The First Fourth of July

The colonies had been warring against the English crown for more than a year. Their taking up arms on the periphery of the great British empire had at first been defensive and spontaneous, when, in April 1775, they exchanged fire with the redcoats in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord. Behind Americans’ resort to arms was a conviction that, if they did not make a stand, the monarchy would strip them of their political autonomy, the ways of being and governing that the colonies had built up over the years. Some began associating loyalty to King George with political servitude.

So they backed up into a nasty situation: with their dander up and their more moderate tactics exhausted, thirteen weakly affiliated colonies had plunged willy-nilly into a war against a mighty power. No one of them could last against the British: they could only prevail by acting as one, by organizing. So the quest to organize the future states into something like a nation began.

It wasn’t the simplest proposition, because at that time the American colonies, though contiguous along the eastern seaboard, were largely strangers to one another. Each colony had its own character and peculiarities, its own governing traditions. They were as distinct and alien to one another, claimed John Adams in 1775, as Indian tribes.

What is most remarkable about the Revolution, yet often taken for granted, is that private citizens in the various colonies voluntarily took on these outlandishly weighty and amorphous duties. As the pace of political instability quickened, leading merchants, journalists, lawyers, intellectuals, printers, and farmers found a way to communicate, to protest, to proselytize, and to bring an entire (formerly tranquil) society together around ambitious and previously unthinkable propositions.

As the colonies became more radicalized, their leadership became shrewder, more obsessive and voluble, spewing forth oratory and addresses and declarations of such variety and power as to unite an entire population around a set of mortally dangerous yet self-respecting demands.

For more than a year, the Continental Army under George Washington had managed to hold together and to keep the British forces busy. But a rebellion that was merely negative–that merely pushed back against the British status quo–scarcely afforded the miserable and fractious colonials with a compelling reason to stay in the field. The moment they grew tired of rebelling against, the British would win.

The passage of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, marks the moment when the various grievances and injuries the colonies suffered under King George were transmuted into one simple positive, practical, political goal. The colonies (now states) declared they were and would be INDEPENDENT. But they also declared themselves to be “the United States of America.” Their first stride toward becoming a true nation came when their leadership, meeting as a “Grand Council of America,” unanimously approved of and proclaimed this as a fait accompli.

What would have happened to the colonists if they had failed to unite? They would probably have been treated as traitors and hung, their fate not too different from what is happening to political dissidents today in Hong Kong.

Today we look back on the leaders of the Revolution and marvel at their sins. We blame them for the political sins of generations of American leaders who came after them. How could they be so narrow-minded, so selfish and blind? Yet without their flawed vision, without their imperfect realization of a universal dream, without their amazing skills as political strategists and activists, where would you and I be today? What language would we be speaking? What narrow confines would shape our political dreams?

Image: “The Battle at Bunker’s Hill,”
from this source.

6 responses

  1. Great post; very relevant to what’s going on in the country today……Most likely, no civilization (or its leaders) has been without “sin.” The Gospel saying is apropos: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

    Those who are now badmouthing our brave forebears and ripping apart artifacts that commemorate those who founded this nation, taking down statues, wanting to re-name schools and streets, maybe hoping to destroy paintings of those men hanging in museums and such–such people are defacing history. To wipe out and “cleanse” those men from our past would be to erase a large part of American heritage. The activists are wrong and narrow minded. I suppose–maybe a stretch–their actions are like those of the Taliban and Isis who tried to wipe out a part of THEIR heritage (Islam) that they believed needed a “cleansing,” destroying ancient symbols of those who came before them, decrying them as “foul.”

    • On the other hand, it’s heartening that Confederate symbols and leaders of the Confederacy are at last being repudiated in the South (and elsewhere). Declaring that the pro-slavery arguments that fueled the Civil War were harmful and wrong, and that the Confederates who fought to leave the Union were indeed losers is healthy, healing, and long overdue. Fantasizing about and glorifying “the Lost Cause” is dangerous, and it’s deeply offensive to black Americans, esp. those whose forebears were enslaved.

