Study Guide

Johnny Tremain Patriotism

By Esther Forbes

Patriotism

But when that bill came—the fiddler's bill—that bill for the tea, it was so much heavier than anyone expected, Boston was thrown into a paroxysm of anger and despair. There had been many a moderate man who had thought the Tea Party a bit lawless and was now ready to vote payment for the tea. But when these men heard how cruelly the Town was to be punished, they swore it would never be paid for. And those other thirteen colonies. Up to this time many of them had had little interest in Boston's struggles. Now they were united as never before. The punishment united the often jealous, often indifferent, separate colonies, as the Tea Party itself had not. (7.1.1)

It's easy for us to forget that the thirteen colonies didn't always get along/give two Shmoops about each other. Uniting them was a major task prior to and early in the war… and um, also after the war: state sovereignty is an issue that still comes up in American politics. This is the classic case of not getting along with your siblings until an outsider bullies one of you. And then it's on.

It was up to Johnny to keep in touch with Dove. It was all right for Rab to talk. Rab was training with the armed forces. But what could Johnny do? Not much, it seemed to him, except be bored to death for his country. (7.3.77)

Patriotism is often paired with serving in the military. Johnny physically can't train with the militia because he can't fire a gun with one hand, and this really bugs him. His job is to sit around with Dove and get information out of him, and while it's an important job, to Johnny it doesn't seem as important as firing a gun. We don't get what Johnny's upset about because he's basically a spy, which doesn't sound lame at all. What other ways can people serve their countries besides through military service? Are these other jobs as important?

"Cilla, they won't ever come back."

"Never?"

"No. This is the end. The end of one thing—the beginning of something else. They won't come back because there is going to be a war—civil war. And we'll win. First folk like them get routed out of Milton—then out of Boston. And the cards are going to be reshuffled. Dealt again…" (8.2.37-39)

Wow, Johnny's getting all prophetic on us here. We're not sure how he sees all this from August 1774, but whatevs. The Sons of Liberty have just run the Lytes out of their country house, and Johnny says they won't ever be back. He must be feeling confident now that he's found his genealogy. It's interesting that he calls it a civil war because that's not how the American Revolution is typically presented, even though that's technically what it was. Does thinking of the American Revolution as a civil war change your view of it?

"So we hold up our torch—and do not forget it was lighted upon the fires of England—and we will set it as a new sun to lighten a world…"

[…]

Joseph Warren's fair, responsive face was aflame. The torch Otis had been talking about seemed reflected in his eyes.

"We are lucky men," he murmured, "for we have a cause worth dying for. This honor is not given to every generation." (8.5.45, 47-48)

There's a lot of talk about English liberty in this book and a lot of giving props to Britain for its awesome history and ideas. This makes sense in the context of its composition. During World War II, the United States and Great Britain were allies, and it's good for allies to get along. Forbes speaks directly to her contemporaries when she has Doctor Warren say that people who have a cause worth dying for are lucky. How might this have affected World War II-era readers?

The sun was bright that day with only breeze enough to ruffle the horses' manes, flaunt scarlet riding capes, float the flag of England. Johnny was an Englishman. The sullen, rebellious people standing about watching Percy and his staff approaching, waiting for the brigade to march, all were Englishmen. That flag—it stood for Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Charles the First's head upon a block, centuries of struggle for "English liberty." But over here there had grown up a broader interpretation of the word "liberty": no man to be ruled or taxed except by men of his own choice. But we are still fighting for "English liberty," and don't you forget it. French slaves to the north of us, Spanish slaves to the south of us. Only English colonies are allowed to taste the forbidden fruit of liberty—we who grew up under England. Johnny thought of James Otis's words. Upholding the torch of liberty—which had been lighted on the fires of England.

Not since the soldiers had come to Boston had Johnny removed his hat when the British flag went by except once when it had been knocked off his head by a soldier. He started to remove it now—for the first time and doubtless the last. Thought better of it—It was too late. He knew the shooting had begun. (11.2.16-17)

There's a reason we hear the term Anglo-American tossed around a lot. The United States and the United Kingdom are often viewed as two sides of the same coin—or perhaps as relatives. As this passage demonstrates, it's one history that diverges at the American colonies, and many of the ideals of revolution had been simmering in Britain for centuries. We think this is one of the saddest scenes in the book, when Johnny tries to salute the British flag for old times's sake and realizes he can't because his new country is at war with Britain. Sniff.

