Barely two weeks after the end of our major political parties’ conventions of posturing and pontificating, and about a dozen weeks until the vote to pick our next president, it might be worth remembering that 239 years ago, thousands of regular folk – including my 4th-great-grandfather Dependence Sturtevant – were actively involved in a North American war to earn us the right to participate in this glorious mess.
I point this out because I feel that until the votes are counted, on or sometime after Nov. 8, and the electoral college has made its constitutional proclamation – and perhaps even after that – our navigation of modern democracy might better be described as a chaos of echoes, rather than a process. On a daily basis, some event or discovery erupts and someone believes it can only be seen as an utter catastrophe from which we will never recover.
And yet, we muddle on, casting our lines into the Internet and elsewhere, fishing for the latest transgression to fuel our outrage.
In the fall of 1777, Dependence Sturtevant – he was then a farmer in Plymouth, Mass. – was about to turn 38. He would serve for a month in that year in the Massachusetts Militia (and for more months in later years), including as a sergeant in Col. Theophilus Cotton’s regiment, under the command of Capt. Thomas Sampson of Plympton, Mass. Sturtevant’s service in 1777 came just six months after an April 26 letter John Adams wrote to his bride Abigail:
“I am wearied out, with Expectations that the Massachusetts Troops would have arrived, e’er now, at Head Quarters. — Do our People intend to leave the Continent in the Lurch? Do they mean to submit? or what Fatality attends them? With the noblest Prize in View, that ever Mortals contended for, and with the fairest Prospect of obtaining it upon easy Terms, The People of the Massachusetts Bay, are dead.”
Adams’ concerns of fielding an adequate military were common during the revolution, as the new nation – the rebels – had no standing army. To find the 40,000 or so Americans who fought at some point during the eight years of active war, the United States drew personnel from the mills and blacksmith shops and farms and harbors of the developing nation.
Another concern of Adams’s was the depth to which the revolution had replaced his beloved home life, which he all but sacrificed in the service of his new nation. Writing on that Saturday evening, he asked Abigail:
“Is it not intollerable, that the opening Spring, which I should enjoy with my Wife and Children upon my little Farm, should pass away, and laugh at me, for labouring, Day after Day, and Month after Month, in a Conclave, Where neither Taste, nor Fancy, nor Reason, nor Passion, nor Appetite can be gratified?”
Such productive sacrifice became a cornerstone of Adams’s reputation as a member of the country’s first cadre of leadership, but he felt dearly the personal cost, and he spelled it out for his heirs – and for us.
“Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.”
Perhaps this question needs to be voiced once more: Are we making the best use of the sacrifice of those whose service to our country – their country, too – has brought us to the days when we flood Twitter with 140-character diatribe?
Are we honoring the acts of the many generations who have fought these battles throughout our history, when we brawl over whether a Gold Star family deserves reverence or insolence?
Are we on the right path when we gloat on social media that a spokesperson for a campaign has made another glaring historical error, before a live TV audience potentially closing in on half a million viewers?
Before you answer, I would offer one complication:
It was not only against a foreign tyrant that Sgt. Dependence Sturtevant fought.
It was not only against the 48,000 British regulars, plus the English Navy, along with 19,000 or so Colonial Loyalists, plus the 30,000 or so hired German “auxiliaries,” whom we know as “Hessians” because of their loyalty to crown.
It was also against an external, foreign system that had cheated Sturtevant of his sovereignty.
It was also against a practice of disenfranchisement that left Sgt. Dependence Sturtevant and Cpl. William Huse and Lt. Samuel Locke and Col. Orange Train and Lt. John Waterman and their 40,000 comrades in arms feeling powerless in their lives, in their own homes.
Deborah Bradford of Kingston, Mass., felt that theft of power so dramatically that she adopted the identity of her dead brother Robert, donned men’s clothing, and fought in the Revolution – passing as a man in combat until she was wounded and needed medical treatment. (Deborah Bradford Sampson Gannett now serves as official heroine of her home state.)
This practice of democracy is not a simple game of rhetorical one-upmanship or power grabs that it has clearly become in the modern day.
In order to properly honor the sacrifice of all those who have left family behind to come to the service of their country, for the hundreds of years we have been asking them to do so, we need to be sure our own modern values are anchored in what Dependence Sturtevant actually fought for. Those values will not be found in the stump speeches or sound bites of any candidate of any party.
To find those values, we will need to look past the words we hear – to view the lives of those who ask for our support. Their lives should be models of the lives we hope they will continue to live. For that matter, their lives should be models of the lives we hope we will live.
Adams closed his April 1777 letter with some fascinating observations:
“There has been a great Dearth of News. Nothing from England, nothing from France, Spain, or any other Part of Europe, nothing from the West Indies. Nothing from Howe, and his Banditti, nothing from General Washington.”
In the 21st century, we cannot imagine a period in which we would not hear from our politicians (as much as we wish we might) and our generals. Instead, there has not been a day in the past year or more of campaigning when there has been an abundance of news – or at least noise.
But look closely, and you may find a dearth of models.