Make that an American history nerd. It’s difficult for me to get interested in the ancient history of Old Europe or the Greeks or the Roman Empire. For me, it’s a matter of direct effect. Although American society has its foundation atop the successful and advanced societies that preceded, it’s difficult for those ancient predecessors to elicit an excitement in me that overshadows the more recent authors of purely American success.
But that’s just me …
What really holds my fascination whenever I take the opportunity to reflect on our earliest American history is the foresight and fortitude demonstrated by our Founding Fathers, and the difficult and sordid compromises they made to bring to fruition a tenuous but entirely necessary experiment in Independence from tyranny.
In 1776, an eclectic collection of leaders, renown primarily within their regional communities, met for a second time in Philadelphia. (The first Continental Congress met in 1774.) They brought with them the depth and breadth of institutions, economics, religious beliefs, and governing philosophies prominent where they lived to Philadelphia in order to argue and decide the fate of British colonies chafing under the capricious actions of rulers residing a full ocean away.
These men were far from perfect. Some held some views on women and slavery that many – living now – would characterize as appallingly backward or downright inhumane. Some of them surely recognized - or at least refused to confront – their conflicted positions on the Equality of all Men, while themselves holding men in slavery. And in the end, we like to think their better angels had no choice but to kick several very large cans of worms into the future. These cans or worms required generations to resolve. The biggest unresolvable issue - Slavery – eventually demanded the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands 85 years later in a civil war that threatened to tear apart a still fragile Union.
These compromises they made because they were blessed with a yearning that rendered one choice paramount to all irreconcilable differences …
Independence from England …. Freedom from oppressive rulers!
What I find most fascinating of all is that this Second Continental Congress was successful at all!
Think of the mindsets that drove a loose collection of men from geographically extended colonies with no standing army or navy; rife with regional differences; and faced with moral shortcomings that differed not just on Equality, but the actual definition of Man to slap the insolent glove of challenge across the face of the largest and strongest empire that existed on Earth at the time!
Yes, they were fallible; and perhaps they were morally weak by today’s standards. But they were also the social and political elite, who in the end had the most to lose if the insurrection failed. Many of them would have been hunted down and killed, and their families as well. Their property scattered among the triumphant British generals, if the miracle of victory was not somehow accomplished.
When I read about those days in the latter stages of the 1700s, I like to think that the stronger minds that were present knew that what they were putting into motion was an imperfect solution to an unavoidable problem. That their only choice was a somewhat soiled compromise to accomplish a greater good.
They had faith that an initial success, no matter how unlikely to succeed against a well-trained British military, would allow for growth and an abiding strength for future generations to tackle the problems they could not resolve when forming a less perfect Union. If they did think that way, they were prescient, even if those changes came by way of dramatic sacrifice and untold sufferings.
The image that comes to me this year on Independence Day is a fanciful look back through these 238 years into that hot, stuffy room in Philadelphia. In that moment those brave men can also see the progress, the obstacles, the conflicts, and the sacrifices that have been experienced and overcome; and what those efforts have wrought. They can see exactly how far their not-so-little experiment has grown.
At either ends of this fantastic time tunnel, both groups stand 238 years apart and in absolute awe of each other.
Enjoy your 4th of July!