growing conflagration of the Revolution. Sure, he had political aspirations, but the fact that he left his wife and their collective household of children from her previous marriage, as well as other family strays, not to mention the thousands of acres of farmland in his care, impresses deeply. Martha’s ability to remain steadfast as well, during all of Washington’s extremely dangerous campaigns into the woods or onto the battlefield, is equally laudable. There must have been gumption in the Mount Vernon water supply.
Upon reexamination, the overall cause of the Revolutionary War is one of the aspects of Washington’s history that struck me in a much more resounding way. These colonists under British rule, on a new continent some thirty-four hundred miles from England, were receiving news and commands from England that were three months old by the time they hit their front porches, which would have been frustrating in the kindest of circumstances, and these were anything but.
Let me just nutshell where we’re at for you: In the early 1770s the asses of the thirteen American colonies were growing unbearably chapped thanks to the taxes being imposed upon them by the British Parliament. I suppose England, wielding the strongest military on the planet at that time, thought little to nothing of possible repercussions to their bullying. After all, what were the colonies going to do, put together a ragtag bunch of militiamen and throw a tiny revolt? How precious!
In what has to be one of the most infamous cases of royal myopia on record, Mother England lost her opportunity to count the Grand Canyon, the Walmart and Sam’s Club empires, and the Disney theme parks among her holdings. If King George had only been able to quell the British ego just enough to deal reasonably with the colonists instead of electing to suppress them like an insubordinate child, then instead of delicious coffee-based drinks and jazz-compilation CDs, all those lucrative Starbucks franchises would likely be serving tea and crumpets today.
When our Congress elected to form a Continental army and unanimously agreed to post George Washington at its head, they undertook what was, on paper, an incredibly foolhardy quest. With very little budget and no training, our forefathers had decided to fight their way clear of England’s tyranny—or die trying. The catalyst that led to this unlikely and dangerous course of action was the simple realization of undeniable human rights that had occurred to these great thinkers in what has come to be known as the Age of American Enlightenment. The self-evident truths of an individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that these trailblazers had apprehended would no longer let them rest under the onerous hand of monarchist rule. This, to me, is the moment in our history when the corncrib of gumption was fully stocked. I am so grateful that these farseeing men had the temerity to make this moral choice even when the life-threatening odds were stacked against them.
Washington himself was scared shitless by the task in front of him, and with good reason. Just because he was the clear choice in the colonies to lead a military force doesn’t mean the population as a whole had any business engaging in a war with an accomplished international power like England. Nonetheless, lead them he did.
It was at this juncture in Chernow’s biography that I was struck with an intense feeling of empathy for Washington, perhaps because he was approximately my age, forty-four, when the conflict began, or perhaps because Chernow had imbued him with such a textured humanity. Having been a sometime leader of men and women myself by now (in a much, much tinier way), as a director or producer or supervisor of a team of carpenters for the stage or a shopful of woodworkers, I was able to imagine myself much more effectively in his shoes thanks to the explicitly described conditions of the conflict.
Speaking of shoes, frequently Washington was the only one wearing any at all, as his troops were so underfunded as to exist in constant want of the bare minimum of clothing and footwear. Despite his consistent hectoring for funds, Washington received only very rare aid from the citizenry whose freedoms he was sworn to defend. To add to this indignity, many of the colonists sold their food or offered their lodgings to the British troops, because the lobsterbacks had hard cash with which to purchase such luxuries. And this wasn’t just through one winter, folks. This deplorable treatment lasted for several winters. Nature’s four seasons can be beautiful on the East Coast, but they’re lovelier by far if one is wearing pants.
When the details of this situation settled upon me, my once distant and cold admiration for our first president was refueled with a strong sense of the here and now. If I consider the dilemmas that face our modern populace, it’s hard to reconcile any degree of complaint with the hardships that these brave and long-suffering soldiers endured. Sure, it sucks when your airplane sits on the tarmac for an unexpected forty-five minutes, making you late to Austin, meaning you’ll miss the eight fifteen showing of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies at the Alamo Drafthouse, where you can enjoy a pint of Guinness and a sausage with your film. It sucks big time, I agree, but compared to sleeping in the wintry elements with little on your back but a potato sack, and an empty belly to boot, it seems rather bearable.
The Revolutionary War was filled with occasions of fortune’s ebb and flow, but my adulation for Washington was most replenished by this turn of events: In the fall of 1776, the American troops were badly defeated by British general William Howe in his successful campaign to capture Manhattan. Washington managed to limp away across New Jersey with his life intact, but the coming winter and recent string of defeats had the future prospects of the Continental army looking rather bleak. Despite the idealistic goals of the dwindling American forces, surrender must have been looming heavily as the only remaining recourse for our George.
