Happy birthday, U. S. A.!

Yes, happy 225th birthday on June 21 this month! This date in 1788, not July 4, 1776, was the day the United States became a lawfully constituted new nation of nine states. Into the world was born a unique new country; historically unique in its extraordinary confidence in “we, the people” and its distinctive secular framework able to embrace people of all religions and none.

The completed draft of a constitution creating that country had been sent to 13 states for consideration in September the previous year. (Amendments were to come later.) The startling document being considered in each state included the following provision in its Article 11:

The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

Eight states (DE, PA, NJ, GA, CT, MA, MD, SC in that order) had already ratified before New Hampshire put the matter over the top June 21, 1788. So a nine state (not 13) new USA was born that date. It fell to the retiring Confederation Congress to declare on September 13, 1788 that the new Constitution “has been ratified in the manner therein declared to be sufficient for the establishment of the same” and to start the mechanics moving, such as selecting a capital and scheduling elections, actions tantamount to priming a pump. Some make the case that this recognition by the Confederation Congress (the one being replaced) is the proper birthday. Others argue that the start of the new country was March 4, 1789 when the new Congress first convened in New York. (That is a reasonable choice, but the claim by one source that the Constitution itself began on March 4, 1789” is just plain wrong.) The basis for my position that June 21, 1788 is the appropriate birthday is [a] that the trigger clause (shown above) meant what it said, [b] that the September 13 declaration later that year was simply a recognition of the June 21 fact, and [c] that March 4, 1789 is only the date the new Congress first met, an event completely dependent on what occurred June 21, 1788 and, in any event, had already been preceded by other events under the new Constitution (e.g., election of new officials).

So what about our misconception about Independence Day, July 4th (1776)? Momentous as it was, the Declaration of Independence signed that date did not create a new sovereign country nor was it meant to. (It is not a legal document of the USA.) It was a compact of rebellion against the King, a confederation of thirteen former colonies announcing their joint commitment to separate new identities as sovereign states. They were, so to speak, united States of America (some documents even used that non-capitalization), but not the United States of America. They were declaring their individual independence from the British crown and their several independent sovereignties, not the sovereignty of their confederation. By 1781 these former colonies had adopted a written document for their alliance, calling it Articles of Confederation. Later, pressure grew (not without resistance) to form a single nation, leading to the new Constitution. Thus a new sovereignty was born out of their several sovereignties—e pluribus unum—an enormous step requiring each state to relinquish its individual sovereignty by transferring it to the new entity, the United States of America. You might say that under the Articles the emphasis was on the pluribus, while under the Constitution the focus moved to the unum.

(Under the Articles, states had transferred some powers to the Confederation itself, but only as much as was consistent with their own individual sovereignty. The Constitution required transferring it all. It is true that in the initial wording of the Constitution, states retained many powers. However, with states’ sovereignties having been given up, additions or reductions of power left to states would be decided by the country as a whole through amendments. No change could be decided unilaterally by a single state as if it were still sovereign. Said more pointedly, under the new Constitution individual states would forever be subordinate to the whole whether they liked further developments or not. The Civil War and the 14th Amendment, along with subsequent legislative actions and Supreme Court decisions further clarified the supremacy of the central government. States’ relinquishing sovereignty was such a big deal that left-over struggles are still prominent in today’s politics.)

At any rate, however one chooses among the other alternatives I mentioned, the one certainty is that July 4, 1776 is clearly not the birthday of our country. The United States of America, as a sovereign nation among nations, was not created until almost 12 years later. But don’t let that slow down your partying, July 4th is still an important date.

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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