Fred Anderson: Why George Washington Remembered July 3rd

Roundup: Historians' Take

Fred Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Colorado, and the co-author of the forthcoming Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000, in the NYT (July 3, 2004):

Because the Fourth of July commemorates the birth of our Republic, we might easily imagine that the holiday had a central importance in the lives of the men who made the Revolution. For many, it did. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, mortally ill, clung to life until July 4, 1826, in order to see the 50th anniversary of independence. Jefferson's last words bespoke his determination:"Is it the Fourth?"

An intense focus on"the Glorious Fourth" characterized the 1820's, when the passing of the revolutionary generation gave Independence Day the kind of emotional resonance we have lately seen in World War II commemorations. Yet for George Washington, at least, the Fourth of July seems never to have been as significant a date as the third.

Indeed, in a letter Washington wrote on July 20, 1776, as he awaited the British invasion of New York, he made no mention of the independence proclaimed two weeks earlier, but noted only his"grateful remembrance" of"escape" at the battle of Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754. That defeat, in which a French and Indian force wiped out a third of Washington's Virginia Regiment, helped precipitate the 18th century's greatest conflict, the Seven Years' War.

Because France and Britain and their allies fought in North America, the West Indies, Europe, Africa, India and the Philippines, some have called it the first world war. Today Americans barely remember it, and know it (if they speak of it at all) only as the French and Indian War.

In fact this great war was a watershed in North American history. It began when Washington, acting in the name of King George II (and also on behalf of the land-speculating gentry of Virginia), tried to exert military control over the forks of the Ohio River, where Pittsburgh now stands. Because the river represented the main avenue to the heart of the continent, the empire that controlled the forks would in all likelihood determine North America's future.

The French, whose fragmented settlements stretched from the St. Lawrence River to the Mississippi River, understood this only too well. They also understood wilderness warfare much better than Colonel Washington, and had little trouble trapping him and his men in Fort Necessity, a pathetic stockade near what is now Farmington, Pa. At the end of a murderous day, Washington had no choice but to accept the terms of surrender that the enemy commander dictated in the rain-drenched dusk of July 3, 1754.... [Eventually, the British prevailed after a hard-fought war.]

The French and Indian War had convinced the colonists that they had achieved full partnership in a British empire that stood for liberty and individual rights — especially property rights — under the rule of law. When Parliament tried to impose order on the colonists between 1763 and 1775, however, it treated them not as partners but as mere subjects.

The colonists' sense of betrayal was palpable not because they understood themselves as Americans at the time, but because they saw themselves as British patriots who had shed their blood to preserve the rights that Parliament now seemed determined to destroy. ...

The 250th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Necessity reminds us that imperial victories can endanger the victor as much as the vanquished. Success in the Seven Years' War convinced Britain's leaders that their nation possessed the world's greatest military power. From that accurate perception, they drew the fatal inference that they had nothing to lose by using force against colonists whose genuine affection for British institutions, rights and liberties had hitherto constituted the empire's strongest bond.

In this light, the Revolution can be seen as an unintended and perhaps paradoxical consequence of imperial victory: an empire shattered when leaders, backed by tremendous military might, failed to understand that their only enduring basis of control lay in the consent of the governed.



comments powered by Disqus