I was born on the Fourth of July, 1950. As such, I have experienced more exposure than most people to the outward signs and rituals of that celebration -- the fireworks, the bunting, the brass. If a bottle rocket exploded, I took it personally.
According, I am sicker of these signs and rituals than most people, and a part of me has been searching, for lo these 50 years, for a deeper meaning, one relevant to people not wearing silk stockings and powdered wigs. Sorry, George, you're out.
Here's what I have come up with:
First, we Americans sure love to fight. The Declaration of Independence, signed on this august day in July, was effectively a declaration of war. How many nations' most cherished principles are laid out in a declaration of war?
And it came out of nowhere. People in England were dumbfounded that we sought separation from the crown. Didn't we understand the essential role of colonials: to provide cheap commodities to the mother country, and pay them premium prices for finished goods? Where did we get off? Somehow, over the course of over a century of autonomy in the wilderness, we stopped being English and become something ruder, more presumptuous, and ready to rumble?
It's fascinating how Americans of all stripes close ranks for a fight. Here was a Revolution instigated by the rich landowners outraged at imperial acts that impinged on their liberties. But look who joined their cause and died in their place on the battlefield: the everyday yeomen, the average colonial slob who had little cause in common with the rich.
(Similarly, the Civil War was instigated by rich landowners in the South, outraged at imperial acts by the federal government that impinged on their prerogatives, as free men, to own other men who were not free. And look who joined their cause and died in their place: the everyday farmers and laborers of the south, who owned no slaves, but were itching for the opportunity for a fight.)
Why is it that free people -- and we invented the term -- are so cheerfully willing to fight to the death on a moment's notice? Slaves and freedmen also took arms against the enemy. In the north, everyone answered the bell, with the exception New York's Irish -- my people -- who instead rioted and went about murdering innocent black people.
There's something repulsive in this, but also a unifying element. If people of different classes are willing to join together to beat on a common enemy, does that begin to explain why Americans are often such an overachieving lot? Could this "will to hostilities" be our signature greatness?
A society able to kill and be killed on command can build a lot of airports.
The revolution was a civil yet profoundly uncivil war. There were more Tories in America than patriots by far -- four to one. Generally, the longer you were here, the less English you became. Patriots hated these stick-in-the-muds more than they hated armed British troops. For their part the British despised our shameless tactics, shooting their soldiers from behind trees and running off to safety. Where was the honor, the professionalism, in that sort of business?
Our best field general, Benedict Arnold, not only betrayed his own country, but then, shades of William T. Sherman, burned most of Connecticut to the ground, disenfranchising people in twenty cities. The part of Ohio I grew up in, called the Western Reserve or The Firelands, was given to these victims as war reparations. Few kids today know the name Benedict Arnold, but when I was growing, in the Firelands, the name still suggested the lowest, most loathsome treachery, a man who would drive his own countrymen from their homes -- out of spite.
Americans are not revolutionaries at heart, because we never have had much truck with true tyranny. George III was no Stalin, no Franco. A real revolution overthrows an oppressive, inhabiting power. The French Revolution, by murdering France's upper class, thus qualifies as a real revolution. The American Revolution, which supplanted an already irrelevant and very distant British authority, doesn't, quite. It was more a revolution of convenience.
The great lesson of that war, and of so many others, is that you can win and still lose. After the war the political spoils shifted to the landowning Federalist class, made up of military heroes like Washington but also the sentiments of the Tories. The working man and the slave had to wait for future generations, for Jacksons and Lincolns to fulfill the promise of the Declaration. Again, just like the Civil War -- within a few decades, the government and military were dominated by southerners and the southern ethic.
When Lincoln read from his envelope back at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg, he spoke of a proposition made "fourscore and seven years ago" -- the Declaration's insistence on equality under law. A second war was needed to seal that proposition in blood. We are still sealing it today, on every street. And the Tories and their mercenaries keep rising from defeat to undo those hard-won victories.
A question for the future: Are we still pleased, delighted even, to fight for freedom? It's a nasty, bloody trait, but it appears to be our signature strength. When the next bell rings, will our children take up arms?
Think of that when the fireworks stop, and their fading spiders drift across the sky.
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