"Americans had many reasons to congratulate themselves as they approached their centennial celebration. They had declared their independence and made it stick."
If I've learned nothing else during my trek into Columbia County history, of this I am certain: The best way to understand the present is to study the past.
No matter how good or bad the economy, how euphoric or depressed the citizenry, from 1776 to 2008 Americans have seen, felt, lauded or decried it all before.
Oh, in case this idea is not as new to you as it was to me, you're right. Nothing I've just said is unique. Among scores of others, a very wise man made a similar statement 3,000 years ago:
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun" (King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Today, amid the doom and gloom of an unpopular war, rising prices and another divisive election season, who is in the mood to celebrate Independence Day? If America is supposed to be the greatest experiment in democracy known to mankind, why do so many of us feel so bad?
Author, talk-show host and former secretary of education Dr. William Bennett might have suffered a similar malaise had he not written the recent two-volume set, America: The Last Best Hope. Without glossing over obvious flaws or gilding any lilies, from the nation's turbulent start to an uneasy present, Bennett writes, if we've come this far, we have plenty of reason to "hope" that our mood, our prosperity and sense of well-being will rise again.
And how far have we come? Endless volumes have been written about the past 232 years, but I was especially struck by Bennett's list of what America had survived by the time she celebrated her first centennial on July 4, 1876. Against unspeakable odds, including the view of many that the fledgling country would not succeed, by the end of her first 100 years America had accomplished the following:
- Won a lengthy revolution against the more powerful British monarchy;
- Drafted a constitution without parallel in the history of the world;
- Fought and won the war of 1812, considered to be a postscript to the Revolution;
- Expanded her limited, eastern-state territory across the continent to the Pacific Ocean;
- Preserved the Union following a four-year Civil War.
But just to read the above list is to concentrate only on the headlines. To feel the impact of our first century, or grasp how those events relate to what is happening today, we need to read between the lines, consider the cost and, most of all, compare the time-frame of our centuries one and three.
- From "the shot heard 'round the world" in 1775, until the war ended in 1783, the Revolutionary War lasted eight years, while lingering animosities between Great Britain and her former colonies continued until 1814, following a war that began in 1812.
- Eleven years passed between the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the convening of the Constitution Convention in 1787, and it would take two more years of deliberation and ratification before the new government was established.
- In another 70 years, despite these momentous accomplishments, unsettled differences between the Northern and Southern states led to a brutal, four-year internal war that claimed 540,000 lives. At some point during that tragic time, President Abraham Lincoln summarized his belief in a united America by writing, "We shall nobly save or meanly lose this last best hope of Earth."
Continuing to read between the lines, it almost defies comprehension that, in spite of the war, loss of life and other agonies of that latter era, between 1860 and 1870 the population of the country increased by 8.5 million people, or 26 percent. Surely, Bennett is not the only person in that century or this to be inspired by Lincoln's "last best hope of earth."
To make only a minimal comparison between situations then and now, Lincoln was battered, ridiculed and in danger of assassination every day of his presidency, and, although the final verdict is still out, the Iraq War is now in its sixth year, and that country already has a constitution.
America still might not be perfect, but we are one nation, with the longest-lasting constitution in the world, and that immigrant stream that began more than two centuries ago shows no signs of stopping.
Happy 232nd birthday, America!
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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