What do we celebrate when we celebrate the Fourth of July? Independence Day, we tell ourselves. But was it really? On July 4, 1776, our nascent nation was a long way from being free of British tyranny.
We weren't independent of anything, yet, and it says something about the American genius for optimism that we mark as the birth of our country, not the actual achieving of our break from Great Britain, but the first announcement of our hope to do so. And we've been confusing intent and accomplishment ever since.
So when did independence occur? In stages. On June 7, 1776, at the meeting of the Second Continental Congress, Virginian Richard Henry Lee offered a resolution to publicly declare "that these United States are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown." There was a recess of several weeks, so the colonies could talk among themselves. Then the founders reconvened, and approved the declaration on July 2, John Adams, famously predicted "the Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival ... solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games and sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore."
Except for the exact date, he was right about the details of the festivities. Even though, on that day, we had been fighting the British for not quite 15 months, since the shot heard round the world at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. We still had five years of bloody, often desperate conflict to endure.
Contrast America's approach to pinpointing our moment of national origin with that taken by the other superpower in the world, China, which marks its National Day on Oct. 1, commemorating the day in 1949 when a ceremony was held in Tiananmen Square marking the birth of the People's Republic of China, formed the week before. At that point, the communists had been fighting the nationalists for 15 years, and were a few months away from the complete collapse of Chaing Kai-shek's forces and their flight to exile on Formosa. Victory was at hand.
We tend not to juxtapose the intellectual nation-building that Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the other founding fathers were sweating over in July, 1776 with the grueling struggle George Washington and his ragtag army were suffering through at the exact same moment. Another American quality -- historical myopia. Not one American in 50 realizes that while the Declaration of Independence was being debated, an enormous British force commanded by General William Howe was bearing down on New York. The Declaration of Independence was officially adopted on July 4. Only John Hancock, president of the Congress, and secretary Charles Thomson actually signed it that day. By the time the bulk of Congress put their name to it, in early August, 32,000 British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries were camped on Staten Island, plus 10,000 sailors and 2,000 marines on 30 man-of-wars and 400 transport ships in the harbor. (The patriots would have been well served had they paused from talking airily about liberty long enough to focus on a few gritty details, such as speeding cannons to Sandy Hook to defend the port. Instead, we basically let the Brits sail into New York harbor unhindered). New York only had 28,000 residents at the time, which meant that the British military force surpassed the local population. The Brits had triple the men Washington had under him. More New Yorkers were signing up to fight for the British than were joining the Continental Army. While copies of the declaration were being read aloud in colonial squares, Gen. Howe was sending envoys to Washington, brusquely demanding his immediate surrender.
It got worse. By month's end, Washington's forces had been butchered at the Battle of Long Island, a slaughter that had Washington's men panicking and bolting for their lives.
"In general our Generals were out-generaled," Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. Even then, Washington dithered, remaining on Manhattan, refusing to admit defeat and retreat to safety, a decision universally hailed by historians as "militarily inexplicable and tactically suicidal." The only thing that saved him -- and American hopes -- was that Gen. Howe, who could have easily destroyed the Continental Army, carelessly declined to do so. Another saving American grace -- however badly we blunder, our foes always seem to do just a little worse.
Why bring this up? Is it not a dark cloud on this joyous summer celebration of fireworks and picnics and fun? I don't think so. We do ourselves a disservice by remembering the past as unmitigated glory, because it makes our country's achievements seem easy, and they weren't easy. We should remember that our country was born in struggle, that nothing was given to us, if only to make our trials now more bearable. Our politicians today engage in political backbiting and gridlock that is near-treason -- at best a betrayal of all who suffered and died to bring us to this point. We could do better -- we have done better in the past, despite great setbacks and at an enormous cost -- and must do better in the future.
Sorry. This is becoming the standard Fourth of July oration. Historian Merle Curti analyzed July 4 speeches over the first 80 years of the country's history and found "the typical oration began with a recital of American history in the colonial era ... glorified the heroism of the struggle for independence, expressed reverence for the Revolutionary leaders, urged the importance of attacking existing problems in their spirit ... and expressed loyalty to the nation and faith in its future."
And why not? So, maintaining that tradition, let us end with praise for our country. Maybe the secret to America's great success is its persistent ability to underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead, a tendency to declare the thing done when it's only started, and to press on when other nations would sigh and give up. As always, the antidote to finding fault with the United States on any given subject is to glance around the world. Yes, China takes a more clear-eyed approach to its moment of its birth, marking nationhood closer to when it actually occurred. But it was only 64 years ago. And other countries are even more premature than us about declaring nationhood. The French celebrate their country on Bastille Day -- July 14, 1789, when they still had 10 years of blood-soaked revolution ahead, a butchery that makes the American Revolution seem absolutely tame.
And the Canadians -- though it is unfair to compare the United States with Canada in almost any regard -- they do celebrate Canada Day on July 1, marking the July 1, 1867 union of British colonies Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada into a federation -- a federation that would remain under the thumb of Great Britain, to a decreasing extent, for another 115 years. Talk about jumping the gun on your independence. Have a safe and sane Fourth of July. Be careful with fireworks.