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I Give Tours At Bunker Hill. Today I'm Reminded Of Benjamin Franklin's Words: 'A Republic, If You Can Keep It'

A woman walks her dogs along a path in Bunker Hill Monument National Park in Charlestown on January 22, 2018. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A woman walks her dogs along a path in Bunker Hill Monument National Park in Charlestown on January 22, 2018. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

I was telling the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill to a group of visitors who had gathered in the Lodge that stands next to the majestic monument in Charlestown, when I saw a tear tracing down the cheek of an older woman. She was sitting on one of the benches close to me and I had noticed that her gaze was particularly riveted during my talk.

I’m a volunteer at Bunker Hill Monument Park and for a few hours several days a week I greet visitors, answer their questions, and, if they are interested, regale them with the events that took place on that warm Saturday, June 17, 1775.

I’ve been doing this work for nearly a year and I am pleased that so many visitors come to this hallowed ground (hundreds of thousands, annually) to learn more about, or refresh their memory of, the early days of the American Revolution. Many have walked the Freedom Trail and aim to climb the 294 steps to the Monument’s peak. Some are in town for a vacation, while others are squeezing in a quick visit during a business trip. Every now and then students on an outing pour forth from yellow buses, ascend the hill and jostle for their turn at the Monument.

Naturally, most of the visitors are Americans, and from all over the country — neighboring Massachusetts towns and from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Young and old, they all know something about the Battle of Bunker Hill, albeit most not too much. Often, mingled among them are people from other parts of the world, sometimes even in greater quantity. A fair number of travelers are from England, who jocularly ponder what might have been. There are also visitors from other countries in Europe, from the Middle East, as well as from Asia, South America and Africa.

Why do they all come?  What are they hoping to find out?

The Americans marvel with pride at the steadfastness that pushed a disgruntled and oppressed people to strive at great personal risk for a higher ideal.

Quite simply, they come because they are interested in the history of America. But their interest lies in more than just the facts of this particular battle. Yes, they appreciate hearing about the most noteworthy figures, such as William Prescott, John Stark, Israel Putman and Dr. Joseph Warren, who was the most prominent American to die that day and whose marble statue graces the Lodge. But, more so, they seek to understand the cause that precipitated the American Revolution, and ultimately led to the creation of the world’s longest-running republic.

Some that linger to chat seem in awe of what occurred back in 1775 and 1776. The Americans marvel with pride at the steadfastness that pushed a disgruntled and oppressed people to strive at great personal risk for a higher ideal. The foreigners are captivated too, warming to the origin story of the country they clearly admire.

The woman with the tear on her cheek was an American. She earnestly thanked me after the talk, as another woman who had sat beside her pressed her hand in mine and said with a focused stare, “We need to save the country.” Clearly, the turmoil that racks the nation today was on their minds. Others have expressed similar sentiments. Their comments attest to a concern about our ability to preserve the ingenious tri-partite government as the founders envisioned it, and as the many brave souls who supported the cause and fought on the battlefields ardently intended.

Opposing the hereditary right of kings, the colonists wanted a government of laws, not of men.

It is not a stretch to say that cracks are forming around our foundational principles. Norms are being challenged. Disturbing precedents are being set. Opposing the hereditary right of kings, the colonists wanted a government of laws, not of men. This is what drove the soldiers of Bunker Hill to take their stand inside a makeshift dirt fort, vastly outnumbered, against the most formidable army in the world. They fought for liberty and the right to govern themselves free of foreign interference. They might be shocked today to see the direction in which we are headed. Yet, here we are wrestling with these very issues.

I could feel my eyes watering as I nodded toward the two women, momentarily unable to speak. And I was reminded of Elizabeth Willing Powel’s question to Benjamin Franklin as he and other delegates left the State House in Philadelphia in mid-September 1787, after drafting the  Constitution: “Dear Doctor, what type of government have you given us, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

It is up to us to decide. And the whole world is watching.

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Donald Ryan Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Don Ryan is an analytic consultant and a volunteer for the U.S. National Park Service.

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