Visiting the Museum of the American Revolution

I visited the Museum of the American Revolution in Old City, Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon for the first time. I’ve been looking forward to the Museum opening since news first broke a few years ago that it was coming. The way that the Museum has transformed what was a dead part of Old City (3rd and Chestnut) into an attractive, civically meaningful space is worth celebrating.

It was $19 for a ticket, and the entire space feels both traditional and modern, honoring the stories of the American Revolution in an uplifting way.

That was my impression from the visit: the Museum really tells the stories (plural) of the American Revolution as much as it communicates the meta-narrative of the revolution as a political and world-historical act. This was impressive, and I’m pleased in particular with the way that the story of the Oneida Indians is told, as well as littler moments like the incursion into Quebec and attempt to broaden the war there, along with the stories of prominent women and blacks in the war.

A disappointment was what felt like a propagandistic treatment of the idea of “liberty” in the American Revolution, one that spoke of liberty in the sense that it is ever expanding and implicitly destined for America to expand around the globe. The sense of the American Revolution as an essential conservative resolution, and indeed one of the only successful conservative revolutions in history, was not meaningfully communicated. There were some initial panels on the evolution of the idea of “American Liberty” as distinct from “British Liberty” and the historical role played by Britain in protecting rights—but there was not, to my mind, the necessary underscoring that the American Revolution didn’t represent a radical break with the past so much as a conservation of the best aspects and principles of ancient, constitutional self-governance and a fulfillment of Enlightenment-era ideas around the dignity and liberty of free peoples with respect to government. To some degree, I’m quibbling.

Overall, the Museum is an excellent addition to Philadelphia’s historical and educational landscape. It’s a substantial place of learning and appreciation, especially for visitors who have for too long suffered from too much kitsch in Old City and not enough meaningful history.

Liberty Bell Shrine

I was in Allentown last month, and stepped out of Bell Hall after a good dinner and walked a bit with friends before noticing the “Liberty Bell Shrine” basically next door.

Because we were solidly into the evening, Liberty Bell Shrine was locked for the night on this stretch of the main stretch of Allentown that doesn’t seem particularly lively after dark—at least not in community-building and confidence-inspiring ways. Still, it was great to run into this place. The historical plaques I snapped tell the story to some degree, and one of them was placed by the Sons of the American Revolution a while ago.

The Liberty Bell, a symbol of the nascent fight for independence during the American Revolution, was brought to Allentown at some point during the war for safekeeping. I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember the fear was that the British would seize upon it to melt it down for ammunition as much as for the practical purpose of destroying a symbol of colonial rebellion.

Little chapters of our great, common history.

Lafayette

From Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” that paints a portrait of New York from another time:

If Fort Clinton was heroism, Castle Garden was the glory heroism earned.

It was at Castle Garden that on August 16, 1824 that, in the words of one historian, ‘it was proved that Republics are not always ungrateful.’ For it was at Castle Garden on that date that Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette (who as a rich young nobleman had defied his king and fought for America) returned to it 67 years old and penniless.

‘Many of the spectators doubtless had in mind a galant, boyish figure in the buff and blue of the American Revolution, with powdered hair tied in a cue,’ the historian wrote.

What they saw was an old civilian in a short-haired brown wig. But when the old civilian stepped onto the Castle Garden landing stage, after a trip up the harbor on which the ship was escorted on a huge flotilla to begin a visit on which he was to receive from the government and citizens of the United States gifts of bonds and land worth almost half a million dollars, the Castle’s cannon roared out a hundred times.

When the old man walked slowly into Battery Park to the incessant huzzahs of the multitude that packed the waterfront, he walked between the weeping ranks of the Lafayette guards. When he rode up Broadway, men and women on rooftops threw flowers in his path. A month later a tall spar was raised in the center of the Fort, a vast awning of sail cloth was spread across its entire ceiling, the white banner of France was entwined with the Stars and Stripes, trophies of arms glittered from the walls, and when Lafayette appeared at the ball, the gay sets dissolved and the dancers formed a long lane, and as the old man walked along it he saw that each man and woman was wearing a medallion bearing his likeness, the women’s entwined with roses.

And it was at Castle Clinton that, ten years later, the handful of Lafayette guards still alive drew up in a hollow square in the center of which was a riderless black horse, spurred boots reversed slung across its empty saddle, to hear the funeral oration for their dead hero.

