Posts Tagged ‘The Founders’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Over the last couple of weeks I have been slowly watching, and greatly enjoying, the HBO miniseries John Adams.  HBO always does  historical dramas well.  The Pacific, Band of Brothers and Rome are all worth your time, if you can take the violence and heartbreak.  Though not as violent, or heartbreaking, John Adams is also well worth a viewing.

As someone who teaches history, I am always looking for realism when it comes to film/television drama.  I have written about this on the Turtle before, so I won’t go into it too much, but suffice to say, the thing that independence-03-1024concerns me about verisimilitude in drama is not historical minutiae. I can get over an anachronistic hairstyle, or an incorrectly used musket.   What  I can’t forgive is when filmmakers/TV producers create anachronistic mentalities for their historical characters.  An out of place, or out of time, character’s worldview can ruin the reality of a piece.  Anachronistically transporting our ideals onto the past may make audiences like characters more, but it muddies up historical reality.

John Adams does quite well in it’s portrayal of early American mentalities.  For instance, the first and second episodes of the series vividly portray how the Revolutionary generation, and Adams in particular, struggled with the decision to break with England.  Though not usually taught in our schools, most men and women of 1776 loved England and the King. They generally saw themselves as children of the mother country.  In fact, it is not too far fetched to state that many of the arguments for revolution sprang from the notion that America and Americans were the true heirs of what it meant to be English. The revolutionaries viewed the English Parliament, and the King’s advisors, as attempting to take away the freedoms inherent to being an Englishman. The colonists believed they were being enslaved (yes, they used this word with no irony). As Englishmen, the revolutionaries believed it was fully just to rebel. Rebellion against oppression was a natural right of being English, and Adams and Jefferson and Washington thought of themselves as such.

This seemingly odd, but very much true, mentality is front and center in John Adams.  The love of Albion is obvious for these men and women, as displayed by their actions and their words.  And not just the words they speak, but how they speak those words.  The newly minted Americans in John Adams often have a tinge of an English accent, and though we can’t know how the Founders sounded, it seems ‘realistic’ that the men and women of the Revolutionary generation had a definable and recognizable English ‘twang’. Watch the short clip below for an illustration.

My question, which may be unanswerable, is when did Americans lose this accent?   At which point did Americans living in what used to be British territory stop sounding British themselves?  And, perhaps even more interestingly, why did this occur?

There may be no one to answer  for the first question.  Perhaps we could closely read the extant writings of men and women who were not well educated during the early years of the Republic in order to see how they spelled phonetically, and hence, catch a glimpse of a fading English speech, but that seems questionable at best.   I just don’t know. Maybe some linguist already has theorized an answer I am not aware of?  If that is the case, and you, Turtle readers, know the answer or source, feel free to clue me in and enlighten my dark ignorance.

One thing is clear however, and that is the fact that in today’s America we don’t sound much like Brits any longer.  Why this change occurred seems obvious.  The history of immigration to America must be the key to our American accent/accents. The years and years of immigrant groups bringing their languages, their accents and their dialects into this nation has caused our language to become the hodgepodge that we now know as American English.   It seems to me this makes sense.  And, as I did a little research on this subject, I came upon this fascinating CBS News story about a small fishing/tourist community on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that strengthened my notion.

The ‘brogue’ these island natives speak obviously has a bit of Irish-ness to it.  This must be the shadows of their ancestors’ speech. With few newcomers flooding the islands, and a roughly homogeneous ethnic poplulation, it seems this little island kept an ‘old-world’ sounding accent. As more and more outsiders come to the island, the accent disappears.

But, I have one last question on this topic?  If the brogue can still exist on that island, can we still see the remnants of the ‘old English’ accent at play somewhere in the nation?  Let’s look: The New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania corridor?  No, I don’t think so.  The Midwest seems to be a no.  You can throw the Southwest out as well. But, what about the South?  Perhaps we can still hear the English accent in some southern twangs?   I have always thought so, and this quick two minute video seems to provide the proof.

Just a little something to add even more romance to the old Southland.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Martin Luther King, a rabble-rousing civil disobedient, is now an American national hero.  This statement is obvious.  It is fact.  But, the lionization of MLK in America today elevates him beyond simply the level of hero. For the vast majority of the country, he is part of a even more exclusive pantheon of great Americans.   Paradoxically, we can see this by the use, and misuse, of MLK’s name and memory.

Watch the news.  Listen to the political talk-show hacks.  Use C-Span to spy on Congress as they argue over some arcane issue.  If Martin Luther King’s name comes up in any of these arenas, it is usually because someone12583152-standard is calling upon his memory to harden their argument into a moral imperative.  Or, alternatively, MLK’s memory and beliefs will be used to differentiate a political enemy’s ideals from those of the great Civil Rights leader. In other words, a sanitized, sanctified version of Martin Luther King has become a political weapon.  ‘What Would MLK say/think about this?” constantly gets thrown out into the public realm, leading to such ridiculously unanswerable questions as “what would MLK think about assault weapon bans?,’ or, ‘what would MLK believe about the Chick-Fil-A boycott’!  The best question, but the one that is never asked is, ‘What would Martin Luther King think about all these ‘What Would MLK think’ queries?”

Though sometimes absurd, or even distasteful, this usage of MLK’s message and life places him into exclusive company.  Only a handful of American historical figures are appropriated by the political left and right in this way. In fact, only the nation’s ‘founders’ are called upon as often as King and his legacy.

FoundersWhen the moniker ‘the founders’ gets thrown around in today’s political culture, it usually refers to a small sampling of men who signed the Declaration of Independence, fought the Revolution, and created the Constitution. Though usually not stated outright, it is safe to assume Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin are the big six.  Though historians will tell you that these men disagreed constantly and vociferously about the the meaning of America, twenty-first century Americans gloss over such complexities.  When ‘the founders’ are spoken of as a homogeneous bunch, it is usually to justify our political proclivities, or attack political enemies.  “What would the founders say about Obamacare?” “What would the founders think about waterboarding?” Picking and choosing the quotes of Jefferson, or Franklin that suit their needs, media personalities and political figures utilize ‘the founders’ to fight today’s political battles.

MLK is now part of this national pantheon. But, in one way at least, MLK is an even more evocative symbol than Jefferson, Adams or Washington. King’s image and visage resonates so brightly not just because of his life, but also his death.  Unlike ‘the founders’, MLK is a national martyr.  He died for what we understand today as being the best of American ideals.  Though ‘the founders’ fought to create the nation, and their lives were often in danger, none of them made the greatest sacrifice for the new republic.  (Of course, Hamilton is the exception. He died a martin-luther-king-jr-in-front-of-lincoln-memorialrelatively young man in a violent manner, killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. But, to our twenty-first century eyes, this death, though romantic, was not for the nation, but only for Hamilton’s individual pride and honor.) Most of the first generation of American heroes passed away quietly in their beds. They had cleared their own, and the nation’s hurdles, while alive.  They lived to see their dreams made real. MLK died before he reached his ‘promised land.’

But, martyrs die so that others may live.  Martyrology means that King’s death caused our collective rebirth. This places MLK in an even more exclusive club.  It could be argued there is only one other member: Abraham Lincoln.  Both King and Lincoln fit the definition of martyrs as they both died so that others could thrive and survive.  Both American heroes foresaw the future far before their contemporaries, and died for this prescience.

As our nation is at fault for the death of these two men, the least we can do is celebrate their births.