Happy Patriots’ Day

Massachusetts had a state holiday two days ago, on Monday. No, this state holiday is not the Boston Marathon. No, this holiday is not the holiday which recognizes an obscure Revolutionary War event that just happens to fall on the same date as St. Patrick’s Day. No, this state holiday has nothing to do with — and predates by many years — the federal holiday called “Patriot Day” which commemorates the attacks on 9/11/2001.

Patriots’ Day commemorates the beginning of the Revolutionary War, a.k.a. the War of American Indepence. It is the date on which the first colonist blood of the war was shed — in the town of Lincoln, just after midnight, when one of His Majesty’s troops cut a Lincoln militiaman with his sword. It is the date on which the first colonists in regular military formation received fire from His Majesty’s troops — in the town of Lexington, when the Redcoats fired at an interracial company of militiamen, killing eight and wounding several more. And it is the date of “the shot heard ’round the world” when His Majesty’s troops were first forcibly turned back by the combined forces of several towns at the North Bridge in Concord. (Having grown up and lived most of my life in Concord, of course I think what happened in Concord was most important. My cousins who grew up in Lexington beg to differ.)

And today is the actual anniversary of these events. (Not the state holiday, which always falls on a Monday.) These momentous events happened 248 years ago today. I’ve always felt this is the date which commemorates the beginning of our democracy here in the United States. The militiamen and Minute Men who fought on April 19 were duly authorized by their towns, and by the Provincial Congress. They were under the authority of democratically elected, non-military officials. And they followed a course of action that had been determined by democratic process.

As a pacifist, I’d prefer it if our democracy had had a non-violent beginning. And there’s no doubt the democratic tradition in Massachusetts went back more than a century and a half before this date in 1775. But April 19, 1775, turned out to be the date that people looked back on and said, That’s when it began. So this is my favorite day for waving the American flag and being a patriot. This is also the day each year when I recommit myself to continuing to pursue the still-unfinished democratic project of our country.

And by the way — it’s now just two years to the big blowout party on April 19, 2025. It’s not too soon to start planning your participation in the 250th birthday of our American democracy.

Noted without comment

Historian David Hackett Fisher’s latest book is titled African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideas (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022) In his discussion of the eighteenth century in French Louisiana, Fisher says:

“The French know it well and say it best: plus la diversité, plus l’unité. In the age of the Enlightenment, David Hume and James Madison were were both quick to understand the uses of that idea. They helped to invent a new science of politics, and inspired the design of the early American republic, which was grounded in the uses of diversity as keys to liberty and freedom. In a later era, some of us have forgotten what they had learned.” [p.486]

Three books on Transcendentalism

Three recent books provide new insights into the nineteenth century Transcendentalist movement.

The Transcendentalists and Their World by Robert A. Gross (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021).

Robert Gross is perhaps best known for his brilliant use of social history techniques in his 1976 book, The Minutemen and Their World. Social history was a mid-twentieth century intellectual movement that, rather than focusing on elite powerful figures, focused on the mass of people in a given historical era. In The Minutemen and Their World Gross and his research assistants pored through historical documents like voting records, deeds, tax rolls, and the like. Using both quantitative techniques, like statistical analysis, and qualitative techniques, he was able to tell a much richer story about the Minutemen of Concord, Massachusetts, and why they decided to take up arms against His Majesty’s troops.

After completing that book, Gross extended his research into nineteenth century Concord. He wanted to figure out why such a small town became the home of both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two major Transcendentalist figures. He also wanted to find out more about the social and cultural milieu of Emerson and Thoreau, as a way to better understand their intellectual accomplishments.

Continue reading “Three books on Transcendentalism”

Law and order

It has been very interesting to listen to Donald Trump respond to the protests following the lynching of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers: Trump has made calls for “law and order.” For anyone who remembers Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon, in the not-so-distant past a call for “law and order” was code for using police to keep African Americans in their place. But that history goes back before Goldwater and Nixon, as is made clear in this excerpt from “O Say Can You See,” the blog of the National Museum of American History:

“William J. Simmons, a former minister and promoter of fraternal societies, founded the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in 1915. His organization grew slowly, but by the 1920s, Simmons began coordinating with a public relations firm, in part to chip away at the (accurate) perception that the Klan was an outlaw group involved in extralegal violence. Membership in the Klan exploded over the next few years. As part of this PR campaign, Simmons gave an interview to the Atlanta Journal newspaper in January 1921. While explicitly advocating white supremacy, Simmons played up his group’s commitment to law and order … and even boasted of his own police credentials. He claimed members at every level of law enforcement belonged to his organization, and that the local sheriff was often one of the first to join when the Klan came to a town. Ominously, Simmons declared that ‘[t]he sheriff of Fulton County knows where he can get 200 members of the Klan at a moment’s call to suppress anything in the way of lawlessness.'”

This blog post ends with a pertinent question in Latin, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Here’s my free translation of this phrase: “Who will police the police?”