Thursday, July 4, 2013

Why the Fourth of July?

   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.


  1. I remember in the movie "1776" that an exhausted messenger in a filthy uniform with a dispatch from Washington to the Congress would show up & his thoroughly depressing message would be read & it showed the delegates just wishing they hadn't heard this.
    That happened a few times, but finally near the end, the same messenger shows up & it's a message that things are getting better.

  2. First glad to see you blogging as it allows you to say more than in a regular column.

    This is a good history lesson. It is too bad that students don't learn that history is more complicated than just learning a few facts an no context.

  3. When I lived in Canada as a kid in the 1970's, July1 wasn't "Canada Day" at all, but rather "Dominion Day," and it celebrated the country's (still, at that time) being part of the British Empire. It wasn't until 1982, when the legal bonds connecting Canada to the Queen Mother and Home Rule were finally, formally, officially dissolved, that Dominion Day became instead, "Canada Day." Once again, the Canadians accomplishing politely, pragmatically and with less drama the kind of thing that would send Americans to the streets and GlennBeckian extremes. As you say, it's kinda unfair to compare ourselves to Canada, ever...

    1. You need to read the Declaration of Independence for all the specific reasons for the colonies separating from Great Britain.
      Below are some of the exact reasons for the separation. If the US hadn't fought & won the Revolutionary war, then Canada would never had been able to peacefully separate from GB in 1982! So stop acting all superior as our forefathers did the dirty work so you wouldn't have to!

      He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

      He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

      He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness of his invasions on the rights of the people.

      He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

      He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

      For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

      For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

      For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

      For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

      For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

      For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

      For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

      For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

      He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

      He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

      He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

      In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

    2. I should have added, that it took violence in India for the British to leave & give it independence in 1947 & again, even far more violence a year later for Israel to get its independence.
      The Brits are very thick headed & don't seem to get the concept of freedom very well until they get smashed on the head repeatedly.
      So Canada became sort of free in 1982, but you still have the Governor general that the PM has to ask the queen for many things.
      But it's possible that Scotland will vote to free itself from the Union & go its own way, which will be rapid bankruptcy as England subsidizes the Scots to a massive degree.
      But there won't be a war, because the absurd British "elf & safety" regulations won't let them fight back as there could be slips & falls during a simple argument!

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I would like to add this piece from Charley Pierce today.

  5. They should use the piece in history class. They might learn something other than what the history books teach. And by the way at the beginning Washington was not such a great General. He lost more battles than he won.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.