George Washington’s Secret Six: A Review

For Christmas, my wife gave me a copy of Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution. Like thousands of other people, we have been enjoying AMC’s Turn, which is a television series based on the subject-matter of the book. Watching the show sparked a renewed interest in the American Revolution, prompting me to begin reading histories of that time period.

The book is a short read, and I recommend it to anyone who watches the show and wants a history of the spy ring. Even if you don’t watch the show, I think you would find the story of the spy ring interesting. Here were a few people trying to provide information about British troop movements to Washington. Their lives were in danger – Nathan Hale had been killed in Manhattan for spying in the months preceding the formation of this spy ring – and they were amateurs. The pressures they would have been under would have been tremendous. One of the members was forced to provide quarters to the British troops, and other members served soldiers daily during their day job. They had to find ways of smuggling information from under the nose of thousands of British soldiers, and they developed secret codes and used invisible ink to do so. Interestingly, at the end of the book the authors report that they learned that the CIA used the history of the spy ring to introduce people to espionage methods (215). To complicate matters, the British forces set up their own spy ring, partly to discover the American spys around Manhattan.

The most famous part of the American Revolution that the spy ring affected involved Benedict Arnold. The spy ring did not uncover the plot that Arnold was hatching, but their information helped the Americans put the pieces together when they captured the British epionage leader who had letters from Benedict Arnold on him.

What Bothered Me

As I said, I do recommend this book. But there were a few things that bothered me.

First, the way that Turn altered the story. Okay. I know that htis isn’t the authors’ fault. But it did impact my enjoyment of the book. I wasn’t frustrated at Kilmeade and Yaeger. I was simply frustrated that the writers of Turn felt the need to alter the story the way they did. For example, they switched the storylines of Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend. Since I went into the book assuming that Turn was more accurate than it really was (someone told me it was very historically accurate), I didn’t expect this. The cognitive dissonance confused me at first. I did get over this. And, again, this is not the authors’ fault and should not keep you from reading the book. It is something to be aware of, though, before you start the book.

Second, the fictionalized dialogue bothered me. The authors write in the book’s Authors’ Note:

“Much of the dialogue contained in this book is fictional, but it is based on conversations that did take place and, wherever possible, incorporates actual phrases used by the speaker.” (xiii)

I understand why the authors chose to do this. For the average person, it probably makes the book more engaging. But I usually don’t like this in history books. Why? It is simply that I don’t know what was a historical statement and what was fictionalized. Since the authors used “acutal phrases used by the speaker,” this makes it even more difficult. Part of the dialogue is historical; part isn’t. How am I supposed to tell them apart? I would like to know what was really said by those involved. I kept wondering throughout the book if Washington really thought what was being expressed in the dialogue, or was it part of the authors’ imagination. It’s not even that I want to know if he used the exact phrase in the dialogue, but I found myself wondering if Washington even had the sentiment or thought expressed in a particular piece of dialogue.

Third, I would have liked for the book to be more detailed. The authors don’t pretend to give a comprehensive history of the spy ring, so this doesn’t hurt my overall recommendation for the book. Nor do I think they failed in their task. I just have a preference for historical details.

Still Educational

But despite the brevity of the book and the lack of historical detail I prefer, it still informed me about events during the Revolutionary War of which I was previously unaware.

The Danger to Women

For example, I had never thought about the danger to women of the increased number of British soldiers who came to America during the war. But the women of Long Island, which was occupied by British soldiers for most of the American Revolution, faced constant danger. On page 48, the authors write:

“All around the British-occupied areas of New York and New Jersey, reports of attacks upon local women by both individual soldiers and groups of the garrisoned troops were made with startling regularity as early as the summer of 1776. Many cases were hadnled with a casual nonchalance as simply part of the collateral damage of war.”

On the same page, he proceeds to quote from a letter written by a British calvary officer. The letter says:

“”The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation, as the fresh meat that our men have got here has made them as riotous as satyrs. A girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished, and they are so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don’t bear them with the proper resignation, and of consequence we have most entertaining courts-martial every day.”

The war, as most wars are, had to be truly terrifying to the women of the Colonies.

