American Revolution - Independence Hall Philadelphia

Some people go to a church. Some people go to Yosemite. I go to Independence Hall. This is my church. This is where I find comfort and solace from the crazy world around me.   While I certainly have no illusions that our country is godlike or even close to perfect, and while I completely embrace the faults and flaws of our founders and their process, I still believe that what we have is uniquely wonderful.

Independence Hall Philadelphia, PA - 2001

It’s easy to imagine that one day long ago 13 little colonies just decided to write a document, call it “A Declaration of Independence,” tell the King to piss off and start their own nation. It didn’t happen that way at all. It was many years in the making.  

In order to grasp what this whole thing was about we need to go back to The French & Indian War (aka: The Seven Years War) from 1754 – 1763. This was a war fought on many fronts and it involved Austria, England, France, Great Britain, Prussia and Sweden. It played out in Europe, India and North America. 

The French and the British were fighting for control of many pieces of the pie, North America being a significant part of it. While the British came out of the war being able to claim North America, this claim came at a staggering cost. The debt incurred during this conflict sent nearly all of Britain to the poorhouse.  In order to replenish its purse, the British Parliament started scheming for ways to raise money. This came primarily in the form of taxes and duties. While these new laws affected the entire British Empire, it was especially troublesome for the colonies. 

Courtroom, Independence Hall, 2001

Between 1764 and 1776, Britain passed a series of laws that inflicted various fiscal changes. I am not an economist, nor a tax specialist, but I believe that the whole thing can be summed up this way: The King needed money and he plotted to find different ways of getting it. The colonists were not particularly pleased by these methods, as they had no voice in Parliament.  This is what is commonly known as “Taxation without representation.” The English Bill of Rights forbade this and the colonists believed that they were on firm ground by disputing these additional taxes and duties. The King thought otherwise. Thus, our colonies and the King of England were at an impasse. 

Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, 2001

In September of 1774, the first Continental Congress met at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia. Twelve of the 13 colonies sent delegates (Georgia being the holdout.) These delegates were elected by the people, legislature, or committees from each of the colonies. Keep in mind that up to this time each of the colonies acted independently. For them to send delegates to one place (a place where these delegates would act as a single body) was not easy. Much like our Congress today, not everyone agreed on the best course of action. While they all did agree there was a problem, they did not agree on the solution. (Somehow it’s refreshing to know that it wasn’t any easier back at the beginning.) While some of the men wanted to find a solution to maintain ties with England, others were already whispering (okay, screaming) about independence.  At the end of the day, they found some ways to compromise, send their grievances off to the King, and keep their lines of communication open. They agreed to meet again the following year.

Carpenters Hall Reenactors, 2001

Within that same year, Patrick Henry decried “Give me liberty or give me death”, Paul Revere had his midnight ride, and all experienced “the shot heard ‘round the world.” The war had begun. In May of 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. As time moved forward, it became more and more clear that they were no longer a group of men appointed to monitor grievances, but they were becoming a governing body. By this time they had appointed George Washington to become Supreme Commander over the Continental Army and they were starting to print their own currency. Still, not everyone was seeking independence from Britain. But the more Congress appealed to the King, the more intolerant he became. He wanted all of their heads on a platter. The count: treason.

Assembly Room, Independence Hall, 2001

This brings us to the summer of 1776. Even though some of the colonies were still not 100% committed to the idea of independence, a committee was formed to start writing the document (probably in the hope that a few happy hours might help to change some minds). On July 1st, the document was brought into the chamber and tabled. Literally. Congress ordered the document to be put on the table. Between July 1st and 4th, 1776, the elected members of Congress sat in a very hot room, windows closed to any looky-loos, and there they began the debates. The speeches were long, arduous, tempestuous and probably more exciting than an HBO boxing match!  And in the end the delegates voted for independence. Twelve yeas and one abstention.  That was on July 2nd. Then for two more days they had further debates on the language of the document. On July the 4th, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was unanimously approved and sent off to the printer. 

Assembly Room, Independence Hall, 2001

Legend has it that while he was signing the document Benjamin Franklin stated, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.” These were people who could have been hanged for doing what they simply thought was right and just. They weren’t just a bunch of hotheads wanting to stir the pot. There were legitimate reasons for their distrust of the King. While the events leading up to this point had much to do with taxation without representation, the grievances placed before the King expanded far beyond that. You can read them all in the document. And while they tried in vain to find a solution that was mutually beneficial, they instead found the courage of their convictions to find a solution that, at the end of the day, was even better. 

*The actual signing of the document did not happen until August of that year. 





American Revolution - Lexington and Concorde

It’s baffling, really, to look back at the American Revolution and wonder how the colonists could be so organized. No cell phones, no computers, no Facebook. How in the world did that madcap crew (who we now refer to as our forefathers) make this all work?

