The Next Page: Why have lost our enthusiasm for the American Revolution?
Beating a drum
October 13, 2013 4:00 AM
Yale University Art Gallery
John Trumbull's "The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781."
An 18th-century engraving of the Surrender at Yorktown.
By Mario Oliverio
STEVEN SPIELBERG'S "Lincoln," Ken Burns' "The Civil War," the Battle of Gettysburg's 150th anniversary, generals with wild facial hair, women in long gowns and the soul-searching of our nation.
For a long time now, especially this past summer, the Civil War has occupied our public consciousness, and rightly so, due in great measure to the freedom it brought to a significant segment of our country's population. And yet it strikes me as odd -- especially with Saturday's 232nd anniversary of Cornwallis' Surrender at Yorktown, ending the last major battle of the Revolutionary War -- how little we reflect on our country's birth and the war that enveloped it.
I was in second grade during our country's Bicentennial in 1976 and, to me, celebrating independence and the Revolution was as normal as illegal fireworks in my Dormont neighborhood.
That year, we had "Bicentennial Minutes" on television, with top celebrities and President Gerald Ford telling us what happened "200 years ago today ... ." Red, white and blue colored everything from lawn decorations to the streamers at town halls.
Iron City Beer came in commemorative cans with historical scenes, kids across America marched in Colonial parades, and volunteers painted fire hydrants to resemble Ben Franklin or Betsy Ross.
My school curriculum was all about the Revolution. I remember lovable Mrs. Dunbar at Kelton Elementary revealing how the Battle of Bunker Hill actually was fought at Breed's Hill.
Of course, the culmination on July 4 featured grander-than-usual fireworks. We were a nation, it seemed, proud of the past and confident about the future.
But something happened after those last pyrotechnics fizzled out. By 1977, it all seemed so "last summer." As Bicentennial souvenirs were thrown out, interest in our nation's birth seemed like it was discarded too. I never heard another peep about our Founding Fathers until ninth grade, July 4 became as much about winning Little League baseball games as independence and memory of what made those Revolutionary times so remarkable faded along with those painted hydrants.
Hollywood has done the era no favors. When movie-land does try to re-create the Colonial period, we see either career-skidding bombs such as Al Pacino's "Revolution" or inaccurate portrayals such as Mel Gibson's "The Patriot." Stack those against Civil War movies such as "Gone with the Wind," "Glory," "Lincoln" and "Cold Mountain," with their multiple Oscars, not to mention Mr. Burns' Emmy-winning documentary, and one wonders whether Hollywood ever will march up Breed's Hill again.
While tourists annually swarm Gettysburg, there's no dearth of Colonial-era destinations from New England to South Carolina. Fort Ticonderoga in New York, Valley Forge in Pennsylvania and New Jersey's Monmouth Battlefield State Park all are fine venues. Boston's Freedom Trail, according to its website, boasts at least 2 million visitors annually. But there's a disconnect between these wonderfully preserved landscapes and our current interests.
Perhaps that stems from the seamier side of Colonial times, events that are so difficult to forgive and forget. Underneath the brightly colored wrapping paper of patrician founders, unbelievable victories at Trenton, Cowpens and Yorktown, and the rallying cry of "I have not yet begun to fight," the box contains contents we wish we could return.
How glorious that the man who wrote "all men are created equal" owned hundreds of slaves? How noble the encroachment upon North American Indian tribes? How patriotic the treatment of Colonial women?
When Abigail Adams realized that independence and a "new code of laws" were imminent, she wrote to her beloved husband, John, imploring the Continental Congress to "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors." We know how that turned out.
But there still are plenty of reasons to refasten attention on the Revolution with its powdered wigs and eastern-seaboard sensibilities. For starters, check out the privations that New Englanders experienced from 1770 to 1776 and you'll see what long ago made "Boston Strong" a deserved expression.
Even then, America was a melting pot.
While white male Protestants dominated the era, there also were free blacks such as William Flora and Peter Salem who fought bravely for the cause. The Revolutionary story also includes Haym Salomon, a Jewish immigrant who served as a financial broker during the war; Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence; and Jordi Farragut, a Spaniard who fought in the South Carolina navy and Continental Army.
As for women, well, there's more to their contributions than the stories of Betsy Ross and "Molly Pitcher." Twenty-one-year-old Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man, fought bravely and was wounded. And, finally, there's the story of Sybil Ludington, who reportedly rode at night to warn her town of impending British troops, like Paul Revere, only for a greater distance and at age 16.
When the British prepared to surrender at Saratoga in 1777, a British officer noted that a ragtag militia had just beaten the most professional army in the world. That militia comprised free blacks, hard-bitten frontiersmen, boys barely in their teens and men in their60s. Who, as the historian Bruce Lancaster asked, were these rangy, lean and tall victors? Surely a new people.
Most of us remember that Lincoln, at Gettysburg, stressed a government "of the people, by the people, for the people."
But it also would be well to remember that Lincoln in that same address harkened back "four score and seven years ago" to those who planted the notion of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Sure, most U.S. citizens will recall during future cookouts and fireworks that July 4 is the day we declared our independence. But that isn't enough. If we cannot say why we did so or appreciate the hardships that followed, if we do not better incorporate those things into our culture, we're missing out on what truly makes us American.