Obligations limit our freedom as they require us to do something. For me there’s a certain obligation that not only expands freedoms but always fills me with an intense feeling of purpose, pride, and joy. This obligation, and my relationship to it, is best presented via a story that starts a couple hundred years ago on North America’s eastern shores during a particularly tumultuous time. I hope you enjoy the story and stick around for the end.
On June 17, 1775 two thousand British Army regulars and marines under the command of Major General William Howe, and covered by the guns of the HMS Lively and HMS Falcon, marched forward from their camp at Mission Point on the eastern tip of the Charlestown peninsula north of Boston, MA. Their mission was to skirt the north side of the peninsula and then turn southwest, enveloping the Continental Army units that had entrenched themselves on Breeds Hill overlooking Boston proper. This position gave the Continentals the opportunity to fire down upon British assets in the city. A successful maneuver would split Continental forces between Breeds Hill and Bunker Hill and allow for a rear attack on General Warren’s redoubt and the gun emplacements.
Standing in Howe’s way in a half-mile long line extending from the Mystic River to the base of Breeds Hill were the 700 men of the 1st and 3rd New Hampshire Regiments. This early regiment, adopted into the Continental Army just three days before on June 14, 1775, was formed of ordinary free men from the New Hampshire woods. Most were likely farmers (the predominant occupation of the day) with officers pulled from the landed and merchant classes. They were not professional soldiers and, stripping off their allegiances, likely not so different from the rank and file of the British Army regulars whom they faced. The 3rd New Hampshire served under the command of Colonel James Reed, a professional soldier who had served during the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763. At Reed’s side was 33-year old adjutant named Stephen Peabody. A lieutenant at the time, Peabody is my 7th great-grandfather. Prior to the battle, the commander of the 1st NH Regiment, Col. John Stark, drove a stake in front of his lines and gave an order that none of his men were to fire until the British passed it and his men “could see the whites of their eyes.” The 1st and 3rd Regiments repulsed two British assaults that day and inflicted severe British casualties. By the third assault they, and the defenders on Breeds Hill, were desperately low on ammunition and the British had pulled up fresh troops for a final push. In addition to being low on supplies the Continentals lacked bayonets for hand-to-hand fighting. The mission of the 1st and 3rd turned to protecting an orderly removal of their forces from the peninsula. They stayed, defending Stark’s stake along a rail fence, until such time as the Continental forces (but not the precious cannon) were able to withdraw. British General Burgoyne described their retreat as “no flight, it was even covered with bravery and military skill.”
The British won the hills that day in what has become known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. However, their 1,054 casualties, including more than 100 commissioned officers, were the highest one-day losses suffered by their side in a single encounter in the entire war. Major General Howe would later write of the battle “the success is too dearly bought.” My ancestor survived that day, unlike more than 100 of his brethren, and went on to serve at the Battle of Bennington (Vermont) and to command a battalion in Rhode Island. He died in 1780 at age 37 before Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. His daughter settled in Montpelier, Vermont where I grew up. Col. Peabody’s contribution, and the contribution of so many other men and women, allowed the following words to be written into 1777 constitution of the Free Republic of Vermont:
I, _______, solemnly swear, by the ever living God, (or affirm, in the presence of Almighty God) that whenever I am called to give any vote or suffrage, touching any matter that concerns the State of Vermont, I will do it so, as in my conscience, I shall judge will most conduce to the best good of the same, as established by the constitution, without fear or favor of any man.
These words became known as the Vermont Free Man’s Oath and swearing to the oath’s modern descendent is still required of any citizen who wishes to register to vote in the State of Vermont for the first time. On my 18th birthday I signed myself out of school a bit early to walk over to Montpelier’s city hall where I swore this oath. They are words that still inform my voting to this day even if I now substitute “State of Alaska” for “State of Vermont.”
This blog post will be published on Monday, October 19th, 2020 which is the first day of early voting in Alaska. If you have not already voted via absentee ballot, and are a registered Alaska voter, I invite you to join me in voting during the early voting period or on election day. Together we can renew and affirm the solemn obligation and inheritance that our ancestors of every gender, race, orientation, national origin, and creed bestowed upon us.
Jonathan’s Takeaway: Vote your conscience without fear or favor of anyone for what you consider to be the best good of our state, our families, and our republic.
Jonathan King is a consulting economist and Certified Professional Coach. His firm, Halcyon Consulting, is dedicated to helping clients reach their goals through accountability, integrity, and personal growth. Jonathan has 24 years of social science consulting experience including 17 years in Alaska. The comments in this blog do not necessarily represent the view of employers and clients past or present and are Jonathan’s alone. Suggested blog topics, constructive feedback, and comments are desired at firstname.lastname@example.org.