Thursday, February 21, 2013

What's in a Date?

One of the complaints from many people about history is that there are so many dates to remember. Unfortunately, to help ourselves we use a cookie cutter approach of picking the important ones and maybe laying them out on a timeline, while forgetting all the rest.

So lets look in detail at an important event in history. The birth of America. Independence Day. July 4th, 1776 America declared its independence from Great Britain and a new country was formed. Right?  Well...maybe. July 4th is the day that the Continental Congress approved the text of the declaration. On July 2nd, they had actually voted for a resolution to declare independence. But the vote wasn’t quite unanimous. New York’s delegation didn’t get permission to vote until a week later, July 9th.

Jefferson’s original text of the declaration was presented to Congress on June 28th. This of course was proceeded by Congress appointing a committee to draft such a declaration on June 11th. The resolution for independence was proposed by Richard Henry Lee on June 7th. Even this was proceeded by a preamble passed on May 15th which clarified a resolution passed on May 10th, calling for the suppression of authority put in place by the crown of England. Doesn't that sort of sound like independence?

Rhode Island had already declared its independence on May 4th, South Carolina on April 23rd, and North Carolina had authorized it’s delegates to vote for independence on April 12th. Any one of these dates could legitimately be claimed as the “birth of America.”

We know the text of the declaration was passed on July 4th, but what about all of the signatures? Undoubtedly they all were not put on that sheet on July 4th. Several of the signers weren’t even members of the Congress that had passed the resolution. Some historians have the “original” parchment Declaration of Independence not being produced until July 19th (although printed copies already existed by then). August 2nd is a day that is usually put forth as when the majority of signers penned their name, although at least one signatory is known not to have signed it until Nov 4th. While there is no record of a copy specifically being sent to King George, the declaration had been printed in England and Europe by the middle of August. Perhaps this notification to our wayward parent should be America’s birthday.

That’s not too bad is it? Fifteen possible days for America’s Independence Day, with July 4th about in the middle. Except if we gained our freedom through the Revolutionary War, then perhaps the beginning of the Revolution, at Lexington on April 19th, 1775 is our birth. Before the Declaration of Independence, Americans had already fought in the famous battles of Bunker Hill and Ft. Ticonderoga.

Sometimes the American Revolution is painted with an even broader brush and includes the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773 or even the Boston Massacre in March of 1770. The Sons of Liberty were organized in several of the colonies in 1765 as a result of the Stamp Act. In 1761, James Otis argued that the open-ended search warrants Britain used to enforce the Navigation Acts violated the constitutional rights of the colonists. But this idea wouldn’t have been possible without John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” which was published in 1689.

On the flip side, the fighting in the Revolutionary War ended on October 19th, 1781 with the surrender at Yorktown. The Treaty of Paris officially ended the war, and Britain recognized the United States as an independent country on September 3rd, 1783, although this wasn’t ratified by Congress until January 14th, 1784.

Examining an actual government structure also gives us some potential dates. The First Continental Congress convened on September 5, 1774 and members were labeled by the King to be traitors. The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775 and was the national government for most of the Revolutionary War. The Articles of Confederation were adopted on March 1st, 1781.

The Annapolis Convention tried to improve the Articles in September of 1786 but did not have enough states represented. The Philadelphia Convention began on May 14th, 1787 and ended on September 17th, 1787 with the adoption of the Constitution. This was ratified by the minimum 9 states. Delaware the first on December 7th, 1787 and New Hampshire the ninth on June 21st, 1788. The last of the thirteen original colonies ratified the Constitution on May 29th, 1790.

The 1st US Congress convened and the 1st President was inaugurated on March 4th, 1789. But it should also be remembered that ratification of the US Constitution was gained with the promise of a Bill of Rights. On September 25th, 1789 Congress passed 12 amendments to the new Constitution. Ten of these amendments were ratified by the necessary 3/4 of states by Dec 15th, 1791. One more was ratified on May 18th, 1992, more than 200 years after it was passed by Congress. The last of the twelve remains un-ratified in Constitutional limbo. So perhaps, America hasn’t yet been born.

There you have it. Thirty-seven possible dates for the “birth of America.” Sure some may have more legitimacy, but it goes to show that history isn’t just isolated dates and places, but more of a pot of stew, simmering as we continue to add vegetables and spices.

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