As things were heating up in Boston, General Thomas Gage received orders from the Earl of Dartmouth to get himself and a crew to Concord and get rid of the weapons stash which the colonists were building up.  Along with that, the report contained orders that Samuel Adams and John Hancock be found and locked up. Or hung. Most likely with the charge of treason. Our dear friend Doctor Warren got wind of this little report even before General Gage, and he was able to get Adams, Hancock and the primary players out of Boston. (Rumor on the block is the snitch was none other than Margaret Kemble Gage . . . New Jersey-born wife of General Gage . . . who had “sympathies with the Colonial cause and a friendly relationship with Warren.” You go, girl!)

Reenactors (2001)

With Adams and Hancock hiding out in Lexington, Warren and Revere were holding down the fort in Boston. Their next piece of business was to work out a plan. They needed to come up with a way to communicate to the leaders, the minutemen, and the townspeople. There needed to be a surefire way to forewarn them  so that they could stay one step ahead of the British. 

What they came up with was something akin to a good old-fashioned telephone tree (the precursor to emails blasts, tweets and what have you) without the aid of a telephone (or emails, Twitter and what have yous).  They devised  an alert system that used a daring combination of express riders, bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a few trumpets. (I guess one really needs a good melody for something like that.)  

On April 16, Revere made a quick trip to Concord with the  pre-warning that the British landing craft were being drawn from the water which was a clear indication that something was up. The locals, understanding what that meant, began to move their arms supplies around hiding them in wells, barns and swamps. Revere went back to Boston to prepare the communication system should the Regular Army start the move. 

Knowing that this was the inevitable, Revere set up a system whereby three Boston Patriots (not the football players, but colonists sympathetic to the cause) would wait for word as to which direction the British would take on their move to Concord.  Would they march over Boston Neck or would they take boats across the Charles River?  Over in Charleston there were a few backup riders who needed to know which way to ride.  The patriots were to have two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church (then known as Christ Church) and be ready to shine a signal: “One if by land, two if by sea.” 

Reenactors (2001)

Reenactors (2001)

Sure enough, on the 18th of April 1775, the British made the first move. Revere the second. And thus begins the legendary story that led to “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”

One thing that the Longfellow poem leads the reader to believe is that Paul Revere was the lone rider.  This in fact was not the case. There were a number of patriots out that night sounding the alarms. Heading in the direction of Lexington & Concord was our famous Mr. Revere (riding the northern route out of Boston) and a young shoemaker named William Dawes (riding the southern route out of Boston). Once in Lexington, they met up with Dr. Samuel Prescott.  The three of them continued on their way, but before they could get to Concord, Dawes and Revere were both captured. Only Dr. Prescott was able to make it through. (Not to worry: Dawes & Revere were both able to escape that same evening and get back to Lexington in time for the start of the war.)

The other urban legend passed down from that famous night is that Paul Revere road through town and country shouting “The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming!”  This (while a little more dramatic than what Revere actually said) is sadly untrue. It’s more likely that he stopped at farms and local establishments to warn that the “Regulars are out.” (You see, technically most of those who lived in the colonies were British so it would have been rather confusing to know which British he was talking about.)  

Visitors Center (2001)

Because of the courage and stamina of the midnight riders and their system of alerts, on the morning of April 19, 1775, about 80 militiamen were lined up in battle formation on the town green at Lexington waiting for redcoats. (One report has them coming out of the local tavern . . .  somehow, that just makes it all the better!) The British Regular army did not disappoint. They did a “one up” on our colonists, showing up with 500 of their own. 

Captain John Parker, the leader of our 80 or so militiamen from the local tavern, saw that he and his merry band of 80 were no match for the redcoats, and it is believed that he said "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” (This is now engraved in stone where the battle began.) 

Tavern Site (2001)

Tavern Site (2001)

A British officer, most likely believing this meant they could start with some negotiations ranted something to the effect, “lay down your arms, you damned rebels!” Now, I may never have stood in line ready for a war to start but I’m thinking that isn’t what you want to say to 80 guys just coming out of a tavern and ready for a fight. And sure enough, shortly after that the first shot was fired. And to this day, as far as I can tell, nobody knows from whence it came. 

At the end of that little kerfuffle, eight Massachusetts men were killed and ten more were wounded. Only one British Regular was wounded.

But the day was not yet done. The British commanders were able to find their little drummer boy to beat out the assembly, get them in line and move on to Concord so they could continue on their mission of capturing the militia supplies. 

Reenactors (2001)

Once in Concord, the troops were divided and sent out to capture as many supplies as possible. Colonel Smith must have had a lady friend as well because he was well equipped with information as to where many of the supplies were hidden. While the raids were taking place it seems that the minutemen (colonists) and the militiamen (more colonists) were starting to meet around the North Bridge. 