Fortunately for us, George had another idea. He and his men staged a surprise attack on Christmas Day of 1776, stealing across the Delaware River to whup the Hessian army stationed in Trenton, New Jersey, capturing a thousand Hessians. Thus, the historical image to which I had clung, of those redoubtable wildcats rowing their boats across the icy river, turned out to be damn accurate as a representation of the unquenchable spirit of American gumption!
As you may have by now gleaned, we won. Washington realized going into the war that he had one hell of a tough row to hoe, and so he masterfully created in himself an heroic figure behind which the colonists could rally. As the author and journalist Garry Wills has noted, “Before there was a nation—before there was any symbol of that nation (a flag, a Constitution, a national seal)—there was Washington.” According to Chernow, as Washington arrived at each town, he would exit his carriage and climb astride a horse, knowing that the people wished to picture him upon a horse, lending a little bit of theater magic to his creation of, really, our first superhero.
Naturally, when we emerged from the other side of this long and bloody conflict as the victors, Washington was fully deified and likely could have written his ticket to claim whatever power he chose as the clear “King of America.” Certainly no one expected his next move, which was to resign his commission as commander in chief in order to return to his home at Mount Vernon. Trying to imagine another political leader before him or since who would hand over the keys to the kingdom just as his or her greatest power was realized is pretty impossible. For this, especially with the winning reason of returning to his farm and family, I am quite gratified in my choice of Washington for this first chapter. King George III agreed with me, when he exclaimed upon hearing the news of this noble demurral, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
As our rough-and-tumble American forces were eventually handing the British their finely candied asses, the nuances of the Constitution—the document which would provide the cornerstone of our new government’s foundation—were also being hammered out. In his lifetime, Washington frequently voiced his consternation over the conundrum that slavery embodied and how the language about the freedoms of the individual that fills the Constitution was obviously hypocritical. He was aware, fully aware, that all slaves deserved to be freed, on principle, but was unable to bring such a liberation to fruition in the chaotic morass that was our fledgling United States. His own household, if not his state of Virginia, and really the whole enchilada, his misgivings assured him, would come to crumbling ruin if he freed his slaves.
The Marquis de Lafayette was instrumental in voicing this particular complaint, urging the new American government to enact a manumission setting free all those held in slavery. His passion went a long way toward inspiring the leaders of America’s Revolution, for he had determined, as he wrote to his wife, that “the happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind.”
Despite the number of esteemed thinkers who shared his enlightened view, it proved to be more than two generations before the Emancipation Proclamation would be enacted. Washington was the only significant slaveholder among the Founding Fathers to grant his slaves their freedom in his will upon the occasion of his wife’s death. While this act deserves credit, it also strikes me as passing the buck to his inheritors; the problem was too messy for him to tackle, but here you go, kids. Good luck! Despite the apparent deflection of responsibility, I suppose it was better done than not.
The stark division of opinions over the issue of slavery was only one of the many issues on the table for the crafters of the Constitution, which makes its ultimate completion and subsequent ratification all the more miraculous. Again, I point to the example of modern legislation, wherein it seems to take years just to craft a clause about one small tax law in one obscure bill. The fact that all the politicians from all thirteen of the colonies were able to agree enough to set this ship a-sail is simply astonishing. As Washington himself averred, “It approached nearer to perfection than any government hitherto instituted among men.”
Another quality I have come to admire more and more in George Washington is the near-perfect neutrality that he exhibited over the course of his political career. He was known for patiently hearing out, sometimes to the point of infuriating his peers, each side of an argument until he felt that he could draw his own considered opinion. Certainly he would have had his own agenda, as would any human being, but more often than not his intentions seemed to rest in whichever direction was best for the common good. Regarding the Constitution, as he told James Madison, “the appearance of unanimity . . . will be of great importance.”
So adept was he at satisfying all sides of the issues at hand that Washington remains our only president to date who has received 100 percent of the electoral votes, on the occasion of each of his two terms. To imagine a modern president tallying even 75 percent of those votes today is purely unfathomable. Even in these early days of America’s inception, Washington was surrounded by virulent politicking on the parts of Madison, Jefferson, Monroe, Hamilton, and anyone else who could get a leg up. There was plenty of dirty pool being played, including backdoor deals and smear campaigns in the press, even then. It seems to me that without Washington’s impartial demeanor, this great “American experiment” could well have foundered on its moorings before it ever left the harbor.
