Aren’t 4th of July celebrations acquiring a sort of “Groundhog Day” feel to them (meaning the movie where Bill Murray’s character gets stuck perpetually repeating the same day)? There are the obligatory parades and barbecues and fireworks, and nowadays, the obligatory ode to the “troops”, those selfless souls upon whose sacrifices the whole fireworks/parades/barbecue edifice is constructed. (This was the point of all those slogs in the mud through pouring rain; of all the blood and tears shed, no? As a veteran, I can say that all we thought about while protecting America out on the vanguards of her empire was that we knew we had to be diligent so that the parades, barbecues and fireworks back home might go on—or, to paraphrase another movie character—you really don’t want to hear the truth.) It all seems so rote, so banal; so much just a contrived expression of nationalistic love, which is perhaps good, because the appearance seems to fit its reality—a contrived expression of a hollow love—and since it is contrived, perhaps that means nationalistic fervor is dying down. The world can only be a better place when people quit seeing themselves as members of a nation and instead see themselves as members of the same global species.
But really, has anything of historical significance happened on or around the 4th of July since that fateful battle at Gettysburg in 1863? And did Gettysburg eclipse what happened in 1776? I’d say no and yes, respectively. Fourth of July celebrations are rote and meaningless, at least in part because not much has happened on or around them since 1863 to infuse them with significance. And the Battle of Gettysburg, in which the Confederacy was broken, set the course for American history in a much more significant way than did the simple signing of a declaratory document in Philadelphia in 1776.
In fact, it could be argued that the signing of the Declaration of Independence was only significant in retrospect, and a highly mythologized retrospect at that. Though the war precipitated by the colonial declaration was dubbed the Revolutionary War, there was hardly anything of revolutionary, social-changing significance at stake. Life for the average resident of Great Britain’s colonies in America was much the same before the Declaration and War as after them. The American elite had things substantially better, as they no longer had to contend with the constant nag of the British monarchy attempting to run things in absentia, but for the average yeoman farmer, or the average slave, life went on just as before. The Revolutionary War, like all wars, had economics as its origin. In the main, it was a fight over who would profit from the settlement and exploitation of the American continent going forward, and of which entity—an American government answering to American masters, or the British monarchy five thousand miles away—was better situated and able to provide for the necessities of government in anticipation of the continued settlement and exploitation of the continent.
Gettysburg was the definitive battle of another economic war, this one over which course of economic development the country would take. Would the North’s rapid industrialization sweep away all that came before it? Or, would what amounted to a feudal aristocracy in the South still remain a viable economic, social and political force well into the age of industrialization and the settlement of the West? In many respects, the Civil War in America was actually its Revolutionary War, reflecting revolutionary forces quite analogous to those that swept the European Continent, beginning with France in 1789, and which ultimately destroyed feudalism in Europe, laying the groundwork for the industrial age. Take away the commonly held myth that the North fought to the war to abolish slavery (as Lincoln repeatedly claimed, his aim was to preserve the Union), and the American Civil War was about which sort of economic system would prevail—one based on rapid industrialization and expansion westward, or one based on agricultural feudalism. When General Lee ordered Pickett to charge his troops up Cemetery Ridge that fateful July day in 1863, in effect committing Confederate suicide, not to mention ordering thousands of men to their own suicidal ends, the question was answered (and the bloodshed should have then ceased). The romanticized South’s way of economic life would yield to the relentless onslaught of rationalism and industrialization rapidly spreading throughout the North. With the South’s economy and social hierarchy shattered, it effectively became a Northern colony until the end of Reconstruction (about 1890), whereupon it relentlessly tried to re-feudalize, with the help of Northern politicians and judges who were just too exhausted to keep imposing their will on the problem of Southern racial relations, at least until the Civil Rights era.
The Southern states, in seceding from the Union, could very well have issued their own Declaration of Independence, and one which could have, with hardly any irony, closely tracked the Declaration of 1776. Considering that the men (Thomas Jefferson, et al) who wrote the original Declaration were slaveholders themselves, or had no compunction about cavorting with slaveholders, the declaration that “all men are created equal” in the original can only be considered as rhetorical flourish. Or, that “all men” should have actually read “all men of European ancestry”.
It’s not clear exactly why, but patriotism and patriotic gestures are wearing thin these days in America. Perhaps it is the balkanization of the country through its government’s efforts to award political spoils through membership in aggrieved groups. Perhaps it is the fatigue of two endless conflicts. Perhaps it is the shredding of the Constitution incidental to fighting an amorphous war on a tactic and not a foe. Perhaps it is the huge cohort of people here today who were born elsewhere.
But I do know this—America is what it is today because of what happened on Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—not because of a document signed a few miles away nearly a century earlier. The Civil War resolved the issue once and for all as to which entity—the state or the federal government—would reign supreme, setting the stage for the relentless expansion of the federal government writ. From Lincoln’s saving of the Union, to the first Roosevelt’s trust-busting, to the second Roosevelt’s New Deal, to Johnson’s Great Society, to Bush’s Medicare D and military adventurism, and to every impulse Obama has expressed in office including not least ordering the assassination of his own citizens via Predator drone, there is a straight line tracing back to Cemetery Ridge.
A great deal more than just the feudal aristocracy of the South was brought to heel that day. Also lost in the imbroglio was the idea that the federal government had any practical limit to its exercise of power. To the question posed by the nation’s anthem, “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free…” the answer is that sure, the flag still waves, as was evident this week in all the celebrations. But does it wave o’er the land of the free? No, not really. Not anymore.