"If a good bleeding can bring those Bible-faced Yankees to their senses, the fever of independency should soon abate."
--British General James Grant,
after his first few victorious hours
in the Battle for New York, 1776
Ah, that Brit wouldn't be the first VIP to be wrong in the revolution that soon became a Revolution, and one that would create, yes, an indispensible nation and shining city on a hill. One of the founding-est of the founding fathers, one John Adams, noted that we'd celebrate Independence Day from now on:
"It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
Of course, he was talking about July 2. He was only a few days off. Good enough for government work.
The Hon. and honorable John Adams mistakenly believed that the day Congress resolved that these united states would be free and independent would be the great anniversary celebration. But who besides dour old John Adams would want to celebrate a resolution? Officially, independence would come when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress. So the Fourth of July it is.
It hasn't been easy. History rarely is. And this country's history has been full of uneasy.
Several weeks after the Fourth of July in 1814, the British burned down the White House and the nation's Capitol building. Imagine being President Lincoln three weeks after the Fourth of July 1861: The first battle of Bull Run had just ended in a rout of the federals, and the realization began to dawn that the American Civil War wasn't going to be just a splendid little adventure that would be over in no time, and that the country really could fall apart, maybe forever. Or imagine living in America on July 4th, 1942 (and some of you Gentle Readers don't have to imagine) as the map of Europe was turning Nazi black and the Pacific crimson as the Japanese empire expanded like a pool of blood.
Today our enemies don't invoke fascism or empire or entangling alliances as much as God, or Allah, or whatever name His much-divided followers try to use to name the Unnameable. Naturally enough, we like to think of America as a product of Providence, too. How else explain our improbable rise, our going from a few scattered settlements on the coast of a vast continent to a republic that would have to act like an empire despite its every instinct--because there is no other power to fill the vacuum that successive threats have posed?
Is history just luck? Or something else? Consider just one incident/miracle: George Washington planned to defend a high point in New York City known as Breucklyn. (We spell it a little different today.) After the first day's fighting out on Long Island, the British inexplicably called a halt while the Americans were engaging in a classic maneuver known in technical military terms as a dead run in the opposite direction.
With Washington's forces split between Long Island and New York City, his position was a defeat waiting to happen. Heck, it had already happened. But it could have turned into the collapse of a whole nascent nation. For would Congress continue the fight with the Army scattering? Washington finally ordered a full retreat into more defensible New York. But would his troops have time to get off Long Island?
Flashes of lightning and roars of thunder. A storm put off another round of fighting. Night fell. A wind blew the British fleet to sea, or at least kept its ships from making shore. Then, as dawn broke, a heavy fog covered Washington's retreat.
Just luck? Some of us don't think so.
We forget, sometimes, the overwhelming odds against us after we declared our independence. After all, we were challenging the nation that controlled the waves and the world. We forget, to adapt a phrase from the Duke of Wellington, what a damned close-run thing this was.
We forget, sometimes, that not only were the odds stacked against us; so were a lot of our fellow countrymen. For there were still Tories in this land, who would be, and would always be, loyal to the crown. They wanted to stay Englishmen, and many did.
We forget, sometimes, how often a general named Washington lost on the battlefield. And all the backroom shenanigans against him as other generals and politicians sought to replace him and so undermined his efforts. And even when he had complete support, which was rare if ever, he thought his troops too few and under-supplied to win, especially compared to the redcoats. ("To expect then the same Service from Raw and undisciplined Recruits as from Veteran Soldiers is to expect what never did, and perhaps never will happen."--George Washington, commanding general.)
We forget, sometimes, that independence isn't, and has never been, the norm. The idea of self government was a new idea back in 1776 when the norm was monarchies. But now that we've had a taste, nothing else but democracy will do.
Not all the people of Great Britain understood then. (With exceptions, such as a man named Edmund Burke, who warned his fellow lawmakers in Parliament even then: "An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery.")
But maybe more and more people of Great Britain understand today. Only a few days ago the United Kingdom declared independence from the European Union, and more power to them. As somebody said last week in a rare defense of Brexit: What would Americans think if they had to take orders from a government based in Canada and a court based in Honduras?
No thanks, pal. We like the idea of home rule. It turns out, so do the British these days.
So let's celebrate two Independence Days as we watch the "shews and illuminations" tonight. Ours, and for a country that we had a few disagreements with so many years ago.
Editorial on 07/04/2016