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Patriotism Redux

By Alan E. Wirzbicki, Crimson Staff Writer

Attentive readers of the newspapers this week may have noticed an odd coincidence. On Monday, the day before Independence Day, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby devoted his op-ed column to a stirring remembrance of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, many of whom are now forgotten to history. He reserved his highest praise for an obscure signer from New Jersey, John Hart. Read carefully: "[Hart] was forced to flee in the winter of 1776, at the age of 65, from his dying wife's bedside. While he hid in forests and caves, his home was demolished, his fields and mill laid waste, and his 13 children put to flight. When it was finally safe for him to return, he found his wife dead, his children missing, and his property decimated. He never saw any of his family again and died, a shattered man, in 1779."

Nothing wrong with that. But the very next day, the syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers reprinted a column a reader had sent her with an eerily similar theme and strikingly similar language: "John Hart was driven from the bedside of his dying wife," the column read. "Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year, he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children gone. He died shortly thereafter, heartbroken." It also so happens that this clip closely resembled a passage from a Tampa Tribune editorial published on July 2, 1995.

It sounds fishy at first. A quick poll reveals that no one I know has ever heard of John Hart, and when two writers honor him in nearly identical language, the natural reaction is to suspect that perhaps Jacoby was in Florida for Independence Day a few years ago.

But writing about John Hart wasn't the Tampa Tribune's idea, either. In fact, this forgotten patriot has had a cameo in a half-dozen recent newspaper columns--and that's just what I could find in a two-minute search on the Internet.

Intentionally or not, Jacoby wrote an Independence Day column that has been written before elsewhere--and, sadly, so did most other newspaper pundits and speechwriters in the country. There wasn't much rhetorical originality on display this Fourth of July. And it's understandable: After 225 Independence Days, everything--every way of celebrating the nation's birthday in writing or speaking--seems to have been done a dozen times already. Just imagine the frustration, then, of the writer sitting before a keyboard the night of July 3 knowing that every good idea has already been ground into a clich.

And yet it's an obligatory task--no self-respecting politician or newspaper editorial page can let Independence Day pass without a tribute to the nation's birth. Some just give up on coming up with anything new--instead of putting together the customary pastiche of patriotic platitudes, the Boston Globe editorial page and a few other newspapers reprinted the entire Declaration of Independence on Tuesday in place of their editorials. Who can top that, anyway?

Others try to write something creative, but the results are comically similar. Exploring the forgotten signers of the Declaration of Independence, Jacoby's theme on Monday, seems clever and new at first--but it turns out it's nearly as common as, for instance, remembering the sacrifice of America's veterans. The half dozen Fourth of July columns that celebrate John Hart all sound exactly the same. Reform Party presidential candidate and conservative scribe Patrick Buchanan, on July 4, 1994: "Disaster struck 'Honest John' Hart first. Just months after he signed, British and Hessian troops invaded New Jersey, forcing him and his family to flee.... By the spring of 1779, John Hart was dead." Paul M. Morrill in the San Diego Union-Tribune on July 4, 1985: "John Hart of New Jersey signed at 65. He owned several flour and grist mills, all of which were destroyed in the war. He died in poverty at 68." Roy Wetherington, July 2, 1995, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "The farm and livestock of another signer, John Hart of New Jersey, were destroyed. Hart and his wife hid in the woods for several months to avoid capture; she died as a result of the ordeal."

And there are more. It probably sounded good the first time around, but now writing about the lesser-known signers of the Declaration is just another one of the tired Fourth of July themes that circulate among America's writers like stale water in a fishtank.

Politicians, of course, are in the same boat. It takes a powerful speaker with an able team of speechwriters to come up with something to say on Independence Day that's not trite and boring.

In the early days of the Republic, a Fourth of July oration was the centerpiece of the Independence Day celebration on hundreds of town greens across the nation, usually a speech by some prominent member of the community extolling the virtues enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The tradition has more or less died. This year's version in tradition-bound Boston--where the Fourth of July oration has somehow staggered into the 21st century--might explain why. Under the giant portrait of Daniel Webster at Faneuil Hall, an Imperial Potentate of the Shriners was the speaker this year. He called on his audience to volunteer in their communities. As one might expect, it was not a particularly memorable speech.

But there's another way of looking at it. Maybe writers and politicians repeatedly resort to tired old themes because they're what audiences really want to hear.

In Boston this Independence Day, Jacoby's column was read aloud from the balcony of the Old State House directly before the ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence. It was greeted with rousing applause.

Recycled patriotism is soothing in a way. Like the ritual reading of the Declaration from the Old State House balcony, which has been repeated every July 4 since 1776, the stock themes of patriotic rhetoric are as much a part of the nostalgia of the Fourth as the John Phillips Sousa marches repeated every year.

And perhaps that's what the Fourth of July is for. Originality, in a sense, would be a violation of tradition. The language of patriotism, with all its clichs and its repetitions, can bind us almost as much as the ideals themselves.

Alan E. Wirzbicki '01, a Crimson executive, is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House.

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