Mazzuca: America’s real birthday
In keeping with my pledge not to write political commentary until COVID-19 begins to abate, I thought the readership might find the following interesting. Did you know the United States of America just celebrated its birthday? What you say, you thought America’s birthday wasn’t until the Fourth of July?
Au contraire dear reader—please read on. Webster’s tells us a nation “Is a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” But from July 4, 1776, until April 1865, the United States was actually a loosely-bound confederation of independent states that may have been a country, but certainly wasn’t a nation.
Unlike Europe, the United States did not spring forth from a common descent, history, culture, or language. Rather we are descendants of many nationalities whose borders were defined by war and carved out by imperial fiat and 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, a truly revolutionary notion was conceived in the minds of a handful of visionaries, the likes of which the world may never again see assembled in one place.
The word “nation” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence. And when Richard Henry Lee introduced the document to the Continental Congress in June of 1776, it declared, “That these united Colonies are, and of right ought to be free, and independent States.”
Even the preamble to our Constitution omits the term nation, to wit: “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.” To draw a loose analogy, when the Founding Fathers adopted the Constitution they had built a steam locomotive before they laid the tracks for it to run on.
The fight against England brought the colonies together and the dynamic of existing independently from the empire bound us until the beginning of the Civil War. But with political factions vying for influence and even independence from California to New England, including the sparsely populated and unsettled West, we were hardly a nation.
The great French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu said a republican form of government could exist only in a small territory. He felt the 13 colonies were already too large to be a viable functioning government. And with a diversity of lifestyles, economies, customs, and geography as varied as anywhere on Earth, we were fortunate the Civil War was only a conflict between two of the many factions in existence at the time.
Lincoln’s steadfast vision of a “union” held us together during the Civil War, but the actions of Robert E. Lee, in early April 1865 were also critical to keeping our country from forever splintering. Grant’s Army of the Potomac had almost caught up with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in early April 1865; but Lee was not defeated. And although his beleaguered army was reeling, he was still a day or two ahead of Grant’s forces.
Lee’s Army was cornered, but other Confederate armies were dispersed from North Carolina to Texas, and generals such as Joe Johnston and Nathan Bedford Forrest advised Lee to “evaporate into the hills and fight on as guerrillas.”
Lincoln and Grant understood if Lee decided to fight a guerrilla war, Joe Johnston who was facing Sherman’s army in North Carolina, along with Forrest and perhaps other generals would have followed suit and the internecine warfare would have continued. And if that had occurred, it’s highly likely the United States, as we know it today, would not exist.
Yes, Robert E. Lee was a slave owner, but let’s not forget he was also a man of the mid-19th century. More importantly, the general was a man of principle. So it was that General Robert E. Lee chose to end the war with honor and surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. Integrity prevailed, the union was preserved and the United States began its march through history as a united nation.
Quote of the day: “We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing.” — General Robert E. Lee
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes biweekly for the Vail Daily. Follow him on his blog at butchmazzuca.com.
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