Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Sacred Calls of Country

As I write in my Documenting America series, I read much in historical American documents that does not ring a bell as having been covered in my history classes. Why is that? Is it simply a matter of time—too many decades passes since freshman year at URI? Maybe they were covered and I just can't remember. Is it that my interests have changed? Rather than merely wanting to pass a class, I want to know the history of this great nation. History was a favorite topic for me, but the needs to pass the class often precluded the joy of mere study. That pendulum has swung, never to return.

Is it the experience of years? Maybe I now know that a history book covering one semester can't possibly hold everything that's important. The historian, or the history book writer, must sift through mountains of material to result in a manageable amount for the purpose at hand. Or is it perhaps the perspective of hindsight? Forty years of watching the USA in action, observing politics and all that politics affects, and five years of living in the Middle East gives a man a perspective markedly different than a student.

For any or all of these reasons, or perhaps for reasons unstated, I find myself drawn to these original documents out of America's history. My entry point was James Otis' court argument concerning the Writs of Assistance. This took place in 1761, a full fourteen years before the Revolutionary War broke out, fifteen before we declared the thirteen colonies to be independent, twenty-two before the treaty that established the USA in the roll call of nations, and twenty-eight before we had a working, sustainable government in place. This was, in my judgment, the opening step in our march to independence. While only a part of the argument is extant, what we have is a great example of legal and political rhetoric, and inspiring to this American, and should be to many others. I give this short quote to illustrate:
The only principles of public conduct that are worthy of a…man are to sacrifice estate, ease, health, and applause, and even life, to the sacred calls of his country.

So how come this wasn't covered in my history classes? Why have I not, for forty if not fifty years, put James Otis on the pedestal next to Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin? Is the fault that of the student, the teachers, or the history textbook writers? Who knows?

The bigger question for me, having found this among a treasure trove of documents now available in the Information Age, is will my book(s) make a difference? That only time and sales will tell.

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