My wife, Dori, got up early last Fourth of July to put the flags out. In our front hall closet, we keep a bundle of 30-inch tall American flags that we have collected over the years. Some are freebies from parades years ago in rural Maryland; some are from a local real estate agent who hires kids each year to plant one in every body’s front yard; and some rank in the category of “very special” because they used to belong to Dori’s dad.
After her folks passed away and we helped with the sad task of cleaning out their house, Dori made sure that she claimed the flags that dad had regularly lined the walkway with on Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Labor Day. They were a sincere way for that first generation German to tout his loyalty and pay his respects to Old Glory. To this day, Dori follows in her dad’s tradition on national holidays by displaying our flag collection along the walk.
I paged through the newspaper and came across a list of activities to help locals mark the day. There were the usual town parades and fireworks displays, but I also noted some events scheduled for Princeton Battlefield State Park. As a third grade teacher, Dori had gone there yearly with her class, and I had visited the grounds a few times, but had never participated in any activities. I also had never been inside the Clarke House — Thomas Clarke being the farmer upon whose land the battle took place. I suggested to Dori that this might be a nice thing to do and she agreed.
I cued up Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” on my i-Pod and used its triumphal fanfare to greet Dori as she got into the car. After all, today was a day made to celebrate the deeds of the average men and women who had helped secure our freedoms more than two centuries ago.
We made the most of the day by first having breakfast at P.J.’s Pancake House and window shopping around Princeton before going to the battlefield. After parking the car, we walked up a long, grassy incline toward the Clarke House. At the expense of sounding melodramatic, I couldn’t help but think of what had once played out on this swath of ancient crop land — the deafening sound of muskets and cannon balls whizzing overhead, the choking, sulfuric smoke enveloping the landscape, the pierced and shattered bodies dropping and hallowing this ground, baptizing it with the blood of brave friend and foe alike.
We got to the top of the hill just in time to hear an 18th century costumed interpreter rapidly recount the events of that day in December, 1776, when the ragged troops of George Washington and Hugh Mercer, crucially abetted by some artillery pieces well-manned by Philadelphia dock workers, were able to hold back and outflank the British forces. The Redcoats and Hessians were forced to retreat to “Prince Town” where they were thoroughly routed by the superior number of Continental troops in the field. The only bad news of the day was the severe bayoneting of General Mercer, who was taken to the Clarke House where he died less than a week later. Much of the actual Battle of Princeton took place in and around Nassau Hall, now a Princeton campus landmark.
Dori and I then toured the Clarke House, once a Quaker homestead whose owner’s pacifist beliefs kept him from participating in the fray. We saw the room in which General Mercer breathed his last and looked at the exhibits in the other rooms.
As we came out of the house, a crowd was gathering around the interpreter. He held a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence and said that a rider had just come on horseback to deliver it. He urged the other costumed re-enactors to gather around him, and then proceeded to read the Declaration.
I had heard or read the words of this famous document a few times previously, but I must admit to feeling a special thrill hearing them spoken in this place and at this time. I was especially taken with the “long train of abuses and usurpations” enumerated by Thomas Jefferson and his collaborators. The line about “imposing taxes on us without our consent” drew a predictable reaction.
When the reading was finished, three women spontaneously began to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” Though the period interpreter said he was not familiar with such a song (and couldn’t be because it would not be written for another 38 years), others in the crowd joined in until almost all were singing.
Then Dori and I walked a short distance to the Friends Meeting House, where the fallen of both sides had been cared for by the Quakers and whose burial ground supposedly holds some of the battle’s fallen. It is also the final resting place of New Jersey’s Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who owns the uncoveted reputation of having renounced this brave act, after being captured and imprisoned by the British. The official record reports that he did so because of illness and a need to escape his dank prison, though this appears to fly in the face of fellow patriot Thomas Paine’s earlier warning about “fair weather patriots.” Regardless, today Stockton has a town and a state college named after him, which at the very least shows that his home state doesn’t hold a grudge.
We walked back through the lush woods separating the Quaker Meeting House from the Clarke House. I thought of how many times the Clarke family over the years had made this same journey — returning from worshiping, from welcoming newborn members into their fold, and from laying to rest the dead in their simple burial ground.
Before we drove back home, I cued up Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” which is a vastly different kind of American anthem than Francis Scott Key’s and, in its celebration of the common man, closer in spirit to Copeland’s piece.
