American Elephants


Another Train Derailment: Thanks Green Activists! by The Elephant's Child

derailment  - credit Bob Aaron-WCHS(photo by Bob Aaron-WCHS)

A CSX train composed largely of tanker cars derailed this afternoon in Mount Carbon, West Virginia. Adena village, a neighborhood close to the derailment, was evacuated after one residence caught fire when a tanker car slammed into  a house and burst into flames.

One tanker car went into the Kanawha River, and some cars exploded. All but two of the 109 cars were tankers loaded with Bakken crude from North Dakota, headed to Yorktown, Virginia. At least 14 tank cars were reported to be on fire, and there is burning oil on the Kanawha. Some cars have exploded, and at least one sent a fireball at least 300 feet in the air.

Two water treatment plants have been shut down to prevent oil from getting into the water supply. Residents will continue to have water for the next 6 to 8 hours due to an emergency reserve supply.

Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline keep reminding the environmental activists that oil trains have a record of derailing, sometimes with considerable lost lives,  and that a pipeline is immeasurably safer, but it doesn’t sink in. The oil will go to market, whether by pipeline, train or truck. We have many pipelines crossing the Midwest because they are safer and thriftier.

Our economy runs on oil, coal, natural gas and in some places—hydropower and nuclear energy. If we want an economy, and goods to supply the economy, we must have energy. Solar arrays and wind farms produce little energy, and must have 24/7 full-time backup from a conventional power plant. Sounded nice to depend on the sun and the wind, but it was always hooey, and a scheme to enrich favored cronies with government subsidies.

It was not known at the time of this report if anyone was injured or killed.



The Indispensable Man by The Elephant's Child

Reposted from 2012

The George Washington that most of us see most often is the engraving after the Gilbert Stuart portrait on the one dollar bill.  Reproductions of the Gilbert Stuart portrait and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln used to hang on the front wall of every elementary classroom, with an American flag standing in the corner. But then we celebrated separate birthdays, and didn’t lump them together into 3-day weekends in which no one remembers any president at all.

The portrait above, and the portrait in the header were painted by Charles Wilson Peale, who I believe to be the most skilled portraitist of his day. He painted 6 major portraits of Washington from life, and nearly 60 others based on those life portraits. If you look closely at those and at the life mask below by Jean Antoine Houdon, they are clearly representations of the same man. In an age when there were no cameras, portraits were the only way people who could not see the subject in person had of knowing what they looked like. Only a few of the portrait artists were skilled, and many were no more than sign painters — and if they got the hair and the costume more or less right, it was the best they had.

We all know, I think, that George Washington had dreadful false teeth.  A terrible pity, both for the President — because they must have been instruments of torture in his mouth — and because they distract our attention from far more important things about the man. Certainly Washington must have had access to the very best dentists of the day. By 1789, he had only one of his own teeth left.  The teeth were horrible-looking contraptions made of substances like hippopotamus ivory, hinged at the back and operated with springs. He complained that they distorted his lips, and they must have distorted his appearance as well.

Gilbert Stuart was the most celebrated of portraitists.  He trained in London, and was thought to be a potential successor to the famed Sir Joshua Reynolds.  However Stuart was extravagant and fled in debt from London. He turned up in Philadelphia during 1795 , hoping to pay off his creditors by creating a multitude of portraits of the world’s greatest man. Washington sat to him for three separate portraits, and Stuart made hundreds of copies. Take a minute to get out a dollar bill, and recognize the Gilbert Stuart image from which the engraving was made.  It is a cruel portrait.

According to James Thomas Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man, Washington and Stuart did not get on.  The portraitist usually kept his sitters amused and their faces alive by a flood of showy and outrageous talk. Washington always felt uneasy at having to remain still and being stared at and was put out rather than being amused.

Stuart, who felt that “artists were fundamentally superior to all other men including Presidents, resented Washington’s formality.  He could not forget what had resulted when, in trying to unstiffen the hero, he had gone to the length of saying, “Now, sir, you must let me forget that you are General Washington and I am Stuart the Painter.  Washington replied (as it seemed to him politely), Mr. Stuart need never feel the need for forgetting who he is and who General Washington is.”

Stuart emphasized, as no other portraitist did, the distortions of Washington’s mouth.  Flexner suggests that since Stuart was known to have angrily used General Knox’s portrait as the door of his pigsty that perhaps the harm he did to Washington’s historical image was somewhat deliberate.

This life mask by Jean Antoine Houdon gives us more clues as to what Washington actually looked like.  He was tall, about 6’2″, and most verbal descriptions mention his ‘roman’ nose, so it was perhaps a little prominent. This is not the face of the Stuart portrait, but looks more probable, and it is close to the Peale portraits.

Washington was an outdoorsman who spent much of his life in the saddle, and his complexion would have reflected that — more wrinkles, more weathered.  They didn’t have sunglasses and baseball hats with a brim to keep the sun out of the eyes,  lots of squinting.  The portrait above seems to match the life mask fairly well.  A far cry from the disagreeable Gilbert Stuart portrait.

