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Few people know much about our history during the Revolutionary War. Most of us know that the Declaration of Independence has something to do with July 4. However, recent polls on American’s knowledge of our laws and history show that many people have confused the Declaration of Independence in 1776, with the Constitution in 1787. It was in that almost 12-year period of time between the two events that much fighting and suffering by the colonists took place and before the British finally retreated.
There are some people who are dedicated to making sure that Americans do not forget our shared history and who want citizens to understand that these freedoms that many of us cherish did not come without a lot of pain and loss. It was with this in mind that I attended the re-enactment of the “Burning of Kingston” last weekend.
Kingston was the first capital of the state of New York and was important to commerce due to its being located on the Hudson River. The city was first settled in 1651, so by the time the British came to burn it in 1777, there were buildings and institutions that were well over 100 years old. The British landed on the banks of the Hudson in October of 1777 and proceeded to burn the whole town. People fled only to return with their stonewalled houses standing but not much else.
The re-enactment last weekend was not different what many of us have learned from history books. There was a rag-tag group of what we now call Revolutionary War soldiers and the British, dressed in red coats and well armed and well dressed. Most people thought at the time that they would attack Albany, but in fact they never made it to Albany so Kingston got the brunt of what the British could do.
The re-enactment brought a lot of people on the sidewalks who wanted to show their children what happened. The guns were fired by both sides, and the British re-enactment soldiers had a large cannon that could be heard all over town. It was clear that the American militia back then was outdone by the sheer power of the cannon and the well-equipped British. It certainly made the heroism of the settlers, as well as the original intent of the Second Amendment, clear. Such is the purpose and power of re-enactments.
Other than a bunch of women and men (and young people with their parents) spending a weekend camping, socializing and partaking in a re-enactment, why is this important? It is clearly to improve our awareness and knowledge about why the decisions were made back then and what we might be able to learn from our shared history.
In a speech in September (and reported on by the McClatchy News organization), retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, said
“Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice,” and “About one-third can name the three branches of government. Fewer than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.” She went on to say, “Less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s right there in the name.”
The statistics cited by Justice O’Conner are scary. How can we operate as a country and elect officials to represent our interests if we are so collectively ignorant? How can people make sense of a debt ceiling or the responsibilities of Congress if we don’t have a basic understanding of how and why these decisions were made?
Justice O’Conner summed it up in her September speech, “We have to ensure that our citizens are well informed and prepared to face tough challenges. If there is a single child not learning about civics or not being exposed to what they must do as citizens, then all our lives are poorer for that.”
The weekend’s re-enactment took place against the backdrop of a partial shutdown of the U.S. government. Kingston, the town, was not shut down because it is state government, not federal, but the point of the soldiers’ re-enactment was not lost on the crowd on the street. People risked their lives to establish this country, and although life goes on without the U.S. having a fully operational government, why are we not honoring our past by working together and moving us forward? If it could be done in 1777, why can’t it be done in 2013?