Photograph of Princeton Battlefield State Park, Princeton, New Jersey, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Author Frank J. Batavick | CNBNewsnet
On each patriotic holiday my wife gets up early to put out the flags. Back on July 4, 2007 we were living in a town just outside Princeton, N.J., and she retrieved the bundle of 30-inch tall American flags that we stored in the hall closet. Some were freebies from past parades and others used to belong to her dad. These are a bit faded and frayed and at least two have only 48 stars, but they represented a way for that first generation German to sincerely tout his loyalty and pay his respects to Old Glory. Soon she lined our sidewalk with red, white, and blue just like his used to be.
That morning I paged through the newspaper and came across a list of activities designed to help the locals mark the fourth. I spotted an event scheduled for the Princeton Battlefield State Park and suggested that we go. My wife agreed.
Once at the battlefield, we walked up a long, grassy incline. At the expense of sounding melodramatic, I couldn’t help but think of what had once played out on this swath of ancient crop land— the deafening sound of musket and cannon balls whizzing overhead, the choking, sulphurous smoke enveloping the landscape, and the pierced and shattered bodies dropping and hallowing this ground, baptizing it with the blood of brave friend and foe alike.
We got to the top of the hill just in time to hear an 18th century costumed interpreter rapidly recount the events of that day in December 1776 when the raggedy troops of Generals Washington and Mercer resisted and outflanked the British forces. The Redcoats and Hessians were pushed back to “Prince Town” where they were thoroughly routed by a superior number of Continental troops. The only bad news of the day was the severe bayoneting of General Mercer who was taken to a nearby house where he died less than a week later.
Then the interpreter picked up a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, urged the other costumed re-enactors to gather around, and proceeded to read. The words were familiar to me, but I must admit to a special thrill hearing them spoken in that place and at that time. The line about “imposing taxes on us without our consent” drew a predictable reaction from the modern-day crowd.
When he finished reading, three women in the crowd spontaneously began to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” Though the period interpreter said he was not familiar with such a song (and couldn’t be because it would not be written for another 38 years), others in the crowd slowly joined in until almost all were singing. As these amateur voices wrestled with the words and tune of our national anthem— a formidable song to both sing and hear—it was as if this magic moment had been choreographed by Frank Capra himself.
Patriotism is a wonderful virtue when its motives are as pure as what I witnessed that day. It is the stuff of small town parades and heroic war heroes alike. But I was also reminded of those who can skillfully use patriotism as a cudgel to beat down honorable people during congressional hearings and elections or to sell unnecessary wars they’ve sugar-coated with red, white, and blue sprinkles. There’s also the cynically named Patriot Act, a law that enabled black torture sites, suspended habeas corpus, and permitted the collection of private phone and library records. These predations represent the dark underside of hyper-nationalism and harken back to 18th century British essayist Samuel Johnson’s warning that patriotism is “the last refuge of scoundrels.”
I guiltily shook off these thoughts as unbefitting such a lovely summer’s day. I knew we’d soon be hearing the distant thunder of fireworks and rightly wanted to add my pride and optimism to the multi-generational crowds looking aloft and singing in a chorus of appreciative “oohs” and “ahhs.”
This country will survive. It remains strong because our founding fathers got it right more than two centuries ago when they gave us the blueprints for balancing power and restraining the baser instincts of our all-too-predictable selves. I further grew in confidence as I pictured our grandkids one day eagerly planting those aging flags along their sidewalks; continuing to celebrate all that is best about the US of A.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.
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