Vino Bravo

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, January 17, 2018. Michelle Robinson, later to be Michelle Obama, came into the world on this day. That was in 1964, the same year sublime heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay announced that henceforth he’d be known as Muhammad Ali.

“Cassius Clay is a slave name,” said the famous fighter who was also born on this day — in 1942. “I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it.”

Fair enough, but his parents actually had named the future champ after an enlightened and influential anti-slavery statesman. Cassius Marcellus Clay was born into a wealth family of Kentucky planters, but while at Yale College in the early 1830s, he went to hear influential abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak.

Immediately transfigured, Clay joined the cause, later freeing his father’s slaves, arguing for emancipation, joining the nascent Republican Party, serving in Congress, surviving assassination attempts, and serving as Abraham Lincoln’s envoy to Russia, where he worked to build support in Moscow for the Union.

Because I’m in Northern California this week, however, and taking a little time from my duties to sample this state’s fine wines, I’m going to mention a third January 17 birthday — that of Benjamin Franklin. Why does Ben Franklin remind me of wine?

Benjamin Franklin was a polymath: a successful newspaper publisher, influential revolutionary, acclaimed diplomat, and pioneering scientist. He was also a proud oenophile.

As a man of science, Franklin held an appreciation for the natural processes that allowed grapes to be made into such a wonderful accompaniment to a meal. Like many others who truly love wine, however, the thought occurred that there is some divine purpose in the perfect table wine.

Perhaps you’ve passed by cheesy shops at the beach selling T-shirts that quote Franklin as saying, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Ben Franklin never said that, but it’s not as far off as you might think.

In 1779, he penned a waggish and witty letter to Andre Morellet, a Jesuit philosopher and friend whom he addresses as Abbé Morellet (and which he signs Abbé Franklin). Writing in French, Franklin opens his missive by noting that Morellet has often entertained him with “excellent drinking songs,” a pleasure Franklin promises to repay with “some Christian, moral, and philosophical reflections upon the same subject.”

This edification consists, in Benjamin Franklin’s telling, of warning about the superiority of wine as a beverage over water. This is not his opinion alone, Franklin insisted: The source of this advice, he says, is the Bible itself.

In vino veritas, says the wise man — Truth is in wine. Before the days of Noah, then, men, having nothing but water to drink, could not discover the truth,” Franklin wrote. “Thus they went astray, became abominably wicked, and were justly exterminated by water, which they loved to drink. …

“We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle,” Franklin continued. “But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle in question was only performed to hasten the operation, under circumstances of present necessity, which required it.”

Amen, Abbé Franklin. And Happy Birthday, Mrs. Obama.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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