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Stepankowsky column: Knowledge of history is essential for self-government
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Stepankowsky column: Knowledge of history is essential for self-government

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Boston’s Old South Meeting House makes history come alive — and reminds you it often repeats.

It was here, for example, where 5,000 Bostonians protested British taxes, prompting colonists to dump 342 crates of imported British tea into Boston Harbor on Dec. 16, 1773.

Just outside the building’s 300-year-old brick walls, a medallion in the sidewalk marks the spot of the Boston Massacre, when nine British soldiers fired on colonists rioting over the presence of redcoat troops in Boston on March 5, 1770. The first of five casualties was dockworker Crispus Attucks, who was of African and indigenous descent. He and the four others are buried in the nearby churchyard, next to Samuel Adams.

Andre Stepankowsky

ANDRE STEPANKOWSKY

One can almost imagine Adams’ voice booming and echoing off the white walls and galleries of the Old South Meeting House. An unsuccessful brewer but gifted orator and politician, Adams is known as one of the fathers of the American Revolution. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He propagandized the Boston Massacre and helped organize the Committees of Correspondence, which coordinated business and civic resistance to British rule.

Unfortunately, I’d wager more people today know Samuel Adams as a 21st Century beer company than as a patriot. And that’s one of the points of this column.

Yes. My daughter and I visited the Samuel Adams brewery (no relation to the revolutionary except for his name) on a four-day visit to Boston earlier this month. The visit quenched both my thirst for ale and eastern seafood. It also filled my need to refresh and deepen my understanding of our nation’s roots in this time of upheaval.

Boston, then a town of nearly 16,000 (a bit larger than Kelso), became the cradle of the American Revolution. I learned the British sent about 4,000 soldiers to the city and ordered the colonists to pay to quarter them. Bostonians chafed when their city became a military fortress.

Still, about half the town remained loyal to the British Crown. Imagine how conflicted loyalist businesspeople must have felt when the Committees of Correspondence “asked” them not to do business with the British. This sounds a bit like the pinch businesses today face to exclude opponents of masks and vaccines.

We learned John Adams, who later became this nation’s second president, was the lawyer who successfully defended the British soldiers who killed Crispus Attucks and the other Boston Massacre casualties. Adams, like all the founding fathers, abhorred mob rule. At the soldiers’ trial, he portrayed Attucks as a terrifying figure who led an intimidating crowd against British soldiers. However, Adams (a second cousin to Sam Adams) later found inspiration in Attucks’ actions.

No doubt the British regarded Attucks and his compatriots as thugs. Doesn’t this mirror the clamor over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, viewed by myself and most Americans as the work of a mob, but as a patriotic act by a few? History often is in the eye of the beholder.

Visiting Boston’s many historic sites leaves you convinced British authority vis-à-vis its colonists was blockheaded and harsh. Still, were their actions so horrid as to justify bloody revolution? Much of the colonists’ objections were over the Townsend Acts, which taxed the American colonies to pay for its North American war with France and to protect colonists from native tribes. This seems reasonable. But the colonists objected, shouting “no taxation without representation.” Today’s Americans share that independence, such as the many who resist vaccine and mask mandates, as legal and justifiable as they are.

The real value of visits like this is to embed oneself in history, get inspired by it and understand that it is not one-dimensional, as it often is taught in schools. How cool it was, for example, to see Paul Revere’s pistol, which he perhaps carried during his famous midnight ride and which is a reminder of the risks early patriots took to build this nation. (British soldiers detained Revere briefly before he could complete his entire mission).

Visiting the homes and graves of our revolutionary patriots, touring the venues where they worked and spoke, makes history more tangible, and provokes thoughts and questions — if not blueprints for action. Invoking our nation’s founders to guide decisions today is a risky polemic strategy. Who knows what they would have thought about modern issues, as complex and as fraught as they are? They had blemishes: They were prejudiced (a majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners), exclusionary (only propertied white males could vote in early U.S. history) and suspicious of giving too much power to the people.

Yet understanding their motivations — and the pressures and conflicts they faced — inspires and reminds us they successfully grappled with the same elemental questions we still struggle with today: What is the proper role of government? When is violent resistance justified? Just how much should the popular will rule? When does the good of the many outweigh the good of the individual?

Unfortunately, knowledge of our history is woefully poor. The 2020 Annenberg Constitution Civics Survey, for example, found half of American adults could not name the three branches of government. A 2018 survey found that only one in three Americans could pass the U.S. citizenship civics exam.

Knowledge of our history is essential for self-government. An inscription in Boston’s magnificent public library reminds us of that: “The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty.”

Maybe more of us should visit Boston.

Andre Stepankowsky retired in August 2020 after a 41-year career as a reporter and city editor at The Daily News. He has won or shared in many prestigious journalism awards, including the staff’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens. His column will appear on the editorial page every other Wednesday.

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Michael Paul Williams — a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va. — won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary "for penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city's monuments to white supremacy."

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