Thinking about his approach points out to me my own extreme laziness in scrutinizing political issues. My attitude to begin with—that most politicians are full of shit—doesn’t help, but it’s a hard piece of information to get around and impossible to disprove. For candidates to achieve any high office in our state or federal legislature, they are required to make loud, ambitious public promises during their campaigns, which can never be completely fulfilled, even by the greatest humanitarian intentions. Therefore, we’re starting off our relationship with each prospective leader on the wrong foot, a foot of mistrust.
This insubstantial beginning is then quickly exploited and exacerbated by the sources from which most of us derive our news of the world, be it politics or foreign policy or which teenage pop star had her bikini on backward yesterday, “news items” that have all come to hold equal weight in today’s media. In any given election, when I’m on top of it, I talk to my friends about the bullet points and I look up information online to inform myself about bill initiatives, and I usually end up very confused. Few bills or amendments are ever so cut-and-dried as to lend themselves to a clear “right” or “wrong” answer. (And this is the best-case scenario, when I’m not buried under a writing deadline, or twelve-hour shoot days, or both, in which case I lazily just leave it all until the last minute.)
Once my confusion is firmly established, I can then simply turn to one of the handy consumer channels we’ve been provided to tell us what we think. Depending upon my leanings, I can flip on Colbert, Stewart, or the new hottie John Oliver, or conversely I can tune in to Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly or any other personality on the Fox News marquee. In any given circumstance, they will leave me no doubt whatsoever as to who is deserving of my vote and who is an asshole. Although I initially appreciated this convenience, much the same as I appreciated the Big Macs of my teenage years, I have come to wonder indeed, in both instances, what are the ingredients that go into the sandwich?
Without George Washington’s inaugural acumen for nonpartisan governance, I am convinced that we would be sunk even deeper in “policy” than we now find ourselves. It’s telling that the scholars all seem to agree that we have never seen another of his ilk in the White House and are not likely to going forward. At great personal cost, this excellent “first American” set our country sailing on as even a keel as he could manage, sails billowing, full speed ahead upon the winds of gumption.
Benjamin Franklin was never president of our country, and yet his likeness adorns the most substantial denomination of our paper currency in circulation, the one-hundred-dollar bill. I find it appropriate, by the way, that George Washington graces both the one-dollar bill (aka “bob,” “buck,” or “single”) and the quarter (aka “two bits”), as they have been the most hardworking and honest forms of currency in my lifetime. Many of my earliest wages were paid in quarters, which worked out just fine since I turned right around and funneled them into Galaga and Joust video game machines and then occasionally into washers and dryers at the Laundromat. In college, there was a perfect storm of a Laundromat that had washers, dryers, and Galaga, the allure of which kept me coming back with a frequency that kept my clothing smelling very pleasant indeed. Washington most likely would have approved of his likeness representing simple, honest lucre, as he was comfortable with his reputation as the go-to guy for all your cash needs, but James Madison would most certainly not have liked the fact that he landed upon the five-thousand-dollar bill (which is no longer in circulation). The Mad Jam was not given to the fancier things in life, nor was he one to seek the spotlight, so such a display of his visage, while understandable to us, would have undoubtedly caused him consternation.
The hundred-dollar bill seems fitting for our man Benjamin, since he had the knack of pulling himself up by his bootstraps and engaging in admirably top-drawer activities, whether he was inventing some clever new innovation, seducing foreign powers with his skills of diplomacy, or disseminating wisdom and humor with his Poor Richard’s Almanack. (For these reasons and more, he is considered to be the father of American Freemasonry. In fact, he was instrumental in the initiation of George Washington into that secret society. This is all I am allowed to reveal.) I am powerfully enamored of Mr. Franklin for the achievements he crafted in his life, fueled primarily by an insatiable sense of curiosity.
As a boy, Ben Franklin loved to swim, and he was fascinated by the physics of the tangible world, that is, the way things operated chemically and mechanically, so he naturally invented flippers to help him swim more expeditiously. He found himself in a burgeoning new society, and he explored every avenue by which he might have a positive effect. He established the first library in Philadelphia; he established the US Postal Service, no big deal; and he touted reading above all other diversions. A lifestyle that I still consider to be the most attractive and profitable, if one can just avoid all the distractions of technology and other media channels. He was so devoted to reading as a pastime, he invented a reading chair equipped with a foot-powered fan as well as a handy ladder, so when the chair was flipped open, one could climb it to reach a book on a high shelf. The man invented bifocals; he greatly improved the science of burning wood to heat one’s home by inventing the Franklin stove, which was exponentially more efficient than the popular open fireplaces of the day; and, of course, he famously discovered electricity and thereby the electric battery. Without this man and his creativity, our dildos would remain silent and lifeless to this day.
