First of all, it’s July Fourth. What are you doing inside? Go out and throw a football around with your friends. Fire up the grill. Hoist the Stars & Stripes as high as you can. Crack open a few dozen beers. Be American. Oh, you’re not from around here? Well, for today, fire up your grill anyway. We’re a generally charitable bunch.
By the way, the last couple of days also mark the 154th anniversary of the bloodiest three days in American history waged on American soil. On the one side, the muskets were loaded in preservation of a more perfect union, against the slavery of the human being, and to defend the sanctity of all life. On the other, lines were drawn against the incursion of a government disproportionately favoring an industrialized and misrepresented egalitarianism that threatened America’s federalist component. Or, wait, that whole bloody violent war was waged over slavery, right? Or was it states’ rights…? Hmm, who cares? Do people even study it anymore? Did anyone actually die?
Like a married couple screaming past one another, the North and the South waged a war for different reasons during the internecine conflict of the 1860s. But what was the conflict waged nearly a hundred years before that, when thirteen mostly-rural colonies banded together—even if to some degree coerced into it—and gave their mother nation the bird at a bridge in Massachusetts? Oh right, it was the birth of what is, perhaps, the most important nation to have come about in the modern period. You know, the one with aircraft carriers all over the world; the one with special forces available for deployment in just about every country that could be named; the one that has single-handedly prevented the destruction of about half of Europe, a fair chunk of Asia, and most of North America (not to mention the moon!) from communist attrition. [USA! USA! USA!]
That bird, shaped as it was in the form of a supersonic musket ball, signaled the birth-pangs of a new order caught between the Enlightenment revolutions to come and the classical worldview that lurked beneath early-Modernism. The old world’s metaphysical order had already been whittled away by the Reformation and various splits with the Church, the disintegration of trust between the clergy and the monarchy, and the various periods of wanton blasphemy that took place within the Vatican itself. The crumbling foundations of classicalism present on both the continent and the British Isles needed a revitalizing force to keep the civilization from plunging into the mad anarchy that the modern era required. An ocean away, on a continent more massive and wild than the European mind could yet fathom, that force gestated in the agrarian communities, frontier homesteads, and developing urban ports of America.
That nation was conceived in the marriage between Montesquieu and Locke, delivered by the Eighteenth Century midwife, and hounded immediately by the existential threats that the English and Spanish navies, the French garrisons, and the Indian nations posed. It was a nation of independence: most colonists wanted so little to do with the workings of the state that they did their best to refuse involvement even with the war effort itself. And yet, despite the deep misgivings they held for government, colonial self-rule was so strong and the bonds between communities were so great that the new federal governments—both the failed Articles of Confederation as well as the U.S. Constitution—created a government solely to administrate the structures of power that were already in place. Maryland’s early state government was so unchanged from its colonial structure that even most of the players involved remained the same. And this was hardly an exception to the rule.
That America, the offspring of England, leery but accepting of refugees and immigrant communities, fortified its borders against the madness of the primitive life beyond its frontiers and the fledgling cries of Jacobin revolution stirring on the other side of the Atlantic. As France’s violent suicide ravaged Europe for nearly a full generation, spreading the Modern ethos to every corner of the continent and leaving only England un-toppled by its loathing, America bid its time and coalesced, finding its nationhood among the federalized states. The second war with the Brits made concrete the American independence, and with their status cemented and their wills galvanized, the American experiment pushed forward with the Monroe Doctrine and set about taming the wilderness beyond the Mississippi.
But that country doesn’t exist anymore. Soon, the descendants of that country will number in the minority of its own the population, supplanted and replaced by newcomers and their first-of-kin who know little of the American experiment and seem to respect it even less. Communities along the southern border, whole towns in some of the northwestern states, and entire sections of major cities have found a new form of federalism whose central ethos is not an ill-defined principle of civic nationalism, but rather an engrained tribalism of ethnic identity. Criminality is grossly overrepresented by these segments of the population, as is a barbaric disregard for human life. Anti-American sentiment and communist ideologies further promote disharmony and division. The America baptized in the blood of colonists and frontiersmen would never have tolerated the sort of migrations and violence that have occurred in the last fifty years.
That America may have had its suspicions, but would not have minded where you came from. That America had a sense of individual responsibility, common decency, and dignity. But it preserved all of that by keeping certain rules clear: America is not Germany, or Russia, or Poland, or Ireland, and anyone seeking citizenship here must not make America into those places. But the rules now are different: let America be Mexico, or Somalia, or Vietnam, they proclaim. Speak freely the language of your birth, enrich your children in the culture of that homeland you abandoned, and watch with indignation in your heart as American unity surrenders to violence. The center cannot hold. Our flag flies still over a country with a national cultural identity, but it’s on the ropes, and the multiculturalism that threatens it has no identity. It’s waiting for one strong enough to replace it, whether it holds the Stars & Stripes or some other icon.
That was the whole point of 1776. America wanted to be itself, ruled by itself, for itself. It did not want to be England, although it respected the crown and the history and the culture. Like the adolescent who outgrows his father’s house, the revolution turned the colonies into their own masters. It was a refutation of the old world’s stagnation and exhaustion, and it must endure with the same spirit of vitality that was so present those two hundred years ago. And that is the American way: respect where you’ve come from, even learn from it, but never live in the past.
So enjoy this anniversary of our independence, while we’ve still got it. Hoist the flag as high as you possibly can. Sing the Star Spangled Banner at the top of your lungs—it used to be a drinking tune, after all. Build up your community ties and friendships. American culture needs a rediscovery and a reawakening. It could use all the help it can get.