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Jewish World Review July 4, 2005 / 27 Sivan,
A Timely Reminder in 1776
You think today's red state/blue state antagonism is unprecedented? Washington thought New Englanders "exceeding dirty and nasty." He would not have disputed the British Gen. John Burgoyne's description of the Americans besieging Boston as "a rabble in arms." A rabble that consumed, by one sober estimate, a bottle of rum per man each day.
If, in the autumn of 1775, a council of Washington's officers had not restrained him from a highly risky amphibious attack on Boston across the shallow Back Bay, there might never have been a Declaration of Independence. If a young officer, Henry Knox, had not had the ingenuity to conceive, and the tenacity to execute, a plan for dragging captured mortars, some weighing a ton, and cannon, some weighing 2 1/2 tons, the 300 miles from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to the Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston, the British might have fought and won, rather than evacuating the city. If, after the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn, the first great battle of the war, a fog had not allowed 9,000 of Washington's soldiers to escape across the East River, the war might have effectively ended less than two months after the Declaration.
So says David McCullough in his new book "1776," a birthday card to his country on this Independence Day. "Ingratitude," he has said elsewhere, "is a shabby failing," and he writes to inspire gratitude for what a few good men, and one great one, did in the nation's Year One.
What is history? The study of it and the making of it, meaning politics changed for the worse when, in the 19th century, history became History. When, that is, history stopped being the record of fascinating contingencies political, intellectual, social, economic that produced the present. History became instead a realm of necessity. The idea that History is a proper noun, denoting an autonomous process unfolding a predetermined future in accordance with laws mankind cannot amend, is called historicism. That doctrine discounts human agency, reducing even large historical figures to playthings of vast impersonal forces. McCullough knows better.
Using narrative history to refute historicism, McCullough's two themes in "1776" are that things could have turned out very differently and that individuals of character can change the destinies of nations. There is a thirst for both themes in this country, which is in a less-than-festive frame of mind on this birthday. It is, therefore, serendipitous that "1776," with 1.35 million copies already in print, sits atop the New York Times best-seller list on Independence Day.
But, then, serendipity has often attended the Fourth of July. That day is the birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804), arguably the father of American literature. And of Stephen Foster (1826), arguably the father of American music. And saving the most luminous for last of the sainted Calvin Coolidge (1872), who oversaw a 45 percent increase in America's production of ice cream.
So, this Fourth read McCullough. Perhaps by the light of a sparkler.
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