My day started with awe.
I hit The Freedom Trail this morning, notebook and cameras in hand -- my mind spinning in anticipation of seeing sights I have known only as words and photographs for so long. "Captain John Hodgkins" led me along a guided tour that left me hanging on his every word. Every time he pointed and drew a deep breath, I bounded in that direction. Dressed in colonial attire of a gentleman, he told us about the history of the founding of this city and then bellowed out some of the highlights of the revolution that began here.
I bowed my head at the Granary Burying Ground and paid respects to James Otis, one of the not-as-well-remembered heroes of what became the freedom movement. He was the lawyer who argued against the writs of assistance for four hours, imploring that the British Crown not be allowed to enter anyone's house with a flimsy document and confiscate anything they find. His effort fell on deaf ears, but John Adams said he thought the Revolution started on that day. I gave just as much reverence to the likes of Paul Revere and to what modern history still records as victims of the Boston Massacre.
That's where it gets muddy.
The truth is that the Americans antagonized the British troops that fateful day. In the freezing cold winter, they hurled oyster shells and everything else they could find at the soldiers. Tension was still running high over the shooting of a boy by a lobster back a week earlier. We didn't have time to get into this kind of detail on the tour but I've read enough accounts of the events of that event to understand how the soldiers could have lost their composure. That didn't make firing on the colonists right but I have to at least acknowledge their mobbish behavior.
I just don't quite get how a place that should be much more hallowed ground became something that people simply stomp all over. I realize that in 2009 it would be nearly impossible to fix the problem -- there's no room to re-route the roads.
Still. Couldn't something have been done earlier?
I returned to awe on my next few stops.
At Faneuil Hall, I sat there quietly imagining all the debates and community meetings that took place more than two centuries ago. Then I hopped on the T and took the train out to Quincy to visit the homes of my very favorite Founding Father, Mr. Adams. He is to me the most accessible of the bunch. The most human. The most open and expressive with his emotions and his thoughts. I can relate to his joy's and wallow in his pains. I can feel his ego bruisings. I can identify with his shortcomings: He hid them not.
I toured his birth home, walked next door to the home he later occupied with Abigail, the great love of his life. Every man and woman should be so lucky as to have a bond like what they shared.
I moved on to the home, "Peace field" where John and Abigail spent the rest of their lives. Its' where they listened in horror as surgeons cut into their daughter's breasts with a saw trying to remove a tumor. It's where John wrote and read so much of famous correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, a man with whom his relationship rode a roller coaster over their decades of friendship and service to this nation. Some of the words they exchanged in their final years are the most touching to me and I've now stood in each of the very rooms where they read and wrote the other -- and, of course, where both died within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
I did not realize John Adams died in his study. The National Park Service tour guide explained that once his wife died, the old president could bear no more nights in their bedroom.
I thought I was going to end Monday's history exploration in the high note of the good company of John and Abigail. Both of them are heroes of mine, by the way, and I have spent an extraordinary amount of time in their graces. I've held original letters he wrote from France and I've even touched an alleged lock of her hair. (History groupies find access to these kinds of experiences.)
A ride back to Boston led me to a mudslide.
I entered the Boston Public Library at Copley Square and camped out in the beautiful reading room with a stack of books on the Revolution after marveling at the architecture of the building. The most compelling read was "Black Courage 1775-1783: Documentation of Black Participation in the Revolutionary War," by Robert Ewell Greene in 1984.
At the risk of sounding like the kind of politically correct blowhard I disdain, it is absolutely a self-evident truth that the contribution of African-Americans to the American Revolution have been largely overlooked by popular history. I've intended to do more with this idea but I have so many different Revolutionary research projects going I can't seem to finish one of them. The questions the author poses and begins to answer, though, are worth discussing.
Greene stated that the two essential questions that face Americans of color are what the Revolution has to do with them, and why black people would fight for a nation that held them in slavery. He wrote that the answers can only be obtained by first gaining a better understanding of the full facts surrounding black participation in the war.
As the sun set and the sky outside the giant windows in the library went dark, I delighted in Greene's clear, direct writing. No high-brow academic stuff here.
In short, he wrote that black men suffered just like their white counterparts in the war. Robert Green took a musket ball in the face. Thomas Lively lost his right eye in a battle and lost his leg in another. Caesar Skelton got stabbed in the back. An estimated 5,000 black men and women gave themselves to the cause of liberty -- their nation's and their own in hopes a victorious country would make good on its promise of freedom to those who served in Washington's army.
Why is this important to us today? I see it, as I believe Greene does, as a matter of simple fairness. A matter of telling a complete and unvarnished story about the full participation in the war that gave us this country. I've thought all day about what metaphor I might use to make this point. My first thought was naturally to compare telling an incomplete story to the idea of describing a beautiful woman but leaving out key details like the color of her eyes or the shape of her cheekbones. That doesn't do it justice, though.
As I sat here getting some directions from google for tomorrow's itinerary, I realized that failing to include the participation of African-Americans in the Revolutionary War would be like leaving out countless key turns when you're giving someone directions to an important destination. The poor sucker might not ever get there, or know how exactly he made it if he did manage to blindly stumble across it.
Time for me to go wash the mud off my hands. My wake up call is but hours away and there's much to explore tomorrow.