John Champe

I have never heard of John Champe before, but his mission is one of the most interesting of the American Revolution. John Champe volunteered for a secret mission, which he learned about only after being chosen. Benedict Arnold had recently betrayed the Americans, and Washington wanted to punish Arnold. So Champe’s mission was to pose as a deserter and traitor from the American side to the British. The hope was that he would eventually have the chance to meet Arnold. In doing so, he could study his behavior and determine the best time to kidnap, with the help of others, Arnold to take him back to territory controlled by the Americans. Arnold would then be put on trial.

It worked for a while. Champe showed up on the British side and eventually convinced them that he was a traitor. He met Benedict Arnold and was even put under Arnold’s command. He formed a plan to kidnap Arnold, but before he could carry it out, the British force he’d been assigned to was shipped out on a campaign.

I have never heard of Champe’s mission, but it is perhaps the most daring and interesting of the American Revolution.

Closing Recommendation

So I do think the book is worth reading, particularly if you are interested in the American Revolution, or even just enjoy watching Turn. My only complaints against it can be seen as positives: it is a quick read unencumbered by tons of historical detail, and so it holds one’s interest pretty well. Just start reading the book expecting it to be what it’s trying to be, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

A Politician Admitted in 1909 That Some Laws Have Secret Purposes

I have been listening to the audiobook of Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot: The Struggle for Voting Rights in America, which so far has been interesting. I am aware of the deep injustices against African Americans that existed. But despite being exposed to the history–-and perhaps because I have been around people much of my life who, for ideological reasons, wanted to minimize the level of racial discrimination–-I was not aware of how blatant the voting discrimination was and how protracted the struggle against it has been. So Berman’s book has been a revelation for me.

In the book, Berman mentions a letter that I found appalling. And I thought it would be a good reminder for us today.

Obama Health Care Speech to Joint Session of Congress

Politics has always been divisive. And that means that the partisan spirit leads one to be overly generous to the politicians we support and malicious towards those we oppose.

One way this partisan spirit manifests itself is in how we interpret the motives behind legislation. We are tempted to assume that the politicians we support are being straightforward with their legislative intent. We refuse to think that they would pass a law to achieve some secret motive. During the Bush Administration, the Republicans passed a bill outlawing online gambling. Many Republicans believed the Republican politicians’ claims that it was done to fight against gambling addiction. But this seemed to me at the time misleading, even though I was Republican. It was revealed that the law was pushed by the lobbyists for the casinos as protecting their financial interests. And the law had loopholes allowing online betting on horse races. I guess the Republicans were okay with gambling addicts gambling at home on horse races…just not on poker games.

Not only do we refuse to believe that “our side” would have secret motives behind legislation, we are certain that all the legislation behind the politicians we oppose have secret motives. The healthcare reforms are meant to secretly push us towards socialism. These laws aren’t about religious values but oppressing women. Etc.

But we should be convinced that both sides have secret motives. We should assume that some, maybe many, of the laws that both sides pass have some ulterior motive behind it. And one reason I made a note to look into the letter that Berman mentioned is because it is one of the clearest admissions of ulterior motives behind legislation.

Frederick Bromberg’s Admission of Ulterior Motives

Frederick Bromberg was an attorney and politician from Mobile, Alabama. He served in the Alabama legislature, was elected to the U.S. Congress, and also served as the President of the Alabama Bar Association. In 1909, he wrote an open letter to legislators in Alabama that was published in the Mobile Register (today he would have simply published it to Facebook). Blomberg was “expressing support for a pending bill to amend the Alabama Constitution explicitly to outlaw black office-holding.” This letter is an open admission of the ulterior motives of legislators. The letter was important to a 1980s court decision to change the way voting was done in Mobile since it admitted that some of the city’s voting laws were adopted with the intent to disenfranchise black voters. In fact, I’m going to quote the sections that are quoted in the legal opinion from that case. You can find the entire opinion here. (I’ve emphasized parts of this.)

Respectfully now recall to your mind that portion of my address as present [sic] of the state bar association, a copy of which I sent to you, which refers to the expediency of amending the state constitution so as to exclude negroes from holding elective offices in this state.

You know that it was the effort to obliterate the negro vote in the past which led to all of the methods of fraud perpetrated at the ballot boxes by sworn election officers in order to defeat the negro vote, which demoralized the growing generation of young men, and to cure which was the avowed purpose of the sections in the present state constitution regulating the franchise.

