Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Preface to a book that was never published:The American Revolutions

Here is the beginning of a non-fiction piece I wrote for a series of history books for kids. I tried to write (as I always do) as if I were just talking to the reader and explaining things in the most entertaining way possible.

It ended up being rejected because it was too funny for serious history, apparently.  This pretty much convinced me to continue writing fiction instead, so I could leaven history with humor as much as I want.

Anyway, this has been languishing on my computer (or series of computers) for nearly 25 years.

Hope you don't mind the funny bits.



P.S. If you are curious why I entitled this The American Revolutions, read on....

The American Revolutions
by Dorothea Jensen


   In Washington Irving’s story Rip Van Winkle, the lazy, henpecked hero, Rip, wakes up from a nap on a mountainside with no idea that he has been asleep for twenty years. When he picks up his mysteriously rusted flintlock and returns to his little village, Rip finds everything strangely altered:

   Instead of the great tree that used to shelter the...little...inn of yore, there now was reared a tall naked pole, with something on the top...like a red night-cap, and from it was fluttering a flag...a singular assemblage of stars and stripes—all this was strange and incomprehensible. [Rip] recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George...but even this was singularly metamorphosed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a scepter... and underneath was painted in large characters, General Washington...The appearance of Rip, with his long, grizzled beard...and the army of women and children that had gathered at his heels, soon attracted the attention of the tavern politicians...a[n]...old gentleman...demanded 'what brought [Rip] to the election with a gun on his shoulder, and a mob at his heels, and whether he meant to breed a riot in the village?' “Alas, gentlemen", cried Rip, somewhat dismayed, “I am a poor, quiet man...and a loyal subject of the King, God bless him!" Here a general shout burst from the bystanders—“A tory! a spy! hustle him! away with him!"...It was some time before [Rip] could be made to comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his torpor. How...there had been a revolutionary war...the country had thrown off the yoke of old England—and...instead of being a subject of his majesty George the Third, he was now a free citizen of the United States." – Washington Irving
   When Rip Van Winkle left his village (probably around 1763) to go hunting and nap in the mountains, virtually nobody in the American colonies wanted to break away from Great Britain. In fact, most colonists proudly thought of themselves as Englishmen. At that time, the idea of independence would have astonished and outraged many of the very people who later led the effort to bring independence about. Of course, for the one third of the American population who eventually changed their minds and decided that independence was desirable and necessary, this was a long, drawn-out process. No wonder that Rip , who had slept through the whole American Revolution, found these “instant” alterations in his world to be baffling. If he'd been wide awake, however, he might have been more than just bewildered.

   The American Revolution was also a war of words. If Rip had altered his views along with those who favored independence, he would have called himself a Whig (one who favors the anti-Royal English political party), a Patriot (one who loves his/her country) or a Revolutionist (one in favor of a revolution). Furthermore, if Rip had then actively participated in the revolt against England, those against independence would have cursed him as a Radical (a wild-eyed extremist who strives for fundamental change), a Rebel (one who openly resists control by the legal government), or a Traitor (one who betrays his country). If Rip himself had actually taken up arms against the British army (as a Whig/ Patriot/Revolutionist/Radical/Rebel/Traitor), he would have often found himself hungry, ragged, cold, barefoot, outnumbered, discouraged, and facing some of the finest, best-equipped professional soldiers in the world. On the other hand, he would have shared the thrill and the pride when independence was finally won.

   If, however, Rip had stayed “a loyal subject to the King” along with the one fifth to one third of his fellow colonists, he would have proudly called himself a Loyalist (one loyal to the King). The Patriots, however, would have scorned him as a Tory (one who favors the British pro-King political party) or as a Traitor (again, one who betrays his country) As a Loyalist/Tory/Traitor, Rip might have been tarred, feathered, dragged by a mob to a “liberty tree” (a pole topped by a symbolic “liberty cap”) and forced to publicly embrace the cause of independence. Even if Rip had managed to escape such dramatic ordeals, he most likely would have lost his home and property and faced imprisonment or exile. Then if , along with the tens of thousands of other Loyalists who left America during and after the Revolutionary War), Rip had tried to find someplace else to live, he would have had few choices for refuge. One place, of course, would have been England itself, but Rip would have found it difficult to support himself there. Hunting game, which was Rip’s main way to put food on the table, was illegal in England except for landowners shooting game on their own property. Even if Rip had been wealthy, or a successful tradesman, he would have had a hard time getting by in England. Rich loyalists, accustomed to living off rent paid them for houses or farmland, lost all the property that supported them. Refugees who had been tradesmen in American also suffered financially : shopkeepers had no shops or merchandise, innkeepers had no inns to earn a living. American farmers had no English farms. Even colonials who had professions - such as doctors and lawyers - found it hard to start up practices in Great Britain.

   Rip might have done better as a Loyalist if he chose the other main refuge open to him - Canada. There he would have found plenty of game to shoot, but he would have had to start from scratch settling the wilderness in a bitterly cold climate. This would most certainly have required lots of the backbreaking work Rip generally avoided at all costs. In any of the places he could have gone as a refugee, however, Rip would have felt himself to be a foreigner. In fact, one of the greatest ironies of the Revolution was that the Loyalists discovered , too late, that they were far more “American” - and less British - than they had thought they were!

   The other possibility for Rip during the Revolution (his most likely choice, given his usual laziness) would have been to “sit on the fence”, not siding with either the Loyalists or Patriots, but just waiting to see which side won. That was how a third or more of the American population got through the Revolutionary War. Staying neutral would not, however, have kept Rip out of the turmoil and terror of war. War is not neutral.

   No matter how Rip might have chosen, he would have encountered strangers, friends, neighbors, and family members who violently disagreed with him. Thus, the Revolution which “threw off the yoke of old England” was also our first Civil War - a fact often overlooked in our celebrations on the Fourth of July. Although two centuries of spectacularly successful nationhood make the American Revolution seem natural, necessary, and inevitable it was anything but. It was a desperate venture from start to finish. During the seven long years of the actual war, it often appeared that the British were going to win in the end.

   The American Revolution was also more than a matter of battles, however. Long after the war, John Adams said that the real Revolution took place long before the Revolutionary War began:

The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people...before a drop of blood was shed.The radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.

   In a way, then, it can be said that there were two American Revolutions. The first was the process by which a great number of Americans “turned away” (the literal meaning of revolution, as in “revolve" ) from the mother country, Great Britain, and came around to the idea that America should be an independent nation. The second was the Revolutionary War, that combination of bravery, bloodshed and blundering which made independence a reality.