Monday, September 12, 2005

48: "A Matter of Courage and Integrity"

One of the most daring, and brazen actions taken in our national history was the formation of a series of congresses, starting with the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, and moving to the First Continental Congress in 1774, and the Second Continental Congress in 1775. The Continental Congresses were formed in response to a series of “intolerable acts” pressed upon the colonies by the Crown government in Great Britain. The thirteen colonies decided in the spring of 1775, that all efforts to reach a peaceful settlement of their grievances against the Crown had failed, and that in retaliation for their defiance of the laws so harshly treating their economic and political well being, the Crown had essentially declared war on the united colonies. By June of 1775, the Second Continental Congress had formed an army, and selected one former colonial militia officer to lead it. He was, of course, George Washington.

These were men in a group of colonies that had, for nearly 170 years endured the hardships of carving out an existence in a hostile environment, the start of which failed at least once. The object had been to quickly establish colonies, and discover what products could be produced there and sent back to England. Once survival had been accomplished, and assured, the colonists set about expanding their territories, measuring the depth of the continent to the west, and reporting on the wealth of its resources. By the middle of the 18th century, the major port cities of Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah were bustling, thriving urban centers of trade. What’s more, there were smaller cities westward from the ports, that were supporting the westward expansion, and serving as shipping points for goods traveling in both directions – west to the settlers and explorers, and east to the ports for shipment overseas. The problem was, these colonists were not thriving economically, or personally, under the occupation of British colonial rule. Not only were they not thriving, they were being stifled – not allowed to make a profit, unless it be a slim one permitted by whim of the “Company”, the Crown’s agent for trade. Something was obviously wrong with this picture.

Stifle a man’s pocketbook, and you stifle his liberty. Stifle his liberty, and you create a dangerous enemy. So the brave men formed their committees, and their congresses, and set out to force the greatest nation on earth at that time, masters of the largest empire the world had ever seen, to back off, and grant them the freedom to make better use of their labors economically. Silly idea, what? So the Crown sent more troops, the “Lobsterbacks”, so named for their scarlet coats. Oddly, one of the complaints to the crown was the lack of military protection on the frontier by British troops. Now they were present in abundance, but rarely out of the port cities except in transit, or on patrol. The British Crown, under the Hanoverian, King George the III, tried to tighten the screws.

These defiant colonists, led by, perhaps, the greatest collection of socio-political thinkers ever gathered in one place at one time, were on the hook. Their open defiance was a matter of record…there was no turning back. But they had to take on the world’s greatest army to win. So these thinkers armed themselves first with a set of ideals, fueled by the European philosophers such as John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who opened his 1762 publication, The Social Contract, with the line, "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.") Then they turned those ideals into ideas, and began to spread the word: “Something new is coming!” They armed themselves with an army, and a leader who inspired near fanatical loyalty, in spite of his spotty military record. The old Virginia Militia officer now was a general in command of an army, about to fight the best and biggest army in the world.

What in the world could these men have been thinking? Outnumbered, outgunned, and certainly scared to death of the route upon which they were embarking. Broke, unable to afford even paying the volunteers who filled the ranks of the army, they had absolutely not a whit of a chance of pulling it off. Unless…unless…they could live on the ideas, and simply keep from losing, to grasp the stratagem that they did not have to win the military fight, only to keep from losing it, and thus achieve a political victory. In the end, the old Virginia militia officer kept the ranks together long enough for France to take an interest and promise help. And so, in those early summer days of 1776 in Philadelphia, they concocted a document which declared as much to themselves, as to the entire world, the righteousness of their acts. “The rest,” as the immortal Bard wrote, “is history.”

There were petty squabbles, and philosophical differences among them. But one abiding element kept them constant in their devotion to the goal of self determination, freedom, liberty, and equality: courage. Without the courage to carry out their grand scheme, to pay almost any sacrifice to achieve their desired end, it would have all unraveled quickly. Benjamin Franklin, the wise old Renaissance man who hammered coalitions and compromises into what we now call a nation, told this collection of thinkers, “We must hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.” The courage to face one’s fate bound them all together.

We are fortunate to have had them on our side some 230 odd years ago. If only we had such leaders now.

Now, leadership, such as that displayed by a local preservation association president, comes in the form of doublespeak, and is totally lacking in the courage required of leadership. She calls the proposed Gettysburg casino “the lesser of two evils when it’s the choice between looking at one rooftop or 20,000.” Somewhere in there is a spark of logic, I think. But it is not readily apparent. She goes on to complain of the rampant development taking shape in Adams County, but apparently limits the definition of development to housing. Hello? Adams County is wholly threatened by development, and yes, 20,000 new homes in the coming few years are on the way, but to claim the casino project, or, for that matter, even the Gateway Gettysburg projects are not development is to defy credulity.

Here is a clue for the president of that oldest preservation society: the casino is every bit as much of a threat to the farm she is restoring as the hundreds of houses she knows are coming to surround that farm. Development is development, whether it is a motorcycle store, a biker bar, a casino, or 20,000 houses. You have to stop the momentum and so you pick the target most likely to gain the attention of those who are responsible for the development. That target would be the casino. Courage? No courage needed here, just some self honesty.

Here’s another clue for the president: if the president of Chance Enterprises, the group of investors funding the casino project is such a great person, universally admired by all for his largesse, and his ethos, then it would not matter a whit that the preservation society came out against the casino. He would continue to grant the organization that largesse, continue to donate money to the property, and continue sponsoring the bike rides that raise money for the society.

People who are against the casino but do not say so out of fear of retribution by David LeVan are insulting his integrity. They also devalue themselves, and their own integrity.

When faced with someone to whom they owed allegiance, yet had done them acts of wrong, the men of the Continental Congresses rose with the courage to declare the King wrong, and to take measures to remove themselves from under his influence.

The leaders of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association should do no less.

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1 comment:

Randy said...

Thank you again for this article. In it you mention that the President of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association calls the proposed Gettysburg casino “the lesser of two evils when it’s the choice between looking at one rooftop or 20,000.”

Perhaps the President of the GBPA can explain why she considers it proper to support an evil in any form and how doing so furthers their mission of honoring the memory of those who died on the fields of Gettysburg.