The meaning of history

President Obama and Vice President Biden hosted a gathering in the White House on March 17. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and the American leaders welcomed the political leadership of Ireland to a festive commemoration of the day named for that country’s patron saint.

On the Emerald Isle, the day is a national holiday, and is observed with much activity, both festive and solemn; in Ireland, the day is set aside to foster thoughtful reflection about that nation’s history. In his introductory remarks, Vice President Biden expressed these comments about the historical significance of that day: “We all know the importance of St. Paddy’s Day in Irish history, but today is a pretty significant day in American history, as well,” Biden said. “It was on March 17, 1776, that British forces, under the leadership of Sir William Howe, evacuated Boston during the Revolutionary War – something we Irish and Americans share in common, paving the way for the future victory in the Revolutionary War.”

Indeed, March 17 marks the day the American colonists won their first victory over the British soldiers. For decades, American school children learning history lessons heard the story of Ethan Allan and his Green Mountain Boys raiding a British camp at Fort Ticonderoga, New York, seizing 60 tons of armaments and moving them to Boston. There, General George Washington had taken a position on Dorchester Heights, where he had an advantage over the British fleet in Boston Harbor. Outmaneuvered, the British fleet left Boston and set sail for Nova Scotia. The day came to be known as “Evacuation Day,” and holds a huge significance in the American struggle for independence.

“The evacuation was George Washington’s first victory,’ says State Senator Jack Hart. “It gave inspiration to the troops that victory was possible. It has great national historical significance; it was a critical moment in our country’s history.”

Now the state legislature is mired in a mean-spirited, tawdry debate over the observation of Evacuation Day. The opposition is rooted in the belief that the date is important only in Boston and Suffolk County. Ironically, a Westfield Republican Senator, Michael Knapik, is leading the charge, despite the historical role that his part of the state played: the cannons were moved to Boston with great difficulty through the rough country roads and over the frozen rivers of the Berkshires. Why people like Knapik would denigrate the historical event is a mystery.

These Republicans – and the talk-show folks who live out their lives listening and talking in the narrow confines of “hate radio”– should be invited to take a course in basic American patriotism. They would have it that observing these holidays is silly and frivolous, a waste of tax dollars. On the contrary, these historic events are the foundation of our country’s struggle to be independent.

Rather than throw them out for the sake of some ephemeral, transitory anti-tax sentiment, perhaps the opponents should ask their constituents to pause and show some respect. For too long, many holidays have become just another excuse for a three-day weekend. Historic events like Evacuation Day ought to be a day of reverential observance among all our citizens.