Thursday, June 18, 2009

17 June: Bunker Hill Day--and where's the spirit of revolution today?

Boston, and Bunker Hill from the east, with Charlestown and the monument on the right: engraving by W. H. Barlett, from one of the many 19th-century editions of American Scenery

The 17th of June may be the former day of national unity in Germany, but the anniversary of a celebrated Revolutionary War battle has again emerged as a divisive date here in Massachusetts.

That some local and state employees have the day off irritates Republican lawmakers, who charge that legally mandated "hack holidays" such as Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day (March 17—yes, coincidentally, St. Patrick's Day) for the few constitute an insult to all the rest of us who have to work, and moreover result in great overtime costs and losses of productivity (though they produced no evidence to support this claim). Some Democrats responded by insisting on the historic importance of the Revolutionary holiday and drily noting that the Commonwealth might be better served if Republicans focused their energy on ethics reform and other more susbtantive matters.

Bunker Hill (actually Breed's Hill, as most of us know) was of course the first full-scale battle of the Revolution after the initial clashes at Lexington and Concord. Although the besieged British forces from Boston succeeded in taking the fortified height from the rebels, the fact that the latter had stood their ground through three assaults was a symbolic victory.

The huge granite obelisk (221 feet tall) that marks the site has a story of its own. After the legislature declined to fund the project, conceived for the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, it fell to citizens' volunteer groups—in particular, the women of the Ladies' Fair at Quincy Market—to raise the necessary funds (a process that, ironically, anticipated the struggle we here in Amherst faced in microcosm when we sought to create the now immensely popular history mural in West Cemetery). Although the laying of the cornerstone in 1825 was occasion for a huge festival, marked, inter alia, by the oration of Daniel Webster and the presence of the Marquis de Lafayette, then making his triumphal American return tour, the project was not completed till the formal dedication in 1843, marked by festivities almost as impressive. (MassMoments provides a nice synopsis.)

The story is told in capsule form on the commemorative cup plate produced by the prolific Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, the motto of which reads:


This was but one of a host of commemorative products that appeared in a steady stream for decades. The battle and site were memorialized in speeches, poems, prints (see above), and souvenir objects

It is ironic that Republicans and other right-wingers, who have appropriated the symbolism of the "Tea Party" as a protest against the policies of the Obama administration, show such little interest in the real history or principles of the Revolution from which they claim inspiration.

Democrats also pointed out that the anti-Bunker Hill Day argument was moot because the holidays were built into legally binding contracts and could not be changed in the immediate future anyway. In one further ironic development, we see more evidence of the growing tendency to blame workers and contracts for economic ills that are largely structural, and to take away the gains of decades of struggle and collective bargaining for the sake of short-term convenience. The disease has hit even "progressive" Amherst, in which an unholy alliance of soi-disant leftists and right-wing fiscal conservatives are united in crying that we must get rid of Cost-of-Living Allowances (COLAs) and other wage increases for town employees. All a sudden, those who resist many an eminently rational administrative measure are telling us that we must extract concessions from those on the town payroll, whether by coercion—there are ways to break contracts, they blithely assure us—or cooptation: please, call all your friends among the unions! one enthusiast implored at Town Meeting. For some reason, they see cutting services to fit budgetary constraints as a great evil, but find no such problem in cutting the pay of those who provide the services.

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