Saturday, July 5, 2008

Happy Birthday United States! ?

by Ray Soller

Yesterday, July 4, 2008, a congratulatory birthday message appeared on the website, Daily Paul - Dedicated to restoring Constitutional government to the United States of America. The message was posted by "Shishio" with the title, Happy Birthday United States! I suggest that the title should be punctuated with a question mark, because the "United States" did not take shape on that day. It still took another ten years before a sufficient number of prominently known delegates were able to convene a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of converting a little "u" into a capital "U" that would form the United States of America.

July 4th, 1776 is the commemorative date for the Declaration of Independence. The document starts off with "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, ... , a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." Please note there were "thirteen" States who then put the world on notice that they were declaring their independence from Great Britain. This is a fact of history that very few of our current generation care to acknowledge. We really should be conscious that the "Spirit of 76" in its essence never dreamed of the concept wherein thirteen disparate states could come together to establish one nation. There was one notable exception. His name was George Washington. Here's part of the story as it is told by Joseph J. Ellis in his book, American Creation (pgs 88-89):
Given the subsequent history of the United States [following the end of the war with Great Britain], which confirmed Washington's imperial vision by consolidating its power on the continent in the course of the nineteenth century, then emerged in the twentieth century as the dominant economic and military power in the world, it is essential [my italics] to remember that the term "united States" began as a plural rather than a singular noun, ... .

If Washington was right, the burgeoning American empire required a fully empowered central government to manage its inevitable expansion across the continent. But such a national government contradicted the most cherished political values the American Revolution claimed to stand for. From Washington's perspective the Confederation Congress appeared "little more than an empty sound" or "a Nugatory body" destined to sink into contempt in the eyes of Europe." From the perspective of the vast majority of American citizens, however, the inherent weakness of the Articles of Confederation was a shining example of republican principles, since a strong central government replicated the distant and despotic political power against which they had recently rebelled.

The gap between these two political camps was an unbridgeable chasm separated by a fundamental difference over the true meaning of the American Revolution. ... .

How that chasm was bridged, how a dedicated minority of nationalists managed to redefine "the spirit of '76," which then became "the spirit of '87," is the story we try to tell here. ... .
I recommend reading Ellis's book to see what happens next. It's a story of how in a world of rapidly shifting loyalties a little "u" grew up to a capital "U," and how a Revolutionary War-era, filled with a mixed set of religious tests and loyalty oaths, yielded to a plane spoken oath that was signed into law by George Washington on June 1, 1789. It simply reads: "I, A. B. do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States."


Brad Hart said...

Good post. I often think that celebrating the 4th of July as our nation's "birthday" is a lot like celebrating December 25th as the birthday of Christ. Almost any historian will tell you that Christ WAS NOT born in December, just as the U.S. was NOT established on July 4th.

In the end, they are both holidays that have been established by tradition.

Ray Soller said...

I'm sure John Adam's is still rolling over in his grave bemoaning the fact that the date for signing "Jefferson's" Declaration of Independence is commemorated as the official birthday for the "united States of America" rather than an earlier occasion. Joseph Ellis (American Creation, pg 50) points out that Adams "went to his grave ... insisting that he, not Jefferson, drafted the real declaration of American independence."

Ray Soller said...

Studying the calendar is another passion of mine besides delving into the history of presidential inaugurations.

Brad, it's interesting that you noted the commemorative date for Christmas as being commemorated on December 25th, which in the time of Constantine, was the astronomical date for the winter solstice. The fact that July Fourth took hold as the official day of celebration is very likely, in a round about way, related to Christmas and the birth of the "New year."

Tradition has it that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus. That marks John as being born on the day of the summer solstice. June 25th became known as St. John's Day. Pagan/Christian celebrations for that day were observed with mountaintop fires and burning wheels that were sent rolling down the mountainside.

Over the centuries, from the time of Constantine up to the reign of Pope Gregory XIII, the Julian Calendar quarter-season dates drifted away from their astronomical dates. (The Julian Calendar was based on the assumption that there is exactly 365.25 days in a year, which is .0078 of a day too large.) Consequently, the Gregorian calendar reform was instituted in 1582 for the purpose of recalibrating the proper dates for Easter. We use the Gregorian calendar today, but Great Britain and the Colonies continued to use the Julian Calendar up until 1752. At that time it was necessary to correct the calendar by skipping forward eleven days. Britain had resisted the change because it felt that the Gregorian Calendar was a plot to establish Papal supremacy. Rural farming communities continued to resist the change because they felt that they had "lost eleven days," and continued to use the old style customary dates to observe their market-days and holidays.

Here's the point, summertime "fireworks" were a long established tradition on the old style calendar, and the new style July Fourth fit neatly into that centuries old tradition of commemorating the birth of John at the time of the summer solstice.

J. L. Bell said...

I think dating the United States from the adoption of the present Constitution is too late. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union organized the thirteen former colonies under a single (weak) government, and the document twice said that union was “perpetual.”

That’s why the U.S. Constitution’s preamble promises “a more perfect Union.” There already was a union, but the new document and form of government was meant to improve it.

Ray Soller said...

J.L., you've made a perfectly valid observation, and I promise to keep paying avid attention to the firework displays on the Fourth.

Nonetheless, here's the results of a study I believe is also worth everyone's attention, Constitution Day gets little notice, The Seattle Times | Nation & World - September 17, 2007. It's disturbing.