I’m going a bit out on a limb here, but I spent some years in art school attempting to capture likenesses, and the smallest errors in size and distance relationships can lose a likeness completely.  Also, people see likenesses differently. Some will insist that two siblings look just alike while others will see no resemblance between the same two.  I have no real explanation for that.

I suspect that Gilbert Stuart had such a reputation as a great portraitist, undoubtedly aided by his own self description,  that perhaps people were apt to accept his work as the “right” one.  Portraits are an odd matter. One tries to capture a mobile. alive face that changes its expression constantly and represent it on a flat surface.  If you have ever had photographer’s proofs of pictures of you to choose from, that will explain the problem.  They’re all you, but you’ll like some much better than others.

Here are “reconstructions” done by a forensic reconstructionist of Washington at his inauguration, as a general, and at around the age of 19.  They are startling in their realism. I suspect (nit-picky as I am) that the face is too free of wrinkles, and too pinky-white, and not rawboned enough.  (I said I was being picky)  But they give you a vastly different impression of the man.  Haul out a dollar bill and compare.  Stuart played a cruel joke on Washington.

Washington didn’t know much about being a general when he was appointed by Congress to lead the American armies, but he was the best we had, and he did fine.  His men loved him, and he gradually taught them to be soldiers.  He was elected unanimously to be President when he wanted nothing more than to return to Mt.Vernon and retire from public life. The people idolized him.  He could have been a king or an emperor, or like some — a dictator for life.  But it was he, with his sterling character, who set the nation on the right path.  He was consummately aware that he was setting a path for those who were to follow him. He had a horrible temper, and mostly kept it under firm control.  Any of his deeds alone would have made him famous, but in twenty-four years he led our armies, won the war,  led the country, shaped a constitution, set a nation on its path and then went on home.



Just What Is The “Office Of The President Of The United States?” by The Elephant's Child

Reposted from 2010.

When George Washington was elected President, there were so many questions. A Republic was something completely new to the Americans.  What they knew was monarchy, and a very opulent monarchy at that.  They definitely didn’t want to go back to the pomp and circumstance of England.  The new office of the President of the United States needed importance, respect, dignity and what exactly? The people did not rebel against a King in order to establish a new monarchy.Congress insisted on a salary of $25,000, a huge sum for the time.  Washington accepted it reluctantly, but he spent nearly $2,000 of it on liquor and wine for entertaining.  He had, of course managed an army and a plantation.  In fact, Mount Vernon had more staff than his presidency did.

“Washington was keenly aware that whatever he did would become a precedent for the future. How often should he meet with the public? How accessible should he be?  Could he have private dinners with friends?  Should he make a tour of the new states?”  He sought advice from those closest to him, including his vice-president, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury.  The only state occasions that any of them were familiar with were those of European monarchies.

“Hamilton thought that most people were ‘prepared for a pretty high tone in the demeanor of the Executive,’ but they probably would not accept as high a tone as was desirable.  “Notions of equality,” he said, were “yet…too general and too strong” for the president to be properly distanced from the other branches of the government.” Gordon Wood tells of the dilemmas.

“When Washington appeared in public, bands sometimes played “God Save the King.” In his public pronouncements the president referred to himself in the third person.  His dozens of state portraits were all modeled on those of European monarchs.”

We can be truly grateful that Washington was so aware that he was establishing precedent, and so careful of what he said and did.  He was setting an example, and everything he did was intended to hold the new nation together, to form a more perfect union.

One simple problem was what to call the president.  John Adams had discussed the problem with his colleagues in Massachusetts.  They called their governor “His Excellency”: should not the president have a higher title?  Adams thought only something like ‘His Highness’ or ‘His Most Benign Highness’ would answer.  Washington was said to have initially favored “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.” The Dutch leaders of the States-General of the United Provinces called themselves “Their High Mightinesses” and they were leaders of a Republic.”  Madison managed to get his fellow congressmen to vote for the simple republican title “President of the United States.” And that was that.

Washington was relieved when the title question was settled.  But “he still was faced with making the institution of the presidency strong and energetic.” In fact, said Gordon Wood, “the presidency is the powerful office it is in large part because of Washington’s initial behavior.”

Gordon S. Wood: Empire of Liberty; A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815



Abraham Lincoln Was Born on February 12, 1809. by The Elephant's Child

Reprinted from 2011

I liked it better when we celebrated Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday separately. When it is “President’s Day.” and a three-day weekend, nobody remembers. And you and your children must remember this man. He saved the Union, and freed the slaves.

To understand America, you need to understand the Gettysburg Address (Vanderleun)

This picture emphasizes Lincoln’s height, although his lean body and the top hat emphasize it even more. He was 6’4″, tall today, but not unusually tall. Average height in the 1860s must have been much less. George Washington was 6’2″ and considered very tall.




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