Monday, July 4, 2011

MAY THE FOURTH BE WITH YOU. AND ME


July 4, 2011

Like the animals in the forest I used to run and hide when the fireworks went off. Since becoming a US citizen it’s different. But there was a time when I was keenly aware of being The Enemy, some kind of direct British descendant of the hated Banastre Tarleton, butcher of the South.
So on the Fourth I’d have a fifth. Drowning the old sorrows, by George. Scotch, Irish, London gin...
Brits in America do indeed feel just a trifle worse than wallflowerish on Independence Day, don’ch’know what-what. Even attending a jolly old knees-up for the defeated – one of those veddy quaint get-togethers they call a Losers’ Party – doesn’t quite wipe away all the heartache. No matter how much ale is taken, there’s still embarrassment and pain.
But sometimes unexpected solace. Consider Johnny Horton’s 1959 hit “The Battle Of New Orleans” about America’s 1815 victory. The version released in the UK substituted the word “rebels” for “British”, thereby making the song acceptable to Limey sensibilities but utterly absurd: the British won!
That was history turned on its ear to stroke English egos, but what’s all this about beer and baseball and bratwursts to celebrate the big day, and even mattress sales? And why are all the decent fireworks banned? As a display of patriotism, losing an eye or some fingers on July 4th surely can’t be bettered.
So what really happened to give us this national day? Was it a simple case of telling that royal pain King George to take his boot off our necks? No, because since the Magna Carta of 1215 and then the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the British monarch’s powers had been severely curtailed: Parliament made the final decisions, not nutty George.
Some offer the Mayflower folks as proof of England’s religious repression but the Pilgrims were a breakaway extremist cult, and anyway their settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts was paid for by Britain.
Was it a case of freedom versus subservience? Not at all because British subjects everywhere, including those in the colonies, already enjoyed immense personal freedom measured against all other countries.
Clearly stated, the Americans just wanted more. The dissatisfaction was largely among the poor; it was a class struggle with the Average Josiah kicking against the landed gentry. The great landowners then deftly redirected the anger of the masses against the mother country. Not us, they said, the real coxcombical curmudgeon is that daft dandy with the crown. Yet after independence the lot of the colonist changed little.
For decades British officers, fighting the French and Indians, had complained about local resentment and gouging. There were outrageous charges for basic necessities like food and shelter. Even water.
It’s true that the 13 territories refused to contribute to the cost of British military security they enjoyed. France’s Comte de Vergennes, a mastermind of American independence, predicted : “The colonies will no longer need Britain’s protection. She will call on them to contribute toward supporting the burdens they have helped to bring on her, and they will answer by striking off their chains.”
It’s half true that taxation without representation was a major sore point over here. The colonists didn’t want to pay taxes at all, not even local ones.
But the tale of Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride is not true. His call “The British are coming” is Disneyfied history; he could never have said it because he was British. Everyone was. He might have referred to them as “The Regulars” but in reality he never yelled anything, simply delivering a message to John Hancock. Revere reaps the glory of all the unsung riders, including William Dawes, Samuel Tufts, Samuel Prescott, Martin Merrick and 16-year-old Sibyl Ludington who rode 40 miles, twice as far as he did. Israel Bissell covered 345 miles.
And now there’s Sarah Palin’s alternate version unveiled in Boston last month that has Revere ringing bells and firing shots to warn the British!
Back at the key moment it was an even split, one third of colonists seeking independence, a third preferring to remain British and the rest undecided.
In the end, even after many loyalists moved to Canada there remained – and remains to this day – a feeling of closeness to the UK.
Germans like to propagate the myth that in 1776 one solitary vote made English this country’s official language instead of their own. And that the owner of that deciding ballot had been obliged to rush off to the restroom at the crucial moment. But it’s total quatsch of course, laughable, because uzzervice ve vould awl be schpeaking comical Inklisch like der Arnold Schwarzenegger.
John Hancock was one of signatories to the Declaration of Independence. So was Button Gwinnett, plantation owner who lived up the road here and was whacked in a duel a year after signing. Get ahold of ol’ Butty’s John Hancock and you’ll be holding America’s most valuable signature, worth about $750,000.
The only true John Hancock, however, would be John Hancock’s own John Hancock, although many of the collected ‘John Hancock’ John Hancocks that were John Hancocked with John Hancock’s supposedly real John Hancock were in fact forged by his agent...
Made it through that lot? I barely did, and I wrote it.

ENDIT

© 2011 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.