Thursday, July 4, 2013

Some Background on the History of the 4th of July

Its the 4th of July here in Rancho Rincon del Diablo, the Devil's Place. Hell. A white, right-wing Republican stronghold that complains bitterly of the influx of Hispanics and hates Obama even when he does their bidding, as Obama indeed does most of the time.

At various times, I read in foreign journals, or hear from international friends, or read in books, that Americans can not truly relate to Europe, or understand foreign policy, or any number of things because they are too naive, their history has been too short, they are enthusiastic and youth oriented, this argument goes, but do not have the depth to really understand history and work on the world stage.   Now, it may be that Americans are so ignorant of their own history that this might be true.  In fact, I think so myself most of the time.  But I disagree that America, the United States of America, does not have enough historical depth to understand some of the complicated situations in the world.  I think that it is the case that we are merely lazy and ignorant of our own history.  And I cite as case in point some background here on the 4th of July to support my argument.  

I had believed for many years that the 4th of July was a day to remember and celebrate the American War of Independence from Great Britain. And of course, that famous artillery barrage immortalized in our national anthem: "The rockets red glare, the bombs were fucking bursting in air! Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there". In other words, communications were cut off, but we knew that the fort had not yet been destroyed or surrendered because the artillery bursts illuminated the flag flying over the fort.

Unfortunately, the battle the song commemorates did not take place during the American War of Independence, it took place during the War of 1812.

Nor does the 4th of July celebrate the Declaration of Independence per se.   The 4th of July is actually the date of something that happened before the Declaration of Independence as we know it was written, and before the war that followed it.

Here are some things to know about 4th of July with a spin from someone who grew up in Virginia.

1. The 4th of July celebrates the approval by the 2nd Continental Congress of the Resolution of Independence also known as the Lee Resolution.   This resolution was proposed by a delegate to the Continental Congress named  Richard Henry Lee from Virginia.  It was proposed on June 7, 1776.  The first clause was approved on July 2, 1776 and the other clauses approved in the following months.

Immediately after the approval of the first clause of the Lee resolution, the Continental Congress took up the matter of the text of a Declaration of Independence, which became the document we normally think of when we think of the Declaration of Independence and the 4th of July.

This is the text of the Lee Resolution.
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
Its quite concise isn't it?

There is debate among historians about when the text of the resolution that we think of as our Declaration of Independence was actually written. But those dates all lie within the July 4 - August range. What we actually celebrate on July 4th is the approval of the first third of the Lee Resolution.

2. As mentioned above, the Resolution of Independence had been proposed by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. Lee was a member of one of the leading families of Virginia and many other Virginians were involved in the both the Declaration of Independence and the War of Independence.   It goes without saying, this being America, that the delegates to the Continental Congress were white, male, and generally well off which usually meant landowners.   There were others involved in the revolution who were less well off, and were, for example, craftsmen, but I am not sure if there were any of those who were members of the Continental Congress.   

3. Less than 70 years later, within the living memory of people who were alive when the Lee Resolution was approved, Virginia again tried to escape a government that they found oppressive, whether we like that or not, or whether we understand their reasons or not, or whether those reasons were just by our standards today or not.  The result was about what you would expect for a war that was lost, you know, the usual dead men (over 10 percent of men killed), raped women, starving children, and cities burned to the ground. (3)

4. But beyond this general destruction and misery, there was also a very specific desire to personally punish the losers in order to teach them a lesson and that is where our little story continues.  In retribution against one of the leading families of Virginia, Lincoln's Secretary of War seized without due process, in other words, illegally, the ancestral home of that family in an attempt to punish and impoverish this particular family that, in Stanton's opinion, was guilty of holding true to their values of freedom. Stanton could not abide that and went out of his way to destroy them.   He did this by seizing their land and then ordering the creation of a cemetery on that land, his reasoning being that when the courts or Congress reversed his illegal seizure of property that it would do no good because there would be thousands of bodies on it and those bodies would not be exhumed. His actions were vindictive, illegal, abusive, and he got away with it without any problems.  In America, the law is for the rich and powerful, otherwise the law does not exist.  (1) 

5. In case you had not figured out the punchline of our heartwarming story of patriotism and our devotion to the law in America, the cemetery became known as Arlington National Cemetery, as Arlington had been the ancestral home of the Lee family for generations.

6. Yes, that Lee family, the descendants and members of the family of Richard Henry Lee, whose resolution of independence we celebrate this day.  (2)


The Facebook Page for Arlington House

1. Congress later voted some compensation for the illegal seizure of the land.   Whether or not that compensation was in any way just compensation for the act is debatable.   If you ever visit Arlington National Cemetery, be sure to visit the Lee / Arlington House.

2. Richard Henry Lee was the great uncle of Robert E. Lee.

3. War is hell.   Generally speaking, when a victorious army enters a civilian area, women are raped. Some armies rape more than others, some make a point of it, some try to discourage the practice.  But I doubt that there has ever been a victorious army that didn't rape the women of the defeated as they entered the territory of the enemy.  As for burning churches and schools, the answer is that they do not burn churches and schools.  They burn buildings that happen to be in the line of fire when people are fighting.  As for starving children, well, you see, when you burn the fields that means there is no food around and any food needs to be brought in.  Generally food is made available to defeated populations, eventually, when they get around to it.  As for burning cities, when a retreating army leaves, one of the last things they do is to dispose of ammunition that for one reason or another they can not take with them.  In the case of Richmond, Va. the fire at the armory got out of control and burned the city down.   Whose fault was that?  Hard to say, really.  But the point is, when the war was over, the men were dead, the cities burned, the women raped and the children starving.  As I say, war is hell.

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