America’s real birthday
From July 4, 1776, until April 1865, the united States of America (lower case “u” for united) were a loosely bound confederation of independent states that may have been a country, but certainly were not a nation.
Unlike the Old World, the United States did not spring from ancient customs, shared dreams, common language, myths and history. We descended from many separate nationalities that came from places carved by imperial fiat or arbitrary treaties.
When referring to the New World, John Winthrop spoke of building “a city upon a hill,” while Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it within our power to begin the world all over.”
And so it was that America, an innovative and revolutionary notion, was conceived in the minds of a handful of visionary men, the likes of which the world may never see assembled in one place again.
If one takes the time to read the Declaration of Independence, he or she will discover that the document omits the word “nation” within its text. When Richard Henry Lee introduced it to the Continental Congress in June of 1776, it was declared, “That these united Colonies are, and of right ought to be free, and independent States.”
The Declaration of Independence, signed 227 years ago, did not create one nation, but 13. These 13 states were very different from each other and each jealously guarded their independence. In the beginning, each had its own army, navy, and elected legislatures that oversaw every aspect of civil life from Indian affairs to postal routes.
Even the Preamble to our Constitution omits the term nation: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In fact, the word “nation” or “national” appeared nowhere in the Constitution when written. That was one nut the founding fathers could not crack. Instead they deferred to the loose term, united States.
When the founding fathers adopted the Constitution, they in effect built the steam engine before they laid the tracks of a nation. The fight against England brought the colonies together. Then the dynamics of existing independently from the empire bound us until the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.
We Americans had a country before we had a nation. But the genius that brought the 13 colonies together also planted the seeds of dissent.
The great French philosopher Montesquieu said that a republican form of government could exist only in a small territory. He felt that the 13 colonies were already too large to be a viable and functioning government. With a diversity of lifestyles, economies, customs and geography as varied as anywhere on earth, we were lucky that we only split in two, instead of forming six, seven or eight separate republics in what is now the continental United States.
Perhaps the most important factor in the United States becoming a “nation,” outside of Lincoln’s vision of the union, were the actions of Robert E. Lee, the grandson of the man who had introduced the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress.
Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a “union” held the concept of “nation” together during the four most horrific years in our history, but Lee’s actions in early April kept America from forever splintering. Grant’s Army of the Potomac had almost caught up to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia
in April 1865. But Lee was not defeated. He was still a day or two ahead of Grant’s forces, although his beleaguered army was completely drained.
Lee’s army was cornered, but other Confederate armies were still dispersed from North Carolina to Texas.
Lee was advised by his generals to “evaporate into the hills and fight on as guerrillas.”
Lincoln and Grant both understood that if Lee decided to fight a guerrilla war, peace and union would never be restored.
Had Lee made that decision, Confederate generals from Joe Johnston, who was facing Sherman’s army in North Carolina, to Nathan Bedford Forrest would have done the same, internecine would have continued, and the United States as we know it today would in all likelihood not exist.
Robert E. Lee was a man of boldness, valor and genius. But he was also a man of honor and integrity.
So it was that Lee, in perhaps his finest hour, chose to surrender to Grant’s forces 139 years ago tomorrow at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Integrity prevailed, the union was preserved, and the United States was truly born.
Butch Mazzuca of Singletree, a local real estate broker and a ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com