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From the Editor

  ALAS, THE TIMES FORBID AN EPITAPH


    The oldest gravestone inscription in Connecticut is in the Palisado Cemetery in Windsor:

       HERE LYETH EPHAIN HVIT, SOMETIMES TEACHER TO THE CHURCH AT WINDSOR, WHO DYED SEPTEMBER 4th, 1644.

     WHEN HEE LIVEDWEE DREW OVR VITALL BREATH,

     WHO WHEN HEE DYED HIS DYING WAS OVR DEATH,

     WHO WAS YE STAY OF STATE, YE CHVRCHES STAFF,

     ALAS, THE TIMES FORBID AN EPITAPH.

   “THE TIMES FORBID AN EPITAPH.” Did they really? Could it be that life seemed to be moving so fast in Windsor in 1644 that men and women found themselves communing in a Puritan Zen sense of the Eternal Now? What else could it mean, “ALAS, THE TIMES FORBID AN EPITAPH”? It was true in the first half of the 17th century and has remained true all the way up to today, the blessed task not quite accomplished, the mighty vision but dimly formed and seen, magnificent in its mystery.

   While visiting Big Spring Park on the Missouri River near Great Falls, Montana, the park ranger told us, “The water you see bubbling up now started its journey in the mountains when George Washington was in the White House.”  George Washington works as a reference point, the same way he works in Presidents’ Day car ads, but the times have used him so much and so well to our own shallow purposes that the unique mind of the Father of Our Country has descended to the status of an academic curiosity.

   If we make the effort to tune into the mind of the actual man George Washington, it soon becomes obvious that we owe him bigtime, in ways ordinarily not thought about, despite the fact that Washington’s influence continues to have a major impact on the world, particularly Connecticut. Start with Washington’s innovative molding of the Continental Army into a meritocracy. Up to Washington’s time high officers in European armies always came from the upper social classes. As a direct result of Washington’s egalitarianism, a poor Rhode Island farm boy, Nathanael Greene, who joined the army as a private, was promotedup through the ranks,becoming Washington’s right-hand General. When the Revolution was won, the people of Georgia deeded to Greene the confiscated estate of the Loyalist Lieutenant Governor. After Greene died at forty-four, his wife Catherine married Phineas Miller, a teacher from New Haven whowould become Eli Whitney’s partner. It was the whole-hearted moral and financial support of Catherine Greene that kept the firm of Miller and Whitney in business during the long years they struggled to get paid for Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.Miller died, and his widow continued backing Whitney.  Eventually, Whitney’s factory in New Haven began to thrive.  When, in 1798, with Congress worried over what looked like a likely war with France, Whitney proposed that the federal government hire his company to manufacture 10,000 muskets, utilizing the technique of interchangeable parts. What Whitney did right then was create the world we still live in today, if you agree that the Digital Age is the latest phase in the Age of Interchangeable Parts. At the start of his classic 1963 book My Years with General Motors, Alfred P. Sloane, who was born in New Haven, traces the connection from Eli Whitney to Henry Leland, the first president of Cadillac and the founder of Lincoln automobiles.  Sloane said of Leland that his expertise went back to “his experience in toolmakingfor a federal arsenal during the Civil War…It has been called to my attention that Eli Whitney, long before’ had started the development of interchangeable parts in connection with the manufacture of guns, a fact which suggests a line of descent from Whitney to Leland to the automobile industry.”

   What we have just done is follow the flow of living history from one transient personality to the next, starting with George Washington’s bedrock democratic sentiments. At no point along the way would the times allow a genuine epitaph for any of these people. As long as humanity exists, the final story of everybody who ever lived or is ever going to live is up in the air. Long before Emerson and Thoreau figured it out, our friends in Windsor in 1644 understood this instinctively.

                                               Max H. Peters

 

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