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The enchantment that distance lends

Better late than never, today let me put in a good word for the 18th century. They were the glory years capped by the American Revolution.

If you go to Colonial Williamsburg, and I would strongly recommend it, you get a strong sense of what life was like at that time.

The scene is antique picture-perfect, with the simple elegant buildings, wide streets, men in three-cornered hats, women in caps and gowns and people in the stocks for the offense of wearing Bermuda shorts with sneakers. Oh wait — those are the tourists! (Serves them right, too.)

Apparently not everything was idyllic back in the day — the English were still around to impose tyrannies such as taxes and perhaps even cricket, and slavery was very much in business.

This latter part of Virginia's history is faced squarely and honestly. Still, the smiling staff and volunteers at Williamsburg, both white and black, are friendly. It is a fair guess that the real characters back in the 18th century weren't quite as happy. This difference is understandable. Otherwise, for today's visitor, it would be like going to Disneyland and finding out that Mickey Mouse was really a rat.

But distance lends enchantment, and the history buff today, striding in his sneakers through the 18th century at Williamsburg, is easily enchanted. Here was where Thomas Jefferson went to school at William & Mary and Patrick Henry honed his revolutionary rhetoric, starting out with "Give me liberty or give me ale," which he improved upon later.

Because this epoch gave rise to remarkable characters who helped define American freedoms, the nostalgia for the 18th century touches us all in different ways to this day, but some more than others. Some would have us crawl back into the revolutionary womb.

In the 20th century, a great American writer, Thomas Wolfe, wrote a warning about such yearnings in a novel called You Can't Go Home Again. You can't go back home, he wrote, "to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

Where the good words for the 18th century end is where the coming of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution begins, when America turned from being an overwhelmingly rural nation of free farmers to a land where serf-like wage-earners toiled in mills and factories located in newly emerged cities.

As it happens, I write this in the city of Pittsburgh, which has stood witness to the march of American history from the beginning, from when a 21-year-old George Washington traveled from, yes, Williamsburg, to look upon the Forks of the Ohio. He made his first great splash here. Literally. Some people boast that Washington slept in their town. We can boast that Washington fell into the Allegheny River here.

The fledgling community would soon become the Gateway to the West, then the cradle of industrial society, and then finally the city of ex-steelworkers, medical staffers, students, nerds, City of Champions, City of Complainers and America's Most Livable City If You Can Stand the Complaining.

I also write for a newspaper that was founded in 1786 and still has the same air-conditioning. So this I can say with special authority: As far as Pittsburgh is concerned, the 19th century doesn't deserve any good words, and parts of the 20th century weren't so great either. In 1868, a visitor described the city as "hell with the lid off."

This was American freedom, 19th-century style. Without state and federal laws to help ordinary people, with little protection for workers, with fouled air and water and no guarantee of safe food, Pittsburgh was probably darned lucky to have the lid off. It was a time of mine disasters and bitter strikes in steel mills. Outbreaks of cholera sometimes occurred. Cholera! In Pittsburgh!

It was a time when the government of the people, by the people and for the people simply wasn't any of that. But gradually it changed. A great Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, struck a blow for real liberty at the dawn of the 20th century when he took on the trusts that were strangling free enterprise.

These thoughts are prompted by the tea party folks who decry the reach of government today and look to the 18th century for their model. To do so, they read the Constitution like fundamentalists read the Bible.

But if somehow an 18th-century notion of government power were to return to America, we would inevitably get all the worst features of the 19th century again. Having learned nothing from history, America itself would be hell with the lid off and liberty would be only for those who could afford it.

© 2010 Scripps Howard News Service

The enchantment that distance lends 05/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 7:08pm]

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