"We must not confound the American Revolution with the American Revolutionary War. The war may be over, (yet) nothing but the first act of that great drama is closed."
- Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence
As we approach the anniversary of our nation's birth, it seems paradoxical to me that we also face a growing outcry against aiding a similar experience for freedom-seeking people in another land. We hear it everywhere, and perhaps have said it ourselves: "The Iraq War has gone on too long, cost too much American blood and money, and failed to guarantee that our efforts will be successful.
But how long did America's struggle last? How much did our independence cost, and what guarantee did the 56 signers of our Declaration of Independence 229 years ago have that their efforts would not fail?
In case you've forgotten this information, I have a suggestion for your Fourth of July celebration: Get out your history books, review the story of our country's beginnings, and prepare to be surprised at how flawed our efforts were, how divisive our revered founders became, and how long the struggle dragged on. Perhaps the following excerpts will get you started.
America has never been free of controversy. Yet it's the glory of our history that we have endured these 229 years in spite of issues that at one time or another did divide us. Historian Ronald Hoffman reminds us of one controversy that nearly derailed establishing our government in the first place:
"In 1783 the Americans had very little sense of national identity. If you read the Declaration of Independence carefully, you'll notice that the original "u" (in united states) is lower-cased. This meant they were a series of independent states that were temporarily united."
Today the image most of us have of the event we'll soon celebrate is one of capital "U," rallying-'round-the-flag unity, because the one issue on which all members of the Continental Congress agreed - severing their umbilical ties with Great Britain - was about to be accomplished.
Our hazy memories, however, shrink the time line between a warm, July day in 1776, when all 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, and 12 years later when the Constitution of the (capitalized) United States was in place. It took 11 of those years to reach a consensus even to convene the Constitutional Convention, three and a half months to agree on wording and issues, and eight more months before all 13 states ratified the final document.
And then there was the war itself. Led by the remarkably capable young commander, George Washington, and waged by thousands of willing, well-trained, loyal troops? Hardly. Washington had never commanded a battle before. He was indecisive, prone to mistakes, and he failed to inspire those under his command.
And, not surprisingly, the confidence issue worked both ways: "Are these the only men with which I am to defend America?" Washington was heard to say. He had reason to worry. Following an initial burst of enthusiasm for the war in 1775, recruiting for the new army became increasingly more difficult all during the war.
Washington may have, indeed, become the heroic general all Americans deem him to be today, but during his command he won only three clear-cut victories, and in seven other clashes he was either defeated or could claim only a draw. By some estimates, the casualty list under all commanders throughout the eight-year conflict reached more than 50,000.
We may recall the horrors of the Revolutionary War, and something of the differences of opinion surrounding those early, historic meetings in Philadelphia. But we've likely forgotten - or never knew - the extent of the turmoil surrounding the pulling together of all those colonies into one new country.
But pull together they did. And for the United States of America to have survived not only external war but also a steady stream of internal divisions until we have become the longest-surviving democracy in the history of the world gives us plenty of cause to celebrate this 4th of July. Whether or not we also believe in sharing that democracy with a needy world, at least we'll have a better perspective on what those phrases - too much, too long, and too little guarantee - really mean.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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