My teacher had made his request very clear. Homework must be finished, and on his desk first thing Monday morning.
Normally, I hated homework. But this assignment was about the birth and life of my country. Something I knew very little about.
The way Mr Williams spoke about our history filled my mind with questions. For the first time on a Friday afternoon, I ran all the way home to learn about U.S. history. For the first time I couldn't wait to study.
I arrived home and threw my school bag on the floor, rushing upstairs breathlessly and turned on my computer.
‘No, no, no… not now,’ I said frustrated at the Internet going down yet again at the worst possible moment. I jabbed the monitor, trying to fix it unsuccessfully.
‘Hey mister, what's going on up there? Oh, and hi mom would be nice,’ shouted my mother from the bottom of the stairs. ‘The Internets busted again mom. I have to do an assignment for school; I gotta finish it by Monday.’
There was a pause from her obvious shock at my new enthusiasm towards my school work.
‘Are you feeling ok.’ she asked me suspiciously. ‘Yeah, I'm fine. I just wana make a start on this. But I can't do anything without getting online.’ I said sulking.
‘What's the homework? Can I help?’ She offered. She always fussed over my education, and had good reason to. I was a self-confessed lazy child, and studying had always been the last thing on my mind. ‘No thanks mom. Can you get the net working again though?’ I said, and pulled my school books out, miserably contemplating an evening with my nose in its pages.
‘You know I don't understand how that works. Your grandpa’s here, I'll see if he can fix it,’ she offered, and walked into the kitchen.
Grandpa was a master at anything technical, and if anyone could solve my Internet problem, it would be him. He walked in and ruffled my hair, the same way he had always done since I was small. ‘Hey Jr, your mom told me you're having a spot of bother?’ He pulled up a chair next to me where I sat at my computer. ‘Mind if I take a look.’ He added, and checked the connection to of all the cables which were impossibly tangled behind my desk. ‘Well now, I don't know what's wrong with this contraption, but maybe I could help you with your homework. What is it? Math, science?’ he asked me interested.
‘No. It's history grandpa. We have to find out about how the U.S. became our country. I'm actually excited, but without Google I don't stand a chance.’ His face lit up at my mention of history. I realised then the reason why. He loved history. I would always find him reading his leather bound volumes he hoarded like treasure. In his home he had even turned my mom’s old room into a library for his historic collection.
I kicked back on my bed and he swivelled around on the computer chair to look out of the window. Running home now seemed like a good idea, as we both watched the rain hammer down outside.
‘U.S. history eh…’ he said rubbing his chin pensively. ‘Ah…I know the perfect place to start. Have you ever heard of the Boston Tea Party, squirt?’
‘No. Grandpa, I need to learn about our countries beginnings. You know; like battles and that kind of stuff. Not some tea party. Come on, give me the juicy stories.’ I said thinking he was kidding around with me.
‘Oh this is juicy alright, and it was the spark that ignited the beginning of our nation.’
‘What… a tea party?’ I said unconvinced with his explanation.
‘Well it wasn’t exactly a tea party like you think squirt, but like the weather outside it did go down with a splash. You see, at the time, King George the III, who was the British ruler, levied impossible taxes on all the things people in those days needed. The colonist saw themselves as British subjects, but old King George just didn’t see it that way. He taxed things like wine, tobacco, and yes, tea also was taxed, along with anything else of value traded with the colonies.’ he explained, taking his glasses off to rub the bridge of his nose.
‘So they had a protest tea party or something. I can’t see that doing any good.’ I said not seeing how something like a party could have started a nation. He laughed gently and looked back out of the window.
‘They didn’t exactly have a party you know. On December 16th 1773 they all just had enough of the unfair British taxes. So they all marched down to Boston docks and boarded an East India Company ship, which was owned by Britain, and emptied its cargo into the water. Coincidently that cargo was tea. I am sure they had a real good time doing it too. The actions of those brave men and women sparked the first open rebellion.’
He was a great story teller, and I could tell he was enjoying telling me all he knew, but I wanted to know about the fighting.
‘So did the British come here and start the war of independence?’ I knew that we fought the British, but my teacher would expect more details than just my awareness that a war had happened.
‘Oh, they came for a fight alright. King George didn’t see the people here as British citizens. He saw them as just colonists and subjects, and wanted them to bend to his will, or he would break them like a disobedient horse. After all, he had to pay for the French Indian war, also known as the seven year war in the 1750s. The British had won that war against the French, with the aid of the colonists. But wars are expensive, and he believed the best way to pay for it was with high taxes.’
