Wait a minute. Why is the Fourth of July called “Independence Day?” Isn’t that missing something? Doesn’t that tell only half of the story of July 4, 1776?
Ross Peterson thinks so. Peterson — Mister Peterson to me — was my college history professor and one of the most popular, respected teachers on campus (and I say this even though I got no better than a B in his class). He taught for more than 40 years, mostly at Utah State, but also at the University of Texas. He’s now semi-retired (some retirement: he’s still writing books and teaching a class, but that’s what you do when you combine a hobby with a career).
Anyway, “Independence Day” doesn’t quite do the day justice, as far as (Mr.) Peterson is concerned.
“The impact (of July 4) is not only that we declared independence from Great Britain,” says Peterson. “The thing nobody writes or talks about much is that they formed a union. They actually created a legislative body to try to ensure this independence. It had never been done that way.”
There have been revolutions before and since that historic day, but usually it involved tearing something down, not simultaneously building something in its place. First came the French and Russian revolutions, and it was only afterward that the rebels scratched their heads and wondered, “Now what?”
“People take to the streets and then after they get power they think about how they’re going to keep it,” says Peterson.
In some ways, the trickiest part was unifying 13 independent colonies that were vastly different and had little to do with one another. Georgia and South Carolina in the Deep South and New Hampshire and Delaware in the North had nothing in common economically or culturally. They didn’t even communicate with each other. As colonies, they had been sending their own delegates to negotiate separately with Britain.
We can’t even get the University of Utah, BYU and Utah State to join the same athletic conference, but the Founding Fathers managed to form a country out of equally different parties. The 13 colonies didn’t have anything to unify them other than to be independent from Great Britain, but that wouldn’t be enough in the long run.
George Washington was able to convince Southerners, for instance, to fight at Valley Forge. What did a bitter winter battle in Pennsylvania have to do with them? Unity was a tough sell (the Civil War would underscore this years later). Benjamin Franklin warned, “We must hang together, gentlemen else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”
What drew them together was the Declaration of Independence. As Peterson puts it, “It was unifying. It put them all in the same status as treasonous. They said we are no longer loyal to Great Britain, and King George and Parliament have done all these things to us. It was a direct attack on the king and Parliament.”
Even before the Declaration on Independence was signed, a country began to take shape out of its disparate parts. The first Continental Congress met in 1774 and the second one met in 1776. They began behaving like a country. Congress met during the war, raised money, supported the troops, and sent ambassadors to Spain and France and ultimately England. There was a sense of having a formal government while the war was going on. They weren’t waiting to figure this out after the war. They were declaring independence and forming the foundation of a country.1 comment on this story
Fortunately, the British did their part to foment unity by hiring German mercenaries and burning towns in Massachusetts and Virginia. This galvanized the 13 colonies against Britain. They caught another huge break when France and Spain — Britain’s rivals for world power — decided (with some urging) that it was in their best interest to support the new country, which would be their neighbor in the Americas. Suddenly it became a world war, and Britain had to fight Spain and France as well as the upstart Americans.
You know the rest of the story. On Thursday we will celebrate Independence Day, but the celebration should also be about unifying vastly different people to form a new nation.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org