Lafayette visited every one of America’s 24 states on this visit. I wish Philadelphia would name something prominent in his honor.

Symbolism

I wrote last July about joining the Sons of the American Revolution a few years ago. The Sons of the American Revolution, headquartered in Louisville, are peers of the more recognized Daughters of the American Revolution, headquartered in Washington, DC.

One of the things that has strengthened my commitment to the SAR has been learning about both the layers of meaning within the organization, and the earnest efforts of so many as fellows in an patriotic, historical, and educational fraternity. Sharing a bit of the historical meaning of the SAR’s insignia:

image002.pngThe SAR insignia consists of a Maltese cross surrounded by a garland, with a relief of George Washington in a center circle.

The cross’s vertical bar represents the commandment “You Shall Love Your God”; the horizontal bar represents the commandment “You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” The four limbs are a reminder of the four cardinal virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage); its eight points represent eight spiritual injunctions:

  1. To have spiritual contentment
  2. To live without malice
  3. To weep over your sins
  4. To humble yourself at insults
  5. To love justice
  6. To be merciful
  7. To be sincere and open-hearted
  8. To suffer persecution

Surrounding the relief of Washington in the center are the words “Libertas et Patria,” (Liberty and Country) a reminder of the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Duane L. C. M. Galles has written more extensively on the SAR insignia’s creation, noting the significant influence of French revolutionary assistance.

American experimentation

On the way from State College to Philadelphia yesterday I read David McCullough’s Jefferson Lecture, The Course of Human Events. It’s a short and accessible ~30 pages; worth reading if you’re unacquainted with McCullough as an historian or if you’re just interested in a refreshed perspective on the Revolutionary era:

“One of our innumerable advantages as a nation and a society is that we have such a specific moment of origin as the year 1776. And that we know who the Founders were—indeed we know an immense amount about an immense number of those at all levels who in that revolutionary time brought the United States of America and the reality of freedom into being.

But while it is essential to remember them as individual mortal beings no more perfect than are we, and that they themselves knew this better than anyone, it is also essential to understand that they knew their own great achievements to be imperfect and incomplete.

The American experiment was from its start an unfulfilled promise. There was much work to be done. There were glaring flaws to correct, unfinished business to attend to, improvements and necessary adjustments to devise in order to keep pace with the onrush of growth and change and expanding opportunities.”

This speaks to the reflexive and frankly stupid complaining I hear too often of the founders as “a bunch of old white men” and as complex and imperfect creators of a nation that itself is complex and imperfect. As McCullough illustrates, America has always been a work in progress and the founders understood that work to be the work of every generation.

To assault their memory as tainted by the flaws of their character and the imperfections of their statecraft is an assault that is, in time, applicable to every generation in every culture.

Independence

Bruce Shakely, my great uncle, turns 92 this month. It’s hard to believe it’s already been two years since I headed out to Western Pennsylvania to celebrate his 90th birthday with him in what became a national family reunion. It was during that visit that my grandfather’s cousin’s daughter and I connected and she provided me with the genealogical records that I needed to join the Sons of the American Revolution:

The SAR is a historical, educational, and patriotic non-profit, United States 501(c)3, corporation that seeks to maintain and extend: the institutions of American freedom, an appreciation for true patriotism, a respect for our national symbols, the value of American citizenship, the unifying force of e pluribus unum that has created, from the people of many nations, one nation and one people.

We do this by perpetuating the stories of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, tragedy, and triumph of the men who achieved the independence of the American people in the belief that these stories are universal ones of man’s eternal struggle against tyranny, relevant to all time, and will inspire and strengthen each succeeding generation as it too is called upon to defend our freedoms on the battlefield and in our public institutions.

SAR has roughly 30,000 national members. This pales in comparison to the Daughters of the American Revolution that have more like 300,000 members. I don’t know whether that means SAR has historically done a poor job of recruitment, whether DAR has done better, or whether one gender tends to be more or less interested in membership.

It is fascinating to be a member, and receive the regular news mailings from the national, state, and local chapter. I feel a bit more connected both to my Revolutionary-era ancestors and my family, and also to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. A small example is Washington Square in Philadelphia, where a small memorial to Washington stands with a little altar and perpetual flame. This was placed there in part through SAR efforts in the 1950s.

Having the SAR connection is helpful for me to think about the sort of things that might be done in the future based on the past. I’m glad I joined and hope it can become a wider family tradition.