I got a pencil out, and started to write down what he was telling me. I knew nothing about it, and I was hungry to learn all I could from the human encyclopaedia, who was my Grandpa.
‘So how did they stand up to him Grandpa?’ I asked while sharpening my pencil.
‘Some men just couldn’t take the tyranny of a foreign ruler thousands of miles away. Samuel Adams was one of those men, and he along with his supporters encouraged the colonists in Boston to resist that tyranny. Britain responded in the only way expected and killed some protesters in what was known as the Boston Massacre. This added more fuel to the fire, and eventually the king sent an army to eradicate the rebellion in its tracks.’
I knew the name Adams, but the John Adams I knew was one of the countries founding fathers.
‘Wasn’t it John Adams grandpa?’ I said helpfully, thinking he had mistaken the name.
‘No squirt, John Adams, was his cousin, and would become one of the countries founding fathers, and second president of the United States. He would contribute to what we know as our constitution. He was a lawyer in those days and tried to seek a diplomatic solution to the colonist’s grievances, which were snubbed out of hand by the British overlords. He believed that every man had the right to fair trial and fair justice. Even the captured British after the war were entitled to their rights to counsel.’
My hand was starting to ach from the speed of note taking, but what I was getting was good stuff. My teacher on Monday would be impressed as long as it was all true. Knowing Grandpa of course meant that it all was.
‘So what happened after the British sent their army?’ I asked wide eyed.
‘Well the colonists didn’t have the pockets for a war like the British had you see. They retreated inland to Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and formed the Second Continental Congress in 1775.Thomas Jefferson, along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and the other founding fathers authored and signed the Declaration of independence on July 4th the following year.’
We all had that date in our memory. Our teachers and even some of the cartoons I watched would show the events of that day.
‘The new Congress, which was represented by the thirteen colonial states, had one problem.’ he said quizzically. ‘What was that?’ I asked
‘They didn’t have the money to pay their army.’
‘Couldn’t the soldiers have fought for free?’ I asked him. ‘Not if they wanted to eat and feed their families,’ he reasoned soundly. ‘But even though money was tight, they still won important battles, at Lexington and Concord in 1775, led by the well reputed George Washington who was the commander of all the colonial forces.’
‘At last, some battles.’ I said triumphantly. ‘Yes. But without money, those battles would not have happened. Take the muskets they carried. Who would pay for those? The ammunition and cannon would have to be paid for, as well as the supply of horses and feed for those horses.’
‘Ok, so how did they do it? The Colonial army I mean.’ I understood now that wars could not just happen without money. Grandpa pulled out a pipe from his inside pocket but didn’t light it. He never smoked in the house or in front of me. The habit of holding it sometimes though was just too powerful to resist.
‘They did have the help from the likes of John Hancock as well as other wealthy merchants and landowners, but in all honesty the war would have been lost if it were not for the French joining the colonial rebels in 1778.’
‘What did they have to do with anything? I thought the colonists fought alone.’ I said confused.
‘Not at all Jr; The French smelled an opportunity for revenge, because of the last time they were whooped by the British in the seven years’ war. Spain also got involved, so did the Netherlands, turning the tables on the fully stretched purse of King George III.’
I knew we won the war. That was common knowledge, but the way grandpa told the story made it come to life. I imagined sitting in the Second Congress chambers and seeing the four fathers sign the Declaration of independence. I closed my eyes and imagined the long marches that would have been necessary to cross the vast country to fight a bloody and brutal confrontation when they got there. Mom called up, interrupting the tale suddenly. ‘Dinner will be on the table in an hour. Dad, are you staying for a bite,’ she called up to us both.
‘Yes please dear. We could be some time though, I’m not finished boring this whippersnapper with some history,’ he called back from his seat.
‘It’s not boring Gramps, I love your stories.’ I said to him honestly. In fact I could have listened to him all night, and looking at the sky outside, it could very well come to that.
‘Ok where were we?’ he whispered more to himself. ‘Ah yes… the French. They helped the Rebels in many ways, not just the supply of fighting men. They had a decent navy, but most important of all, they could lend money and pay for the guns and food required. They nearly bankrupt themselves for their efforts, but they did get their revenge on the old enemy the British.’
The smell of a roasted chicken began to waft up the stairs, making my mouth water. I had eaten very little all day, but dinner would have to wait until Grandpa finished. We had only covered the beginning of our great history, and I was expecting more wonders as he took me on the journey through time.
‘So the British just left when they lost a few battles.’ I asked.
