J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Satires on Sunday Morning

Reading Philip Freneau's versification of 1782 from George III's point of view at the 18th-Century Reading Room has put me in a satirical frame of mind. But there's a major problem with most satires from the Revolutionary period: they're no longer really funny. They might have been uproarious once, but now they just seem to be trying very hard to make the same points over and over.

So here are a couple of satires of current controversies using Revolutionary history:

  • The Onion spoofs Wikipedia and the print media's current hand-wringing over that user-generated free online encyclopedia with "Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence": "The commemorative page is one of the most detailed on the site, rivaling entries for Firefly and the Treaty Of Algeron for sheer length. Subheadings include 'Origins Of Colonial Discontent,' 'Some Famous Guys In Wigs And Three-Cornered Hats,' and 'Christmastime In Gettysburg.'" I gotta wonder what would have happened if all the professional writers who've reported or opined about Wikipedia in recent months had put the same amount of time into improving the entries where they saw flaws. Wikipedia would be better—but the writers wouldn't have gotten paid.
  • The Some Are Boojums blog responds to the creationist Discovery Institute's "Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher" about evolution with "Ten Questions to Ask Your History Teacher" about the Revolution. "Why do some history textbooks give Alexander Hamilton’s year of birth as 1755, and others as 1757? Why do historians refuse to discuss, or even acknowledge, the controversy? Why do many textbooks even claim that this (probably imaginary) figure was killed in a duel with 'Aaron Burr'?"
One genuinely funny book about the Revolution is now available only in a CD-ROM form: The Revolutionary Adventures of Ebenezer Fox, a soldier's and privateering sailor's memoir published in 1838. Here's Fox's recollection of how he joined the Continental Army at sixteen in 1778:
My master [a barber named Bosson] was unfortunately among the number draughted [to reinforce New York]. As he did not possess a great degree of military spirit, he was much distressed at the demand thus suddenly made upon his patriotism. One day, while my fellow apprentice and myself were at work, Mr. Bosson entered the shop laboring under great agitation of mind. It was evident that something had happened to discompose his temper, which was naturally somewhat irritable. He walked rapidly about, occasionally stopped, and honing several razors that he had put in perfect order previous to his going out; and attempting to sharpen a pair of shears that at the time bore the keenest edge; he furnished us with much food for conjecture as to the cause of his strange conduct. At length, from various ejaculations, and now and then a half-smothered curse upon his ill luck, we gathered the fact, that he was enrolled among the soldiers who were soon to take up the line of march for New-York. This was an unfortunate business for him; a reality he had not anticipated. The idea of shouldering a musket, buckling on a knapsack, leaving his quiet family, and marching several hundred miles for the good of his country, never took a place in his mind. Although a firm friend to his country, and willing to do all he could to help along her cause, as far as expressing favorable opinions and good wishes availed, yet there was an essential difference in his mind between the theory and the art of war; between acting the soldier, and triumphing at the soldier’s success.

The reality of his position operated as a safety-valve to let off the steam of his patriotism, and to leave him in a state of languor well calculated to produce in him a degree of resignation for remaining at home. But what was to be done? A substitute could not be obtained for the glory that might be acquired in the service; and as for money, no hopes could be entertained of raising sufficient for the purpose. Mr. Bosson continued to fidget about, uttering such expressions as his excited feelings prompted, such as: "Hard times——don’t need two apprentices any more than a toad needs a tail;"——"If either of you had the spunk of a louse, you would offer to go for me." With this last remark he quitted the shop apparently in high dudgeon.

The truth was now evident, that he wanted somebody to take his place.

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