Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Gaps in the Story


Since today is the American holiday known as Independence Day, here's another little puzzle prompted by history's timeline. Why do Americans pin the date of their independence from the British on July 4, 1776, when the culmination of the war wasn't officially settled until September 3, 1783? Nor did the war which brought about this settlement begin after that 1776 declaration; it had been raging for over a year beforehand.

Along with the realization which we discussed yesterday—that things take time—I'm beginning to draw another lesson from our nation's founding which I can borrow for inspiration in the face of family history research frustration. We find ourselves celebrating at the moment of decision, the point at which we decide to draw a line in the sand and take a stand for what our goals will now be. Never mind the immense amount of hard work ahead of us, or the difficulties we've already endured before this point. 

Sure, pinning the celebration near the beginning of the process can end up becoming disheartening in the deep midst of the battles, but that is a decision made in retrospect. I'm not sure American colonists were partying quite as heartily as we've done in subsequent years when they were facing the threat at their doorsteps at that moment. Nor were they seeing the answers come immediately after saying it should be so. It took a lot of work, sacrifice, and risk before anyone could say it was all over but the shouting.

I don't mean to trivialize that tense episode in history by making such a comparison, but when we stake our claim on filling in the gaps in our own family's story, we need to remember that research can sometimes be a battle. Sure, it's not quite the battle faced in real war time, but it is a struggle with missing documents, mis-ascribed credit (or even blame) in family myths, and even the dark side of unknown family secrets.

There is a painting which was commissioned on the occasion of that momentous treaty to end the war between upstart colonists and the power to which they had once owed allegiance. Intended as an oil on canvas by British-American artist, Benjamin West, the painting shows the American delegation—John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin—supposedly posing at the point of signing the peace treaty. The rest of the sketch, however, is left with uncolored gaps; the British commissioners refused to pose for the portrait. The painting was left unfinished.

That gap-ridden picture is sometimes the appearance our own battles take on, when we haven't quite concluded our own research conquests. An ancestor refuses to sit down and tell us just how things really were. Perhaps the paperwork was destroyed, or stolen, or burned in some tragic episode maddeningly tangential to our own family's timeline—or precisely because of the choices our forebears made, themselves.

What do we do to move on? After all, the events were completed. We just want to know what happened. But if someone's non-cooperation keeps us from framing that lovely oil portrait, we need to remember the facts of the matter and our end goal. The war has already been won. That has already happened quite some time ago. We just want to document it officially. And we will find a way. Even if we can't get everyone to sit down and smile pretty for the picture.

Image above: "American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement With Great Britain 1783-1784." Unfinished oil on canvas by British-American artist, Benjamin West; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

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