Some Independence Day Thoughts

It’s Independence Day.  As we recognize our oldest national holiday, dating back to before the country was even formally founded, no doubt many people are thinking that these are strange, difficult times, and are wondering just what the future may bring.  We’ve experienced significant protests across the country — with “Black Lives Matter” signs being seen even on a small road in this remote corner of Maine — and in this presidential election year political passions are running high.  

The spirit of unbridled protest has always run deep in this land.  We’ve fought two civil wars in an effort to define and structure concepts of liberty and freedom, and we’ve experienced other periods where the vein of protest pulsed strongly.  The country has seen the mass civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests of the ’60s, the women’s suffrage movement, the Prohibition and anti-Prohibition movements, and the organized labor movements in the late 1800s — and that’s just scratching the surface.  Each of these protests has changed the country in some meaningful way, and there is no doubt that the current protests will, too.  The spirit of protest is so important to this country that we have codified our right to protest in the very first provision of the Bill of Rights and specifically stripped Congress of the ability to make any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  People who wring their hands about protests simply don’t understand our history, or our institutions.  In reality, protest is as American as apple pie.  

We often think of the “Founding Fathers” as gentlemen with powdered hair in fancy dress who secured freedom just by signing the Declaration of Independence — the execution of which gives rise to the holiday that we celebrate today.  From our vantage point, more than 240 years later, we tend to forget that country’s first civil war, which we now know as the Revolutionary War, was a harsh, bloody fight that occurred in a bitterly divided land — and the Founding Fathers in their silk stockings were the rebels

Courtesy of a present from Richard, I’m reading an excellent book about the first part of the revolutionary period by Rick Atkinson, called The British Are Coming.  One passage had particular resonance with me, in view of the period we are currently living through:

“John Adams, never taciturn, later would be quoted as saying, ‘I would have hanged my own brother had he taken part with our enemy in the contest.’

“Few were hanged, at least not yet; incivility rarely turned to bestiality.  But no one could say how brutal the war would become.  Conformity, censorship, and zealotry now flourished.  Even small sins, such as ‘speaking diminutively of the country congress,’ might be punished with forced public apologies, boycotts, ostracism, or property confiscation.  A mild word of praise for the British government–or simply being suspected of thinking loyal thoughts–could provoke a beating.  Militias served as a political constabulary, bolstered by the Continental Army.  When Queens County, a loyalist stronghold on Long Island, voted 788 to 221 against sending representatives to the provincial congress, the names of those in the majority were published in the newspaper; they were forbidden to travel, hire a lawyer, or practice a trade.  More than a thousand militiamen and Continentals then swept through Queens, arresting opposition leaders, seizing weapons and extracting allegiance oaths–except from the 250 obdurate men who fled into the swamps to await General Howe’s arrival.

Such measures spread.”

In short, there is nothing new under the sun, and we’ve been through these kinds of challenging periods–in fact, much more challenging periods–before.  Reading accurate histories of America would provide reassurance on that point.  Unfortunately, airbrushing history has also been a tradition in this country.  How many of us who went through the American school system were taught of the horrendous Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre of 1921, or of lynchings, or the role of the Ku Klux Klan in subjugating African Americans — or for that matter the egregious history of lies, broken promises and mistreatment of indigenous Americans, Chinese immigrants, or other ethnic groups, or the Japanese internment camps that were created during World War II?  Those terrible racist episodes are as much a part of American history, and our ability to gain a true and complete understanding of our country, as the lofty pronouncements in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those of us who were taught that America’s history is an unbroken story of freedom, liberty, and fairness in service to the world were not told the whole story.  We deserved the truth, but we didn’t get it.

I hope that that will be one of the positive impacts of these current protests.  We can only fully grasp the meaning and complexity of American history, and the true importance of crucial historical figures, if we take an unvarnished view of their lives and understand their faults, flaws, and failings as well as their successes.  I hope that the exercise of First Amendment freedoms that we are seeing in these protests ensures that American history is never sanitized again and the full story — good, bad, and ugly — is told from here on out.

The exercise of our freedoms is something worth celebrating.  Happy Fourth of July, everyone!  

The First American

I live in Franklin County, Ohio, where the large statue of Benjamin Franklin pictured below is found at the county courthouse, so it makes sense that at some point I would finally turn to reading a biography of the county’s namesake.  I chose The First American, a fine recent biography by H.W. Brands that is well worth reading if you are interested in learning more about the early history of America and one of its foremost founding fathers.

