Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day: Fresh Perspectives on Anglo-American History Through Kathleen Burk

OK, the Fourth of July blog post is a tough one for me due to brain flooding- too many memories.  West Point on my first Independence Day as a New Cadet comes to mind, but I already blogged about that last July 4th. 
Independence Day: Freedom and Underwear

The pile of books I chose for preparation this year may reflect my confusion or drive for perfection or quest for truth or desire to get a comment or two about the post.  Bugle Notes 1964 (the story of the Long Gray Line of West Point Graduates, updated for the entering class of 1968),  Spirit Matters by Michael Lerner, The Life Application Study Bible by God, The Limits of Power by Andrew Bacevich, The Four-Fold Way by Angeles Arrien, Managing the Dream by Warren Bennis, Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah, et al., Thinking for a Change by John C. Maxwell, Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, Sacred Unity by Gregory Bateson, The Church Hymnal of the United Brethren Church (1935 version), The Physics of Immortality by Frank J. Tipler, The Theory of Everything by Stephen W. Hawking, The Biology of Transcendence by Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Magic of Believing by Claude M. Bristol, Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay, The Second Half of Life by Angeles Arrien, Saving America by Robert R. Carkhuff and Old World, New World by Kathleen Burk (a distant cousin of mine who I met probably for the first time a week ago at the Ankney family reunion).

Independence Day celebrates our independence from the British, which seems strange- the British as our enemy.  The Burk book is "The Story of Britain and America", focusing on our relationship(s) over five centuries.  She writes in the Preface:  "There are a number of reasons for writing a book covering Anglo-American relations over a period of five centuries.  It has never been done, not even by Churchill, and there is the attraction of doing something for the first time. .... It also makes a rather good story.  And, finally, there is my strong conviction that the academy and the general reader have drifted too far apart, and that those who take the public penny have a responsibility to convey the results of their research to the public." 

Jumping into the book in 1775 (pp. 148-161), I find a problem with Professor Burk's writing- it is incredibly good.  I am suddenly spell-bound by her dynamic descriptions and new factoids (for me) bursting from her depth of research about "our" Revolution.  The "British sentries ... confiscated (Paul) Revere's horse, forcing him to walk back to Lexington in his silver spurs and heavy riding boots."  His famous ride, immortalized by the poem of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was completed by Dr. Samuel Prescott who joined Revere and William Dawes on the road to Concord, after he "had spent the evening in Lexington with his sweetheart".  He escaped the British sentries who unsaddled Revere when he "jumped his horse over a stone wall and escaped through back roads and over fields."

"The first blood of the Revolution was shed at Lexington, not Concord, and it was shed by Minutemen."  Burk notes that they were commanded by Captain John Parker and badly outnumbered by the British whose commander, Major John Pitcairn ordered the Minutemen to "Lay down your arms, you damned rebels and disperse!" Captain Parker "ordered his men to file away.  But then a shot was fired-no one knows by whom- and the British in response fired a volley.  Another followed, and then the soldiers charged with fixed bayonets.  Eight men were killed ....and another ten wounded."  And the rest is History, which keeps changing, as poets, song writers and bloggers have their way with it.

Time out, Professor Burk, for blog size considerations.  Back to Dr. Synonymous.  OK, back to the Burk book, it's too interesting and there's a message for bloggers and other social media fans.

"In the closing months of 1775, the legislatures of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina had all instructed their delegates to the Continental Congress not to vote for independence, and the Maryland legislature did the same in January 1776."  Kathleen Burk, by the way, was born in America but has lived in Great Britain for decades, giving her a unique perspective on the relationship reviewed by her book.  She points out that "Fundamentally, Americans took particular pride in being governed under Britain's unwritten constitution...This was not a drive for independence."

That seemed to change with the publication of Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America by Thomas Paine, who arrived in Philadelphia from Britain.  "He was now bankrupt, separated from his wife, and jobless, so he decided to go to America"....where he became a newspaperman. The timing of Common Sense was perfect for his readership since word that the King of England proclaimed his intentions to put a "speedy end" to the colonists desires for independence was printed in the Philadelphia newspaper on the same day of its publication.  "Available for sale the following day, it sold some 120,000 copies during the following three months"... and upwards of a half million copies during the rest of the year, according to Burks extensive references.

A key element in the message of Common Sense was an upgrade to the status of "the enemy" of the colonists.  The King became "The Royal Brute of Britain", shifting blame from the Parliament, which had denied the Americans representation (remember, "no taxation without representation").  This reframing of the target was a brilliant move by Paine.  The other brilliance was his recommendation of a new form of government- "a republic..founded purely on popular choice, with no hereditary elements.  There would be a president, more equal representation for voters,...and a constitution..."  The target of the King and the goal of a new form of government turned the tide toward independence.  (This is a major learning point for me from my brief introduction to Professor Burk's writing.)  And the rest is History, which keeps changing as poets, song writers and bloggers have their way with it.

Message for modern day bloggers from Thomas Paine:  If you want to be part of a revolution, timing and message is important.  Reframing may help you to "go viral".  Attacking authority figures may increase your readership.  Going bankrupt, failing as a corset maker (the Paine family business in England) because of "market changes", separating from your spouse, getting a letter of reference from Ben Franklin, and coming to Philadelphia are other choices. We can read about your Revolutionary Successes in your blog.  Historians may later clarify the variations on the "truths" in your blogging.  And the rest will be History, unless it changes as poets, song writers and bloggers have their way with it.

1 comment:

  1. It is wonderfully gratifying to learn that a book on which I spent seven years researching and writing has made a difference. This is the dream of all historians.