Nothing important happened today

At least, that's the version of George III's famous diary entry cited by Wikipedia. It's pleasant to note that someone has marked the quote with "citation needed"; just try to find a citation, or figure out whether it's "important" or "of importance", by googling. But I digress.

Jon Carroll has written a column that can almost stand with his too-oft-reprinted Thanksgiving column. And if you hurry, you may be the 7,345th person to remind him that the fruited plains are not from Irving Berlin, but from Katherine Lee Bates. A fine piece, though, especially for those of us in that corner toward which, as Carl Sandburg(?) said, the rest of the United States slopes, causing everything loose to roll down into California.

Carroll talks of the land, staying mostly out of the politics. Extremism in defense of California is no vice. Carroll notes that "patriot" refers to "father" in Latin. But (speaking of Berlin), German has not only vaterland but heimat, from "home". A good way of speaking, if you can get over certain unpleasant associations.

Bates, however, had a political agenda, sneakily getting into brotherhood and stuff. (And will God crown my efforts with coherence? Not likely, when I see that the Language Log has annotated Ray Charles's missing of the subjunctive "crown", and that a Google search on crowned good brotherhood brings the good news that most references to the song that are not quoting Ray Charles get the words right.) And it's politics that created this day, and politics that I wanted to talk about.

To get down, then, to the document that we celebrate with John Adams and with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

And by the way, The Star-Spangled Banner is a damn fine song, as is America the Beautiful, even if they both drag God into it, and even if the Banner is warlike and bombastic. Bomburstic. Whaddaya want from a national anthem? At least we're not watering our furrows with the other guys' blood. And as to its being based on a drinking song, I ask you: if you're going to strain your voice, would you do it for "the land of the free and home of the brave" or for "the myrtle of Venus and Bacchus's vine"? Perhaps I'm courting the fate of Hippolytus, but my choice is clear.

So. I hold that the introductory section of the Declaration is self-evident. If you doubt it, you can read many pages of proof in the paper by Stephen E. Lucas. It is also an unsurpassed bit of English prose.
Whan that Aprille with her shoures soote
When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes
When in the course of human events
It need not be embarrassed to stand in that company.

But what about the famous bill of grievances against the King and his country? We all know that it's terribly exaggerated and unfair. And "merciless Indian savages," good heavens! But what about it, really? Wouldn't if be nice to see a sober annotation and analysis of the list? Lucas treats of the list, but his treatment is trivial: he analyzes the grammar, rhetoric, and logic. It looks to be a good analysis (haven't read it through yet), and by no means trivial; but I'd like to see a discussion of the real historical events associated with the charges and how the charges and the history relate.

There must be dozens of analyses that are simply dismissive: you know, the revolution was just because Americans didn't like paying taxes for their benefits, the ingrates. (If you want a rebuttal of that new discovery, which seems right now to be fashionable in schools, you might not do better than to look up the one written during the Revolution by an anonymous author who turned out to be Thomas Jefferson.) And the Patriots would be glad to provide some, when they find someone who can read eighteenth-century English, but of course it will be nationalist garbage -- though maybe they won't want to write anything when it requires them to take on that item about slavery: too uncomfortable a topic. Does anybody know of a good treatment anywhere?

Meanwhile, we can contemplate the exact meaning of "conquer we must, when our cause it is just", with reference to the many senses of must, and without raising the scorn of some eight-year-old cynic, as one school did in the Korean War, by replacing "when" with "for".


Anagrysis said...

Now it's very interesting that you mention the current fashionable treatment of the founding fathers as people who just didn't want to pay taxes; that was certainly the image I was left with when I completed AP US History not so long ago. It was my impression, though, that there was some tacit recognition of this point by the founders themselves, viz. John Jay or one of them in the lesser-read Federalist Papers. When I get a chance I'm going to look this up. It is fascinating, is it not?

Happy fourth!

Porlock Junior said...

Some confirmation, then, of my impression that it's in fashion nowadays. It's useful to keep in mind that fashions change. Yeah, duh, but sometimes it's too easy to take the official right answers too seriously. I'll refrain from describing the stuff that was in my high school history textbook, written by the genuinely distinguished historian Samuel Eliot Morrison (or anyway his name appeared somewhere on the title page). But some of it was garbage that would shock you.

There's surely a good case that the colonists tended to be opposed to paying any taxes at all; the problem is in making that a single-factor theory to account for the revolution, and just incidentally, to trivialize it.

Jefferson's piece, as I say, took this on frontally at the time. So much for the idea being a great recent intellectual advance; it was political propaganda 230 years ago. It could be true nonetheless. It could also be BS as it was before. Jefferson's case is reprinted, I think, in The Portable Jefferson, but I don't have time to dig out a proper citation just now. A good work of political rhetoric, as one might expect based on his other work.