July 7, 2016

An essay by Bear Jack Gebhardt: "Consequences that We Rue: An optimistically contrary view of the American Revolution"

Bear Jack Gebhardt says:  I'm an old guy living in the foothills of northern Colorado with wife of a hundred years. I’ve been a free-lance writer for many decades. I’ve published nine books, two of the latest being, A Wave of Thanks, and Other Human Gestures: 31 Quick Stories and The Potless Pot High: How to Get High, Clear and Spunky without Weed I’ve also published hundreds of articles, stories, essays and poems in known and little known places. 

Consequences that We Rue:
                 An optimistically  contrary view of the American Revolution

It was well that America was made. It was tragic that the making of it could only be effected by a war with Britain. The parting was perhaps inevitable at some date and in some form, but the parting in anger, and still more the memory of that moment of anger fondly cherished by America as the starting point of her history, have had consequences that we rue to this day.”   --George Trevelyan

    The 4th of July is fun, but not the date that truly signifies this nation’s freedom, its liberty, or its   unique and inspired experiment in democracy. The real beginning of our independence was  December 15th 1791,  the date on which the Bill of Rights was ratified.
Don’t get me wrong. Like most Americans, I love celebrating the Fourth of July. It’s a breath of fresh air smack in the middle of summer,  a day off work, no presents expected, firecrackers and skyrockets, beer, hotdogs, watermelon, baseball and a grand huzzah in city park.  And few forced religious proprieties--- except maybe an implicit faith in American exceptionalism.  Other than that, what’s not to like?  
    So again, like most Americans, I love celebrating the 4th.  And like most of us, I assume that I, myself, had I been alive in Colonial America, would have been one of the “good guys,” one of the rebels fighting for peace, freedom, NASCAR, Wi-Fi and Apple Pie. But wait . . .
    Statistically, at the time, a large majority of us, two out of three of the two million who then lived here, did NOT support the American Revolution. Cranky old Uncle John Adams himself estimated that only one third of the population favored of the rebellion, one third opposed, and the remaining third were neither for nor against.  So the odds . . .
    “There was always a substantial portion of the American population which had no enthusiasm for either the rebellion or its suppression, “ wrote the  historian Henry Steel Commager,  “and  the number and zeal of Patriots and Loyalists alike changed constantly with the varying fortunes of war.”  
    The 4th of July itself, of course, commemorates the day in 1776 on which, at least theoretically, fifty-six brave, white, relatively affluent “representatives”  of that one third of the population of two million signed the Declaration of Independence.  I say “theoretically,” because, according  to  The Secret Journals of Congress, which were published in 1821, the entry for July 19, 1776 reads:   
“Resolved That the Declaration passed on the 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile of ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America’ & that the same when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.”
And then the entry for August 2 stated: “The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.”
So what we believe now may not be what actually happened then. But I don’t want to be picky. Whether the Declaration of Independence, The Declaration of War, was signed on July 4 or signed on August 2, neither date, or the Declaration itself, in fact commemorates the true  appearance of  freedom on this continent.  Come to find out, war and freedom are never good bed partners.   
      Let’s start with the basics: Clearly a revolutionary war of itself does not ensure liberty. Fidel Castro instigated war in Cuba; Nikolai Lenin in the Soviet Union; Mao Tse Tung in China; the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran; the Khmer  Rouge in Cambodia; Boco Haram  in Nigeria; ISIS  in Syria (and now alas, so recently in Orlando.) The tragic list of those who believe in “violent revolutions”  goes on and on. The promise of revolutionary leaders is always more freedom, more liberty. Yet obviously, as the above more recent revolutionary actions demonstrate,  “freedom” is not the necessary or even usual (if ever) result of one group taking up guns against their neighbors with whom they disagree.
    But wasn’t the American Revolution different?  Didn’t we gain our freedoms by going to war?
    No.  On the contrary.
According to The Encyclopedia of American Journalism,  “Upon the outbreak of the American Revolution, all of the colonies passed legislation that essentially outlawed any criticism of the revolutionary cause, restrictions so harsh that historian Claude Van time has written that ‘the freedom of speech was suppressed, the liberty of the of the press destroyed.’”
And shortly after the Declaration, “Patriots”  (the one third of the population who were in favor of war)  had silenced most Episcopal clergymen and closed their churches.
The right of women to vote,  which was, curiously, fairly common throughout colonial America prior to the Revolution, were revoked in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire when “states’ rights” replaced the rights that had been gained under British rule.
The freedom to freely associate, the freedom to travel the countryside, indeed, the freedom to collect and bear arms, no matter your political persuasion, were all freedoms which were immediately and bluntly abrogated upon the signing of the Declaration of War.  And we were not shy about violently forcing our own convictions on our neighbors.     
