signing their lives away

This year, my son is studying American History in his 8th grade social studies class. And because I am a dork and because I like to torture my kids with obscure facts that might someday be useful to them in a trivia contest or as extra credit on a test, I have started reading the book, Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed The Declaration of Independence. The book summarizes the lives of each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, representing them as plain old people who were zealous, determined and brave enough to sign a document that was tantamount to high treason and carried with it a sentence of death.

After reading this book, the events that unfolded a few nights ago at a Village Council meeting in my town took on an entirely new significance.

My village is currently grappling with the question of whether to amend its master building plan to allow for apartment buildings with 3x more units per acre than our current zoning allows. A few weeks ago, the Village Planning Board approved the proposed ordinances and passed the issue on to our Village Council for review. Last night, after almost no further discussion, our Village Council was slated to vote on this issue, a pivotal one for our town.

Over the course of the past two weeks, a groundswell of opposition not to development per se, but to development of this nature and scope has grown in our town and Wednesday night, hundreds of people showed up to take their turn at the microphone and ask that our Village Council table the vote until additional study had been undertaken.

In the early hours of the morning, after the very long meeting adjourned (and a motion was, in fact, made to continue the discussion), one member of the Village Council was overheard expressing frustration at the events of the evening, wondering, “Where have all these people been until now?”

I’d like to offer an alternative perspective. Rather than grumbling about the residents’ timing, it seems to me we should be celebrating the fact that they showed up at all. Doesn’t it seem like in this time of misplaced priorities, skepticism and indifference, the hundreds of residents who turned out last night should be commended for feeding their children leftovers, engaging babysitters and rearranging carpool schedules or work meetings to pack a Council meeting room and make sure their voices were heard.

And they stayed. They stayed until after midnight to comment even though most of them had to get up the next morning and go to their full time jobs.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the ordinary men who put their names on the Declaration of Independence almost 230 years ago would be thrilled to know that citizens today are still exercising the rights for which their sacrifice paved the way. Isn’t it amazing that still, to paraphrase Jon Stewart, when we smell something, we say something?

I get a little bit sappy about this awesome country we live in even as I get crotchety about the buffoons who sometimes get the spotlight. But come on, it’s amazing that we have safeguarded the rights of each individual to the point that not one person speaking last night has reason to expect retribution for expressing their opinion. What’s even more amazing is that there are people around the world who continue to express their opinions and fight for rights that are commonplace here when they are almost assured of suffering some sort of retribution.

I don’t have the stomach for the more contentious parts of the political process. The name-calling and the spiteful words and the disdainful tone make me anxious and unsettled. I prefer my aggression to be passive whenever possible. But last night was exciting and I was glad to be able to share it with my son as he starts his study of how we got to where we are today. He was fascinated when he recognized some of the citizens approaching the microphone from the soccer fields, the neighborhood or from church.

So, as we watched the proceedings on our local access channel, I hope he learned that public discourse and differences of opinion aren’t things to be scorned or feared. Rather, they are to be heralded as a sign of a robust and involved electorate.

I am glad he experienced not only the power of the individual but also the awesome spectacle that results when a whole bunch of individuals band together to fight for a common cause.

I was proud of my little Village. That is why I let him stay up way past his bedtime. It is also why I stayed up past mine. Here’s hoping that our collective lack of beauty rest results in the productive pursuance of the right answers to this issue.


PS – If you, like me, shed a patriotic tear or two when you think about the ideas and people that formed our country, you will be thrilled to know that there is a companion book to Signing Their Lives Away. It’s called Signing Their Rights Away and it profiles the men who wrote the constitution. Mr. Amazon Prime will be delivering mine any day now. I’ll let you know how it is!

  1. Ellen McNamara says:

    I was particularly moved by the immigrants from China, Russia, and the woman who said she grew up under Martial Law (not sure which particular country). I was nearly in tears listening to the guy from China, in particular, as he happened to mention it was his first time speaking at a political meeting of this sort. I hope everyone grasped the significance of this. And then there was the political science student who defined democracy for the council. He spoke with such reverence for our political system, and disgust at the hint of the abuse of it by the council. These fellow citizens reminded me that we do indeed need to defend our democracy, take an active part in it, and never take it for granted.

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