‘Over the course of the long war there were many skirmishes and battles. The colonists forced the British out of Boston and then the British took New York and held there until eventually capitulating. The victory at Yorktown was the final straw for King George, who had lost interest in the expensive and distant war. At last we had our own country.’
‘So what happened when the British left grandpa? ‘I asked.
‘George Washington put in place the Constitution, and in 1789 became the first President of the United States of America. He brought together the feuding factions of the other thirteen states, and was elected for two terms before retiring. He and his Vice President John Adams enjoyed a near decade of peace after all the blood they had shed to create our country,’ he said, standing up to turn my bedroom light on. It was completely dark outside now, the light cast the room in a soft glow as the light bulb warmed up.
‘That my boy was how we became a nation.’ he added.
My writing hand was becoming even more tired, but I couldn’t stop now. We had only just begun really, and I wanted to fill the empty pages ready for Monday.
‘Do you want to stop now for dinner squirt?’ he asked me when he heard my stomach rumbling. ‘I’m ok Grandpa; you can carry on if you don’t mind.’ When he told a story the deep baritone of his voice captured my imagination instantly. He loved to tell them, and wouldn’t pass up the chance to share his passion.
‘Ok, as long as your mother doesn’t come knocking.’ He rubbed his chin once more and looked like he was deep in thought before continuing.
‘The colonists were now a free nation, but unfortunately, it would take a long time for all men and women to enjoy those same basic freedoms. Heck even today we have our problems. Before and after the war of independence, the slave trade in this country made a lot of people extremely wealthy indeed. Even Benjamin Franklin, a man who fought so hard for liberty and freedom had slaves. Later in life, to his credit, he freed all the slaves that he owned.’
‘I can’t believe Benjamin Franklin had slaves.’ I said shocked. We looked up to our founding fathers as role models of how decent our society can be.
‘Well he wasn’t an evil man you see. It was just normal at the time to have slaves. In the south, the cotton plantations needed a strong and cheap work force. Some of them were treated terribly and as I said before, there is still unrest to this day.’
‘We had done some stuff on slavery in history with Mr Williams. He showed us some pictures that gave me nightmares.’ I told grandpa darkly. ‘It is a sad but truthful part of how our nation was born. We didn’t treat its original inhabitants any better you know. The native Indians were all but removed from the east coast after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Our great expansion west would come at the cost of the blood of its original inhabitants. Indian tribes were nigh on wiped out in the eagerness to settle on the newly discovered land. Boats loaded with people from Europe fed that expansion, with the promise of land for all U.S. citizens.’
‘Was Washington the Capital Grandpa? You said earlier that they agreed the Declaration of Independence in Pennsylvania.’ I asked, not sure if presidents lived there, or in Washington after the war.
‘Good question. Our first President George Washington chose the site of the Whitehouse, but never actually governed there. The cornerstone was laid in 1792 a, competition to design the building was won by an Irish born architect called James Hoban.’
It was unbelievable to think he knew this much about history. I was aware he was a clever man, but the facts he had memorised were awesome. ‘How do you know all this stuff?’ I asked him impressed. ‘From lots of books my lad; as well as a great deal of time on my hands. When your Grandmother passed away I was left with you guys, and my books.’ he said with a hint of sadness at the passing of Grandma a few years ago. ‘The Whitehouse wasn't completed for another eight years and in 1800 its first resident moved in to take the office.’
‘The second President was John Adams right?’ I asked, knowing he had just told me who took over after George Washington. ‘That’s right. You have been listening then.’ He chuckled.
‘I'd like to go there one day,’ I said.
‘Maybe I’ll take you, but you won't see the original unfortunately.’ He replied.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked confused once again.
‘Well the British burned the first one down.’
‘What!’ I replied astonished once again. ‘You two, come down right now or I’m gonna scrape this food I’ve slaved over for nothing.’ Mom screamed up to us. Perhaps it was time to call it a night. ‘Come on squirt, let’s chow down. Hope you get a good grade for your homework.’
‘Thanks Granpa, can we do this again sometime?’ I asked him hopefully. ‘You got another project coming up? He asked back. ‘Mr Williams always has something to throw at us, but I’d like to know more about history, well… for me.’
‘Of course I will my boy. Maybe I could swing by at the weekend and tell you about the birth of another nation?’
‘Definitely,’ I agreed as we joined my irritated mother for a late dinner. As I chewed the cold chicken I thought of how America was born and how it is still changing and growing from one triumph to another crisis. We had definitely come a long way since the beginning. But history as I was learning would be a great guide to stop us from making the same mistakes of the past.