A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Today we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But lost in all of the panoply of celebrating the Fourth, is the remembrance of July 1,2, and 3 in our nation's history.
Just eighty five years after the Founders signed the Declaration, America's long dance with the devil of slavery erupted into the bloodiest quadrille in our history. Slavery morphed into a political conflict over States' rights, to war, and on July 1, 1863, the bloodiest battle in the bloodiest War in our history. It began on this date in the beautiful, rolling farmland of south-central Pennsylvania, near a sleepy and theretofore unknown town called Gettsyburg.
The Army of Northern Virginia; rested, strong, and supremely confident after Robert E. Lee's stunning victory at Chancellorsville, had crossed the Rapahannock River into Yankee territory, where it looked for a decisive, war-ending victory. Military historians have claimed that the South lost Gettysburg at Chancellorsville, when in a freak accident that oft decide such momentous events, Thomas Jonathan (Stonewall) Jackson was killed by fire from his own troops, thereby depriving Lee of his brilliant and audacious lieutenant. The first day of Gettysburg saw the Confederates win a hard fought victory. But Jackson's replacement General Richard Ewell proved too cautious to exploit it, failing to seize the high ground of Cemetery and Culp Hills; ground which the Union Army held, and would anchor it for the next two days of the battle. We cannot say what turn our Nation's path might have taken had Jackson been there to seize that ground and inflict a decisive defeat upon the blue-clad Army. But there can be little doubt that the American experiment, conceived and ordained less than a century prior, might well have have ended. July 1 was followed by two days of intense battle and horrific bloodshed; and the fate of the nascent Confederacy was first spilled and then sealed in the soil of Gettysburg.
I have had the good fortune to visit many places of beauty and significance in the world. I have climbed the paths and mountains of our greatest National Parks. I have trod the steps of Napoleon in the lovely, pastoral Belgian countryside of Waterloo. And I have walked through St. Peters Cathedral in Rome, gazing in slack-jawed wonder at Michaelanegelo's Pieta, wondering how any human being could render such exquisite perfection from a block of marble, with naught but a hammer and chisel. But no place has humbled and quieted my spirit more than the grounds of Gettysburg. There an almost mystical quality lays hold, as if each of the 50,000 casualties calls out in a collective and ghostly refrain, "remember us - remember what happened here". And always, everywhere, the heroic shadow of our greatest President towers above every tree, every cannon, every statue, and every knoll; the piercingly eloquent simplicity of his Gettysburg Address resonantly ringing down the corridors of history.
And what of the Founders? One of our favorite movies is National Treasure; a tremendous tale of history, adventure, and humor. In a scene filmed at the National Archives, Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage) reads an exerpt from The Declaration to his side kick Riley. Gates pauses during the reading, turns to Riley and says, "people don't talk like that anymore".
The Declaration ends with the coda, "And to this Declaration we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor". Today America's academic elite, elegantly ensconsced in and enjoying the very liberties guaranteed to them by the wisdom of the Founders, find it di rigeur to deride their work as the self-serving tripe of an insulated group of rich white men. But it was no rhetorical gasket that Jefferson blew with such high-sounding language; it was deadly serious prose, and many of Declaration's signers would indeed forfeit their lives and fortunes, some dangling at the end of a British rope for their audacity. The people who founded this Country and shaped its political institutions were amongst the most educated ever; their knowledge of history, politics, natural law, philosophy, and the effective functioning of government was profound. And it was not only the men. In that far more gender segregated time, John Adams beloved wife Abigail was an equally important if less noted player in the drama; her soaring intellect and tungsten-tipped will every bit the equal of her more famous husband's. It was she who most clearly recognized the ticking time bomb that was slavery; and urged the Founders to let go of the "wolf they held by the ears".
While I will always think of the Founders as a group, on the Fourth my thoughts turn to Jefferson and Adams. It has been said that Jefferson was the pen, Washington the sword, Patrick Henry the tongue, and Adams the heart of the American Revolution. Adams and Jefferson would go on to be our second and third Presidents respectively, becoming impassioned and adamant political enemies; Adams the staunch Federalist and Jefferson the Republican. As they moved out of public life, however, back to their beloved homes and farms at Braintree, Massachusetts and Monticello, Virginia; the fires that raged in them cooled, and they began a delightully mature and winsome correspondence. Their letters to each other during this time are missives of unqualified beauty, humor, insight, and wisdom; displaying a ripening relationship built on respect, affection, and a recognition of their mutual accomplishments. In one of history's most stunning, all but celestially ordained happenstances, they both died not only on the same day, and not only on the fourth of July, but on the fiftieth Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration - July 4, 1826.
And for all of Jefferson's role in founding the Country, he was also the pivotal player in opening it up, for it was he that executed the Louisiana Purchase, then conceived of and commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's epic trek across north-western America.
So enjoy the sunshine and the barbecues and the parades and the fireworks.
But let's spare a moment or two and think on these things as well. And let's take another moment and speak to our kids of them.
Happy Fourth of July.