The day I planned to bring my eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, to Creating the United States, I called my dad. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, just a few towns over from where the shot heard ‘round the world rang out (this is how Schoolhouse Rocks memorialized that event, remember?) and only a short trip from where Paul Revere rode his famous ride. Dad, who grew up in Lexington, MA, is a man who has always been surrounded by—and fascinated with—history.
In fact, it was my dad whom I thought most about when I first walked through Creating the United States. I looked closely at the old documents, the artifacts, and the photographs, and took a journey through the American Revolution. As I stood in front of the uniform of a Continental Army officer (which also caught the eye of The Family Savvy, in this enthusiastic write-up), I thought of Dad and the stories he told about Revolutionary War muskets that our family once housed as part of a collection.
The old satchel displayed alongside the uniform reminded me of things that men carried to war, like the Civil War−era canteen that still sits in my parents’ living room. It once belonged to Danforth Maxcy (my great-great-great-great-uncle), who was injured at the Battle of Gettysburg and died on the train ride back home to Maine. He was twenty-one.
Since 1651, members of the Maxcy family have resided in Massachusetts and Maine. My family history is strewn with stories of harsh winters (one whole family perished crossing a lake in Massachusetts in the early 1800s), service in numerous wars, and old letters and documents that may not tell of the founding of a nation, but pieced together form one family’s long history of participation and patriotism.
I phoned my father. “Dad, who from our family fought in the Revolution?” I wanted to know so I could tell my son and get him thinking about our personal connections to the exhibition.
“Well I know there was a Lt. Benjamin Maxcy, born in 1740,” Dad said.
My heart jumped. I had named my own son Benjamin knowing there was some ancestor by that name, but I had forgotten that this was the guy who was there, fighting under General George Washington. I couldn’t wait to tell my son that his namesake played a part in the fight for our nation’s independence and that the uniform in the gallery would be similar to the one our own distant relative wore as an officer. But then my dad told me something else I didn’t know.
When Lt. Benjamin Maxcy’s father, Josiah, was twenty-one, his mother gave him a slave, a slave by the name of Cesar. Lt. Benjamin grew up with Cesar, and the story goes that Cesar accompanied him to war. Sometime after the war (by this time Josiah had died), Lt. Benjamin freed Cesar, citing his years of loyal service to the family. A free man when he died, Cesar is buried with the Maxcy family in Attleboro, MA.
When my son arrived at the Skirball on a Sunday afternoon to tour Creating the United States with his mom, I told him what I had learned from Grandpa about Lt. Benjamin Maxcy. I couldn’t keep it to myself.
“Wait, they had a slave? Are you sure?”
I couldn’t lie.
That’s the thing about our history: it’s complicated, and that complexity is part of the story told in the exhibition. For all of the bold ideas, innovative and creative thinking, and tremendous forethought they had in creating the United States, the founders were just men (and women). They were flawed. They fought and bickered. They played favorites and protected their own self-interests. They argued for freedom, yet they owned slaves. And so it was with my own ancestor, an officer from Massachusetts during the Revolution who owned a slave.
We entered the exhibition and Benjamin went straight for the musket and uniform. He stared at the uniform and musket the same way I had some weeks before. Perhaps he understood that our distant relative, the first Benjamin, had worn one like it. Or maybe it was just the thrill of seeing a musket and bayonet (“Does it still work?” he wanted to know). It’s hard to know for sure what captured his attention about the object, but he lingered there for a while.
When I showed him what I consider to be one of the exhibition’s highlights, the Emancipation Proclamation, located in the “Legacy” section of the gallery, he stood for a long while in front of it. He asked, “Is that really Abraham Lincoln’s signature? Did he write on that piece of paper?” We had just talked about our ancestor owning a slave, and now there he stood, face to face with the document that put an end to the horrendous institution that had sullied not only our family’s history but the ideals of our nation.
It’s difficult to know what goes on inside the brain of an eleven-year-old, but I couldn’t help but think he was making that personal connection I’d hoped he would. His name. Our family line. The bold words on the page. The ink running through the pen from Abraham Lincoln’s own hand onto this piece of heavy paper. A child can be told the stories, taught history in school, hear Grandpa’s tales around the dinner table… but standing in front of the uniform, the musket, or the document brings the story to life.
I think that now, after our visit, when Grandpa Maxcy is next sitting at our table and telling one of his famous stories about some ancestor long gone, Benjamin will think back to the uniform, that tall unwieldy musket, and to Lt. Benjamin Maxcy who lived to see the dawn of American democracy. Maybe he’ll imagine a jacket from his own closet, a letter he’s signed with his own pen and wonder: what stories will people far off in the future tell about me?