Last week this column advanced a few observations about “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” This was done because that particular event dwells in a slipstream where fable and fact have overlapped and co-mingled for well over two hundred years. The gist of the thing, however, is that this after-the-fact and embellish-the-fable type of thinking goes on (and on and on) right into our current milieu.
The motivation for a two-part missive about “the patriots’ game” was simply to acknowledge and celebrate one more coming and going of my favorite holiday, The Fourth of July.
The choice we made to celebrate our independence on a date that commemorates its seminal document rather than that other day, April 19, 1775, when the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, says a great deal about what our American Revolution was and still is about.
Of course, both events are essential to the narrative. ‘The shot heard ‘round the world’ predetermined the phrase “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary …”. Yet, perhaps it is the opening line of our Constitution, the one which simply states “We the People …” that is the single most precise diamond of language. That notion is what made America exceptional to the eighteenth century and still does its service to the twenty-first.
For this chain of belligerence to ideas was much more than a rebellion. It was the time when kings and autocracy itself were challenged and defeated not only on a battlefield but in the shaping of minds. It was the coming to terms with things that had endured for millennia. It was most assuredly radical.
Yet these American “radicals” were more often than not the most conservative and reluctant characters one could find. One historian interviewed a veteran of the Revolution many years later when that gentleman was well into his nineties. The old man said he was not bothered by the king’s taxes, nor particularly fond of tea, nor was he either informed of or inspired by the works of Locke and Burke, or the texts of Jefferson, Hamilton and Adams. No, he said that “we were just used to governing ourselves”, that he and his brethren would die for that idea.
And die they did, for the American Revolution considered against the small population of that time was a long bloody episode. It was something that transpired not only distant and remote from the shores of Europe, but apart from the limits mankind had been told they must live within, endure and abide.
In such a paradoxical new world, many of the slaves remained patriots themselves, even after the British attempted to co-opt them. That the second great blood-letting would come a century later to end slavery itself, is the tragic inevitable outcome of what first one was all about.
Or as Mr. Jefferson said a little further down in that document of July 4th, 1776 than we usually read, “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
As for the Declaration itself, that piece of paper (well, parchment actually) we laud with fireworks, picnics and parades, most of us, even the ‘educated’ have rarely gotten past the first two paragraphs. Of course those two paragraphs are among the finest ever written and certainly went on to provoke much consequence and history itself.
What does follow the ‘preamble’ is a list, a viscous indictment with at least 30 specific grievances against the crown. My personal favorite is this one: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”
Now that sounds a lot like the incomprehensible government-issued swampmaze so many of us are forced to muddle through right here in the 21st century. Indeed, our very ‘substance’ seems to have become a snack for the bureaucracy.
The other charge I find amusing is this one: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”
Ever have to drive to Springfield in the age of the internet? Or maybe just spend a Saturday morning at the DMV? Ever have the feeling Wal-Mart could do better job of it?
As this column postulated last week, both history and our futures are creatures of ‘contingency’, that choices made not random acts determine whether we will ascend or decline as a nation, a town, or a people.
Like our forefathers (and foremothers) we will be offered opportunity, live within parameters, and be compelled to use prudence by an evaporating wallet.
Here in Elgin, we have decided that fireworks are expensive and chosen the parade to be our most popular event of the year. That just might make Common Sense.
So go over to Douglas Avenue Monday morning and pursue you happiness—and you do have to pursue it—for it wasn’t just gifted or guaranteed on July 4th, 1776.