So, what is this patriotism I had apparently seen in such abundance today? Surely Dori’s placement of the flags that morning was a form of patriotism, even if it was touched by a tinge of sentimentality regarding her dad.
Copeland’s and Springsteen’s music? Yes, if written for the right reasons, and certainly written for the undeniable emotional impact each can have on a listener. There’s a connectedness one feels, a sense of being part of a larger community that chooses to stick together against real or imagined foes. I guess that’s part of what patriotism represents.
Was there patriotism in the events I witnessed at the Princeton Battlefield Park? I don’t believe that the average person who showed up that day did so to be patriotic. Many were with young families and I think that their attendance was a mixture of finding something appropriate to do that day (as was my motive) and a sincere desire to pass a sense of history and community on to their children. But the end result was to feed the patriotic impulse — to feel proud of our country and appreciate the many freedoms we revel in daily, without a thought of what it would be like without them.
So why, when this day was almost over and we prepared to have our steaks on the grill, was I left with such a feeling of unease, of something being not quite what it seems? Slowly the reason dawned on me. Though I wouldn’t dream of impugning any of the fine people I observed that day, I realized how the simple patriotic impulse, including that found in our music and staged activities, can so often be warped and perverted to serve baser motives.
The last two presidential elections were classic case studies in which patriotism was used as a cudgel to beat back honorable men. The motives for the Iraq War, which most now know were intellectually dishonest, were wrapped in red, white, and blue bunting to make them palatable, like sugar coating bad medicine. The subsequent suspension of habeas corpus for captured “terrorists,” their unspeakable torture in “black sites” abroad, illegal wiretapping of average Americans carried out under the cynically named Patriot Act — these were all promulgated under the banner of patriotism and any one expressing doubts was — and still is — accused by a vocal minority of not loving America or supporting our troops. This is the dark, underside of patriotism, and this is the unspoken message masked by those little flags on our walkway.
I am convinced that there is a form of pornographic patriotism afoot in this land. It takes something that is good and right and natural — in this case a primal love for your country — and subverts and exploits it for gain. This brand of pornography lurks in flag lapel pins and bumper stickers that combine slogans and candidates’ names with the colors of “Old Glory.” It lurks in those huge flag backdrops at managed political events supporting questionable agendas.
I don’t have a solution to any of this — just these thoughts to offer, and a hope that the upcoming election will bring an end to these dark days, which to me, at age 63, came upon the land with the swiftness of a mean summer storm.
Perhaps the best characterization of the events of July 4, 2007, and my later ponderings might be found in the apt counsel of 18th century British essayist Samuel Johnson whose London house I visited while on a business trip last year. During my self-guided tour, I read one of his quotes that, though I had heard it before, carried a special resonance during the declining reign of the second King George. Well before Tom Jefferson took quill to parchment, Johnson warned us to be wary of patriotism because it is often “the last refuge of scoundrels.”
But this sentiment was certainly no frame of mind in which to end a lovely summer’s day last year. We’d soon be hearing the distant thunder of fireworks in nearby towns and I didn’t want to disrespect the integrity of all those attending by implying that this Fourth was just part of a big con game being run out of Washington. Yes, people were now gathering for the “wow!” factor skyrockets bring, but they were also huddling in football fields and parks to be part of a community that truly takes pride in its country.
For many in our ethnically mixed locale, the United States is their adopted homeland. Our neighbors hail from places as distant as Hyderabad, India, and Wuhan, China. I know this because Dori teaches their children in one of our local schools. Their parents have come to America for the same reasons my grandparents did — to seek a better life, for economic opportunity, and for the freedoms which we have guaranteed in our Bill of Rights.
So the best way I found to frame last year’s Fourth of July, and no doubt this year’s as well, is to adopt the attitude that “this day too shall pass.” The Republic has weathered similar storms, from the excesses of the Civil War to the witch hunts of McCarthyism and the Constitutional predations of Watergate and Iran Contra. It will weather this storm too.
I guess the Founding Fathers must have got it right more than two centuries ago when they gave us the blueprints to help survive the baser instincts of our fragile, but predictable, race. Let us hope that after the balance of power and reason have returned to Washington and scholars have written their histories of what might someday be termed Bush’s War, our grandkids will still be eager to plant those aging, 30-inch flags along their walks in celebration of what they treasure most about the US of A.
Frank Batavick, former vice president/chief content officer for Films for the Humanities and Sciences at American Metro Center, recently moved from Plainsboro to Baltimore, MD, where he continues to write and produce documentaries for education.