Founded in 1684, Newtown has considerable history for my young Nation. My homeland is not steeped in history. We don’t have Roman ruins dotting our continent. Our society and its buildings have been here for only a fraction of the time that other civilizations have persisted in one form or another - those “ancient” civilizations like India’s or China’s or Egypt’s. But I hold my young country as unique in that we invented a system of government to keep all tyrannies in check, whether they be those of despotic king or general, or the authoritarian assertions of religious dogma, or the mad impulses of capricious mobs. We are by design an unsteady balance of powers that wheels towards the future, wobbly, but capable of change and improvement. We are diverse and we are creative.
Because of its history, my mother (Mrs Bentzman) my more significant other (Ms Keogh) and I chose to be in Newtown for Inauguration Day. Newtown is eight miles to the north of where I live in Pennsylvania. It is one of only three English names that appeared on the region’s oldest maps. It is believed that William Penn himself gave Newtown its name.
A lot of people didn't stay home or go to work Inauguration Day. Many who did go to work, watched broadcasts at their jobs. So many showed up on the National Mall, those obliged to stand too distant from the event that frigid day had to be satisfied with giant mobile video screens. Closer to me, in Philadelphia, the childbed of the Constitution, the National Constitution Center was having a public gathering for the event, again on big screens. We considered it, but we decided we didn’t want to stand in the cold and were determined to toast the event from some comfortable vantage point. We selected the Temperance House at the center of Newtown, the corner of Washington Avenue and South State Street.
Newtown is a community of brick and stone that isn’t just preserved, but has remained vital and current. Nestled into a few short, tree-lined blocks are plenty of eighteenth and nineteenth century homes and businesses. This community is permeated with my country’s history, even as it absorbs such signs of contemporary life as a Gap and a Starbucks. Nor should I limit Newtown to brick and stone, as The Bird in Hand, formerly a tavern and built in 1686, is possibly the oldest frame structure in Pennsylvania. In 1778, it was successfully attacked by a raiding party from British-held Philadelphia, forty Loyalists combined from the Light Dragoons and Bucks County Volunteers. The raid denied the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment of 2,000 yards of much needed cloth for uniforms.
Yes, the Revolution was fought here. A mere six miles away, General Washington took the Continental Army across the ice-clogged Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 to surprise the Hessian mercenaries garrisoned at Trenton. It was the war’s crucial turning point. Our victory restored morale, which had been at its lowest, our army on the verge of dissolving. It was the battle that gave us hope of winning a war we had been losing.
Across Washington Street from the Temperance House is the Brick Hotel. Amos Strickland built it in 1763 as his two-story residence, the bricks coming from his own kiln. In the winter of 1776, he hosted Washington's staff and the captive Hessian officers. When he died three years later, his mansion was bought and converted into a hotel, which is what it remains today.
Down the street is the Newtown Theatre, also made of brick, the oldest movie theatre in the United States that is still in operation. It began as Newtown Hall in 1831, a non-sectarian hall for town gatherings and the sermons of peripatetic ministers. In that theatre, abolitionist had anti-slave meetings, and among the speakers to visit Newtown Hall was that great orator and former slave, Frederick Douglass. Newtown Theatre began showing its first movies in 1906. Air conditioning arrived only seven years ago in 2002.
The Temperance House is one of the stone structures. It was built in 1772 for Andrew and Nancy McMinn and was designed to be part tavern and part schoolhouse. Andrew was a schoolteacher and veteran of the Revolutionary War. Immersed in this history, in the ambiance provided by the uneven floors and low ceilings of the Temperance House, we witnessed another substantive moment on the flat screen television while drinking – not foreign Champagne, but Domaine Ste. Michelle, a sparkling wine in the méthode champenoise from the State of Washington.
We booed and hissed at the sight of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. We cheered and toasted the arrival of Obama, wept when Barack Obama was at last President. We stood and sang along to the National Anthem – even Ms Keogh, who is a British citizen, knew the words.
We had done nothing special on New Year’s Eve. We stayed at home. There was no significant difference with the day before and the day that followed the holiday. It warranted no specialness and I believe we felt that way because it was overshadowed by the coming of the twentieth of January, Inauguration Day, and its promise of meaningful change. That day came, and every day since I’ve cried a little bit from either happiness or relief. This is the most important part, to put an end to an administration that tried to damage the Constitution, to dissolve the balance of power and evoke a tyranny of the executive branch. So ends the slide into the indoctrination of Bush’s religious views, of unreasonable searches, of torture, of unregulated greed and aggression. I don't know and can't entirely believe that the Bush Administration will ever be brought to justice. Still, while I might not expect it, I can hope for it.
Three cheers for the return of due process, for the revitalization of science, and hopefully for the establishment of honesty and compassion.
This essay is the most
a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr
Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"