November 09, 2009


one of the more awkward situations i've ever been a part of transpired when my big brother eric and i traveled together to boston. i was a junior in high school and he was a sophomore in college and we had the same spring break, so we drove out to visit some family and be tourists in boston.

one of our stops was at the boston tea party site, where you can board an imitation boat, attend an imitation town meeting, and then throw an imitation crate of tea over the side of the imitation boat (after which, because the crate is tethered with a rope, and because we can't actually all throw crates into the harbor, you have to haul the crate back up and hand it to the next person in line).

the whole attraction is really best enjoyed when you're about 13, which is not to say it's without merit, but the enjoyment you get out of it at any other age is just pure irony.

the real low point was the town meeting. our spring break was in mid-march, well before tourist season, so the group of us present at the town meeting numbered about 7, scattered around benches that could have seated 40. eric and i, an elderly asian couple, and a young european couple with two young children were the rebels present on this particular day. a young girl, who i can only guess was a history major unhappy with the way her life was turning out, stood before us. she explained that the revolution was popularized in new england by town meeetings, during which the town officials would tell news of what the british were doing and get the crowd riled up. when the crowd was pleased, they would pump their fists and yell "aye!" when the crowd was angered, they would point and the ground and yell "fie!" she had us practice this, and from that moment it was clear that those present with us did not understand english, or were pretending not to.

she started the meeting. she reminded us of the stamp act (fie!). general washington was raising a colonial army (aye!), but there were already ships full of british soldiers crossing the atlantics (fie!). now they were imposing the tea tax (fie!) but the sons of liberty weren't going to take it (aye!). as the asians and europeans looked on blandly, eric and i gamely carried the mob mentality a deux. we yelled aye and fie as often as expected, but this only served to highlight how pathetic the whole spectacle was. at one point, eric got mixed up and shouted "fie!" while pumping his fist, instead of pointing at the ground. this gave us the giggles, and the town meeting continue to go downhill. we tried to participate as good-naturedly as possible, regarding our tour guide with the trademark combination of amusement and pity with which you regard anyone who wears a costume for a living, but our efforts were not enough to keep the desperation and humiliation out of her eyes, barely visible below her historically accurate lace bonnet.

all this is to say that i've never been carried away by the revolutionary spirit. this is one of the reasons i love james madison.

washington began his career as an officer in the british army. always the upward mover, he actually sent an embarrassingly grovelly letter to a british admiral asking for a promotion, which he was not given.

adams and jefferson both studied law, and began their careers as opposition to the british was growing popular. it was something they had to consider gravely, and incorporate into their public philosophies.

madison was about 16 when the stamp act was passed, and the decade that passed between that and the declaration he spent at school, college, and back in virginia at his family's estate. when at princeton (then called the college of new jersey), he and his classmates debated the idea of british rule in their commencement oratories. he studied Moral Philosophy (a subject that at the time included ethics, political science, economics, and philosphy) in the context of america's role vis a vis tyrannical britain. he grew up with the idea of revolution, and he loved it.

after college, he and william bradford, a princeton classmate and philadelphia printer, decided to keep up a regular correspondence for "pleasure and improvement." this correspondence soon became an exchange of revolutionary ideas, news, and gossip. as many of the men who went on to vote for independence were out fighting, debating, or writing, madison was a 23-year-old on his family farm, pumping his fist. he was a convert of the purest form, not bothering to temper his arguments against those who might disagree, never discussing his ideas with anyone except those who vehemently agreed, and rushing to swift, aggressive conclusions. where the first 3 presidents have come across as wise, reasonable men in the time of independence, madison comes across as an enthusiast. it's endearing. aye!

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