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E pluribus unum

Painting history - The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
GPA Photo Archive
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John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776"

Everybody knows that the Fourth of July commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Like so much of our historical knowledge, this is wrong. The draft of the Declaration was adopted by Congress on July 2, which legally broke the tie to England right then. John Adams, the second president, declared that “the second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable date in the history of America.” In fact, the first independence celebration, in 1777, was held on the appropriate date, July 2. Congress later changed the date to the fourth, for reasons that are obscure.

Regardless of the exact date, the result was an extraordinary act of political cooperation and solidarity between the colonies. Nowadays, our highly-paid legislators can scarcely agree on the most trivial action, but in 1776, the unpaid delegates to the Continental Congress united to take on the greatest military and naval power in the world for the sake of an abstract idea called independence.

By some strange alchemy, the Declaration made it possible to conceive America as a nation. People tend to talk as if it is one place, like Coney Island. But it seems to me that it is increasingly like several different countries. Sheer size has something to do with it, of course. America encompasses every kind of climate and landscape, multiple races, hundreds of ethnic groups with their own languages, cuisines and TV channels, dozens of religions and every political point of view from communism to fascism. Other big countries are diverse, but not on this spectacular scale. The United States could contain 18 countries the size of France and 95 the size of Iceland. It is truly astonishing that it stays together.

For more than a hundred years before 1776, colonists had been pouring in: English Puritans, Royalists, Quakers and subsistence farmers from Ireland and Scotland settled in different parts of the continent and brought their own cultures.* Close behind came millions of Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, Dutch and many more. This absurdly diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual population was further complicated by Native Americans, who were here before anyone else, and by slavery.

Historians have suggested that our current culture wars are a shadowy reflection of those original cultures and settlement patterns coming to the surface again. The varied populations who made up the union never quite gave up who they were. Without the revolution, the 13 colonies might have carried on peacefully and evolved into nations, each with its own government.

But unification did happen, more or less, on July 4, 1776, or perhaps July 2, depending on which account you believe. It was one of the most remarkable achievements in political history. What an extraordinary stroke of luck it was that the Founding Fathers were men of their time — of the Enlightenment — not saints, but educated, thoughtful, rational men. Lucky for us too that they had the vision to imagine this vast continent as a single country. But the British also played a key part. Nothing could have persuaded the diverse and disputatious colonies to unite into a nation with one voice and one purpose except the violent British response to the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps they could be persuaded to try it again?

Copyright: David Bouchier

*Note: David Hackett Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed (1989) gives a dense and detailed picture of immigration from the British Isles in the 1600s, and the lasting effects of folk cultures that the immigrants brought with them.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.