The colonists, about 400 strong, got themselves organized on one side of the bridge, while on the other side there was an inexperienced captain overseeing about 90 British troops. Clearly, this would not end well. Like many moments of that particular day, there was confusion all around. On the British side, their original orders were to march into Concord and capture the ammunitions stores (as well as Adams & Hancock, should they be so lucky). On the colonists side, they were only told to not shoot unless an order was given. Now that there was a standoff, neither side knew if they were to shoot, stay, or run. 

But then someone shot first. Possibly a warning shot from the side of the British to try and get some semblance of command. While this fact will live in the mute body of history, Ralph Waldo Emerson would famously capture the moment when he wrote "Here once the embattled farmers stood /  and fired the shot heard round the world."

Like all moments in history, we can go back and get many accounts of what people were thinking, what they wanted, what their expectations were. While everyone was certainly preparing for war, I would like to believe that some people were still holding out for something a little more civilized. Perhaps, by this time, both sides were at the end of their ropes and someone took the first shot out of sheer frustration. Perhaps war was simply inevitable. Or, perhaps we, as societies, still don’t know how to get what we want through common sense and negotiation. Who’s to say? The only clear fact that remains is that on that very famous day, on that very famous bridge, our little Colonies That Could were in a War of Independence that would soon begin one of the greatest experiments of all time.

American Revolution - Boston

When I was in grade school it was a very special day if we were able to see a movie. This was well before DVD's, netflix, or VCR's. The teacher would load up an old reel projector that made a unique clicking sound as the shutters opened and closed and the film looped through. It demanded a change of roll every forty minutes or so. This meant intermissions. Not a bad thing for rowdy 10 year olds!

My favorite movie, the one I couldn't wait to see each year, was "Johnny Tremain." The story about a young boy growing up in Boston during the lead up to the American Revolutionary War. We got to meet Paul Revere, Doctor Warren, and John Hancock. We saw them all dress up as Indians for the (real) "Boston Tea Party" and sang along with "The Liberty Tree." ("It's a tall old tree and a strong old tree, And we are the Sons, yes, we are the Sons, the Sons of Liberty!" ... it still gets to me.)

Walking through Boston, on the Freedom Trail, brought back the memories of that movie and the history that it told. It's fascinating to observe how a contemporary city with all of its madness and noise competes with the past. There is advertising for the Freedom Trail along with a nod to the Cheers Bar (Johnny Tremain meets Frasier Crane!)
 

Johnny Tremain meets Frasier Crane (2001)

Seeing the Old North Church was brilliant for me. Again, grade school comes back to me, remembering "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. . .

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year. . .

(Just a hint. Do not use this poem if you need historic facts.) I was in this famous church one morning when a clergy member of this still active congregation gave a talk to the tourists. We sat in boxes, similar to a small cubicle you might sit in at work.  Back in the day, church members would have to purchase their own box. The more money you spent . . . the closer you would get to the front of the church.  (I don't think too much has changed since then.)
 

One if by land . . . Two if by sea (2001)

Walking along the streets of Boston, amongst the contemporary buildings, we see the homes, meeting places, and final resting places of the people who started this country.

Boasting that Paul Revere is buried here. (2001)

Tour guides happily take you on a tour of the dead.

So chipper showing off the dead (2001)

And there are plenty of those!

Old Graves (2001)

(Dead as well as tour guides . . .)

Getting the low down on those underground (2001)

But, I digress. Long before these cemeteries were filled with ghosts from Christmas past, or tour guides who longed to play them, there was quite a bit going on in bean town. The (real) “Boston Tea Party” didn't just happen out of thin air. There was a lot of build up to that event, and the subsequent events, that were the prelude to The American Revolutionary War (aka: American War of Independence).

Boston Massachusetts was the center of a pressure cooker that started cooking somewhere around the French and Indian War. That was 1754 - 1763 to give a bit of time frame. From that point on, England started to get a little greedy with the little colony's that could. There were "Sugar Acts" and "Currency Acts" and "Stamp Acts." Those were followed by more acts, and agreements, and affairs. Toss in a massacre, a few clandestine meetings along with some treason, and KA-BOOM!

The next thing we know, Patrick Henry is saying "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" and Paul Revere is getting ready for his ride. It couldn't have been very comfortable living in that pressure cooker. What does it take for a person to make a stand, to shake things up, and to create change? Were they afraid? Did they ever question themselves if what they were doing was right or possibly wrong? I wonder if I would have had the courage to step up and say "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Then again, at that time, I wouldn't have been allowed. We don't see many women of this time. Where are they? And where is the working class? Where are the commoners? The people of color? The people that sat in the balcony at church? Do we only get to look at the extraordinary part of our past through the lens of the leaders and forget that, much like today, the city was bustling and noisy with people who just went about their business; people who didn't, or couldn't, read the paper or get involved with political activities?

We learn about history through stories, art, and documents. But, unless we look at these artifacts thoughtfully we only see the extraordinary. We shouldn't forget the ordinary. I'm sure they, too, had a part to play.

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.