“The Division among the people is much greater than I imagined and the Whigs and Torries persecute each other, with little less than savage fury.  There is nothing but murders and devastation in every quarter,”  Brig General Nathaniel Green wrote  to Col Alexander Hamilton in 1789 on taking command of the Continental Army of the South.
Prior to the Declaration of War against Britain, (the Declaration of Independence,) the experience of both personal and communal freedoms had been steadily, if slowly, growing both on this continent and in Great Britain, and to a lesser extent throughout Europe. The outbreak of the war not only halted but reversed the evolution of freedom, as it does in every war zone.
We are taught that our American experiment in freedom began  in the  1620’s, with the establishment of a rigid, (Sharia-type)  theocratic community founded by the Puritans around Massachusetts Bay and then expanding to Salem. Thank goodness, that experiment, and those social structures (strictures)  didn’t last long.
Fortunately, during those early years this continent experienced a huge influx of immigrants, liberty/prosperity seeking folks, more liberal, more reasonable than the Puritans, originating from both Britain and throughout Europe. They all came ashore wanting to experiment with freedom, mostly religious freedom.  New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were originally conceived and established "as plantations of religion.”  But the Quakers, The Mennonites,  and countless bond servants and people who “just want to fish” also came ashore and made for a healthy melting pot of both idealists and practical minded folks who were forced to learn to “just get along “ with each other, help each other out, recognize each other’s basic humanity, a recognition necessary just to survive in the wilderness.
    One fundamental  quality necessary to build a solid foundation of lasting “freedom” must be a maturity of mind wherein, even though we may disagree with another person’s opinions, or beliefs, (or skin color or gender or sexual orientation) we must nevertheless honor and respect his or her obvious being-ness.  We must have the maturity to recognize and respect “the other’s “ legitimate presence as a fellow human trying as best as he or she can to do well and live well here on earth. Survival in the early American wilderness often forced such “maturity of mind.”
    Contrary to our American myth,  our freedoms, our liberty—let alone “maturity of mind”--  were not in fact delivered by the bloody American revolution, what some have called “the first American civil war. “ The movement toward freedom was not – – has never been – – a uniquely American notion. Other written declarations, and communal  agreements about  our natural freedoms,  prior to the Declaration were many, not the least of which, The Magna Carta, which limited the king’s role and stipulated more of “the people’s rights” for self-government, (if only for the more elite people)  dated to 1215, more than five hundred years previously .
In 1664, a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, the Dutch Bill of Rights was passed, which protected the citizens of New Amsterdam (New York) from the vagaries of their “new world” neighbors’  persistent encroachments and unreasonable demands.   The English Bill of Rights of 1689 reflected the growing popular demand for freedom from government repression on both sides of the ocean, and was an early model for people articulating their own basic human rights. Even before the English Bill of Rights, however, virtually all of the early  written “Compaqs” of the colonies, and most especially the ordinances of Virginia  in 1618 and the Massachusetts body of liberties in 1641 both articulated and instituted a great many personal liberties.
    Here’s the point: The truly unique and inspired event of the 1700s America – – the quintessential “people’s action” which enshrined the flame of liberty in this land – – was neither the revolutionary war nor even the forming of the Constitution.  No.  The truly revolutionary event the 1700s – – and the true birth date of the grand experiment of  articulating and assuring  individual liberties here , – – occurred on December 15, 1791, the final ratification and adoption of the Bill of Rights.
    The adoption of the Bill of Rights did not come about  as the result of war, of violence and gun running. Nor did it come about because a particular group of like-minded men finally gained power. The ratification of the Bill of Rights came about because men of differing opinions, differing backgrounds, differing social classes were able to come together, with “mature-minded-ness” and hammer out the words and ideas that represented to them the ideal of freedom for all peoples.  
Yet even the Bill of Rights was not finished. Understanding and interpreting the Bill of Rights for contemporary peoples, has been a work of the centuries. We continue to need men and women of  of differing opinions, differing backgrounds, differing social classes who are able to come together, with “mature-minded-ness” to hammer out the new words and new ideas that represented to all of us the ideals of freedom. Recognizing, articulating, and expressing our natural human freedoms, is both an evolving and emerging process.  
Let me repeat, because this is the essence of the essay:  Recognizing, articulating, and expressing our natural human freedoms, is both an evolving and emerging process. And such a process can not be left to either the Tories or the Whigs.
          It’s something we ordinary folks must do, day after day, year after year, talking to each other 

this way, about the truth, and things that really matter.

~Bear Jack Gebhardt

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