Sitting with our friends in the small side room of an old tavern in Charlestown, Mass., brought with it a palpable sense of history — an extension backward in time to a world where Americans still bowed to the king of England while resenting most of the officials he sent to govern in his stead.
My recent experience also caused me to wonder where today’s Americans are headed as a nation — and whether we are living up to our proud heritage.
In that very Charlestown room, 250 years ago, patriots Paul Revere, John and Samuel Adams, and Dr. Joseph Warren are said to have shared libations on a regular basis. They talked the talk of traitors.
Anyone with a grain of imagination could imagine them huddled on a cold, raw New England winter evening, speaking in hushed tones, damp wool clothes ripe with the smell of wood fires, faces lit by a few dim candles, plotting what to do next.
Up on Breed’s Hill, a hundred yards or so, stands a grand monument to the misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill. It was atop Breed’s Hill, not nearby Bunker Hill, where the Patriots, as we now call them, became forever committed to their cause. After that day, there could be no turning back.
Dr. Warren, for whom the tavern was later named, was one of the early voices in the cry for a break from the British Empire. Largely forgotten now, he was killed in the battle and his role cut short.
Near the very top of the hill is a marker that designates the corner of a makeshift earthen fort, thrown up during the night prior to the impending fight. Standing there, the imagination conjures up what the scene must have been like, how members of this ragtag farmer army must have felt almost overwhelmed with fear as they looked across the meadow waiting for 2,000 of the king’s crack Redcoats — the most powerful army in the world.
History shows the British won the battle, that the Americans withdrew from the field. In the process, though, the volunteers from Boston and Charlestown inflicted almost 1,000 casualties. It was a story repeated throughout the Revolutionary War, including the nearby Battle of Guilford Court House, ultimately leading to a new nation.
I realized I was standing on hallowed ground right there at the corner of the redoubt — ground sanctified by the blood of men who believed in a cause and were willing to put their lives on the line for that belief. As Thomas Jefferson said, freedom must occasionally be replenished with the blood of patriots. The leaders, had they been caught, would have been treated as traitors to the crown and hanged that day, as throughout the war. That required a full commitment.
Just an hour earlier, we had toured the USS Constitution, nicknamed “Old Ironsides” for her ability to absorb the blows of solid cannon balls and stay in the fight.
She is still a commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy, the oldest in the world. In the War of 1812, she stood toe-to-toe with the best ship in the British Navy and won the day. To see, and imagine, the conditions those men labored under on that ship, and the sacrifices they made to do so, was humbling.
“Humbling” is a good word for hallowed ground. One can’t help but feel small looking across the collective sacrifice represented by Arlington National Cemetery’s white headstones. I have felt that same spirit of that sacrifice standing on the deck of the USS North Carolina, and also in Bloody Lane at the Antietam battlefield, where North Carolina troops faced New York soldiers in the Civil War’s most savage day.
It is everywhere at Gettysburg, at The Angle of a stone wall on Cemetery Ridge, at the Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, and on Seminary Ridge, where those same Tar Heels started across a wide-open field leading Pickett’s Charge. Unbelievable courage; pain beyond modern understanding; sacrifice; selflessness; absolute commitment. Humbling, indeed.
Most of all, I felt humbled at Appomattox Court House, where the ghosts of the Army of Northern Virginia laid down their arms and ended their own revolution. Ulysses S. Grant’s gracious terms on that day were the first step toward a nation healing itself. The ghosts are still there.
Pausing on the hallowed ground of Breed’s Hill, I reflected on the trends of the past 25 years or so. I admit to not being quite the optimist I once was about America’s future.
Our E. Pluribus Unum seems to be exploding into countless single-issue factions where nearly every question is divided into extremes. Of course, in politics, whenever someone wins, another side loses. But in modern politics, the concept of “the most good for the most people” seems to have been lost.
The list of problems facing us is long and deep. We have political extremism that creates gridlock instead of solutions. Technology pulls the commonality of shared living experiences out of society to create customized lives as never before, bringing with it an egocentrism far away from selflessness, commitment and sacrifice.
We have Middle East conflicts that show signs of keeping us involved for another decade with no clear outcomes. We have immigration policies that make certain that those crossing our borders from around the world, whether they share a sense of cultural values or not, no longer have to assimilate.
We Americans are terribly ignorant about our own history and the underpinnings of government. We have a nation $17 trillion in debt, and an enormously large federal government that seems to want to control virtually every aspect of life in these Estados Unidos. Who among us would sacrifice in the fashion of John and Abigail Adams for the good of the nation when so many think not a thought about what government is supposed to be doing?
I wonder, 50 years on, if the nation I have known will be recognizable. More critically, will it will be able to govern itself in a democratic fashion? It concerns me that we are fractured into a nation of a million minority groups, where personal politics is about what’s in it for me rather than about what is best for the most of us.
Jefferson also said something to the effect that a government that is big enough to give us everything we want is also big enough to take away everything we have. I fear we are already there. Those who have sacrificed so much for our betterment deserve a better legacy for our nation than we are now creating.
We should demand such intent from our leaders and ourselves.