Now, as I have learned the hard way, accomplishing any achievement worth crediting in this life usually requires a few important missteps before one can discern the path to success. In my own case, naturally much less impressive than his, that means that I ruined a good deal of expensive white oak in joinery mistakes before finally succeeding in executing a respectable trestle table in the style of Gustav Stickley. If you were as profound and prolific an inventor as Benjamin Franklin, it only stood to reason that you would also invent some folly. My favorite example of this would have to be Franklin’s “air bath.” This technique entailed sitting completely naked in a room with all its windows thrown open, so that a person could “bathe in the pure, fresh air.” Before I too readily enjoyed a chuckle at the expense of this idea, I thought I had better try it out for myself. While I did find the experience to be enervating and even slightly titillating, I couldn’t in all honesty say that I felt any cleaner after thirty minutes of air bathing. I’m glad I tried it, although I can’t say the same for the rest of the people at the coffee shop. Personal experience is the surest method by which one can determine the truth of a supposition, no matter how reputable the reporter, since so many experiences are subject to individual proclivities.
A lifetime of deep thinking and subsequent tinkering was fostered partially by Franklin’s father, who would take him on walks around the Boston of his boyhood, to witness “joiners [carpenters], bricklayers, [wood] turners, braziers [brass workers], etc. at their work.” Franklin stated that ever since then, it had been a pleasure to see good workmen handle their tools and that he had learned enough to allow him to construct little machines for his experiments. This episode moved me, as I had a similar but less intentional experience with my own dad. Among him and my uncles and grandfathers, not to mention our neighbors, I witnessed, and even got to take part in, carpentry, paving, roofing, gardening, animal husbandry, sewing, painting, boating, and mechanical work on engines large and small. None of these trades struck me particularly on their own, but I was quickly enthralled by the world of tools and materials and, most important, hardware.
Trips to Mel Phillips’s True Value Hardware in Minooka bore the savory fruit of working-class camaraderie in addition to row after row of magical implements with which one might plumb running water into one’s home or wire electricity to one’s tree house. There was real wizardry in those mom-and-pop hardware stores, delivered with a personal, avuncular touch and a free cup of coffee. Not every youngster is going to end up a woodworker, but some trips to the hardware store or a craft fair might go far in igniting a creative spark in your own little Ben or Betty Franklin. Many of Franklin’s projects were contrived by simply walking down the sidewalk or sitting at a café, observing the man-made systems around him. He noticed that the oil-burning streetlights would rapidly grow dark with accumulated soot, so he invented a new design with improved airflow, then added more streetlights and night watchmen to make the Philadelphia streets safer at night.
His desire to devise implements by which our lives would be improved was bolstered by his interest in what he called his list of “virtues.” Much like his younger friend George Washington, Franklin wrote out a list of the ethical ideals to which he hoped to measure up. They were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Franklin began to keep a tabulation of the instances in which he would transgress these virtues, and he said he was “surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”
To me, this sort of self-evaluation is most inspiring, as I find it all too easy to waltz through life lazily maintaining a minimum display of decency, which must necessarily register to others as a mediocre effort. Just go ahead and read through that list once again, and if you’re anything like me, two or three (or six or seven) of the virtues will jump out as areas that might like a bit more attention. We’re human and therefore flawed by design, so it’s a test we can never ace, but as the man himself puts it, “I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.” The notion gives me comfort—that if I simply pay attention, then I should end up a better and happier man.
This introspection no doubt played an important role in fueling Benjamin Franklin’s most consistently sagacious and hilarious journal, entitled Poor Richard’s Almanack. Self-published for twenty-seven years, from 1732 to 1758, this periodical was loaded with a mix of sound advice and jocularity. Authoring famous adages like “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” brought to Franklin a level of celebrity heretofore unknown in the colonies. Considered the first American humorist, Franklin regaled his readership with a constant stream of raillery over the years, uproarious yet redolent of horse sense. Within his Almanack and without, he is credited with such gems as:
Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
The greatest monarch on the proudest throne, is oblig’d to sit upon his own arse.
He that falls in love with himself, will have no rivals.
He’s a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom.
Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought an easier service, and therefore more generally chosen.
There will be sleeping enough in the grave.
