Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On Ambrose Bierce

Those of you who don't know me well might find it odd that a devout evangelical Sunday School teacher (as of last Sunday, that is -- the first session on Galations went pretty well, I thought, considering that we read a whole chapter in Acts before I remembered what I was supposed to be teaching)...anyway, some of you might find it odd that I like Ambrose Bierce so much, considering his notoriously hostile attitude toward religion. But those of you who do know me, know that my cynical temperament is (alas) about as important to my character as are my religious beliefs and aspirations, and you know that I admire anybody who frustrates the designs of politicians. I mean, here's one fan site's summation of Bierce's journalistic career in San Francisco: "An opponent of oppression, a champion of civil liberties, religious freedom, and intellectual honesty, Bierce attacked talentless journalists, unscrupulous businessmen, crooked politicians, and sanctimonious religious leaders." Now, seriously, how could I not love the guy?

As the Devil's Dictionary definitions roll by (I think at a rate of two or three a day going forward), you'll see more and more clearly why I consider Bierce such a kindred spirit. But the definitions won't give you the political essence of the man. So here's my favorite episode from Bierce's life, in a version that appears in numerous places on the web, so that I have no idea whether this site was the orginal source or not:

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies had received massive loans from the U.S. government to build the First Transcontinental Railroad—on gentle terms, but Collis P. Huntington persuaded a friendly member of Congress to introduce a bill excusing the companies from repaying the money, amounting to $130 million (nearly 3 billion dollars in 2007 money).

In January 1896 Hearst dispatched Bierce to Washington, D.C. to foil this attempt. The essence of the plot was secrecy; the railroads' advocates hoped to get the bill through Congress without any public notice or hearings. When the angered Huntington confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol and told Bierce to name his price, Bierce's answer ended up in newspapers nationwide: "My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States". Bierce's coverage and diatribes on the subject aroused such public wrath that the bill was defeated. Bierce returned to California in November.
[grinning] Yo, Ambrose -- high five, dude!


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