Shortly before Christmas one year, we took our kids to the battlefield at Yorktown.
There's an enormous earthwork on the battlefield site, dug by Washington and his men to give them the high ground for a siege. It was fortified during the Civil War, but otherwise remains as it was.
You can't believe people moved that much earth without benefit of a backhoe.
Even more astonishing than creating high ground by hand, however, is the poverty of condition Washington and his men endured. You’ve read about the boot-less privations at Valley Forge and the dithering Congress that sometimes did, sometimes didn’t, pay the men’s wages. Nothing prepares you, though, for entering the live encampment maintained by re-enactors and seeing things for yourself: the canvas tents, the bare ground, the ration of beans, the cruel 18th century medical implements.
My feet ached with cold and I had insulated boots and a thick parka, on a sunny day, with an old snow mostly melted away. Did you know that many of the enlisted men’s wives and children followed the army, camping behind the battlefield because they didn’t have homes of their own?
How did they endure it, day in, day out? Why did they?
One guide suggested the entire Revolution was fought over taxes, and the notion of "freedom" was added in later, to justify the revolt as noble.
It’s possible to know a lot and have no perspective.
If he’d looked around, surely he’d have seen the silliness of that argument. No one would endure what those men endured just to avoid paying a few extra pence, especially not the mostly wealthy men who signed the Declaration of Independence.
The Revolution may have been fought over taxes, but what our guide missed is the connection in the Founders' understanding between taxes and self-government. No one could take their property from them without their having some say in it, as every other British citizen had.
When you watch people splitting logs by hand and planing them into boards for houses, as you can at neighboring Colonial Williamsburg, you see how hard our settlers and colonists worked for everything they had, and get a sense of how detached we have become from the meaning of “property:” what we’ve attained through our honest labor.
We still earn our livings by work, but because payment now comes in the form of a paycheck, we're fairly removed from the process. Doing everything by hand, you'd have a much deeper attachment to your property, and take encroachments upon it as an attack on your person.
So the tax/freedom dichotomy is an anachronism. Our guide's rather cynical view of the founding is based on his own --contemporary—understanding, and utterly misses the point. When you take what a person’s worked for without his consent, you’re taking his life and his liberty.
Seeing the abject hardships they lived with, I felt profoundly grateful, and found myself questioning my own attachment to liberty. Could I sacrifice my comforts for it? Would the men who fought at Yorktown and Valley Forge think we were honoring or squandering their sacrifice?
I did not know it then, but I was having an experience Benedict XVI encourages for all of us this summer. He recently offered three vacation tips. Two you’d expect: he encourages us to renew relationships: with God through prayer and with family by being together. He also suggested visiting historical and cultural monuments, especially churches.
The pope didn’t elaborate, but something he recently said to politicians in Croatia may offer a clue. Speaking of the Christian roots of Europe’s institutions, he observed, “It is crucial to grasp the inner dynamic of an event such as the birth of a university, of an artistic movement, or of a hospital. It is necessary to understand the why and the how of what took place…”
Like my Yorktown guide, we can have knowledge without perspective, he seems to be saying. If we know only a date in history or the fact that a building exists, we are missing what’s relevant for maintaining culture. We enter into a culture by understanding what ideas built it.
“At the heart of all these institutions are men and women, persons, consciences, moved by the power of truth and good.”
If we don’t know where our institutions came from, we won’t be able to maintain them – or influence them for the better.
And you thought you were just sight-seeing this summer? You’re preserving a culture.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.