Fireworks and cookouts, along with the Red White and Blue that symbolizes our country, characterize July 4th of every year. At the same point, it serves as a good time for reflection on the creation of the country in which we live. The founding of the country is one that is becoming shrouded in myth, with its own set of misconceptions and happenings that are relatively unknown, which makes the constant ‘Happy Birthday America’ status and twitter updates that I’ve seen all along be somewhat of humorous statement.
When looking at the founding of the country, the 4th is an obvious holiday to look at, for it was the signing of the Declaration of Independence that formally succeeded the United States from the United Kingdom, and represented the first time that the colonies became a country that stood on their own. However, the founding of the country is something that has happened numerous times throughout our history, and at points, I wonder if the 4th is really a celebration of the beginnings of America, or something else entirely.
If looking at the founding of the country, it is also best to remember that the Europeans who came to the country weren’t the first here. The numerous tribes of native Americans have been on this landmass for thousands of years, presumably since the end of the last ice age, when the glacier sheets receded and isolated the continent. They came down through North America and into Central and South Americas, creating their own vast civilizations. The Vikings landed in Newfoundland, Canada around 985-1008 by Lief Eriksson, but later abandoned the settlement. It was not until 1492, on October the 12th that Christopher Columbus, with the three ships under his command, the Santa Maria, the Nina and the Piñta, discovered the Bahamas, believing that he reached the Indies, before continuing down towards Cuba and Haiti. Return trips were planned in the years following his expedition, and soon, Europe was traveling to the newly discovered landmass in larger expeditions. In 1499, the new world was named ‘America’, after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who discovered that the new world was not Asia, but a large landmass in between the two. The first European to reach North America was commissioned by Henry VII of England, John Cabot, while others discovered more and more of this new world.
Looking forward three hundred years, the secession of the United States was preceded by decades of events and mismanagement by their British overlords, who taxed the colonies to help offset the massive expenditures of war and government abroad. Various taxes, such as the Stamp Act, Molasses Act Quartering Act and the Tea Tax fanned the flames of irritation against the British government, inciting riots and protests. The famous Boston Tea Party occurred in 1773, as the British government aided the failing East India Tea Company, bringing about the Tea Act, prompting a riot and protest on the part of the Boston merchants. War began a couple of years later in 1775, but clearly, the seeds of discontent had been laid far earlier, bringing about the declaration of independence from the colonies. On August 22nd 1775, the colonies were declared to be in rebellion, and by October of 1781, the British surrendered, and opted to not continue the war by March of the following year, and in November, the United Kingdom recognized the independence of the United States.
In March of 1781, the Continental Congress, began to work on a permanent form of government to lead the country, with plans stretching as far back as 1776, and by the time the war ended in 1781, the Articles of Confederation became effective, setting up a government that granted responsibilities, but almost no authority to maintain those responsibilities. There was a current of distrust in a stronger central government that ultimately crippled the Congress, for it could not regulate commerce, negotiate treaties, declare war or raise an army, create a currency, maintain a judicial branch, and no head of government that was separate from the Congress. While there were upsides to the government, it was unable to effectively govern, and a series of crises arose that threatened the stability of the nation. Shay’s Rebellion provides a good example of this, when western Massachusetts went into open revolt in 1786 when the legislature failed to provide debt relief. This was but a singular example of the times, and there were more advocates of a stronger centralized government, where a revision to the Articles of Confederation were demanded, for a government that could regulate interstate and international commerce, raise revenue for the country and raise a single army to confront threats. The Constitutional Convention that arose sparked numerous debates over the rights of the state vs. the federal government (antifederalists vs. federalists, respectively). Despite the intense debate, the Continental Congress closed down on October 10th, 1788, and on March 4th, 1789, the new congress elected George Washington (who believed that the Constitution would only last about 20 years), and a new federal government was born. In a every way, this was the date in which the United States that we know today was formed.
This story of the birth of the United States and ‘America’, the concept, are important ones to remember, for not only the sequence of events that built upon the last, but their significance in relation to one another. Current ideology amongst popular culture nowadays seems to contort many of the lessons that can be learned from this period of formation within the U.S.. The United Kingdom was thrown off because of an apathetic and overbearing monarchy that failed to represent the interests of the colonies, rather than simply because of the taxes that were levied upon them. To hear senators and public representatives speak that the colonists rebelled simply because of a tax upon tea belies the complicated nature of American independence, and the lessons that were learned in the years afterwards of the failure of a weak centralized government, but also the simple fact that the Constitution of the nation was not the direct product of the American Revolution, but that it was a work in progress, of sorts. America itself, however, has had a series of births and rebirths, and the Declaration of Independence was but one such moment in the history of the nation, concept and location. Still, July 4th is a good of a time as any to celebrate the process, and the existence of the nation itself.