Dick Meister: Celebrating July Fourth with the enemy

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By Dick Meister
Dick Meister is a veteran Guardian columnist and freelance writer.

The Fourth of July, as we all know, is Independence Day. Hurray for George
Washington and the revolutionaries, down with King George and the British.
That sort of thing.

But have you ever wondered what it's like on the other side? Have you ever
celebrated the Fourth across the border in Canada, in that territory settled
by pro-British "Loyalists" who fled the United States after the
Revolutionary War? It is a most peculiar experience for one accustomed to
the American way of viewing the events of 1776.

My wife Gerry and I observed the Fourth on the other side a few years back
-- in Fredericton, the beautiful little capital of New Brunswick, named in
honor of King George's second son, Frederic. Going into Fredericton meant
going into the camp of a former enemy -- a friend now, but a former enemy
who openly hails the "Loyalists" who fought for them against us. I mean
people who opposed our revolution and never even said they were sorry.

Our first stop was the hallowed Loyalist Cemetery near the banks of the
Saint John River at the far end of Waterloo Row, burial ground of
Fredericton's revered founders -- anti-American tories, the lot of them. We
trudged down a muddy path to a ring of trees around a swampy grass clearing
in which the tory heroes lay, prepared to utter a revolutionary sentiment or
two over them in honor of the holiday.

We managed to get a quick look at a couple of thin, well-worn, tottering
slate headstones -- but that was all. Before we could even open our mouths,
they struck -- angry swarms of dread North woods mosquitoes. Backwards we
dashed. Quickly. Very quickly. We slapped at each other as we squished
awkwardly over the wet ground, batting mosquitoes off hair, face, neck,
arms, clothes. Much buzzing. Much stinging. They were everywhere. The
tories' revenge. For days afterward, we bore the swollen red marks of the
Loyalists.

More insults were to come, in the Legislative Assembly chambers downtown.
The chambers are elegant: ornately carved desks, elaborately patterned silk
wall covering, thick crimson carpeting. But look up on the walls, in the
places of honor on either side of the Speaker's chair. To the left there's a
portrait of George III, the very monarch we made a revolution against, to
the right a portrait of his queen, Charlotte -- and both painted by no less
a master than Joshua Reynolds.

George is in fact treated much better in New Brunswick than he generally is
in Great Britain. Historians there ridicule him for being a bit of a loon
and for such loony acts as overtaxing the American colonists and
overreacting to their protests by then waging war against them. In
Fredericton, they think George did the right thing.

In the United States, of course, we celebrate the end of colonialism. But in
Fredericton they seem to yearn for its return. Union Jacks fly from staffs
all over town and portraits of Queen Elizabeth and her consort hang in
government and private buildings everywhere. Ceremonial guards outside City
Hall wear the white pith helmets, long crimson jackets and black uniform
trousers of the British colonial soldier.

Just behind City Hall stand the restored quarters of the British garrison
that was stationed in the city for more than a century, one of the buildings
now housing a museum full of anti-revolutionary twaddle. Captions below
portraits of leading Loyalists praise them for "faith, courage, sacrifices"
against Yankees, who are for the most part described as violent, crude, rude
and vulgar. Here, too, a portrait of George III hangs in a place of honor.
Among the Loyalists singled out is that other fine fellow, Benedict Arnold,
who lived in New Brunswick before slinking off to Mother England in 1791. At
least the museum keepers have the decency to own up to Arnold's "reputation
for crookedness."

Loyalists also are favorites in New Brunswick's neighboring province of Nova
Scotia, particularly in the capital of Halifax. There, the American
revolutionaries are portrayed as bad guys who would have made Nova Scotia a
U.S. colony if the British hadn't beefed up their garrison on Citadel Hill,
a massive fortress that towers high above the city, guarding every access,
be it by land or by sea.

The champion Loyalist stronghold is the New Brunswick city of Saint John.
"Loyalist City," it's called. It has a Loyalist Burial Ground, naturally,
but also a Loyalist Trail, Loyalist Apartments, Loyalist Coin & Collectibles
shop, Loyalist Pub and, among many other things loyalistic, Loyalist Days,
an annual week-long festival honoring Saint John's founders. At a high point
in the festival 100 or so appropriately costumed Loyalists -- "His Majesty's
Loyal Troops" -- fend off a brigade of actors portraying American rebels
attempting to "capture" Saint John.

The latter-day Loyalists claimed to like us nevertheless. In Fredericton,
for instance, a half-dozen U.S. flags fluttered smartly outside the Lord
Beaverbrook Hotel, the city's finest, and the marquee proclaimed, "We Salute
our American Friends. Happy 4th of July."

Sure thing. But watch out for the mosquitoes.

Dick Meister is a veteran Guardian columnist and freelance writer.

(Bruce B. Brugmann, or B3 as he signs his emails and blogs, is the editor at large of the Bay Guardian and former editor and co-founder and co-publisher with his wife Jean Dibble, 1966-2012. He can be reached at the Bruce blog at sfbg.com.)

    

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