Franklin is a fascinating character for more reasons that you can reasonably count.  During his lifetime, he was easily the most famous American alive, known and lauded in both America and in Europe for his experiments with lightning and electricity, his invention of the Franklin stove and other devices, and his writings, both in Poor Richard’s Almanac and elsewhere.  He was a hard-working capitalist, turning his printers’ shop into a thriving business and engaging in a number of other commercial ventures, yet he also had his eye on the common welfare and the greater good and played a key role in forming colleges, fire departments, lending libraries, and philosophical societies.  He was exceptionally well-traveled for that era, crossing the Atlantic multiple times, living in England and France, and exploring all parts of the American colonies.  Franklin saw a lot of the world during his 80-plus years, and he unquestionably left it a better place than he found it through his efforts.

Franklin’s life story, more than any other, also is the story of the early days of America.  He was born in Boston and began his writing career jousting with the Puritan fathers who dominated the life and politics of Massachusetts at that time.  He moved to Philadelphia, which quickly grew into the largest and most prosperous city in the colonies, where he became a successful printer and public figure, crossed swords with the Penn family, the proprietors of Pennsylvania, and conducted many of the experiments and created many of the inventions that made him famous.  He was a public spokesman for the colonies during the French and Indian War and made one of the first proposals for colonial unification under a single government, served as a de facto ambassador for the colonies in Great Britain during the years leading to the Revolutionary War where he was castigated in Parliament, became a proponent for independence and returned to America just in time to serve as a member of the Continental Congress and an editor of the Declaration of Independence, then traveled to France to engineer the pact that brought the French into the war on the American side, to broker loans and trade deals to help supply the war effort, and then, after the battle of Yorktown, to negotiate the treaty that ended the conflict.  He returned to America, again, in time to serve multiple terms as Pennsylvania’s president and play an important role in the Constitutional Convention and in encouraging popular support for the new Constitution before dying, in the early days of the new Republic, as a revered and celebrated figure.

Franklin was not a perfect human; he had warts and missteps and embarrassing moments and times of hubris and thoughtlessness.  Yet you can’t help but be struck by the enormity of his accomplishments.  Throughout his 80-plus years of life, Franklin wrote countless letters, engaged with countless historical figures, and left a trail of sayings, witticisms, practical concepts, and scientific ponderings that would do credit to a legion of people.  And he invented bifocals, for which I am particularly grateful since I’ve worn them since I was about 6.

When I read about Franklin, I wonder:  where are the Franklins among our current political class, and is there anyone in our government who even comes close to his record?

 

Thanks Be To The Essential Man

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of histories and biographies dealing with the American Revolutionary War period and its aftermath.  It’s a fascinating story — and a lot more interesting than the tale of the inevitability of American greatness that we learned in grade school, junior high and high school, long ago.

b4477220555e36e85915d487ac63b5c8One point that has struck me repeatedly as I’ve read is that American independence, and the later welding of the different colonies into a single nation, was a very close call.  There were many instances, during the Revolutionary War, during the Articles of Confederation period, and then as the new nation started to function under the Constitution, when the whole American idea easily could have foundered and the 13 colonies and states could have fractured forever.  The war itself, against the greatest power on earth and fought with a fifth column of Tories opposing the overthrow of British rule, could easily have been lost.  And after the war, as the country stumbled forward into a new, post-colonial world, it became clear that the “Founding Fathers” held to a lot of different notions of what a country should look like, the colonies were wracked by debt that irresponsible politicians were unwilling to pay, and always the scourge of slavery threatened to drive a wedge between the colonies and break them apart.

Inevitably, these near-misses were resolved in significant part through one man:  George Washington.  During the Revolutionary War he was the general who was selected by acclaim and whose reputation for leadership and integrity helped to keep the colonial forces together through repeated disasters.  After the War ended, his willing support of a constitutional convention, and his service as the President of the convention — elected unanimously, of course — gave crucial credibility to the effort to reinvent the government.  And when the new Constitution was finally written, and the new government was ready to start, Washington’s reluctant agreement to serve as the first President — where he deftly mediated between the opposing viewpoints of Jefferson, Adams, Madison,  Hamilton, and others, steered a middle course between the agrarian dreamers and the hard-headed mercantilists, and kept the country functioning, credit-worthy, and out of a war with the British or entanglement with the French Revolution — permitted his thoughtful, deliberate, and typically selfless judgment to set the course for the new nation and establish the many precedents and protocols that have guided the leaders of our country down to the present day,

