It's surprising what shocks American audiences these days. When it comes to imaginary life on the big screen, most people are contentedly inured to the rawest sex and most graphic violence.
Well, not quite. Mel Gibson's new movie, The Patriot, managed to alarm some in the audience at a recent test screening in Los Angeles. According to reports, at one point in the film about the American Revolution, Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, arms his young sons with muskets. Their father leads the boys, just 10 and 13 years old, in an ambush of British soldiers.
Some in the audience "gasped" at the image of boys shooting guns. Young boys with guns! After Columbine, no less!
The Million Mom Marchers are apoplectic over the idea of young boys fighting alongside men for their homes. Rosie O'Donnell is disconsolate. Get ready for a no-holds-barred debate over whether Americans should respect the sacrifice and valor of the earliest Patriots.
We live in a remarkable time when the idea of patriotism is suspect, at least in the eyes of critics, academics and the press. The most celebrated books and most newsworthy stories hinge on the sins of the Founding Fathers, rather than their ideas and accomplishments. Some owned slaves. Others were corrupt and self-interested. Some had mistresses. We hear now that Francis Marion, the man after whom Gibson's character is modeled, is alleged to have raped his slaves and hunted Indians for sport.
These are critical details, because, we're told, they are the truth. But if critics were interested in flesh-and-blood truth, they wouldn't object to the historical fact of 10-year-olds fighting and dying for freedom. The truth is, the American Revolution was a war won by the greatest generation of Americans to ever live.
That era is distant and cloudy to us now. The Revolutionaries believed that every citizen was responsible not just for his freedom, but for the liberty of the generations to come. They fought for the principle that a people who have no power to curb government's appetite for money and power would soon be reduced to servitude.
The Patriot's use of boys, thus, isn't a dramatic ploy it is a historic fact. Not only were young men fighting in the revolution, but many of these American heroes were barely adults. George Washington surrounded himself with young, capable, and courageous officers.
One of those was Alexander Hamilton. He was just a teenager when he joined the revolutionary cause. At 17, he was a force to be reckoned with. He prodded the fight for independence with his brilliant pamphlet, A Farmer Refuted. In the 30,000 word article, Hamilton demolished the work of a 45-year-old Loyalist who argued that Americans should not fight for the principle of freedom from unjust Parliamentary taxation.
In college, Hamilton used his spare time to study the mathematics, and application of cannon in warfare. After volunteering for the army, he rose quickly through the ranks to become a gifted artillery officer.
And the lad didn't lack for courage. In the final assault on Yorktown, Hamilton and his young friend Marquis de Lafayette, who was two years his junior, led the infantry offensive.
But gun controllers shouldn't fret much. Hamilton didn't fire his musket that time. In the pre-dawn raid on one of the critical British parapets, Hamilton had his men fix bayonets for a man-to-man assault.
Whatever the odds, Hamilton represented the early American spirit of liberty. Thomas Jefferson called him a "host unto himself" and a "colossus." For the soft-hearted and soft-headed, the valor and courage and principles of that generation may be too much to handle. They can't get past the image of boys with guns.
In those days, boys became men much earlier. They struck out on their own at 14 or 15. And men were willing to die for freedom, the rule of law, and limited government. They were tougher and fearlessly self-reliant. America didn't want Britain's huge, corrupt and distant government because they believed in their ability and their right to govern themselves.
Today's objections to the Revolutionary generation obscure what is important about America's Founders. They had their share of sinners, hypocrites, and, yes, slaveholders. But the attacks against them say more about the petty, small, and self-important personalities of our era.
The vicious drag them down not out of any dedication to truth. The real objective is to use history for propaganda purposes. And if that means squelching great deeds of great men or the dramatic deeds of courageous boys, then the first and most unpitied victim of their cause will be the truth. Not only do they lack the courage and sense of sacrifice of that early generation, but they gasp at the very idea of courage and sacrifice.