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Politically Incorrect

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As rockets red glare flash and explode over mountaintops around this region next week, Americans will celebrate their 226th year of independence. Old Glory will wave from houses and businesses and floats, little ones will run through yards with sparklers in their hands, barbeques will smolder, beer will flow and Lee Greenwood will undoubtedly sing, at least a couple of times on radio stations from Spokane to Savannah, that he’s “proud to be an American.”

I’ll cry when he sings it, because I cry every time he does. Our national anthem can choke me up, as can the pledge of allegiance to that grand old flag. At some point on that day, I’ll listen to the song my brother Clay wrote about how “these colors didn’t run,” and my children will snicker behind their hands at the salty tracks on my cheeks. I love this country of ours; love it from its purple mountain majesties all the way to its amber waves of grain. Sometimes I love it in spite of what it does and what it stands for, not because of it, but love it I do.

1776. In January, Thomas Paine published Common Sense. He wrote, “Men of all ranks have embarked in the controversy, from different motives, and with various designs; but all have been ineffectual, and the period of debate is closed. Arms, as the last resource, decide the contest; the appeal was the choice of the king, and the continent hath accepted the challenge.” On July 4th, the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted by Congress. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it reads, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In December, General George Washington led troops across the Delaware River in a surprise attack on British forces in Trenton, New Jersey. War was underway

In 1776 my 8th great-grandfather, Samuel Newberry, had been married four years to my 8th great-grandmother, Bethia Bannon-Begley and was serving as an officer in the Revolutionary War, for which service he would receive 50 acres of land in Montgomery County, Virginia.

That same year, my 7th great grandparents, Edward Bradford and Mary Larned, were married, perhaps in anticipation of the revolution that was upon them. Another set of great-grandparents eight generations away were married in North Carolina in 1777, around the time of the first battle of Saratoga. Eighth great-grandparents John and Lucinda Stroud were in Virginia for that war, as were William and Lucy Lester, of that same generation, as were Henry and Mary Dillon. My 9th great-grandfather, John Stroud Sr., died in Mecklenberg, Virginia in that fateful year.

Thomas Rosewell Fitch, still another 8th great-grandfather, also chose to marry in 1776. Thomas’ father, Col. Jonathan Fitch, was the steward of Yale College for several years before the war and, in 1775, he was appointed a State Commissary by the Connecticut General Assembly. Jonathan’s father, Thomas, my 10th great-grandfather, was Governor of Connecticut until the infamous stamp act. The major part of his home in Norwalk was burned by British troops in 1779. In compensation for this, he received from the new American government part of the township which would become known as Fitchville, Ohio.

By the 8th generation, we all have 128 sets of grandparents. I don’t know the names of all 128 who belong to me, but I do know a few. In the 5th generation there's just 16 grandparents, and I know the names of all of mine. I know the names of 22 of their parents. Into the 7th generation I know about 22 of those 64. And I’ve learned most of that information in just the last year or so.

When I first began researching my family history it was for the sheer joy of the mystery but something happened after the first few weeks – I became hooked on the stories. And I’ll never look at history, particularly American history, in quite the same way ever again.

The War for Independence. It’s not a bunch of boring stories hidden in dusty old books anymore; it’s the struggle of my family, my own flesh and blood, to fight for what was right – “that all men are created equal and... endowed with certain unalienable Rights.” It’s about courage and optimism in the face of uncertainty and fear. It's about four sets of great-great-greats who chose to marry while patriots were dumping tea into Boston Harbor; while Charleston was under fire; while Washington and his men huddled through the winter in the tiny huts at Valley Forge.

July 9, 1778. The Articles of Confederation are signed by Congress.

October 19, 1781. Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown, effectively ending British hopes of victory in America.

April 11, 1783. Congress declares a formal end to the Revolutionary War.

Two hundred and twenty-six years. Those great-great-greats spawned a lot of offspring in that time, including a few who chose to marry as the new nation their ancestors fought to create sought to divide itself almost 100 years later. My 6th great-grandfather William fought to maintain the Union; his son, James Elias, fought to protect his Tennessee home with the Confederacy. They all heard the words of President Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous question of civil war.” That decision was to fight. April of 1861, South Carolina militia forces fired on Fort Sumter. Americans were at war again until April 8, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox courthouse.

Later descendents watched the railroads come and the railroads go; traveled by wagon train into the far reaches of the North American continent; and watched war become a World occupation, twice. Today, after September 11th, we celebrate our independence with the understanding that war will likely come again and might possibly do so right here on American soil once again. We were invulnerable for too short a time - after last year, we are invulnerable no more.

I suspect that most of my ancestors would have a hard time understanding the world we live in today. I remind myself of that whenever I’m whining about the struggles of being a single parent and a business owner. They would be amazed at the machines we have to wash our dishes and our clothes; the mechanical horsepower to take us wherever we want to go; the long struggles with weather and harvest that have given way to lines in the grocery store. I’m not sure there’s much of our lives today of which they’d totally approve. But I think they’d definitely understand, and certainly affirm, this first celebration of independence since September 11th. Those ancestors who married in the face of war, bringing forth the next generation while their world exploded, would undoubtedly smile at the toddlers running with sparklers, Old Glory waving in the summer breeze, and the explosion of fireworks over those purple mountains majesty. They knew what we know now; that no matter what the year, no matter how easy the life; when adversity raises its head, an indomitable American spirit rises to meet it amongst the amber waves of grain.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

4th of July, history, Family, genealogy

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