Looking back over our history, our arrival at this July Fourth — free, secure and prosperous and celebrating Independence Day with fireworks and flags — now seems like an inevitable historical progression.
But the American republic was never inevitable and it was probably least inevitable 229 years ago on the day when the Founding Fathers signed it into existence, as historian David McCullough usefully reminds us in his marvelous new book on that perilous and pivotal year, "1776."
What is justly best-known from the Declaration of Independence is Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant summation of the American ideal, "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."
However, the rest of the Declaration is an angry bill of particulars listing several dozen very specific grievances against the British Crown. Even at this remove you can almost feel Jefferson’s anger rise as he writes.
"The lines were drawn now as never before, the stakes far higher," McCullough writes. There was no going back. The Americans gathered in Philadelphia had committed treason. And it was one thing to declare independence and another for the scattered and divided colonies to seize it from the world’s largest military power.
Even as the Declaration was being signed, a huge British fleet, eventually numbering hundreds of ships, was arriving off New York loaded with highly trained, well-fed and highly motivated professional soldiers. If their commander, Lord Howe, could not overawe the colonials into surrender, he was to quickly crush them militarily.
The birth year of the republic, 1776, McCullough observes, was "a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear . . . "
But George Washington and his makeshift little army endured and ultimately prevailed. And because of them we celebrate the Glorious Fourth in the spirit of the revolutionary officers in New York, who, upon receiving news of the signing of the Declaration, "went to a public house to testify our joy at the happy news of Independence. We spent the afternoon merrily."
Spend your July Fourth merrily and safely.