We have always, as you know, falsely pretended that our main purpose was to exclude the ignorant vote, when, in fact, we were trying to exclude, not the ignorant vote, but the negro vote.

The present measures are so framed that if honestly carried out they will not and cannot disfranchise the negro. If not honestly carried out sooner or later, probably sooner, a case will be made up having back of it competent counsel, which will go to the supreme court of the United States, and which will overturn the present methods of applying the registration laws.

The only safety of our people lies in availing themselves of their rights under the constitution of the United States to disqualify the negro from holding any elective office.


The counties of Dallas, Wilcox, Monroe, Marengo, Perry, Greene, Hale and others, composing the Black Belt of the state, will become increasingly black with increasing years, and the negro with intelligence, and property will demand and insist on his legal rights through the courts. Not only that, but ambitious men amongst them will avail themselves of their superior numbers in said counties to offer themselves as candidates for offices of power and profit. As surely as the war between the free and slave-holding states followed from the existence of slavery, just so surely will race war in this state follow the present condition of our laws; unless the remedial measure suggested above be adopted: the oldest of us will yet live to see my prophecy fulfilled.

At present the masses of the colored race are indifferent to the right to vote and still more indifferent to the right to hold office; by adopting remedial measures now we shall cause no discontent, because of the present apathy of our colored citizens.

This is fully recognized by all statesmen.

Curing Our Partisan Blindness

This should help cure us of our partisan blindness. I know it is a weak inference from one legislator from 150 years ago admitting to ulterior motives to the conclusion that all legislators have ulterior motives in what they do. And I really don’t want to make such an inference. I just think such a stark admission of a secret agenda behind legislation reminds us that it is possible. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle do this. Here is legislator, at the time influential and well-known, who admits to misleading people about the main purpose of the law. He publicly mislead his own supporters. I’m sure many of his supporters would have defended him.

But they were wrong.

And notice that he isn’t simply admitting that he mislead people. He is implicating his other legislators. A group of legislators mislead the public about the purpose of a law they passed.

Just like we deceive ourselves when we assume we are more intelligent than the people of the past, so we deceive ourselves when we think we are more virtuous than people of the past.

We must admit that there is more to the actions of politicians than meets the eye – especially the politicians we wholeheartedly support!

Is God the Author of Sin? An Interesting Argument from Augustine

The Problem

In Book 3 of On the Free Choice of the Will, Augustine tackles a question that has troubled many throughout history: if God is in control of everything, then wouldn’t that make God the author of sin? Most of us have felt the force behind this line of thought. There are Biblical passages that seem to indicate that God was somehow the cause of men’s sinful actions. For example, in Acts 4:27-28, it seems that Pilate and the Jewish leaders are described as only doing what God had “predestined” for them to do. And, again, in Genesis 50:20, Joseph seems to imply that God intended good out of the evils that Joseph’s brothers did.

Are we to understand these passages as teaching that God–somehow!–caused the sins of these people? But doesn’t that make God the author of sin? And for those Christians who hold that God’s will is what has determined everything, then this question is particularly pressing for their theological views. (Though I have included the Acts 4 and Genesis 50 passage to try to draw everyone into this problem. Maybe you don’t think that God’s will determined everything, but you still think that some sinful actions were predetermined by God. So you still have the problem of avoiding how God is the author of sin.)

By Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691) – PainterDetails of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Augustine’s Attempt

Augustine has an interesting paragraph in 3.16 of On the Free Choice of the Will. He writes:

“Suppose you decide to blame sin on the Creator. You do clear the sinner, since he was simply following the decrees of his Creator; but if this line of defense succeeds, it turns out that the creature did not sin at all, so there is nothing to blame God for. Let us therefore praise the Creator if we can defend the sinner, and let us praise him if we cannot. For if the sinner is justly defended, he is no sinner; therefore, praise the Creator. And if the sinner cannot be defended, he is a sinner insofar as he turns away from the Creator; therefore, praise the Creator. So I find no way–indeed, I feel certain that there is no way–in which God our Creator can be blamed for our sins….”

