If nothing else, even setting out the tools of the trade for cleaning those legislative documents is somehow soothing – the crisp archival paper, a gentle eraser that nevertheless looks like a blue Scotch-Brite you'd use to scrub your kitchen sink, and a bamboo-handled sheep's-hair brush to sweep away the loosened soot particles and erasures.
Take these legislative documents I've been cleaning and scanning. You might not think that an 1811 report on the contested election of Belchertown would prove all that fascinating, but if nothing else, the names of the Belchertown voters – that is, men over the age of 16 and "not a pauper" – are not ones I come across every day. Titus and Archelaus evoke Classical images, and Gamaliel, Jephtha, Zebede, and Jedediah are but a few examples of the dozens of Old Testament names that appear.
Occasionally, a document really is interesting for its own sake. The thought, "how would these legislators or politicians have dealt with Twitter?" came to me the other day, as it often does when I am dealing with speeches or legislation from the early 1800s. These people were positively eager to use a 25-cent word, or several dozen of them, when five-cent ones would do, and I'm often silently urging them to get to the point. As I reached for a new document, I was fully prepared to do the same when the declaration of the War of 1812 leapt off the page. Sure, President James Madison's declaration didn't get his point across in 140 characters or less. To him, the British were predatory, plundering, polluting oppressors. The United States had been helpless victims of the "transcendent injustice" of British blockading along the coasts of America, as well as the boarding of American ships for the avowed purpose of looking for British deserters, in the process of which over 6,000 Americans were "forced or inveigled" from these ships and impressed to serve in British armies.
Great Britain had "arrogated the complete dominion of the oceans" due to a "mad ambition, lust of power, and commercial avarice." Meanwhile, the United States had sent multiple remonstrances, expressing displeasure that the British had done this, as the US and Great Britain were not enemies. But finally, in 1812, "forbearance became pusillanimity," and rather than allowing the British to force Americans into "an ignominious and slavish bondage," war was declared. Samuel Dana, in informing the Massachusetts Senate of this turn of events, said "He that is not for his country, is against it." I think I've heard that somewhere before.
Of course, the British had other views. The United States was populated by immoral, cunningly greedy, corrupt, irreligious, and sordid people – why, Congress actually included "one Sailor and one Weaver..., six or seven Tavern Keepers, four notorious Swindlers, one Butcher,...one Glazier, one Curer of Hams, several School Masters, and several Baptist Preachers," reported British diplomat George H. Rose.
The War of 1812 is often called a "forgotten war," although we owe "The Star-Spangled Banner " to it. A new leader in England, Lord Perceval, had issued a repeal of the British blockade of the United States on May 11, 1812, but as it took this proclamation several weeks to cross the Atlantic, it arrived well after James Madison's June 18, 1812 declaration of war. Ironically, the end of the war also arrived weeks late. News of the December 14, 1814 Treaty of Ghent came before Major General Andrew Jackson led troops in the most significant battle, at least for American morale, the January 8, 1815 Battle of New Orleans.
Although actually reading these papers while cleaning and digitizing them could be considered procrastinating, I would be prevaricating in a most calamitous fashion if I said that my vocabulary, and my knowledge of the "forgotten war" of 1812 hadn't improved. To perjure myself would be downright perfidious of me.