      It’s hard to be fair to the Revolutionary generation. They were born into a world that was based on inequality and hierarchy, and only because they challenged that system do Americans have the ideas about equality and the noble standards that they do.

      Every generation of Americans has fallen short, not just the ones who compromised over slavery, or turned their back on the suffering and moral corruption that are the unfortunate fruits of racism.

      Thanks, Harley.

    • I take your point very well, but now a sixth-generation member of the Jefferson family (that is, Thomas Jefferson) has been calling on Congress and forming groups to have the Jefferson Memorial in D.C. torn down. All of a sudden, the “Black Lives Matter”–and I’m all for it: a movement like that is needed and is finally occurring, but perhaps beginning to go too far. As I wrote before, wanting to rip, destroy, and eradicate part of our heritage–not a perfect one–but none are. But, but, but again. . . . What do you think?

    • I oppose tearing down the Jefferson Memorial if that’s being proposed. I have no interest in defending Jefferson or any other early American leader who owned slaves. At the same time (as I said in my previous comment), I believe it’s v e r y difficult for people who live in an egalitarian society like the US to imagine what early America was really like before people like Jefferson began popularizing egalitarian ideas. He wanted to be treated more equally than the British colonial system was willing to allow; at that time such a demand–coming from a white man–was radical.

      At the same time, in 1776, slavery was practiced in many parts of the world. It was an extreme form of exploitation; it was a labor system. And we can say that labor system was heinous and inexcusable, and we can hate Jefferson and others for not figuring out what to do about it–how to abolish it, even how to renounce slave-holding itself. We also have to say the same thing about every American politician of whatever stripe that came after him, all the way up to and including Lincoln in 1860. He didn’t have the will or vision to do it until the entire political system had pulled apart and Americans were killing one another over the issue.

      We recognize that letting people come to the US to live in the shadows and work illegally is unfair and exploitative, yet there is near complete complacency around this issue on the part of American citizens. No one is saying: “We can’t tolerate this practice another day!” Instead, we argue about its being better than what illegal workers would have in their native countries. We argue about how we value them because they do work no “regular” American wants to do. We tell ourselves that they are well treated. Yet the truth is that illegal workers are not our equals. The person who is an illegal alien without a green card can be treated cruelly and inhumanely–and often will be because that person has no legal rights, no legal recourse. I hope that the outrage over continuing racial injustice and economic injustice will prompt more people in the US to learn about how these issues were lived in various times in our history.

      My sister mentioned something she read about the French dividing their history as a republic into sharply distinct periods: The First Republic (1792–1804), the Second Republic (1848–1852), and so on on down to the Fifth Republic as it exists right now. In the French case, these periods make sense especially because their attempts to function as a republic were interrupted. But even in the US, where we have been only a republic, such periodization might allow us to see that despite the continuity, the United States is today a substantially more equal place than it was in Jefferson’s time. But without Jefferson, we might all be far less free and equal that we are now. So for that the nation still owes him recognition for the good principles he championed, principles we still appeal to as we seek more perfect equality and justice for black Americans.

      Thank you.

  2. Interesting conversation. Many of the initial impulses to take down monuments have been in the passionate reaction to “this moment” in our history. Perhaps things have quieted a bit and the process will continue with more thoughtfulness. We continue to see actions being taken—-changing the name of the Washington Redskins, for example—-to rectify the ignorance of our past. Our country has never been perfect, but I hope we will move closer to the established ideals in our constitution. “…all men are created equal.”

    • It is all too common for the wronged to rise up only to become wrong-doers in their own fashion. Hence the outcry against “cancel culture.” Donald Trump “cancels” people, but so do crusading egalitarians like Charles Blow and Elizabeth Warren. It is hard to be loving toward one another and to “right wrongs” at the same time. When many heroes have grown a tarnish, we will likely still be looking up to others like MLK.

      Who said, “The three rules of conduct are ‘Be kind. Be kind. And be kind.'”?