Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Declaration of Independence--Such chutzpah!!!

Date: July 7, 1776.  

It took three days for the news to reach New York from Philadelphia: the thirteen colonies, standing up to the British empire, declared that they were "dissolving" their political bonds with the mother country--this even as the Royal Navy was fast approaching New York Harbor. The scene is a bit comical.

The Declaration of Independence, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, is among the most exquisite documents in the English language, embodying the writings of John Locke, abolishing the so-called "divine right" of kings. It does away from the British inheritance-based notions of entitlement, posing in its place the notion of "natural liberty": that we are each born with the right to freedom. Slavery was a problem for the drafters; see my excerpt below.

Here's my fictional approach of that day, based on historical records from the New York Historical society. (As long as it's fact-based, the historical novelist has some license with the details, which is why historical fiction is so much fun.)

An excerpt from my novel:

"Sneaking out, Rebecca turned the metal knob of the back door. The rising sun spread feathery light on the neglected garden, overrun with creeping thistle.  Flowers drooped. Trees hungered for a breeze. 

      She walked quickly, forcing her body through the dense, thick air, her collar already moist, underarms sticky, beyond her own quiet street towards the harbor. The outstretched lawn cluttered with broadsides, darkened by stampedes of filthy footprints. Spiraling weeds invaded the once-green blades of grass. Rebecca was too light-headed to lean over and pick a pamphlet up, though she knew that reading “Common Sense” might brighten her.

      A throng of onlookers crowded the harbor, eyes fixated on the water, lightly skimmed by sunlight. Older gentlemen shook their heads in disbelief, women dotted their eyes with the hems of their dresses, petticoats wilting, crisp and white no more.

So this is really happening, Rebecca thought

<       She turned at the sound of her name from behind. Brushed in fuzzy sunlight, the wiry young man smiled at her impishly. His blue eyes shone beneath the faint slant of hooded lids, strands of honey-colored hair pasted to his forehead, damp spirals stuck to his neck. His oversized jacket was carelessly flung open, exposing his taut, efficient body.  His leather belt was slung around his hips.

      “Lovely to see you, Mr. Hamilton,” Rebecca said, her voice slicing the air, now thick as butter.

      His narrow shoulders folding forward, Alexander Hamilton grimaced, as though suffering from the sting of a bee.  Didn’t he understand? All these months, he hadn’t called, hadn’t even written. Of course, she was angry.

      Instinctively, Rebecca ran her fingers through the frizz of her hair, attempting to comb it with her fingers, but was thwarted by tangles. Instead, she bundled it into her hands, lifted it off her face and sticky neck, her raised elbows revealing half moons of sweat beneath the underarms of her baggy homespun dress.

      Hamilton, shoulders flung back again, seemed mesmerized Rebecca unloosened her hair, let it clump to her shoulders. If he minded her baggy dress, the frizz of her hair, he didn’t seem to show it.  Yet, suddenly, oddly, and just for that moment, she yearned for a dress that gripped her breasts, narrowed at the waist, revealed at the neckline just a hint of breast, a sliver of flesh.

       “Have you heard the news?” Hamilton asked, his gaze a plea for forgiveness.  Apparently, he had understood, after all.

       “I do have eyes,” Rebecca snapped. She gestured at the water, glossed with rippling sunlight, the British sails a white haze, an approaching blizzard, in the distance.

       “Oh, we’re already prepared for that,” Hamilton said, flippantly. “I meant the news from Philadelphia.”

       “The British are invading Philadelphia, too?” Rebecca asked, incredulous, sinking in a swamp of melancholy. She barely noticed Hamilton whisking a paper from the back of his pants, his jacket sloughing off his shoulders.

      Hamilton shook his head. “Philadelphia is safe for now,” he said. “It is hardly as strategic a target as New York, unless they want to invade Congress. You’ll be safe there for awhile.”

       He pinched the paper between his thumb and forefinger, taunting her. “It’s good news,” he said. “Wonderful, actually.”

      Rebecca slid the paper from his fingers. Yet another broadside yet another outrage at the British. His fingers had left an imprint, blurring the print.

       “Read it,” Hamilton said.

      Rebecca glared at him, then looked down at the whirl of print.  Seduced at first by the beautiful language, she read on, ignoring the sun’s position in the sky, blue and perfectly round, a portent of a glorious day, were this some other morning.  Hamilton watched impatiently, as though she were taking too long to unwrap a precious gift. She ignored his impatient sighs, his suspenseful anticipation, reading on. Like peeling off the skin of a colorful fruit, then savoring its juicy flesh.

      To Rebecca, even as tears burned her eyes, came the supreme irony.  Here was an oxymoron, not of words, but of imagery: rebels defying the enemy in the midst of invasion, a tiny boat setting sail at the outbreak of a hurricane

      Comical. Absurd.

      Rebecca began to shake, her laughter like the beginning of a sneeze. Hamilton frowned. She gestured at the approaching ships. “I don’t suppose that the King of England quite agrees that we our ‘independent,’” she chirped, feigning the chipper accent of a British nobleman.

      Hamilton narrowed his eyes at her. Then his face crinkled, reddened. He and Rebecca clutched their stomachs, bent over in escalating rounds of laughter, like the giggles from a tickling match.

      Heads turned, annoyed, puzzled by their laughter. A grimace of a stranger, tall and serious, like a doctor diagnosing mortal illness.  The spot of sun was higher, the sails fanning closer.
      Hamilton stopped laughing.

“Funny, my dear, but also…” He paused, laugh lines fading as he watched the flotilla of white sails, the inexorable glide of warfare. “Rather noble. Like David against Goliath, the Israelites at Masada. “

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.