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Monday, July 04, 2005

Independence Day

Most people in America will spend the day celebrating, in some way, the "birth" of our country. 229 years ago, the Declaration of Independence was unanimously approved by the Second Continental Congress. This is, erroneously, seen as the day our country began.

The Declaration itself was not even signed until August 2. You see, most of the delegates at the Continental Congress did not believe they had authority to sign until directed by their colonial legislatures.

This did not, however, stop the British from acting. Hostilities actually broke out on July 12, when a British frigate sailed up the Hudson, firing its guns. Several attempts were made over the next few weeks to get the Declaration revoked and avoid a war. These attempts failed.

Victories for the Continental Army are few in the next year. The loss of Fort Ticonderoga almost cripples them with badly needed guns and munitions being seized - a fact that leads directly to the Second Amendment once the new country is formed. In February of 1778, France signs a Treaty of Amity and Commerce and a Treaty of Alliance with the United States. France will now supply such items as guns and bullets and gunpowder to the Continental Army. Britain retaliates by declaring war on France and firing on her ships on the high seas. Spain evokes its treaty with France and declares war against Britain and the War of Independence becomes a World War - although no one calls it that at the time and the contributions of European powers are generally forgotten in this country. Within a year, Britain will declare war on the Dutch as well, citing their flourishing trade with the French as a violation of maritime agreements.

By 1780, the British and Americans were negotiating for peace. Hostilities continued, however. The British capture Charleston and the entire southern contingent of the Continental Army. A few weeks later, some of General Washington's troops mutiny, demanding full rations and the five-weeks back-pay that is due them. Pennsylvanian troops are used to put down the mutiny and two of the leaders of the mutiny are hanged as an example. In July, 6000 troops arrive from France - though they will not see action for almost a year. Gen. Horatio Gates (what? you never heard of Gen. Gates?) puts together a second army to defend the Southern Colonies. In response, Gen. Cornwallis invades North Carolina. However, the invasion is called off when Gen. Gates captures the 1000 reinforcements that Cornwallis was expecting.

Nathanael Greene replaces Gates as commander of the southern army and instigates a guerilla warfare on British troops that gains popular support and wears down British morale.

The following year, Washington faced several mutinies within his troops, with more hangings needed to restore order. A combined French-American force is formed with American soldiers under foreign command. The war effort in the South proves too costly for Cornwallis and he pulls out of the Carolinas in favor of subduing Virginia. French Admiral de Grasse spanks the British sea forces and joins Washington's forces at Yorktown to set a seige on the British command. October 19, 1781 is the day of formal surrender of British forces. Only five days later, 7000 British troops arrive to reinforce Cornwallis, only to be returned to Britain without firing a shot.

August 27, 1782 marks the last hostilities between British and American forces in South Carolina. The British finally evacuate Charleston in December. In March of the next year, General Washington has to work feverishly to prevent his officers from rising in rebellion against the Continental Congress. By June, Washington has disbanded his army and Congress has secretly moved from Philadelphia to Princeton, New Jersey to avoid protests from war veterans who have still not been paid.

On September 3, 1783 the Treaty of Paris is signed - which finally grants full independence to the American colonies (who still have not taken up the name "United States of America"). The new country is not truly formed until the Constitution is ratified - which will happen when New Hampshire becomes the nineth state to ratify the Constitution on June 21, 1787.

Why bring all of this up? Because, with all the chest-beating patriotism that this day celebrates, someone needs to point out that there is always unfinished work to be done. We are not free because the Declaration of Independence was written and signed, but because thousands of good men fought and died for an idea - that common farmers and laborers were as worthy of freedom as bankers, merchants, and kings. Until that day comes when we have fully realized that idea, there is work to do.

So, enjoy the fireworks, munch a hotdog for George, and show up tomorrow with your sleeves rolled up, because there's still a lot of work to do in the Land of the Free.

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