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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Founding Fathers

The History Channel produced a vivid and riveting portrait of the Founding Fathers that is well worth watching. (Available from Netflix.) Consisting of four programs, it melds narration with enlightening comments from historians. It was very surprising to me to learn of the large role played by Samuel Adams, a failure at virtually everything else, without whom the revolution probably never would have taken place. He was part instigator, part terrorist, part propagandist and brilliant organizer who fired up Bostonians with the help and support of John Hancock. His likeness probably belons on a coin.

John Adams was very pessimistic before he arrived at the first Continental Congress. He despaired that there would be enough intelligence to pull it off. George Washington, despite his protests to the contrary that he did not want to become Commander in Chief of the armies, wore his French and Indian War (a war in which he hardly distinguished himself) colonel's uniform as a subtle reminder to the delegates of his military experience every day of the meetings. He just "happened" to have packed it for the trip.

The founders are revealed as humans who often did not get along. For me, that makes them all the more remarkable. We are already overwhelmed with too much hagiography and iconography in the schools. Some of that myth-making we owe to early 19th century historians who took great liberties in recording anecdotes and speeches that most likely never happened. (See, for example, the cherry tree story or the Patrick Henry famous quotes.) Reality is always more satisfying.

There are some lessons that are worth relearning. The British had overwhelming military and monetary superiority, if not even popular support -- and there is evidence that a majority disliked the idea of independence. Yet, the revolutionaries had location on their side. I can't think of an example where a foreign or colonial power has been able to win in the long run over a local insurgency because the locals know that, eventually, the distant power will have to leave. We failed to understand that in Vietnam and perhaps we will have to relearn it in Iraq.

While the programs have been criticized for being to short and leaving the viewers with more questions than answers, I find that to be one of the series strengths. Anything that encourages the viewer to want to learn more is a plus.
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