Not July 4, 1776? Right. Not. A group of nine relatively friendly, independent former colonies of England became the United States of America on June 21, 1788!
Into the world was born a new country (so I wrote June 17, 2013 in my post “Happy birthday, U.S.A.!”), historically unique in its extraordinary confidence in “we, the people” and its groundbreaking secular framework able to embrace people of all faiths and none. (I tend to pay little attention to my own birthday, but I’m persnickety about the country’s. Besides, this matter provides me the entertainment of a hobbyhorse of frankly scant philosophical importance.)
There’s no doubt, of course, that July 4, 1776 was monumentally important. Arguably, the Declaration of Independence was a necessary precursor to the founding of this new country. But it did not establish the USA and wasn’t meant to. It was a compact of rebellion among colonies seeking to be independent states, announcing the shedding of their galling status as colonies, violently if necessary. But the follow up to that successful revolution—trying to make a confederation of independent states work—did not go so well, leading to the exciting but dicey notion of joining into a single country. In a manner of speaking, the former colonies had declared their respective independence, only to soon renounce it.
Establishing a new nation is a rather different business than jointly going to war as even a cursory examination of all the new problems confronted can confirm. The Declaration was not a blueprint, nor did it help in this new task. After formation of the new country, it retained its historical value, but it has now no legal value. The new country was not founded on the Constitution plus the Declaration, but the Constitution alone.
The issues to be confronted were not the same as those facing writers of the Declaration. Now they became about how large states and small states can be accommodated. How “royal” should a chief executive be? How heritable will the leadership be? What is to be done by potential deal breakers like slavery? In what way can we prevent a growing hegemony of a powerful religious denomination? What will be the role and structure of a court system? How much state sovereignty is to be forfeited, signed over to the new government (it turned out: all of it!)? These new problems and more were the challenges of nation building, not war-making, but they were no less perplexing.
Finally, the work of Constitution drafting was finished and submitted to the states for consideration and, most of the founders hoped, ratification. One of the provisions of the Constitution draft was that it would become the official and exclusive charter of the United States of America when as many as nine states ratified it. (Here’s the actual Article VII wording: “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.”) For those states, the USA would then be automatically created, leaving others out unless and until they, too, ratified.
In fact, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island were left out; they were not part of the initial United States of America, though these four joined soon thereafter. Still, to be absolutely accurate, we must recognize that the United States of America as a legal entity among the nations began with nine—not thirteen—original states!
So enjoy July 4th. But revere June 21st!