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A vote of thanks

Voting in the presidential election this year isn't going to be easy for me. And it's not altogether a matter of the candidates and their particular promises. It has to do with where I vote.

In my polling place there's a painting that I find, well, at best a little distracting. It's ''The Spirit of '76.'' Many people in the United States are probably more used to seeing this painting around the Fourth of July. But still, what they are looking at is a print. I've got to vote right under the nose of the original.

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It features a drummer boy and two men, one with a bandage around his head, marching out of the smoke of a Revolutionary War battle. The flag flies behind them, carried by another beleaguered soldier. During the celebration of the first centennial of the founding of the United States, this painting by Archibald Willard was the subject of great praise, including comments from President Grant. And, after exhibition in Philadelphia, the original was purchased by a Marbleheader for this Massachusetts town in which, he felt, the spirit of the revolution had never died.

One evening last summer I was taking a walk among the houses in the older section of town - older, as in the early years of the 18th century. Abbot Hall, where ''The Spirit of '76'' is enshrined, is the only structure in the old town square built after 1800. I always feel this huge Romanesque red-brick building is a little too ample for the common. It's like a garish birthday cake covered with strawberry icing and set out on a tiny green card table. There is very little lawn left to call ''common.'' The tower and arches seem out of place among the careful geometry of homes put up in the Age of Enlightenment. But it certainly captures the monumental self-consciousness of the nation when it was celebrating its first big birthday.

As I walked by Abbot, I had the election on my mind, and I suddenly realized I was going to have to vote in there. It would be almost like casting a ballot in front of the Founding Fathers themselves. If the painting hanging there were George Caleb Bingham's ''County Election,'' I might feel less pressure, less responsibility for what I did. All those raucous bumpkins celebrating their day off demand little awe, and I'd gladly cast a ballot just to show them that voting is serious business. ''Voting is a sacred act, you know,'' I'd tell them. ''People have fought for it, died for it, and still do.'' Then I'd flick the lever with a flourish.

But what do you say to ''The Spirit of '76''?

I am not some romantic chauvinist. Although I have only been able to vote for four presidents, I can be as skeptical of electioneering as the next person. After all, if the Founding Fathers had it their way, I wouldn't be voting at all. But that's the thing about civil liberty. If you fight for it, you end up spreading it - in spite of yourself.

I once met one of the lesser figures in the Watergate affair. He spoke to a group of student interns I had brought to Washington. We must have been there for a couple of months by the time he came to talk with us, and probably many of us naively but genuinely believed we had government all figured out. Anyway, we were writing journals and term papers as though we had.

But hearing this fellow who'd been sent to jail for violating someone else's civil rights put it in a different light. He said that at first he had felt what he'd done was justified, all in the line of duty. Before his trial, however, he happened to visit Williamsburg, and he went into the House of Burgesses, one of ''the cradles of liberty'' from the Revolutionary War. He said it suddenly struck him at what cost those liberties were bought and how easily he had trespassed on them. He changed his plea to guilty.

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There is no way I can get out from under my particular burden, either. I have to vote. I still remember my reaction to the ''great secret'' my grandmother once confided to me after an election. She is a woman of quiet but considerable patriotism. On this particular occasion, however, she simply could not decide how to vote. She even headed out for the polls, but she ended up walking around the block two or three times and going back home. For the first time in her life she didn't vote at all. She said she prayed instead. I was only 15 at the time and very inexperienced in these matters, but I was sure you were allowed to do both.

I realize I shouldn't get all choked up about making a ballot. After all, this is supposed to be an age of cold realism. But when I go into that booth, I may have to give a little nod to those fellows in the painting. A vote of thanks before I get down to business.

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