This July 4th: Were We the Baddies?

 

Would I have been a loyalist in 1776?  Maybe? But you have to admit, Canada has a really good point here.  Maybe our revolution was a dumb idea.  Could we have become the United States without violence?

In the recent book Scars of Independence, historian Holger Hoock dismisses modern depictions of the American Revolution as rooms full of men in powdered wigs discussing liberty. It was actually a “profoundly violent civil war,” he writes. One largely forgotten aspect of the war was how much the Patriot cause was driven by terroristic mobs prepared to torture judges, customs officials, newspaper editors or anyone else seen to be supporting British rule. Pro-government officials had their homes burned, their horses poisoned and many were snatched out of their beds in the middle of the night, stripped naked and subjected to mock drownings or tarring and feathering. Accounts of these outrages help explain why the conflict escalated so quickly. When hotheaded Brits backed George III’s call to swiftly put down colonial rebels, it wasn’t because they were incensed at a lack of tea tax revenue — it was because they feared that their American lands had fallen to mob rule.

exciseman
A 1774 illustration showing Patriots torturing John Malcolm, a government tax official. Malcolm has been stripped naked, had boiling tar poured on his skin and is now being forced to drink excessive amounts of hot tea. United States Library of Congress

Lookit, of course we weren’t the baddies, for one thing, it turns out many of those Brits were homophobic jerks.  But our national predisposition for violence or bullying is a problem.  From a revelatory piece by one of my favorite authors Rick Perlstein:

“My first book, covering the years 1958 through 1964, was entitled Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. The “consensus” in my subtitle referred both to historians’ common belief that in the period between World War II and “the sixties” America was a remarkably placid place and to the deluded national self-perception advanced at the time by people like Lippmann, heedlessly projecting the present into the past. In this view of things, America had always been a remarkably placid place. When violence began breaking out on the 1964 campaign trail, the Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized that “presidential elections have been waged without untoward incident until this year”—what??—and the historian Richard Hofstadter preposterously proposed that “our sagacity and our passion for the peaceful enjoyment of our national life” were the essence of American politics. My subtitle, in other words, is tinged ironically—because the supposed “consensus” was but an epiphenomenon, a brief idyll, an illusion, as well as an ideological construct. It papered over the reality of a society that has never been united and at peace with itself.

So what about that?  What if we started taking a different approach to the 4th?  What if we celebrated the violence of explosions (fireworks), say, once every 4 or 10 years and spent the other 3 or 9 years celebrating all that it takes to create a society that can produce those fireworks.  What about celebrating the red, white and blue fireworks in our gardens and parks during the majority of our Fourths hoping our children can catch on to the beauty and preciousness of a time lapse explosion going on around us every day?

Just a thought.  It would save money and help make that Xth year celebration that much more special and spectacular.  But more importantly, I think it would help reinforce the idea that the explosions of war that the fireworks represent are sometimes necessary, but they should not be we depend on to build a sustainable future.

 

Continue reading “This July 4th: Were We the Baddies?”

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