Perhaps it is a natural thing to want to forget, or at least modify, the memories of our rowdy youth. Kids look at their parents and have no idea what heady times they may have lived. As for grandparents—well, it’s almost impossible to even imagine them young, let alone wild. But everyone who is old was once young. And despite the tendency to cloak elders in conservative images, the truth is often another thing entirely. The same goes for nations. It would be good this Independence Day for Americans to remember that our country came into being not as a scholastic exercise, a pledge, or a prayer, but through the violence and bloodshed of the American Revolution. Not an uprising, a petition for liberty, or a lawsuit, but a revolution in which brave men and women fought the might of the Royal British army and navy, rejected the Crown, and threw off the shackles of colonialism to make our way into the future as a free, self-determining people.
These days, the tactics our forefathers (and mothers) used against the British would absolutely fit President Bush’s description of terrorism. Armed bands of citizens, local militias, and stalwart individuals did whatever they could to fight against the might of the Crown. When angry taxpayers stormed the merchant ships and dumped tea into Boston Harbor, it was not a “military-to-military” action. Instead, it was the rowdy populace venting its frustration against civilian targets.
Or how about Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys? These days, we call Allen and his brave band “patriots” and they are a symbol of American independence. The reality painted by online encyclopedias however, is somewhat different. “The Green Mountain Boys, the popular name of armed bands formed (c.1770) under the auspices of Ethan Allen in the Green Mountains of what is today Vermont. Allen and his brothers, and settlers banded together in armed groups to defend their lands. Their methods were threat, intimidation, and actual violence against the New Yorkers.” Note the descriptor for these patriots as “armed bands” and their methods: “threat, intimidation, and violence.” Encarta’s online encyclopedia notes: “Allen organized a volunteer militia, called the Green Mountain Boys, to resist and evict proponents of the New York cause. He was thereupon declared an outlaw by the royal governor of New York.” Then, as now, “royal governors” have a proclivity for declaring those with whom they do not agree as “outlaws.”
Nor did our patriot ancestors fit the description of what was then believed to be the proper ethics of warfare. While the British, in bright red coats, formed squares or marched in lines upon their enemies, our guerrilla fighter forbears hid behind trees, in drab clothing that blended in with their surroundings, and sniped the Red Coats into the hereafter. By the British rules of engagement, officers were not to be targeted. Throwing their “rules” back at them, the rag-tag bands of colonials specifically aimed for the officers to create the most confusion and inflict the greatest losses possible upon their royal foes. For these tactics, they were dubbed “cowards” by the British. But because the colonials fought against forces with superior armament and virtually unlimited supplies, those early Americans by necessity had to make every man, every ounce of powder, and every bullet count.
Fast forward a couple of centuries and compare what was considered “patriotic” then with what is considered “patriotic” now. Those who disagreed with an overbearing government back then and used “threat, intimidation, and violence” to fight back have earned a place in our history as heroes. But nowadays, those who would even question the rapid expansion of government power and the concurrent limitations on personal privacy and freedom—much less rise up in violent revolution—are labeled “unpatriotic.” The blind obedience the British expected of their “colonials” now finds a warm welcome in the White House—and those who raise their voice in concern over the direction of the country are scorned, threatened, and declared “outlaws.”
Even worse, just as the British Empire sought to impose its judgments on the world, primarily through force of arms and an overriding sense of manifest destiny, so too does our president and his advisors. Is it “our way or the highway” for everyone? Seems to be. President Bush has shown no qualms whatsoever about declaring entire nations “rogue states,” voicing his intentions to overthrow existing leaders, or to lump nations together and brand them “the Axis of Evil” and hence, worthy of attack. We are led to believe that the power to determine who are “freedom fighters” and who are “terrorists,” who are “patriots” and who are “cowards,” resides only with the power structure of those at the top in Washington.
It might be convenient at this point in our history to ask the citizens of this free land to forget the tumultuous conditions of our nation’s birth. And it might be useful for the hardliners currently in power to seek to erase from our collective minds the reality of our rebellious past. But the truth, as they say, “shall set you free.” And that truth, despite what some may want it to be, is neither neat nor tidy. The “patriots” of our past would be dubbed “terrorists” by Bush’s definition, hunted down by Cheney and imprisoned by Ashcroft.
So this Fourth of July, go out and have a great time. Give big thanks for the freedoms we enjoy—while we still have them. But take a moment to reflect on how those freedoms came to be. On how the colonials, smarting under the British heel, gave voice to the things they believed were critical to a new and different nation: freedom to speak, to think, to worship, to challenge government, to face our accusers, and to a fair trial. We owe our cherished liberty not to mythical heroes, but to those ragged bands of malcontents who fought so long ago.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.