Friday, July 02, 2010

A Few Fourth Reminders

(News-Herald, July 1) For Independence Day, here are some reminders of some oft-forgotten notes about our country’s origins.
The French Don’t Always Stink. We like to talk about how we single-handedly secured our own freedom and independence as a nation. But if it weren’t for the French, we’d be singing “God Save the Queen” at the start of every ball game.
The French provided the critical political support of recognition and the practical support of military supplies and advice. The French took a bit of a political leap of faith with a tiny wanna-be country that smart observers expected to get crushed by the mighty British empire. This is particularly remarkable given that it had been barely twenty years since they had been at war with us. George Washington got his first military training fighting against the French, and his most important assistance from a French general.
Amateur Soldiers Aren’t That Great. Yeah, the minutemen grabbed their guns, left their homes, and headed off to fight for independence. Where they drove their leaders crazy. Many of those early volunteers stuck it out, fought hard, and learned to function like a real army. But in many cases, leading the continental army was like herding cats. Hungry, homesick, ornery, ADD-afflicted cats.
Washington’s heroic decision to cross the Delaware on that cold December night was forced, in part, because on January 1 a large chunk of his army’s term was up, and they fully intended to go home regardless of what George had in mind.
Many 18th century politicians disliked the idea of a standing army; professional soldiers had an unfortunate history of taking over countries. But the Revolution convinced many folks that the country would be best served by real, professional soldiers.
The Founding Fathers Weren’t Much Like Family. We often discuss the founding fathers or the framers as if they were a single unified group with one cohesive vision and intent for the country. They weren’t.
Many of them didn’t even like each other. Patrick “Give Me Liberty or Death” Henry thought Washington was a jerk. Pretty much everyone thought Thomas “Common Sense” Paine was a loon. Southern leaders thought the Massachusetts folks were priggish schoolmarms. Northern leaders thought the Southerners were morally deficient libertines.
And the founders themselves were (like real, live humans) changed by time and events. Nobody ever fought harder for a peaceful reconciliation with Great Britain than Ben Franklin, until he became convinced it was hopeless. Jefferson and Adams were best buds—except for the couple of decades when they hated each other and didn’t speak.
There isn’t a single aspect of our nation that we take for granted—a federal government with its own capital, national currency, a supreme court, every single line of the constitution—that wasn’t violently opposed by at least one “founding father.” And speaking of opposition…
Politics Have Always Been Ugly. We may imagine that modern politics are ugly, but if anything they are cleaner now than in the first fifty years of our country’s existence. Jefferson and Adams were slandered and libeled to astonishing degrees by each other’s backers, accused of everything from treason to moral turpitude. Members of Congress occasionally tried to physically beat each other up. And while everyone remembers that founding father Aaron Burr killed founding father Alexander Hamilton in a duel, we tend to forget that at the time Burr was the actual Vice President of the United States.
What they agreed on. What the founders did agree on and accept was that their opponents were Americans, too, and as citizens of the same great nation, they would often need to compromise, even on issues of considerable personal importance. Granted, their idea of citizenship was not exactly a big broad tent—mostly the founders thought that a citizen was a white male who owned stuff. But their political wrangles, ugly and difficult as they could be, were directed at the goal of finding a compromise that everyone could live with, not at obliterating the opposition or somehow making it go away completely.
We Americans are too often ignorant of our own history, too often proud of that ignorance, and too often willing to just make it up to suit our own agendas. It seems a waste to focus national pride on things that aren’t exactly true, when there are so many things to be proud of in our history. The first step is know about that history. July 4 is the perfect holiday to celebrate with a good, well-researched, legitimate history book.

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