The bad, old days

June 22, 1994|By Don Shoemaker

SOME of the good folk of the media who kindly look after our morals think the country is going to the wrong place in a hand basket.

Specifically, Newsweek magazine found that when it took a poll that asked, "Do you think the United States is in a moral and spiritual decline?" 76 percent of the adults said Yes and 20 percent said No.

The majority, as usual, is probably right. It accounts for the fact that "the fraying of America's social fabric . . . has become a national obsession." Further, chaos, or the fear of it, "has made Americans nostalgic for a more orderly age."

Probably. But when was that? We are inclined to look back through history and find that things were better in the good, old days; and how do we get them back? This could be a forlorn quest.

David Hackett Fischer's "Paul Revere's Ride," a myth-destroying chronicle of the early days of the American Revolution, says surprisingly of Revere's first marriage: "The first baby arrived eight months after the wedding -- a common occurrence in mid-18th century New England, where as many as one-third of the brides in Yankee towns were pregnant on their wedding day."

Mr. Fischer cites two authorities for this figure.

The towns of New England (Boston had only 14,000 Puritan souls in 1740) were no different from the wild frontier. In "Daniel Boone," John Mack Faragher tells us that Daniel Boone's older sister "was with child before she was married" and that the elder Boones "certainly had a great deal of company in their embarrassment." For, "Throughout the colonies a significant increase in premarital conception signaled a decline in the ability of parents to determine the choices of their children."

It may be amiss to denominate the morals of an era by the sexual exploits of its principals but that is the record. Down with hypocrisy!

As for Paul Revere, he was the victim of what we call today the revisionists. Longfellow's famous poem was wildly inaccurate as history. Mr. Fischer says that "for many years historians in New England labored to correct Longfellow's errors. They demonstrated exhaustively that Paul Revere did not receive the lantern signals from the Old North church, but helped to send them. They documented abundantly the fact that he did not row alone across the Charles River, but was transported by others. They proved conclusively that Paul Revere did not reach Concord, and that another messenger succeeded where he failed. And so on and on. Revere was in fact a major figure behind the scenes of the doings at Concord and Lexington. And he never cried, 'The British are coming!' "

But men (and boys) will go on quoting Longfellow as long as we have printed pages. Listen my children; and you shall hear. . . .

Don Shoemaker is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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