I found the loveliest new book in our little local library: Reporting the Revolutionary War; Before it was History, it was News, by Todd Andrlik. I judged it by its gorgeous cover, but when I opened it, I became transfixed. Mr. Andrlik is “among America’s leading Revolutionary War newspaper archivists.” He collaborated with his archivist buddies – and the Library of Congress – and compiled a breathtaking collection of primary sources (read: original copies) of 18th century newspapers. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, he and his co-contributors configured the collection, and the result is a wholly unique retelling of our country’s birth.
The book emphasizes the pivotal role newspapers played in igniting the revolution by showing (vs. the much-less-effective telling) us what it might have been like to live through it; “Reporting the Revolutionary War brings you into the homes of Americans and lets you see through their eyes the tinderbox of war as it explodes.”
Most of what I know of history I learned from textbooks. The Stamp Act, The Townshend Act, The Boston Massacre…all events marching along a timeline, maybe a dead-eyed patriot watching me as I read. Instead, Reporting immerses you in times of yore. In each chapter, a well-read narrator orients you, then offers up the original newspapers for you to explore for yourself. We read the actual words of a John Dickinson. In his letters “from a farmer,” he is one of the first to articulate an objection to British authority, what so many colonists resented in silence. He inspired (or provoked) action, and we feel the tension when Bostonian’s riot against the Stamp Act, scaring the daylights out of stamp distributor Andrew Oliver as they ransack, then burn his home. The conflict escalates and we feel England’s quiet irritation when they realize they’ve been bested by a bunch of colonists, and must repeal the Stamp Act – which they follow up with the Townshend Act and a declaration that they are in charge and can do whatever the heck they want. By the time the British warships roll into Boston harbor to occupy the city, the conflict feels electric – a sensation that intensifies until March 5, 1770, when British soldiers fire into an unarmed crowd of colonists. The Boston Massacre. We hear first-hand accounts of the tragedy from both sides. As is always the case, we find the truth lies somewhere in between.
We know how the story ends, of course, but I’ve never seen such an engaging retelling. The glossy pages draw you in, and the authors strategically complement events by reprinting alongside them iconic works of art. The reaction to British Ships of War Landing Their Troops goes from, “hmm. That’s a lot of ships,” to, “holy crap! Those people must have been freaked out!” Everyone needs to see this one-of-a-kind comprehensive collection. Look for it at your local library.So, my point.
These men and women were superheroes. They fought for our freedom with little more than will, muskets and newspaper. These newspapers, no more than slapped-together eyewitness accounts and intercepted letters delivered on horseback or read aloud in the town square, provided enough information and motivation to wrench our land from the hands of a king.
My question is, if we are all wirelessly, hopelessly connected to one another, what’s our excuse? I’m not in any way suggesting a revolution. I’m saying that we have all manner of concerns and complaints about the state of affairs in our country. We have all the tools we need. Some of us speak out, but not enough. For the rest of us, we just keep living our lives. I wonder what our lives would be like if our forefathers had done the same.