Wednesday, October 21, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet swing the hinge of history

The Maria Chronicles, # 17

Maria is reading the Declaration of Independence. She starts abruptly, standing up after taking attendance and beginning to read without preface or explanation. The text is up on the Smart Board behind her, but Maria is reading from the textbook, purposely making no eye contact.

It all begins familiarly enough. "When in the course of human events. . . ."; "We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . ."; "Life, liberty and the pursuit of of happiness." When she moves on to less familiar territory, Maria tries to animate her recital with gestures. Thus, for example, she holds up a finger when she reads, "Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes." But she knows that eventually this will all start to sound like droning.

Which is actually what she wants. Because when she gets to
“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures," she stops suddenly and looks up. The class looks dazed. Perfect.

Pretty horrible, huh?" she says to them. "Inconvenient meetings! No wonder they revolted. I’d say they’re right to be mad. Wouldn’t you?

There's a long pause. Some are waking; others are disoriented. But she can see a couple knit their brows, trying to formulate a response.

"They’re trying to justify their revolution," Tyler says, stating the obvious (as he so often does).

"Yes," she replies. "They’re trying to justify their revolution. Let me ask you something. Who do you think they’re talking to?"

"The British?" It’s Peter. A little sharper than Tyler, but not today.

"The British. Hmmm. Why do you say so?"

Peter doesn’t get a chance to answer before Zoe weighs in. "I think they’re talking to the colonists, trying rev them up, get them excited," she says.

"Yes, I think so. Could you be a little more specific about which colonists?"

"Southern ones?" She asks tentatively.

"Well, yes," Maria acknowledges, though this isn’t really what she means. Gotta be careful about asking them for too particular an answer, she thinks to herself. I always felt like a trained seal when a teacher did that with me.

"Anyone else?"

"You mean like people who were unsure?" Olivia asks.

"Yes! The people on the fence. Estimates vary on the number of Loyalists, who were not spread evenly across the population. That’s why Zoe was right to suggest white Southerners were a target audience. Many of them were skeptical about making a break. This is why, later in the Revolution, the British launched an invasion of the South, so they could build on this base of support. Maria pauses. "But now let me ask again: Is there anyone else you can think of that the Declaration might be speaking to?"

Dylan weighs in. He can be erratic – with a very annoying habit of engaging Tyler and Peter in ex parte conversation – but he’s got a genuine love of history and a knowledge base that’s helpful at times like these. "The French," he says. "They’re still enemies with Great Britain."

"Good, yes, the French," Maria says. "And, for that matter, the Dutch and the Spanish. They’d all like to see Great Britain get taken down a peg. But now I have to ask you: Does what they say here strike you as a good way to actually attract the kind of support we’re talking about?"

Silence. How should they know?

OK, Maria thinks. Let’s try this another way. She walks over to the Smart Board and highlights an excerpt projected on the screen: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” Then she turns around and faces the class. "I mean, what a crock of bull, right? Could these people possibly have been serious?"

Lots of smiles – of recognition. Maria senses many people in the room have actually asked themselves this question.

"I love that line!" Vanessa, ever the contrarian. But she’s been too busy chatting with Janey to be much of a presence today.

"It’s not a matter of whether they believe it," says Denise. "It was propaganda."

Maria masks her surprise. This is the first time she can recall hearing from Denise. She's delighted and wants to kindle the flame without smothering her.

"You think they were lying?"

"I don’t know," Denise replies. "But that’s not really the point."

"You called this propaganda. What do you mean by that?"

"I mean they’re trying to persuade people."

"Can propaganda be true?"

"I guess." She shrugs. Maria can’t tell if it’s in resistance or a desire to be let off the hook.

"I think they did believe it," Zoe says. "I mean, you kind of have to believe it if you’re going to stick your neck out like that." Maria likes the implicit psychological acuity Zoe shows here.

"You say 'they. Do 'they' all think the same way?"

"It was a bunch of rich white guys who wanted other people to help them," Derek blurts out with an edge of impatience in his voice. Wonder of wonders: two silent types in one day.

"I think you’re absolutely right," Maria says, more eager to encourage him than I am to pursue the angle of ideological difference between the revolutionaries. "But here’s what I wonder, Derek: Is this really the best language to use in order to do something like this? If you assume, like you are here, that these guys are essentially a bunch of frauds, is a lot of talk of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness really going to convince anybody? I'm reminded of the famous writer Samuel Johnson’s response to the colonists: 'How is it that we hear the loudest yelps of liberty from the drivers of negroes?'”

