Philosophy and Popular Culture
November 7, 2000
The piece of popular culture that I chose for this assignment is the book by James and Christopher Collier, My Brother Sam Is Dead. A brief description of the events that took place in the book follows. I took the religious aspects of the book and will relate them to several philosophers, which we have studied. The time period in which this book took place was a time when people’s religious values were much more prominent than in today’s society. Over time it seems that religious values have gone into hiding and people are much more concerned with material possessions and social life.
The Revolutionary War broke up many families, claimed many lives, and set us free. My Brother Sam is Dead is a book about a family, the Meeker’s, who lived during the period of the War. The town they lived in was Redding, Connecticut, which consisted of mostly Tory sided people. This, meaning they were on the King’s side and were loyal to England. Sam Meeker, a Yale student, left school to fight on the Rebel side. This didn’t make his father, Life, very happy. Life felt that the war was foolish and nothing good could come of it. Plus, he felt that it was a sin to go against the king and the Meeker’s were very religious. Sam paid no attention and fought for the Rebels for over three years. In the meantime, Tim Meeker the youngest son of Life and Susannah helped his parents run their tavern and take care of their property. Tim wasn’t sure if he was a Rebel or Tory because he had mixed feelings on whether or not freedom was worth all of the killing and poverty.
With Sam off fighting the War, Tim was left to do all of the chores and help his mother and father run the tavern. Over time supplies ran short due to the War and prices began to rise. Every year Life would go to Verplanks Point to sell cattle in order to buy supplies for the tavern. He would buy cotton, grain, rum, cloth, etc., basically anything he could get his hands on that people would buy. The trip to Verplanks Point took about a week and usually Sam would go with him. In November 1776, it was time once again to make the journey to sell the cattle. Sam was gone and the only one left to go with Life was Tim. They set off on their journey and in the process Life was captured by the Rebels and sent to jail and eventually died there. The Meeker family was down to two, Tim and Susannah, and they ran the tavern alone. Times were tough for everyone during this period because goods were so low and prices were so high. Most people were paying for goods with commissary notes, which held no real value anyway.
Sam ended up dying at the hands of the Rebels because they wanted to set an example out of him on stealing charges. He was innocent. This made Tim even angrier about the War because here his brother was being loyal to the Rebels for over three years and they killed him anyway. What good was it fighting for freedom when your own troops take your life? The War won freedom for America but took many lives foolishly and all for what? Tim went on with life and moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and became successful and prospered.
Patterns of change within and across cultures during historical periods that lead to political revolution are what the book deals with. The British were taking tax dollars from Americans and they were getting fed up with it. England was so far away that the Rebels felt they should be free and able to govern themselves. The Revolutionary War was fought so that America could be free and thus led to political change. The Rebels weren’t loyal to the king because he was in a totally different country. They couldn’t associate everyday life with him because he wasn’t there. Many people at this time who were loyal to the king were so because of religious values. They felt that it was a sin to be disloyal and that God would have wanted them to obey.
Cultural patterns and settlement patterns can be examined in the way people settled according to religious affiliation. In Redding for example the Anglicans lived at Redding Ridge and the Presbyterians lived at Redding Center. The same town had an imaginary line, so to speak, that divided the two religions. They spoke to each other but their faith decided where they would live.
Family and religion, during this time period was the two most important aspects in one’s life. You were raised to obey God and your family. Everything that you did in life reflected your loyalty to God and family. You worked hard everyday to help you family survive because that is what God intended you to do. Tim Meeker wasn?t sure whose side to be on during the War because he didn?t want to be a sinner. Yet, he didn?t know if he should support his own brother or not. It was a matter of being loyal to the king because that is what his faith told him to do. Or, be loyal to his brother because he loved him and wanted to be supportive.
St. Augustine?s notion of the ?City of God? and the ?City of Earth? can be represented in this book. Augustine says that in the ?City of Earth? conflict and war is inevitable due to humans being tainted by original sin and thus being greedy and having ambitions. This greed and ambition will lead to conflict so that one man or group can attain their wants. He doesn’t believe that man owes loyalty to any other man, only to God. God is the top authority and the Bible is the source of all knowledge. As long as man obeys God’s word then he will attain the goal of heaven. Earth is a series of ends and means. The end is heaven and the means is obeying God’s word while on earth and being a just person. The Revolutionary war is an example of a conflict that came about because of man’s taintedness. The rebels wanted freedom and the land of the United States for themselves to make money and prosper.
Augustine’s philosophy doesn’t give legitimacy to the ruler as the top leader of the nation. The political system therefore lacks legitimacy due to the lack of power by any person, group or institution other than the church. Augustine wants to create conditions that allow people to live by God and enjoy faith. He feels as long as man obeys the Bible there is no need for man to rule over man.
The Tories on the other hand felt loyal to the King and thought that rebellion was a sin. Loyalty to the King is reflected in Aquinas’s philosophy and his notion of consent. Aquinas says that man is a social being and in order to keep peace and security a single person or a monarchy must govern man. Social organization reflects the rule of one and it would be natural for one to rule in order to avoid tyranny. This is why Life Meeker was so upset when his son went to fight in the Revolutionary War on the side of the Rebels. He felt it was a blatant sin to go against the King and that his son was turning his back on their faith. One quote from the book says it best, “our first duty was to God but that our Lord Jesus Christ had said, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’ and that meant we were supposed to be loyal Englishmen. He said that hot-tempered young men who listened not to the voices of their elders would bring a wrathy God down on their own heads.” (p.28-29) This is an example of the people at this time obeying divine law because their faith is what guides them in their lives.
A more modern philosopher to deal with religious values and the political system is Calvin. Calvin agrees with Aquinas that the people have a duty to obey the leader because his power is stemmed from God. Calvin’s political system provided for consent among the people. As long as the leader is ruling by God and the laws reflect natural law then the leader has legitimacy. There was no reason for the people living in America at the time to disobey the King. He was ruling his empire with fairness and therefore the subjects, according to Calvin’s philosophy, must obey. This is why it was so hard for the Meeker family and their church to understand how their son could fight in the War. Their belief in God’s law and their faith were to be the most important aspects of their lives. They were to live by God in order to achieve a place in heaven. Their motto, so to speak, was the ‘meek inherit the earth.’ Their son was clearly not following what they had hoped for.
This book is a good resource to use in comparing Augustine, Acquinas, and Calvin, all who have addressed the religious aspect of a political system. The book itself is about the Revolutionary War but can be used for many purposes in the social sciences. I thought it was a good example of how people?s religious beliefs swayed their ideas about the War and then acted accordingly. It was clear that the Meeker?s faith was the main reason why they opposed betraying the King and thus fighting for the Rebels. Freedom was not as important to them as being a good Christian and obeying God?s word.
James L. Collier (1989) My Brother Sam is Dead. Scholastic Book.