July 4, 2020, is a tough time to be celebrating Independence Day. The pandemic is persisting. The economy is in recession and millions of people are out of work. The police killing of George Floyd lay bare racial injustice. There are widespread protests, and some nights erupt in attacks on monuments deemed offensive.
Six months ago the president was impeached and four months from now is election day, sure to mark the culmination of another brutal campaign season.
It’s tempting to think conditions have never been worse. But as challenging as today is in America, it is nothing like the first Independence Day.
July 4, 1776, was the nation’s most dangerous Fourth of July.
At the same time the Continental Congress was declaring the states “free and independent” and “absolved from all allegiance to the British crown,” the crown’s soldiers were coming to kill them. The Revolutionary War had been on for over a year and a British force of 150 ships and 25,000 men was poised to attack New York City.
An advance force occupied Staten Island by July. The invasion began in earnest in August, and by September, New York City had fallen. At one point, as Gen. George Washington ordered a retreat, British troops almost cut off their path north up through the island of Manhattan. One more push after a long day of fighting, and the British could have trapped the Americans, captured Washington, and ended the war right there. Independence would not have endured through summer.
Though thousands of American men and women in uniform today serve in harm’s way around the globe, the United States itself is not subject to military invasion. We take it for granted that we are protected from foreign assault, and even the 9/11 attack—the worst act of foreign aggression against the United States in the past 20 years—has not been repeated.
It’s a cliché to talk about how divided Americans of 2020 are, but in 1776 support for independence was hardly universal.
It’s a cliché to talk about how divided Americans of 2020 are, but in 1776 support for independence was hardly universal. Active patriots most likely numbered 40 to 45 percent of the population, while loyalists made up another 20. The rest fell somewhere in between. And 1776 was the high point of enthusiasm. As the war took its toll, allegiances shifted, weariness set in, and people wondered if the war was really worth it.
Americans today deeply suspect people who are not like them. Things that Americans used to overlook, such as geographic location and political affiliation, now seem like unsurmountable obstacles. Still, that’s nothing like 20 percent of the population—65 million in today’s figures—actively supporting an invading force.
George Washington may not have been the best battlefield commander and his strategic vision was suspect—he’d be obsessed with recapturing New York City for the rest of the war—but he possessed a deft political touch that won support for the army and the cause from soldiers and civilians alike. For example, Washington was deferential to civilian authority as embodied in Congress, even when he thought Congress erred.
Military sense dictated that while fleeing Manhattan, it would be advantageous to raze the city lest the enemy enjoy its resources. But Congress commanded the army not to destroy civilian property unless absolutely necessary, and Washington obeyed. Whatever military advantage the army might have gained was not worth the political cost of alienating civilians and their commitment to the war.
Such actions earned Washington trust and a reputation for virtue that inspired patriots, soldiers and civilians to sacrifice for the cause, even when it looked like their sacrifice would go unrewarded.
Today, many Americans distrust leaders and institutions of all kinds. Polling consistently reveals low levels of respect for presidents, Congress, the Supreme Court, media, police, religious leaders, schools and big business—every institution and position of trust except for the military and small business.
Problems such as the coronavirus and unemployment will be solved in time. Researchers will create a vaccine, and businesses, workers and entrepreneurs will revive the economy. That’s the good news this Fourth of July. Electing trustworthy leaders is the key for what’s ahead.
The fate of our future Independence Days may hang in the balance.
David Head is associate lecturer in the history department. He is the author of A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution.