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—22 years later!
Into the world was born a new country (as I wrote in two posts on this blog—June 17, 2013 and June 12, 2016), 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.)
Well, maybe this year deserves more honor than that. This might be the year America avoids its slide toward autocracy, the re-emergence of the kind of democracy the Founders sought to create and perpetuate. If so, it will have been a depressingly close call.
There’s no doubt, of course, that July 4, 1776 was monumentally important. 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 themselves into a single, brand-new country. In a manner of speaking, the former colonies had declared their respective independence, only to soon renounce all (or most) of it by pledging to a combined United States.
Establishing a new nation is a rather different business than jointly going to war as even a cursory examination of all the new problems can confirm. The Declaration was not a blueprint, nor did it help directly in the new task. After formation of the new country, it retained its historical value, but it now has 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 included how large states and small states could 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, yet assure religious freedom? 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 (as it turned out: all or virtually all of it!)? These new problems and more were the challenges of nation building, not war-making. 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. (Article VII: “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 nine 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! And its beginning was unrelated to July 4th!
So enjoy July 4th. But revere June 21st!
This is a refreshing perspective. Thinking about it makes me curious why from the beginning (it seems) the focus was more on the day we declared our independence from Great Britain (July 2nd according to John Adams) than the day we became a new nation (June 21st).
Perhaps the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence were more appealing to early Americans than the compromises exhibited in the Constitution. The acceptance of slavery, the exclusion of women from governing, the compromises to entice smaller states to join a union with larger ones, the lack of a bill of rights—I’m sure the Constitution fully pleased no one.
On the other hand, the Declaration had compromises too—especially the removal of anti-slavery passages in order to gain approval of the South Carolina and Georgia delegates.