The birthday gal
You don’t look a day over 230
LEAVE IT to the old Puritan and lawyer John Adams to think we’d celebrate a congressional resolution, and schedule a holiday to mark this nation’s birth on the Second of July. He said July 2 would be celebrated “with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.”
Nah. Americans decided to celebrate the Fourth of July instead, the day of the declaration itself. We’re more of an idea people. Leave the paperwork to the Germans.
Happy birthday, old gal. It’s been 241 years since that congressional resolution/declaration/foolhardy experiment. For who thought this country would really last this long? A republic? When has that ever worked out? Government of the people? What do they know? (“Your people sir, is a great beast.”—A. Hamilton.) There were those in Britain and Tories on these shores who thought, sure, let the colonies go—for now. Why fight them? They’ll come crawling back soon enough. And realize that taxation without representation wasn’t something they needed to worry their pretty little heads about. Mother England would take care of all. Except . . . .
Except there’s something exceptional about this nation. And it’s not the way French and Germans and British and Chinese think of themselves as exceptional. If one word sums up this country, it might be Hope. Although there are other nominees for the honor, such as freedom and opportunity.
BUT HOPE would be only the beginning of what America is about. The United States of America has become a nation. But we’re not a nation in the way the Chinese could be called one, or a civilization in the way the Arabs are. Not even the treasure of the English tongue explains us, for here we speak a distinct variant of the mother tongue—American, or rather varieties thereof, from Tex-Mex to Cajun to Brooklynese to standard Midwestern. And around here, we speak a lot of Suthin’. The American language hasn’t yet jelled into a finished product, thank goodness, or else it would be one of the dead languages.
America is not so much a melting-pot as the biggest savory stew in the world, always changing flavors, depending on the spoonful or neighborhood. We’re constantly throwing in new ingredients, too, testing the roux and proclaiming that this country is the best that’s ever been, or that it’s going to the dogs. So we have to change it up on occasion. Throwing out the Adams administration for the Jefferson one. Or getting rid of those criminal Republicans and electing a Sunday School teacher named Carter as president. And then throwing him out at the next scheduled election for a Reagan. And after 12 years of Reagan/Bush, going in a completely different direction in 1992. Just see last November for proof of the way Americans change the dish when provoked.
Of course, we’ve always been afraid of The Other, and it’s a bad habit we need to quit. In the 1750s Ben Franklin was warning that soon we’d all be speaking German if Pennsylvania was any example. Just substitute Mr. Franklin’s mention of the Germans with the Irish, Italians, Slavs, Asians, Mexicans . . . and you’d have a history of American immigration and its discontents. Which quickly enough became chants of Build That Wall! Build That Wall!
One wonders: Is it the land that makes us Americans? The land was already American—distinct and exceptional—before its inhabitants were. It took many autumns, winters, springs and summers for America to make us Americans. And the land continues to shape us, just as we do the land.
Yet it was not only the land that drew us here, but something else, something in the air.
Not some version of Bismarck’s blut
und eisen, not language, not culture, not even the land can explain how America came to be. But something in the air. That something is the idea of freedom. To be an American is to share not just a history, glorious and terrible as it is from Valley Forge to Little Big Horn, from Independence Hall to the Lincoln Memorial, from Iwo Jima to Afghanistan, but to share in an idea, to live in a certain light.
That American idea crystallized in Congress, believe it or not. (There was a time in this country when people took to the streets chanting “Long Live Congress!” in the faces of the redcoats staring them down.) America can be found in the words in the unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America. Even now the words leap from the parchment like a bugle call, a declaration of faith, a coming together of hope and fruition:
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.
And yet there is nothing self-evident about men being created equal. That idea will always be revolutionary. In his original draft, Mr. Jefferson, before the inevitable committee of editors got together and watered down his prose, called the truths his Declaration would proclaim not self-evident but “sacred,” which is still the better description. For this nation was born in an act of faith, as the expression of an idea that was exceptional then and still is.
THE GUMPTION. The Americanness of it. As if we could declare that all men are created equal and entitled to certain rights by the laws of nature and nature’s God and it be so. What arrogance, European statesmen would sniff. (How little things have changed.)
“The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” Tom Paine would write in his little pamphlet, Common Sense.
“’Tis not the affair of a city, a county, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent—of at least one-eighth part of the navigable globe.’’
Old John Adams foresaw today’s ceremonies and fireworks even if he got the exact date wrong. But Mr. Adams got everything else right, including what sacrifices liberty would entail. “You will think me transported with enthusiasm,” he apologized to Abigail, aware he was showing emotion at last, “but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction . . . .”
The American Idea is a mix of realism and enthusiasm, hope and endurance, liberty and order, Adams and Jefferson. It opens whole new vistas for man even as it demands self-discipline and self-sacrifice. And how. As every day’s headlines make clear in this struggle against another foe. The Spirit of ’76, it turns out, isn’t just for 1776.