Amid the concern over COVID – 19 many media outlets failed to report that the United States just celebrated its birthday. What you say, you thought America’s birthday wasn’t until the Fourth of July?
Au contraire dear reader—please read on. Webster’s tell us a nation “Is a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” But from July 4th 1776 until April 1865, the United States was actually a loosely bound confederation of independent states that may have been a country, but certainly wasn’t a nation.
Unlike Europe, the United States did not spring forth from a common descent, history, culture, or language. Rather we are descendants of many nationalities whose borders were defined by war, and carved out by imperial fiat and arbitrary treaties. When referring to the New World, John Winthrop spoke of building “a city upon a hill,” while Thomas Paine wrote “We have it within our power to begin the world all over.” And so it was that America, a truly revolutionary notion was conceived in the minds of a handful of visionaries, the likes of which the world may never again see assembled in one place.
The word ‘nation’ does not appear in Declaration of Independence. And when Richard Henry Lee introduced the document to the Continental Congress in June of 1776, it declared, “That these united Colonies are, and of right ought to be free, and independent States.”
Even the Preamble to our Constitution omits the term nation, to wit: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” To draw a loose analogy, when the founding fathers adopted the Constitution they had built a steam locomotive before they laid the tracks for it to run on.
The fight against England brought the colonies together and the dynamic of existing independently from the empire bound us until the beginning of the Civil War. But with political factions vying for influence and even independence from California to to New England including the sparsely populated and unsettled “west,” we were hardly a nation.
The great French philosopher Montesquieu said that a republican form of government could exist only in a small territory. He felt the thirteen colonies were already too large to be a viable functioning government. And with a diversity of lifestyles, economies, customs and geography as varied as anywhere on earth, we were fortunate the Civil War was only a conflict between two of the many factions in existence at the time.
Lincoln’s steadfast vision of “Union” held us together during the Civil War, but perhaps too the actions of Robert E. Lee, in early April 1865 were equally instrumental in keeping this country from forever splintering. Grant’s Army of the Potomac had almost caught up with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in early April 1865; but Lee was not defeated. And although his beleaguered army was reeling, he was still a day or two ahead of Grant’s forces.
Lee’s Army was cornered, but other Confederate armies were still dispersed from North Carolina to Texas, and generals such as Joe Johnston and Nathan Bedford Forrest advised Lee to “evaporate into the hills and fight on as guerrillas.”
Lincoln and Grant understood if Lee decided to fight a guerrilla war Joe Johnston, who was facing Sherman’s army in North Carolina, Nathan Bedford Forrest and others would have likely followed suit and the internecine warfare would have continued, and as consequence, the United States as we know it today would not exist.
Robert E. Lee was not just a military genius; he was also a man of honor. So it was that General Robert E. Lee, in what was arguably his finest hour, chose to surrender to Grant’s forces on April 9th 1865 at Appomattox Court House. Integrity prevailed, the Union was preserved and the United States began its march through history as a united nation.
Quote of the day: “We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing.”—General Robert E. Lee