Happy 230th Birthday, America.


We celebrate our birthday today. Yet there are so many other days we might have chosen.

We don’t celebrate the Birth of A Nation on the anniversary of that first disorganized and hastily-mounted insurgency we now call Patriot’s Day, April 19, 1775. But we could. That’s where it all began.

Nor do we honor the day, June 14 of the same year, we began to field an army of resistance when the “Continental” Congress authorized 10 rifle companies as the core of the “Continental” Army.

We don’t celebrate as our birthday the following day, June 15, when Congress appointed a leader for this army, a former British Lt Col, soon-to-be General, and then President, George Washington. It was John Adams who fought most vigorously for Washington because, to that point, the only army enlistees were New Englanders and New Yorkers. Adams cleverly discerned that appointing a Southerner as Commander in Chief would rally the Southern colonies to the cause.

And we don’t celebrate our birthday on October 19, which, 6 years and 6 months to the day after the shot heard ’round the world, was the day of the capitulation of Lord Cornwallis to Washington. The War of Independence was over! Cornwallis at first tried to surrender to Comte de Rochambeau, Lieutenant General of the Armies of the King of France, to avoid the humiliation of admitting defeat at the hands of these rag-tag colonists, but Rochambeau wisely declined and sent Cornwallis’ emissary to Washington instead. (Still, as a sop to the British, the Articles of Capitulation read they are between Cornwallis and “his Excellency General WASHINGTON, Commander in Chief of the combined Forces of America and France…)

Of course, all we achieved with the end of the Revolutionary War was freedom from British rule. There was still no “nation” birthed, just a bunch of insurgents who fought together to gain freedom from something, not to create something. That would have to wait six more years, until – finally -- The Constitution of the United States began to change the united colonies into a nation on September 17, 1787. It was still a dicey affair – the document was signed by just 39 of the 55 delegates, and was then ratified, colony by colony, until it gained the required 2/3 approval on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the 9th of the 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution of the “United States.” Now we were states, not colonies. Now there was a nation, not a confederation -- an entity that could “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty” for its citizens. (At least most of its citizens – these ideas were radical enough in themselves without also taking on the Southern states on the issue of slavery. The best compromise the signers could agree to was to stop the importation of slaves into the United States by 1808. It would take America’s bloodiest war, 73 years hence, to finally bring this issue to the fore, and 100 years after that for the Civil Rights movement to force Congress to enact full legislation providing equal justice to all Americans. Maybe that’s the nature of an evolving revolution and the intellectual heir to Jefferson’s idea that we need a revolution every generation or so…)

April 19.

June 14, 15, or 21.

September 17.

October 19.

Each could vie for its logical position as America’s Birthday. But we chose instead July 4, 1776, the day when a gaggle of radicals from disparate colonies with little in common agreed, in the middle of a humid, stifling Philadelphia summer, to accept the words that would shake the autocracies, dictatorships, kleptocracies, and monarchies of the world, then and now: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

Penning such inspiring words meant nothing without the will and the capability to back it up – and we certainly seemed to have none of the latter. July 4th could have been just another day of the year and this precious document become hollow and lost forever, one more folly by head-in-the-clouds dreamers. It, and we, could have been stillborn.

And that is precisely why July 4th should be celebrated as our birthday. It is a celebration of dreams and courage and moxie. It required big dreams and big courage to even say those words to the world’s most powerful nation. It is remarkable for the sheer brassiness of it, a brassiness and naivete and roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-it-done attitude that characterized Americans then and now. Many in The Old World still shake their heads at America’s brashness and “naivete.” They resent our unwillingness to accept the status quo and to go along to get along. Clearly we don’t understand the way the world works. Sure we do. We’ve just decided to change it.

July 4th may be the most illogical of all the days mentioned above to celebrate as a birthday. How dare we declare ourselves a nation with such a pitiful and under-fed army, no executive, no judiciary, no rules of commerce, and a congress that couldn’t agree on anything except the source of their discontent?

But we did. And damn if we didn’t succeed.

We didn’t succeed because of our brilliance on the battlefield – we lost almost every substantial engagement. We didn’t succeed because of our radiant diplomacy – most of the time, we alienated our friends or underwhelmed them with our bickering and provincialism. Thank God for Dr. Franklin.

We succeeded by luck, by pluck, and by the absolute commitment that gave no room for retreat, denial, or defeat. This is our birthday because it is the day we pledged ourselves to each other and to posterity. There can be no finer birthday gift from any single group of men to the millions who followed than the one enshrined in the final words of the Declaration ratified 230 years ago today: “…for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Happy Birthday, America.

posted by J. Shaefer at  http://jlshaefer.blogspot.com/