George Washington’s Jackknife

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Somewhere in the frozen tumult of what my wife calls, with succinct irony, “your filing system” are the results of a genealogical investigation conducted by a cousin of mine half a century ago. Bound in authoritative blue cardboard covers, the limp old onionskin pages contain a story about an ancestor who, although just nine years old, drove a supply wagon for twenty-four straight hours during the terrible retreat in the winter of 1776, when a few ragged battalions carried with them across New Jersey the dying embers of our Revolution. Henry Knox came upon the child, brought him to his commander, and George Washington took the little wagoner on his knee and said, “You are a brave boy, and I would like to pay you, but have not the money. But here, take this.” And he gave my ancestor his jackknife. The reader will be astonished to learn that this knife is not on the desk before me as I write. Somehow it got lost. But I thought of the fabulous item when I first read the interview with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in this issue. The discussion concerns multi-culturalism, whose most vigorous supporters say that schools should emphasize the ethnic identities of their students so exclusively as to keep them apart from the American mainstream. I met an early proponent of this some years ago, before there was a word for it. He was a teacher, and he explained that he liked to tell his kids about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, and when he’d got them enthusiastic, he’d say that it had nothing whatever to do with them: “Your people came here from Spain thirty years ago. Why should they celebrate something that happened to an English religious sect? It’s all a scam.” I thought he was a bad guy, and I thought he was wrong too.

Because this country is founded on a principle rather than on being German or Japanese or Norwegian, it is what Fredric Smoler, who conducted the interview, calls an “imaginary community.” You become an American by wanting to. The grandparents of my wife, Carol, were Russian Jews who came here at the time of the First World War, but my forebears who served in the Revolution belong as much to her as they do to me. And that almost surely apocryphal jackknife is no more “mine” than the Big Dipper is. It’s Carol’s; it’s yours; it belongs to anyone who wants it.

“France was a land,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notebook, “England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter—it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”

Richard F. Snow