Your RDA of Irony

Good Old Boring Truth

History is supposed to be true even at the risk of being boring. Of course, no one expects Hollywood to abide by that constraint. (Mel Gibson’s Martin Luther would have a spectacular sword fight with Pope Leo X.) As the Fourth of July approaches, Talk Radio will be taking similar liberties with the American Revolution.

The firecracking patriots of the airwaves will extol the heroic deaths and noble sacrifices of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. According to the script, “Nine fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War….Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died….Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.” This recitation is dramatic and poignant, as well it should be. After all, who wants to hear banal lies and boring exaggerations?

This radio rhetoric is based upon an anonymous essay circulating on the internet. It is a remarkable effort at distortion and fabrication. For example, nine of the signers did die during the Revolutionary War. However, none died in battle. Seven died of natural causes; the 18th century physician was far more dangerous than the British soldier. As for the two deaths by unnatural cause, Button Gwinnett lost a duel to an American officer, while Thomas Lynch drowned in a shipwreck.

The script also fabricates the torture and death of imprisoned signers. Yes, five were captured and all have since died; however, only Richard Stockton suffered any mistreatment. In November 1776, he was captured by American Loyalists, alias the Tories. Stockton was fortunate that he lived to be imprisoned. (Both the Tory and the Continental militias were known to scalp captives.) The Continental Congress negotiated with the British to secure Stockton’s release after a few months of imprisonment, but the squalid conditions of his confinement ruined his health. He died four years later.

The other captives merely suffered embarrassment. George Walton surrendered with the hapless garrison of Savannah. Edward Ruttledge, Thomas Heyward and Arthur Middleton were captured when Charleston fell. Rather than torture and death, they enjoyed the benefits of British snobbery. They were esteemed as officers and gentlemen, men of stature and breeding. (Middleton was a graduate of the real Cambridge, not the pretentious upstart in Massachusetts.) While the enlisted men were herded into the holds of prison ships, the celebrity captives were kept in modest comfort waiting to be exchanged for captured British officers.

As the essay asserts, a dozen signers saw their homes ransacked or burned. However, the culprits were not always British. In several cases, the attacks were by the signers’ Tory neighbors. The Conservatives of the time vehemently opposed the Revolution. Here is another awkward fact ignored by the essay. The home of James Wilson was pillaged but by the Revolutionaries, who suspected the Pennsylvanian of being a turncoat.

The script goes on with its litany of distortions and evasions. It claims that Carter Braxton and Robert Morris sacrificed their fortunes for the Revolution “and died in rags”; in fact, they went bankrupt decades later in land speculation. The essay reports that Lyman Hall, Arthur Middleton, Thomas Heyward and George Wythe suffered the “vandalism and looting” of their plantations. Yes, the British also freed the slaves, an inconvenient fact overlooked in this paean to liberty.

What is the purpose of this travesty of history? Can we justify the American Revolution only by lying about it? There is no need for melodrama or special effects. It does not matter that George Ross died of gout in 1779 rather than British bayonets. The truth itself is fascinating and important. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were audacious visionaries.

They hoped to justify armed rebellion against the world’s greatest power and most liberal government. As British subjects, they enjoyed a degree of freedom unknown to any other people at the time. Indeed, when confronted with an unresponsive myopic bureaucracy, these Revolutionaries invoked the English right to resist injustice. The Declaration of Independence takes that principle and boldly expands upon it. Freedom was not just an English idiosyncrasy but the natural right of all mankind. That idea was the American Revolution.

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    Just for the sake of clarity, Eugene, let’s make it clear on which side of the aisle these outright lies and distortions originate.

    This garbage is the jingoistic by-product of the “conservative” right wing, the same gang of liars and curpurses that brings us “America was founded as a Christian nation,” “There is no separation between Church and State” and other such evil filth.

    The other question must be, of course, WHY they do it. To me, the answer is clear. You’ve hinted at it yourself. Everything that was worth anything from that era bore the stamp of liberal thinking, with the exception being the conservative lick-spittle Tories, who yearned for “the good, old days” just as their progeny does today; good, old days that have never been and never will be.

    Conservatism is, in both practice and effect, a lie. The liars who propagate it must, perforce, keep coming up with more lies to bolster the ones they’ve already told. By dint of necessity, then, George Washington goes from radical liberal to stodgy conservative. Thomas Jefferson’s inspired atheism gets marginalized, John Adams’ advocacy for the most vilified people on the continent (the British soldiers of the Boston “massacre”) gets disappeared, and Thomas Paine’s invective against conservatism simply ceases to exist.

    Personally, I desise liars even more than I do thieves. Maybe that’s why I so thoroughly and completely loathe conservatives on both counts.

  2. Mike Field says:

    Thanks Eugene for a great essay. I haven’t seen the original you reference, but when it comes my way I will now be prepared to respond! Happy fourth.

  3. Peggles says:

    Wonderful, as always.

  4. Tosh says:

    That darned truth, why must you be such a flaming Liberal?

  5. On the Fourth of July, we should remember the Conservatives’ contribution to the American Revolution: they lost the war.

  6. Hal Gordon says:

    I’m puzzled by Bob Kincaid’s reply. If Thomas Jefferson was an “inspired atheist”, why did he invoke “Nature’s God” in the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence? If George Washington was a “radical liberal”, why did he own slaves, and why did he insist on being addressed as, “His Excellency, General Washington”? If the American Revolution “bore the stamp of liberal thinking”, and there was nothing conservative about it, why did it not more nearly resemble the French Revolution? Indeed, how would Mr. Kincaid distinguish the American Revolution from the French? I would like to see how he can do that while continuing to maintain that there was nothing conservative about our Revolution. Our Republic was built on foundations that go back to Magna Carta. That’s why it has endured. I’d say that’s pretty conservative.

  7. The estimable Mr. Gordon could indeed refer to the American Revolution as the American Evolution. (But then he would be attacked by creationists–and I would sue him for plagiarism.)

    Consider the irony: our Founding Fathers demanded their independence based on their rights as Englishmen. The Revolutionary War really was just an armed by-election between the Whigs and the Tories; and the Whigs won the right to be called Americans.

    Our country is the heir of a British legacy: the Magna Carta, Simon Montfort and Parliment, Henry VIII (whether he intended or not), the English Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution. But each of those advances was opposed by British Conservatives: King John, the Church, the Cavaliers, and Tories.

    Have another dose of irony: the Conservatives allegedly want to conserve what they had opposed.

  8. Hal Gordon says:

    Ahem! The flash-point of the Revolution was when the British Parliament asserted the right to tax the colonies directly. Up to that point, the Mother Country had treated the colonies with “salutory neglect” — i.e., letting them manage their own affairs. It was against this innovation that our forbears rebelled. Thus, the American Revolution was a revolution against intrusive, activist big government.

  9. If I may interrupt your chorus of the “Tory Adore” song, just what conservative political party held the Parlimentary majority at the time?

    In fairness to your fellow Tories, the bills for the French and Indian War were steep. And since the colonists started the conflict, they should pay some taxes for it. The Crown planned to bill them for one-third of the expenses–which actually seems rather generous.

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