170px-stuart-george-washington-constable-1797Read biographies of any of the other leaders of early America and you will always see George Washington as a key part of the story, as the figure who had to be persuaded to lend crucial credibility to the cause, as the ultimate decisionmaker, and as the one person who enjoyed heartfelt support from the rock-bound coast of New England, through the mid-Atlantic states, all the way south to the red clay of Georgia.  These days it’s fashionable to poke fun at Washington for his teeth and his careful ways, and to characterize him as a plodder in comparison to the brilliance of the Jeffersons and Hamiltons, but in reality, in the early days of the American experiment, George Washington was the essential man.  The description of Washington as the “Father of His Country” is apt, but it actually may not go far enough in capturing the importance of his central role in holding the early republic together, time and again.  He was the key figure who helped turn 13 squabbling colonies into the United States of America.

This Independence Day, I’m going to reflect for a bit on how very fortunate our country was to have George Washington when and where it did.

Happy Independence Day!

At The Tamworth Cemetery

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Yesterday we walked from our bed and breakfast for about a mile down a wooded country road to the center of Tamworth, New Hampshire. On our little journey we explored a pretty and peaceful roadside cemetery.

The cemetery includes graves of Revolutionary War veterans. People still tend the graves of those long-dead men, and mark the graves with a flag and emblem that attests to their service in the first war of a new nation. It’s gratifying to see that their sacrifice is still acknowledged.

Across the street is a memorial you probably could only find in the Granite State: a white marble obelisk erected atop a massive granite boulder. I walked up to the top — how could I resist? — and learned that the obelisk commemorated the career of a War of Independence veteran who went on to become a minister. That backstory fit that peaceful spot perfectly.

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Things I Like About Independence Day

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday, and when it falls on a Friday and makes for a three-day weekend, like this year, it’s extra special.  Call it corny, call it nationalistic, but there are lots of things about Independence Day that I really like:

*  Bunting

*  John Philip Sousa marches played on the radio

IMG_6266*  Little flags that people stick along the sides of their front walkways

*  Parades that feature both grizzled war veterans wearing their uniforms and little kids riding bicycles they’ve decorated from the wheel spokes to the handlebars

*  Somber readings of the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address by gravelly-voiced actors

*  Flag-themed freebies, like hand fans, distributed by local businesses

*  Evening cookouts with friends where people wear red, white, and blue clothing

*  Driving home at night and seeing distant suburban fireworks shows on the horizon

The Fourth of July is a fun, festive holiday.  I’m sure some people think the patriotic displays and red, white, and blue saturation are over the top, but I think they serve an important purpose:  they remind us of why our country was formed in the first place and should make us thing about why we are so lucky to live here.  If seeing the Stars and Stripes everywhere we look causes even a tiny fraction of Americans to reflect on the Founders, the interests in liberty and freedom that led to the Revolutionary War, and the principles on which our government was founded, that is a good thing.

George Washington, Their Greatest Enemy

The British National Army Museum has held a contest to identify England’s greatest military opponent, and the winner was . . . George Washington.

The Father of our Country beat out Napoleon Bonaparte, Irish leader Michael Collins, Erwin Rommel, the crafty Desert Fox of World War II, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a World War I opponent and the father of modern Turkey, among a number of other candidates.

How could Washington be considered a greater foe than the likes of Napoleon?  After all, the history of the Revolutionary War is a long litany of defeats and retreats by the outmanned American forces, without many of the brilliant tactical maneuvers that gave Napoleon and Rommel their reputations.  For that reason, some people have belittled Washington’s military prowess.

But one other, important factor distinguishes Washington from Napoleon and Rommel — Washington’s side eventually prevailed.  General Washington never gave up and somehow managed to hold together his rag-tag, underfunded band of soldiers until the French entered the fray.  Washington then teamed with the French to deliver the final blow to the British forces at Yorktown, which led to the Treaty of Paris and the independence of the American colonies.

The loss of the American colonies was probably the greatest defeat ever inflicted on the British during the glory centuries of the British Empire.  So yes, George Washington is a logical choice for England’s greatest military opponent.  He was, as the British themselves recognized, a worthy foe.