Monday, July 3, 2023

Thoughts Leading up to Independence


When we celebrate Fourth of July tomorrow, what Americans are really celebrating—well, besides parades, barbecues and fireworks—is the holiday we also call Independence Day. Pinpointing the whole of the independence saga on one day, though, boggles my mind. I've had some thoughts on that, lately. And yes, even this will have something to do with genealogy.

July 4, 1776, bears the brunt of the entire unit of history Americans celebrate as the fulcrum of our independence, but the story unwinds much slower than one discreet twenty-four-hour episode. As my pastor shared in his sermon on Sunday, our founding fathers didn't simply wake up one morning and decide it was a good idea to revolt against one of the world's superpowers. This was the culmination of a multi-year process filled with letter-writing, petitions, negotiations and appeals—all to little avail.

Even pinpointing the date—July 4—as a representation of this culmination of diplomatic efforts is not entirely accurate. Though the founding document representing that declaration of independence was adopted on July 4, the motion to take that stand of independence was taken to a vote two days earlier with the Lee Resolution. And the calligrapher's handwritten copy of the document, drawn up after Congress ordered it done on July 19, was not officially signed until August 2. Even a declaration can be a matter of process, and processes take time.

Perhaps, for those of us who study the immigration of our colonial ancestors in the 1600s and 1700s, we have adopted the mental image that trans-Atlantic travel was so primitive and hazardous as to seal our ancestors' fate to never return to their homeland again. That, as I discovered a few months ago while working on my mother-in-law's colonial Maryland Howard family, was not actually the case. If business needs arose which required travel to, say, courts in London, return trips eastward were taken just the same as the previous voyages westward to the colonies. Likewise, those tasked with the necessities of dealing with political difficulties in the colonies also found themselves traveling across the ocean in both directions, such as Benjamin Franklin and his missions in London on behalf of the colonies. 

Thus, perhaps family history researchers burdened with our modern outlook concerning the hazards of colonial travel need to free ourselves of that mental image of the tearful departure of immigrants never to be seen by their loved ones again. That may have been the story of my father-in-law's ancestors from Ireland, perhaps fitting that image shared in the 1868 book, Illustrated History of Ireland, but it is not the sole story of all immigrants to America.

Thoughts like these awaken in my mind the possibility that, if such were true for those key individuals during the many years that went into the founding of the United States of America, perhaps we can take such details as cues to rework our mental image of our own ancestors' travel stories.

Trans-Atlantic sailing trips, which might seem perilous to our modern fail-safe mindset, might not have represented the final goodbye for our ancestors. Adding to that thought the safety of travel in groups—recall the researcher's moniker, the FAN Club—we may be able to discover more about our ancestors when we realize that many traveled with their friends and family members, not to mention their close associates and neighbors from back in their homeland village.

But the main lesson to me, as I ponder the elongated time line of just how long a sequence of events combined to bring us Independence Day on the Fourth of July, is that events take time to formulate and put into practice. It may seem romantic and oh-so-twenty-first-century to up and travel halfway around the world at the spur of the moment now, but it took time and much consideration before our eighteenth century ancestors actually made the move to the New World. Likely, for each step of their journey, they left a paper trail of hints for us to follow. To find those hints, though, we need to re-think all the steps that might have gone into that process of saying goodbye. It never took only one short day.

Image above, depicting the tearful departure of emigrants from Ireland, from an engraving by Henry Doyle for the preface of the first edition of Mary Frances Cusack's 1868 book, An Illustrated History of Ireland from AD 400 to 1800; courtesy of Wikipedia; in the public domain. 

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