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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Dear Founders of the United States: I Am Ashamed

January 2021

Dear writer of the U.S. Constitution, author of the Federalist Papers, and Chief Justice; Dear Colonel, and Legislator in the first legislature of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Dear Lieutenant Colonel & aide-de-camp to General Washington, and Vice President; Dear Host to General Washington and grower of food for his troops; Weapons and munitions maker. My dear ancestors and Founders of the United States: I Am Ashamed.

I am ashamed of what happened in the capital of my country today. I am ashamed of the attack on our capital building and legislators inside. I am ashamed of the attempted insurrection that occurred.

In your multiple roles, you are five of my ancestors and five of the very many who helped fight for and form this country, these United States of America. I am your great-great-great granddaughter and, for some, add another great or two. We talked about you so much as I was reared in the neighborhoods of Boston and Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, but woods and grasslands to you then, I thought you’d just spent the weekend at our home in Framingham Centre outside of Boston. Sometimes I still talk to you. I ask you questions about the beginnings of the country, what it was like before and after the Revolution. I ask you questions about what it was like during the war itself and what made you join the forces to make us independent of George III’s kingdom. What were your thoughts? I know some of your actions for they are in the history books. I don’t think any of you boarded ships in Boston Harbor and threw the tea overboard, for all of you lived in New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania. What your actions did, though, helped form and build this country. I honor you and the work you did, the very difficult or frightening moments you had and lived through.

My father’s family came here in 1620, 1630, and 1640. They became merchants in Boston, but when the Crown offered 500 acres of Nova Scotia land for free, they moved there to continue as merchants. The Crown had just removed the French from this land (thus making Annie Proulx’s, Barkskins, a must-read for me). Any British colonists willing to move and set up a new life could have this land simply by moving from the lower colonies to the colonies farther north. The first from his family to be born in these United States, my father, had an avid interest in the overview and details of history, including the history of his new country. Knowledgeable of the early history of the settlements and history of these shores, the men and women who lived two and three hundred years before I was born, became not only a past but also a present part of my family.

Now I skip to the present day and its events. I remember one time I went to Washington, D. C. I wandered the streets around the capital and the National Mall, until Aaron Burr and I saw one another and walked the streets together. As a bus passed, he asked what it was and what were these conveyances (cars) that went so fast. I explained these things to him, things that we accept as normal today. I explained indoor plumbing to him and told him of the books I enjoy, a plethora compared to his day. Although I dearly wanted to hear his side, out of politeness, I never asked him about what lay behind the duel. I knew their political differences because they are readily available in books. I wanted to say, “Was it only about your political differences? I ask because my mother told me something else, a story of jealousy over a lady, a story handed down to the female of every other generation until, out of order, she told me, her daughter.” Politeness, deference, honor, and awe to a person of your stature prevented me from mentioning that scar to your reputation. Instead we talked of your pressing questions.

“That’s the Washington Monument and at the other end of the Mall is the Lincoln Memorial.”

“I knew General Washington well. I was one of his colonels and an aide-de-camp to him, but who is Lincoln?”

“ Lincoln was president when we had a Civil War and on January 1, 1863, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves.”

He continued. “About time. We tried to do that at the very start of the country, but would have lost the southern states to “these United States.” In this day what is the health and legacy of this government we fought for and set up so long ago? Has it lasted and is in good health?”

He knew all too well the end of the eighteenth century with its troubles and internecine fights and resulting resolutions reached, the disagreements and lengthy discussions of the founding of our country. He knew of and fought in the Revolution. Although not a member of the Constitutional Congress, he discussed its principles and details with Mr. Jay (John) and Mr. Madison (James). He knew that time and those struggles. He did not know of the war that almost tore this young nation apart, The Civil War. I filled him as best I could in the short time we had in our tour and walking conversation. He knew the old city well for he was vice-president then, but he was lost in the areas of paved streets and tall buildings and the spring of 1995. He said Washington smelled better now, but the noise level, although different, was about the same.

Today, 6 January 2021, I am horrified and ashamed to report to him and my other founding ancestors that we are once again in horrible turmoil. Four of you five gentlemen all lived through the attack on the capital in 1812. I am sad to say that for the second time in its 220-year history, louts and ruffians attacked the U.S. Capital Building today. As his colleague, Benjamin Franklin, is reported to have said “We have a republic, if we can keep it,” later adding, “People, on tasting a dish, are apt to eat more of it than does them good.” Can we keep it or are we so ravenously hungry each for our own freedom and rights that we ignore those of others? I am reminded of the blog I wrote a year ago about why we need not just a Bill of Rights but also a Bill of Duties. I listed thirteen of my duties in the blog. My list includes be kind to your neighbor; treat people as you want them to treat you; be polite—even if you feel angry or sad; pick up litter—especially your own as well as someone else’s (thank you, U.S. Congressman Andy Kim who did just that in the halls of Congress on January 6, 2021); spend quality time with your family, for a total of 13. The Constitution has ten items in the Bill of Rights. There’s nothing wrong with having thirteen in the Bill of Duties. Today reminds me of these duties as a citizen of my town, state, and country, even as a citizen of the world.

One day in 1967, I felt overwhelmed with grief when I saw a photograph of an armed National Guard member standing on the steps of the Capital building. Why oh why have we come to this then or now? It felt and feels like a terrible nightmare and omen. Yet each of you, Grandfather, and your families made it through the Revolutionary War. Those days were far worse than what occurred in the 1960s when minorities and women marched for their equal rights in this nation, or the days that are occurring now. I do not have to hear weapons fire near my house. I do not need to fear for the safety of my husband, child, or grandchildren during a war occurring in my town or at the stone lintel outside my door.

I do, however, weep for my country and for what message January 6, 2021 now sends to the world. I weep for my grandchildren and those of their generation to have to see this, whether watching it live or reading about it in their textbooks in years to come. I weep for our national legislators who feared for their lives. I am not ashamed to weep, but I am ashamed of the very recent assault on my country, especially by some of its own citizens. It brings tears to my eyes and soul.

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