A man, standing by Johnny with clenched hands and head thrust down and out like a bull's, said thickly, "They go out by 'Yankee Doodle,' but they'll dance to it before night."

Johnny saw a group of women, and they were nodding their heads, whispering a prophecy, "Before night they'll be dancing." This catch-phrase was everywhere. It did not seem to have gone from mouth to mouth, but from mind to mind. (11.3.1-2)

The British played "Yankee Doodle" to insult the Americans. Just check out the lyrics to see why the Brits thought this would work in the first place. Yankee Doodle is a ridiculous figure who's trying to pretend he's cooler than he is, which is what the British think about the colonials. These angry people—who have had enough of being mocked by Britain—are saying that after a day's fighting the British will be singing a different tune. How does what Johnny sees on his journey from Boston to Lexington support that?

"Those Lexington men. How many were killed on the Green yesterday?"

"Eight," she said.

As he asked his next question, his voice sounded unreal, to himself.

"Happens you know their names?"

She turned a stony face and stared at him. "These are their names," she said. "Let them never be forgot." She stretched out her hands and counted on her fingers. "Jonathan Harrington," she said, "and Caleb, too. Robert Munroe, Jonas Parker, Samuel Hedley, Isaac Muzzy, Nathaniel Wyman, John Brown." (12.2.12-16)

We have to doff our cap here because these are the names of the actual men who were killed in the Battle of Lexington. As Lexington was the first encounter of the Revolutionary War, these eight men are arguably the first people ever to die in battle for the United States of America. What do you think the author intends to accomplish by listing their names?

It was here the men had stood; here upon this Green they had formed a thin pathetic line, a handful of farmers to resist the march of seven hundred British regulars. Here they had died. Oh, it was so hopeless and so brave, you might laugh. And you might cry. (12.3.1)

In a nutshell, the British were going to take the militia stores, and the Lexington militia said no. We have to admit, it seems a little crazy for seventy people to stand up to seven hundred, no matter how well or poorly trained any of those people are. Doctor Warren describes it as "target practice… for them" (11.1.10). What is the significance of the Battle of Lexington in the final two chapters of the book?

This was his land and these his people.

The cow that lowed, the man who milked, the chickens that came running and the woman who called them, the fragrance streaming from the plowed land and the plowman. These he possessed. The skillful hands of the unseen gunsmith were his hands. The old woman throwing stones at crows who cawed and derided her was his old woman—and they his crows. The wood smoke rising from the home hearths rose from his heart. (12.5.49-50)

We have to confess that this part really makes us think of Song of Myself. Was Forbes channeling Walt Whitman? It's entirely possible: it sounds like Johnny has figured out where he belongs. He discovers his identity as an American, and since he's been searching for a sense of belonging and identity since he lost his career as a silversmith, this is a pretty big deal.

Down the road came twenty or thirty tired and ragged men. Some were bloodstained. No uniforms. A curious arsenal of weapons. The long horizontal light of the sinking sun struck into their faces and made them seem much alike. Thin-faced in the manner of Yankee men. High cheek-boned. Unalterably determined. The tired men marched unevenly, but Johnny noticed the swing of the lithe, independent bodies. The set of chin and shoulders. Rab had been like that.

Please God, out of this New England soil such men would forever rise up ready to fight when need came. The one generation after the other. (12.5.53-54)

This troop is the last thing Johnny observes in the novel—it's the image Forbes chooses to leave her readers with. The men don't have individual features, and instead are symbolic of the men of New England who will fight for liberty at any time. Forbes calls out to her World War II-era readers, encouraging them to fight for the same liberty their ancestors fought for. It's easy to gloss over historic distinctions with words like liberty, though. In what ways were the ideals and concepts fought for in the Revolutionary War and World War II similar? How were they different?