Two hundred and forty-three years ago today, on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the U.S. Continental Congress, composed of representatives from thirteen of the British colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America – New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia – declared the colonies independent as one country: the United States of America.
Since then as Americans we have gotten some things right… and we have also gotten, uh, some things wrong…
…but if wrong, hopefully eventually we figure out how to make it right.
This post shall probably be the last bits of new writing I share before the new novel is published. This first is a longish excerpt, I know. It is a scene set in France in the summer of 1802, and I believe it could not be more appropriate for today:
In 1802, the relatively new United States of America was also still mostly those Atlantic coastal states you see on a map now, plus the more recently created states of Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee. At the census of 1800, about 5.3 million people lived in the entire country, which is fewer than in just New York City today. (The census questions asked in 1800 were rather different than those asked in 21st century censuses.) The U.S. was even then also a relatively diverse population, although it was far more broadly European – particularly British – descended and Protestant Christian (it was, for example, about 1% Roman Catholic, whereas today it is about 25% Catholic) than is the U.S. of today.
It was then already also a source of moral and political arguments among Americans that, inherited from British colonialism, about one-third of the population that was almost entirely black Africans or their U.S.-born descendants were not citizens, but were enslaved and owned as property. By the early 1800s, a north-south divide was increasingly appearing as northern states were gradually outlawing slavery, but southern states (which had much larger enslaved populations) did not. Slavery was officially abolished country-wide in 1865 (as a result of the Civil War), but we live still with its legacy of course.
Similarly, in the 1790s and early 1800s the aboriginal (Native, or “Indian”) population that lived just beyond “the frontier,” or increasingly within the expanding country’s borders, were not yet citizens either. Interactions between “ordinary” frontier American whites and Natives were often innocuous and even friendly (there were even marriages); but others, as before independence, continued to be ugly and murderous. Native American nations – such as the Iroquois of upstate New York – were viewed overall by the new U.S. government as essentially foreign entities with whom to negotiate “treaties” as if they were France or Russia or Tripoli:
Whether they had been allied with the defeated British during the War for Independence or had fought on the same side as the victorious George Washington and the Americans from 1775-1783 usually made little difference to how they were treated by the new U.S. government in the late 18th century and early 19th. By the 20th century, by which time the U.S. had reached the Pacific coast amidst often violent confrontations with Native Americans especially on the Great Plains, and there was no discernable “frontier” any longer, they were all granted U.S. citizenship in 1924. We live still also of course with the fallout of too many broken governmental promises, stolen lands, and occasionally horrific mistreatment of their ancestors.
Indeed the U.S. has never been so much a country as a continent… often appearing to be pretending to be a single country. It is now far larger geographically than it was in 1776. It is also much more populated than ever before: the population has roughly doubled since only 1950. In 2019, the country is now about 330 million people, some 10-15% of whom (it is estimated) were born abroad.
What the U.S. was in “1776” was in some ways admirable. In other ways it was, frankly, at times, a horror show… and we must never forget that either. If you are new to the
what I consider fascinating topic and are seeking a well-written (often as entertaining as fiction) non-fiction book about “1776,” I recommend this one:
David McCullough’s 1776 is a relatively “easy” read; but that does not mean it ducks tougher issues. What it attempts to do is to sum up that year and what it meant and still means. If you wish a starting point, it is an excellent place to begin.
Interestingly the “July 4, 1776” that is so important today was not widely celebrated until well after the War of Independence ended in 1783. In fact Americans in the 1780s and early 1790s paid at least as much attention and perhaps more to observing the still living George Washington’s February 22nd birthday. By the 1790s, though, “the Fourth” itself had begun to become a national focus all its own, with town parades, fireworks, rousing readings of the Declaration, speeches, and the rest, starting to take place each year around the country.
Gradually it has also become a day of a degree of national reflection: remembering what we were, considering what we are currently, and – importantly – thinking about what we might do to become better as a people and a country.
To my fellow Americans, wherever you are in the world, Happy Independence Day. 🙂