Friday, July 6, 2012

A Declaration of Ignorance...and a Resolve to Overcome it



With the storm that hit the DC metro area we were fortunate to visit Colonial Williamsburg for the 4th. It was cool. Not in temperature though...that was blazing.

Williamsburg is one of our favorite places to visit. It's one of the few places where you can get pre-colonial, colonial, revolutinary, post-revolutionary, and civil war history all wrapped up in one. 

On the 4th though, Colonial Williamsburg is extra special.

We got to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence from the Capitol steps--the capitol that hosted pre-revolutionary governors as well. I don't consider myself an emotional person, but I was moved to tears.

The crowd got to yell our "huzzahs" at the end of the reading while the actors added their bits. A fife and drum group played before and after the reading marching down the road in their colonial garb, and it was all so moving.

As we were mingling with the crowds I overheard a conversation of a couple discussing how little they knew about the Declaration. Sadly, this is true of myself and I think of many Americans. So I now declare a resolve to remove my ignorance of important historical events and share it for those who might be interested.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence when he was just 33 years old. John Adams and others wanted the Declaration to be written by a Virginian and so Jefferson was pressed into writing it even though he felt his more senior compatriots would be better suited to draft such a lofty document.

Jefferson finally conceded and sat down to write a treatise on the reasons war was not only necessary but also justifiable:
"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." (For the full document  see: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html)
When Jefferson presented his document to the Continental Congress they ripped into and significant changes were made until the final draft was deemed ready and then ratified. So although independence was declared on July 2, 1776, we celebrate July 4th, the day the Declaration was ratified. A testament to the power of the pen.

History has become a new fascination for me. I've even embarked upon a study of ancient history, which for those who know me is quite a change from my usual interests, but I've felt the need to educate myself about the civilizations that have come and fallen. I supposed all the comparisons of America and Rome got me started, but I didn't want to read someone else's ideas of why Rome and the U.S. are alike, I wanted to study what I could of Rome and draw my own conclusions.

It's no doubt that Roman ideals permeated all of European society and influenced our own Founding Fathers, but what was it about the Romans that made them so effective and why then did they fall from grace? The answers I've found so far are varied.

I checked out a shortened volume of Gibbons writings on Rome. Gibbons was the foremost authority on Rome for a time, but some of his suppositions have fallen out of favor in light of new evidence, and quite frankly I got frustrated after a few pages into it because he drops names and places like the average person would know what he was talking about. In his day, though, educated people did know what he was talking about because a study of Rome and studies of the classics were considered a normal education in the day of our country's founders.

Needless to say, I put my frustrations aside (and my copy of Gibbons) and started with DVDs instead. Our library had great documentaries on Rome and my husband and I watched them all. I learned about people in Roman history well beyond the Caesars. I found out about Cincinnatus, Septimius Severus (those two names will no doubt sound familiar to lovers of JF) or more on the bizarre side, Elagabulus, who supposedly worshipped a black rock which he at times would carry around with him walking backwards.

After finishing the DVDs, I was finally able to understand some of what Gibbons was talking about, but I wanted to modernize any further research before attempting anymore of Gibbon's writing.

I searched "fall of Rome" in my library's catalog and found two books available at the time that also piqued my interested: The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, by Susan Wise Bauer, and How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill.

I want to meet Ms. Bauer, who happens to be a professor at William and Mary where we were vacationing. Her book was so enjoyable. If I could gush praises over the computer you'd all be drowning in it. I absolutely love her book. Now at 777 pages, I should say I haven't finished it yet, but it's a keeper and one I long to own. Before I plug the flood of praise for the writer--whose style is just incredible--I should also say, she has books on homeschooling and on writing as well.

Okay, back to the book, The History of the Ancient World is so informative and well written that the size of the book will quickly seem small. The chapters are short but easy to follow and put the various civilizations in perspective in their times. I can't recommend this book enough.

How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, I picked up on a whim and being the shorter of the two at just over 200 pages was able to finish it quickly. In part because of its length but also because of its ease of read. Cahill covers a part of history rarely talked about--the influence of the Christianized Irish in saving literature that otherwise would have been lost to us. He talks of St. Patrick's influence and of the monks from Ireland who took their love of manuscripts (think Book of Kells) abroad and their fastidious copying of texts. (By the way, there's a great animated film based loosely on the history of the Book of Kells: The Secret of the Kells)

Besides the umbrage I take with his comment on page 49, I recommend this book. I should warn however, that his exploration of Celtic traditions can be a bit bawdy.

So how did I get from the Declaration of Independence to Ireland in one post? I've felt compelled to study the history of our world's civilizations I supposed because I see things that alarm me in mine.

After coming back to America from 7 years overseas, I saw a culture that was changing not always for the best. The same issues that felled the civilizations of yore, divisiveness among political parties, races, religions, social classes, and corruption, greed, arrogance and abject selfishness on the part of the populace and its leaders all seemed more pronounced to me. I think this is in part because we've forgotten where we came from, what others fought for and what a wonder our history is when contrasted with the long line of failed civilizations and tyranny.

The motto of Colonial Williamsburg is, "The future may learn from the past." And so I start where I began, as do we all--our history and our future are inextricably tied. May we learn from it in time.


2 comments:

  1. They take some literary liberties, but the musical "1776" is an excellent introduction to the writing of the Declaration of Independence. And the BYU production of "A More Perfect Union" is a great introduction to the writing of the Constitution.

    I applaud your desire to learn more about history. I find it fascinating.

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  2. amen! i'm going to order susan's and the irish ones.

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