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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

From Johnny Tremain

Johnny Tremain is a children’s historical novel by Esther Forbes and winner of the 1943 Newbery Medal. It tells the story of events leading up to the Revolutionary War.

Consider the ideas in this excerpt:
Sam and John Adams were standing and the other members [of the Observers] were crowding about them...Paul Revere and Joseph Warren were apart a little, making plans for that spy system which was needed badly. They called Johnny to them, but he could hear one of the men standing about the two Adamses saying, ‘But there must be some hope we can still patch up our differences with England. Sir, you will work for peace?’

Sam Adams said nothing for a moment. He trusted these men about him as he trusted no one else in the world.

‘No. That time is past. I will work for war: the complete freedom of these colonies from any European power. We can have that freedom only by fighting for it...For ten years we’ve tried this and we’ve tried that. We’ve tried to placate them and they to placate us. Gentlemen, you know it has not worked. I will not work for peace. “Peace, peace – and there is no peace.” But I will, in Philadelphia [at the Continental Congress], play a cautious part – not throw all my cards on the table – oh, no. But nevertheless I will work for but one thing. War – bloody and terrible death and destruction. But out of it shall come such a country as was never seen on this earth before...’

(Enter James Otis):
‘For what will we fight?’

‘To free Boston from these infernal redcoats and...’

‘No,’ said Otis. ‘...that’s not enough reason for going into a war...I hate those infernal British troops spread all over my town as much as you do. Can’t move these days without stepping on a soldier. But we are not going off into a civil war merely to get them out of Boston. Why are we going to fight? Why? Why?’

There was an embarrassed silence. Sam Adams was the acknowledged ringleader. It was for him to speak now.

‘We will fight for the rights of Americans. England cannot take our money away by taxes.’

‘No, no. For something more important than the pocketbooks of our American citizens.’

(Enter Rab): ‘For the rights of Englishmen – everywhere.’

‘Why stop with Englishmen?’ Otis was warming up. ...’For men and women and children all over the world,’ he said. ‘You were right, [Rab], for even as we shoot down the British soldiers we are fighting for rights such as they will be enjoying a hundred years from now.
‘...there shall be no more tyranny. A handful of men cannot seize power over thousands. A man shall choose who it is shall rule over him.
‘...the peasants of France, the serfs of Russia. Hardly more than animals now. But because we fight, they shall see freedom like a new sun rising in the west. Those natural rights God has given to every man, no matter how humble...’ He smiled suddenly and said, ...’or crazy,’...
‘...The battle we win over the worst in England shall benefit the best in England. How well are they over there represented by taxes? Not very well. It will be better for them when we have won this war.
‘Will French peasants go on forever pulling off their caps and saying, “Oui, Monsieur,” when the gold coaches run down their children? They will not. Italy. And all those German states. Are they nothing but soldiers? Will no one show them the rights of good citizens? So we hold up our torch – and do not forget it was lighted upon the fires of England – and we will set it up as a new sun to lighten the world...’

(Enter James Warren): ‘We are lucky men,’ he murmured, ‘for we have a cause worth dying for. This honor is not given to every generation.’

(Discussion among the men concerning what they will give in war -- the best things they have.)

Otis: ...’It is all so much simpler than you think,’ he said...’We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills...we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.’ [on his feet, like a man]

Pp. 187-192


  • Yes, this excerpt is the core of the book. I'm not sure exactly what Forbes means by "Only that a man can stand up." Does she mean the freedom to take a stand for one's beliefs? The rights of Englishmen? What exactly are those rights?
    I seem to be in the minority, but I loved GWB's inaugural address. I think he articulated what we are fighting for in Iraq and what the patriots were fighting for in 1775. We fight and work because "the great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations."
    We are reading Johnny Tremain in school.

    By Blogger Sherry, at 12:32 AM  

  • Hi Sherry,

    At the end of the book, there is a lot of attention given to details of the battle at Lexington Green. Only a handful of Minute Men were there to fight about 700 British soldiers. Yet, they “stood up” and allowed themselves to be executed for the cause.

    I think “standing up” is a broad metaphor, mainly of human dignity: standing up for what one believes in, having freedom to pursue a livelihood, and being allowed a say in government.

    I wondered what that meant at first myself, but I think it is explained in the last part of the book. I recently finished reading it to my 3rd-grader and was sad to get to the end!

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 1:30 AM  

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