Restating What Augustine Was Saying

Augustine, or at least the translation I am using, can be difficult to understand. So just in case you didn’t grasp the argument, I’ll state it more clearly. If you decide that God was the cause of someone’s sin, then this person is not truly responsible for his sin. He was just doing what God planned. In doing this, you shift the responsibility for the sin from the person to God; indeed, you might be blaming God in order to clear the other person of blame. (“It’s not really Pilate’s fault that he ordered Jesus’s death; God made him do it.”) And in doing so, you are claiming that the person did not sin. He carried out an action that he was predestined to do. The blame is with God.

But Augustine wants us to slow down. If we shift the blame to God, what are we blaming on God? You might say, “The person’s sin that God predestined him to do.” To which Augustine would reply, “What sin? Didn’t you conclude that since it was God’s fault and not the person’s fault, then the person didn’t sin?” And like a magician’s mind-bending card trick, we’ve lost track of something moments earlier we were certain was right before us–in plain sight! In shifting the blame for a person’s sinful action to God, the sin disappears.

If the sin isn’t the person’s fault but is God’s fault, then the person is not a sinner. But that means that, though God is responsible for the action-previously-thought-to-be-sinful, the action is not now sinful. So God is not the author of sin: He’s just the author of something we thought was sinful but wasn’t.

Does This Work?

Every time I read this argument, I have the same reaction I have to many of Augustine’s arguments: it’s clever–clearly the result of a mind more fertile than most in human history–but something seems off with it. Again, it seems more like a clever card trick than a substantial argument that removes the philosophical difficulty. I have the lingering feeling that if I just carefully flip through the cards in the deck and check Augustine’s sleeves, the missing card will be discovered. This problem cannot be this easily solved.

And I think I know why Augustine’s argument fails.

But I think you can see why from this parallel example. Imagine a military’s general commanded a soldier to execute an innocent civilian. Imagine also that the soldier has to obey the general’s commands and does not bear any responsibility for actions he does when following commands. Later, in a war crimes tribunal, the general’s attorney argues like this: “If the general did not give the command, then it is the soldier’s fault, not his. So he is free of guilt. But if the general did give the command, then the soldier is not guilty of evildoing. He was just following orders. But if the soldier is not guilty of an evil action, then the general is not guilty, since his order to the soldier did not result in an evil action.”

I think we would all recognize that the general’s defense is not convincing. It should be rejected. But why?

I think it is easiest to see when you look at Augustine’s argument in a more formalized manner. He says:

  1. If God causes a person to sin, then that person did not sin.
  2. If the person does not sin, then God is not guilty of causing a person to sin (since the person didn’t actually sin).
  3. If God is not guilty of causing a person to sin, then he has done nothing wrong when causing the person to do the supposed sin.
  4. Therefore, if God is the cause of actions we initially regarded as sinful, then God is not guilty of anything sinful.

What would we want to reject? I think we would want to reject Premise 3. It is not the case that God has done nothing wrong if the action he causes is not regarded as a sin. It might be that he didn’t cause a sin if a person has to have (libertarian) free will to sin. The person did not have free will but was predestined to do the action by God. So the person is not a sinner and so God isn’t the author of sin

But that does not mean that he hasn’t done anything that is not wrong. For the underlying, objective problem that would lead us to regard the person’s action as a sin (the harm caused to others, disrespecting the person’s value as a human, violating human rights, etc.) still remains. And surely it is wrong to cause someone else to do something with one of these qualities. We might not call what the person did sinful, so we would not accuse the one who caused the action of causing a sin. But we could still consider him sinful (or merely wrong) in causing the action – even though we would not properly say that he caused a sin. He sinned because he did something evil; he didn’t sin because he caused a sin.

Likewise the general in the earlier illustration is guilty of causing an evil to be done; it’s not that he is guilty of making someone else guilty of doing evil (if you think that the soldier was not guilty of evil since he did not have the freedom not to do it).


Augustine’s argument is certainly interesting, but it is not convincing. We should want to shield God from the claim that he is a sinner or causes sin. But Augustine’s way of avoiding that fails. It fails in an interesting way: it denies that God is the author of sin by making him a sinner. That just won’t work. The difficulties that surround human free will, moral responsibility, and God’s responsibility for evil still remain.