The Boston Freedom Trail
It’s in Boston, the city sometimes described as ‘the cradle of America’, that we pick up this story of ‘America, the resentful adolescent’. You see, to stick with this metaphor, the USA has been a rather spoilt child over the years. It was born into privilege with rights it feels are indisputably intrinsic. But as we’re about to find out, it might be time to pack away the cradle, to not rest on its birthright, and to make a name for itself as the adult it could be.
Now, just before we go on, there are two things I need to say. The first thing is that I’m going to drop the silly child metaphor from here. And the second thing is that this is not a politically-motivated story and is not taking aim at either side of the ideological debate. What you’re about to read is an attempt to see modern America through the context of the history learnt on a trip to Boston.
It all takes place on the most popular tourist attraction in the Massachusetts capital known as ‘The Freedom Trail’, a four kilometre walk of red bricks through the city that takes visitors past the most important historical sites. Put together, these sites tell the story of The American Revolution – the struggle of the colonists to gain independence from their British rulers.
To condense the history, essentially the British citizens who had moved to the new land of America were getting unhappy with laws, taxes and authority being imposed on them by a government and a king thousands of kilometres away. They accepted they were still citizens of the crown, but they argued that the impositions were unfair because they had no representation in London in the parliament that was making the laws.
The British Government kept putting up taxes and making new laws until eventually a new tax on tea pushed the colonists over the edge and they destroyed a million dollars (in today’s currency) worth of tea that was in a boat on Boston Harbour. It became known as The Boston Tea Party (sound familiar?) and was one of the catalysts of all-out war. Then there was some fighting… yah dee dah… a declaration of independence… yah dee dah… and then the USA was born.
It was born, after years of bloody war, with a feeling of entitlement and a sense that it owed nothing for its existence because the creation of the republic was at its own hands. That sentiment has been carried through the generations and gets us to modern day America.
In the US these days, it seems the public has created an atmosphere where the focus is more on the rights of the citizens than on the responsibilities. People famously have the right to bear arms, for example. Legally, there is still the right to only be taxed if agreed by the government. And, slightly more ambiguously, many Americans have told me in conversation they have the right not to do things like vote in elections.
The very tenets of the formation of America in those early years after breaking away from Britain were based around the idea of independence. Back then, the attitude was about a country being able to make its own laws and create its own destiny. Now that same attitude seems to be used by each individual to give themselves the entitlement of independence from whatever they want. They feel they are beholden to nobody and should be able to make of the world what they want, regardless of others.
I’m not talking here about being selfish or uncaring, for instance. I’m talking about a general disassociation with the political process, the governments which they (or at least some of them) elect and the responsibility they have to the community. The people of America became Americans, rather than British, by rejecting a monarch and rejecting a parliament that tried to force responsibility on them. The first signs of dissent from the early colonists were when they were asked to pay a small share of the bill for a war that was fought on their land to protect them, for example.
The tour of Boston’s historical sites takes you to the Old South Meeting House, where thousands of people gathered in 1773 to protest the tax on tea; it takes you to the site of the Boston Massacre, where British troops fired into a crowd after they were attacked by them (‘massacre’ or ‘self-defence’?); and it takes you to landmarks associated with stars of the revolution like Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Paul Revere. It’s interesting to hear the official version of history from the guides but it’s also worth considering how it translates to the world as we know it today.
In my next post I’m going to write about one of Boston’s favourite sons, President John F Kennedy. Probably his most famous quote (and he has a lot of great ones) was made during his inauguration when he said, “ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country”. It’s worth pondering how that fits in with a philosophy of independence and, in the context of being in the cradle of America, how popular a statement like that would have been in a time of revolution.
Here are some related posts:
- Is the sun setting on America?
- JFK – before he was an airport
- Occupy Wall St
- The pretzel man’s the breadwinner
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