What is a rebel? The rebels who have gone down in history as heroes set out to change their own circumstances, and ended up changing the world. Those same rebels in another time and place would have been considered criminals, anarchists, dangers to society. Yet we all know that the victors of any war are the writers of its history: when the rebels win, their past sins are erased and they become heroes.
I went to Boston to get away. I had heard it was a beautiful city of parks, with fresh seafood and a nice waterfront. What I expected was to enjoy a pleasant walk, some good seafood, and maybe a little shopping in Back Bay. What I got was so much more: a fundamental shift in my perspective informed by true history.
I am Canadian. We touched upon the American Revolution in school, but only insofar as to establish the US as a formidable threat to my nation. The fear of being conquered by America was very real in the pre-Confederation days of British North America. I learned about Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin through folklore found in stories, movies and the occasional TV show. Sam Adams was a beer brand; John Hancock was confused with Hancook tires. I realized – as I started to walk the Freedom Trail from Boston Common to Granary Burial Ground – just how ignorant I was about the American Revolution.
I arrived at Granary Burial Ground in late morning, and was surprised by its unexpected beauty. Centuries-old stone markers formed haphazard rows, giant trees provided shade, and the surrounding brick buildings provided protection from the city that surrounded this final resting place of so many famous men and their families. Granary Burial ground is where I learned that the famous rebels who created what many refer to as the Greatest Nation in the World were actually working men, and not trained soldiers as I had assumed. Paul Revere was a silver smith; Benjamin Franklin owned a newspaper; John Hancock was a successful merchant and Samuel Adams a tax collector. There were many more rebels laid to rest in Granary Burial Ground, but folklore does not remember them as well, and therefore neither did I. They were husbands, fathers and brothers living hard lives in a new colony, wishing to better their fortunes and their future. They simply did not want to pay taxes to a government that did not represent them, for a war with France they had no interest in fighting. The colonized did not agree with the colonizers. How many times has this formula played out in the pursuant centuries, to varying degrees of success? Was the American Revolution all that different from the countless revolutions against the British Empire that followed in the 20th century? For the first time, I saw the American Revolution as the first of many rebellions, a wave that eventually grew to be a tsunami.
From Granary Burial Ground, I walked to the Old Cemetery, filled with more famous families and “she-merchants”. I had never heard of “she-merchants” before, and the concept intrigued me. It spoke both to the social rules of the time and the harshness of colony life. “She-merchants” were women that inherited and successfully ran their deceased husband’s businesses – or established their own businesses – in the decades before the American Revolution. Some of the more frequently widowed built early conglomerates, as they combined the businesses of multiple husbands. (Elizabeth Murray is one of the most well-known, having first established her own shop, and then adding to her enterprise after being widowed twice.) Almost as early as colonization began, America’s unique circumstances led it to diverge from the nation and culture that founded it. The child’s needs no longer aligned with the parent’s.
I continued to the courthouse, now a museum and book store where I learned about the Boston Massacre and purchased a book of Benjamin Franklin quotes. From there, I strolled through Faneuil Hall, picked up a lobster roll and walked down to the waterfront for lunch. I reconnected with the Freedom Trail near Paul Revere’s house, in Boston’s North End, and walked up to the Old North Church.
“One if by land, two if by sea.” I recognized this phrase, had definitely heard it before, and assumed it was from a poem, which it was. It was also from American history: the key to the lantern code that the rebels would use to notify Paul Revere and William Dawes whether the British Army was coming by land or sea, a message they would then ride all night to share with their camp in Lexington. The rebels won the ensuing battle, officially starting the American Revolutionary War on April 19, 1775. Ordinary people doing ordinary things changed the course of history. They did not require super-human powers or specialized training, but passion and dedication to a common cause. I wandered through North End Boston, through parks, past churches, reading countless plaques that described what life on this peninsula was like in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the one word that summarized it best was: harsh. As if to confirm this assessment, the Freedom Trail then took me to yet another cemetery. (How many people died in early Boston? The child mortality rate was so high that cemeteries charged different fees based on the age of the child.)
Stop and think about that for a moment. Imagine the year is 1775, and you are among thousands of English subjects living in Boston. Maybe you were born in the colony, maybe you have emigrated from England. All you know is that life is hard. There is no electricity, no sewer system, none of the modern comforts we no longer know how to live without. You have witnessed hunger and disease, and the crime it breeds. You are surviving, trying to thrive, fueled by your desire to build a better life in this new colony: the child whose dreams have diverged from the parent. And now your King – an abstract figure an ocean away, who cares nothing of your condition – decides to tax you more heavily to achieve success in a war with France. France! Who cares about France? What about you? What about your success, and the success of your family, your friends and your colony? Shouldn’t that come first? Shouldn’t that be paramount? And so a rebel is born.
As I crossed the Charles River into Charlestown and trekked up to the Bunker Hill monument, I learned how that rebellious passion – that grown child’s desire to emancipate from the parent that now suffocated it – started to turn the tide of history.
I did not remember learning about the Battle of Bunker Hill. I walked over because I wanted to get a good view of Boston from an elevation, and the tourist brochure I read in Faneuil Hall told me I would. By the time I made it to the monument my legs were sore from walking, and I had firmly decided against climbing over 200 steps, regardless of how panoramic the view may be. However, the trek was not for nothing, as Boston once again surprised me: Charlestown was beautiful, much more serene than Boston, and just as drenched in rebel spirit. On the morning of June 17, 1775, the British woke up to find themselves facing a fort that the rebel army had built literally overnight. They mounted a cannon attack and set Charlestown on fire as they marched on the rebels, eventually taking the fort, but not before losing nearly half of the soldiers who entered the battle to death or injury. The British Army may have technically won the battle, but the Revolutionary Army had shown their strength: the courage, passion and dedication of an untrained and disorganized army with no clear chain of command had somehow managed to defeat a well-trained and organized regiment of British soldiers. The child had shown its strength.
As I crossed the Charles River back to Boston later than afternoon, I was lost in my thoughts. I was thinking back to history class, and to what I had learnt about the Founding Fathers of the United States. Then I thought about how many children have studied these men over the past 200 years, how many have admired them, respected them and wanted to be like them. I thought about what it must have been like in 1770s Boston, and the motivation these men had to better their lives and the lives of their children. They did not set out to be famous, to make history, to be studied by millions of school children centuries into the future. They set out to improve their lives by paying fewer taxes; the fame, fortune and legacy were an outcome of that very personal objective. And then it struck me like lightning: every single one of us can be Paul Revere. All we have to do is pursue our passion, and we just may end up making history.