"I don’t think they really have any choice," Zoe says, continuing to develop her line of thinking. "They’re in a desperate situation, and they’ve got to say whatever they think will help them achieve their objectives. So of course they’re going to talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Willie, who has been silently following this conversation with discernible intensity, chooses this moment to weigh in on what seems like a tangent. "The King simply has to go after them," she says. "I mean, if they’re allowed to get away with this, think of what the rest of the world would do. They have insulted him . . . ."

Maria begin to lose track of what Willie is saying for three reasons. For one thing, it seems like a tangent: what the hell does the King have to do with any of this. And yet Maria marvels at the child's intensity. Suddenly, she realizes she may be able to use what Willie is saying to serve her own purposes.

Maria cuts her off mid-sentence. "I’m not sure we need to shed any tears for George III, Willie. If there’s anyone in the world who can stick up for himself anywhere on the face of the earth, surely it’s him. But I tell you who I am worried about," she says, pausing for effect. "The King of Spain." Maria curls her hand into a fist, places it on her chin, and begins pacing the room in an exaggerated fashion. "He’s a guy who’s going to be losing sleep at night."

"Who is the King of Spain?" Willie asks.

"I dunno," Maria replies, still pacing. "Carlos the twenty-something. They were all called Carlos back then." The class breaks into laughter her freely professed ignorance. Isn't she supposed to know, or pretend to care, about this sort of thing?

"See, here’s the problem. There’s nothing old Carlos would like more that to stick it to Britain. He wants it so badly he can almost taste it. The problem is that if he and his Bourbon cousin Louis XVI enter an American war against Britain on the side of a group of rebels who have issued this revolutionary manifesto, then his own subjects in places like Mexico and Peru might actually begin to take some of the nonsense in that manifesto seriously. And that would be a real mess."

"So what does he do?" Zoe asks.

"Well, ultimately, he takes the plunge – he joins France and declares war on Britain. And his concerns prove justified, because within a generation all hell breaks loose in central and South America. Eventually, the Mexicos and Perus of the world declare their own independence. The King of France, who tended not to worry as much about such subversion, ended up literally losing his head in the name of abstract ideals like freedom. We can’t blame all of this on the Declaration of Independence, of course. But it certainly didn’t help matters if you’re the King of Spain."

"Which," she continues, is another way of saying that you’re right, Denise, and Zoe, and Derek. The Declaration of Independence was a piece of propaganda by a bunch of rich white guys who were desperate enough to say whatever they thought might help them at that particular moment. The problem is that in so doing they let a genie out of a bottle, because some people, despite much evidence to the contrary, actually began to believe what the Declaration said – or, maybe more accurately, they acted as if they believed what the Declaration said. 'Acted' both in the sense that they pretended, and also in the sense that they ended up doing things that they otherwise might not have done had there been no Declaration of Independence. That genie ended up doing a whole lot of mischief all over the world."

"Still does," says Willie with a smile.

"Still does," Maria repeats. "Perhaps more to the point for our purposes, the North American colonies were never quite the same again, either. When John Adams was working on the Declaration with Jefferson, his wife Abigail wrote him a letter in which she told him to 'Remember the ladies.' Adams’s response – and I assure you that I’m quoting him verbatim here – was 'Hey, honey, where will this all end? First you say the ladies, then it will be the negroes and all the savages. One revolution at a time, sweetheart!'" Looks of amusement. "If these guys ever do succeed in gaining their independence, a lot of them are going to find themselves trying to get that genie back into the bottle."

Maria pauses. "Which brings me to my final point today – actually, one of the big points of the course. You’re going to forget 99% percent of what I tell you in this class, but there is one thing I hope that will get lodged in your brain." Pens, pencils, fingers on keyboards quiver at attention. "Here it is: the Declaration of Independence is the hinge of American history. Before the Declaration, the American Revolution was all about the past: It was about the colonists trying to keep the freedom they had. They acted as they did because they feared Britain was taking away their freedom. After the Declaration, the American Revolution became about the future: about how the revolutionary legacy would be extended, and to whom. Note that I use the word “legacy,” a word redolent of the past. There was still a conservative quality to this sense of extension, because any expansion that did happen would always have to be justified and affirmed in terms of the Declaration. Still, the Declaration made Americans an essentially forward looking people. Which, I seem to be told whenever I talk with a foreign acquaintance, is still what Americans are today." Maria sees Willie smile in affirmation

"Of course," she says, moving to open the classroom door, "that may not be true for much longer. But listen to silly old me -- talking about the future when Americans won't be a people of the future." She winks. "See you tomorrow, kids."