To wit, this last phrase seems an accurate depiction of Franklin’s own practice, as a neighbor described him to be nothing if not industrious: “For the industry of that Franklin is superior to anything I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed.” Time after time I am reminded by my heroes, from Ben Franklin to my wife, Megan, that great achievements require more than just talent and skill and super-foxy good looks. If a person wants to succeed, he or she must work his or her cute little tail off.
Additionally, many of the subjects I chose for this book seem to prefer reading books to all other forms of diversion, which I understand. Watching a television show or playing a few hands of euchre, or even indulging in a video game, can certainly be most enjoyable, and it surely passes the time. The catch is that those activities do little else than divert my attention, while a well-chosen book can actually concoct a stew of betterment within me. Whether I’m reading the excellent nonfiction of a John McPhee or an Elizabeth Gilbert or the narrative stories of a Donna Tartt or a Patrick O’Brian, I have cultivated the opinion that a certain alchemy occurs up in my math-can that is unmatched in its potency by any other form of recreation. This is why I always prefer the book to the movie; even if Peter Jackson has spent considerable millions embroidering the astonishingly real world of Middle-earth, it cannot compare in verisimilitude to the Shire I imagine within my own cerebral laboratory.
In the Philadelphia library that he had established, Benjamin Franklin spent “an hour or two each day, and thus repar’d in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allow’d myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolicks of any kind.” Now, I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this the guy who said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”? Well, not exactly. This quote has been somewhat paraphrased and hijacked by many of our nation’s craft breweries, and rightly so. It may be revisionist writing, but I for one am okay with it. What Franklin did write was, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” Beer, wine . . . come on. Six of one, etcetera. He also coined the euphemism for drunkenness “Halfway to Concord,” which tickles me to no end. That, my friends, is fun with words.
I myself think that taverns, games, and especially frolicks are very important activities in which to engage as well, but in moderation. For every four nights in the library, I would like to feel I’ve earned one night in the tavern, or at least half a frolick, if Megan is up for it.
Despite the rather puritanical tone of his guidelines, Franklin was still a lot of fun. I mean alot of fun. I am heartened by his advice to set up an orderly, structured, and productive life, and then fuck around within that framework, ensuring that you engender mirth whilst remaining optimally productive. For Pete’s sake, he wrote a scientific letter to the Royal Academy of Arts of Brussels suggesting that research be undertaken to explore methods of improving the odor of human flatulence, a letter that later came to be entitled “Fart Proudly.” If there had been any question up to this point that Ben Franklin was my kind of guy, this one piece of writing would extinguish all doubt. I could well have been his muse, had we shared a more contemporary time line.
From his vast, golden canon of wise scribblings and witty sayings and treatises on both foreign policy and breaking wind, there are two sentiments that appeal to me above all others. The first could well serve to mirror the main theme of my own book, and it looks like this: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Franklin made this statement just before signing the Declaration of Independence, giving us a clear indication that (a) he was hilarious even in the face of such a momentous occasion, and (b) the assembled statesmen were not remotely all in accord with the document at hand.
The year was 1776, and the aforementioned king of England, a somewhat addled chap by the name of George, had refused to answer yet another petition from the colonies to redress his aggressive taxation. The publicly chosen leaders of the colonies likely could have argued amongst themselves for decades about the issues at hand, but they did not. They recognized that despite many differences of opinion, whether they preferred the thin New York–style pizza crust or the clearly superior Chicago-style deep-dish version, they must leave those common sources of rancor at the door and behave as one united front. To my way of thinking, this is, and always will be, our task as the human race on this planet.
Excerpted from "Gumption"
Copyright © 2016 Nick Offerman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Loved this book. Read a chapter each night and felt lost when book was finished. Enjoyed it so much
As a fan of Nick Offerman, this book delivers exactly what you think it will. Witty, sensible mini-bios on the lives of great people
Don't watch much TV, so wasn't aware this authors history with Parks and Recreation. I was introduced to this book by a friend and they told me it would make me laugh. And I did laugh at most of it - can't take it seriously. It's a very fast read that picks characters who one would say that's interesting from Eleanor Roosevelt ( may she rest in peace -and should since she will never have to read this) to Yoko Ono ¿¿ and hey let's stick in Willie. I thought I had a choice between reading about Wendell Berry or eating ice cream, but the ice cream never showed up. Anyway the book came signed and I have started reading "YesPlease" by his co worker - Amy. I think one would need to,read this book as one would watch a TV show. Something to do while waiting for your cable guy to show up.