Saturday, July 05, 2008

Independence Days: George F. Will on THE FOURTH OF JULY by Peter de Bolla

George F. Will looks back on these days in 1776, and at Peter de Bolla's new book The Fourth of July and the Founding of America:

"Peter de Bolla of King's College, Cambridge is fascinated by Americans' fascination with the fact, such as it is, that their country had, as few nations can claim, an "originative moment." But what, and when, was it? The Declaration of Independence was not signed that day by the 56 persons whose signatures would eventually adorn it. Perhaps no one signed it that day; the evidence is murky. Still, uncountable millions believe otherwise because they have seen John Trumbull's painting, in the U.S. Capitol's rotunda, depicting Thomas Jefferson, at the center of six colleagues, holding "his" Declaration on July 4, as though for signing. That Congress actually did that day was agree to print and publish the Declaration authorized two days earlier. So, was July 2 what de Bolla calls the "punctual moment"? John Adams thought that day "will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America." That was voted on July 2 was, however, really decided on July 1. But on June 28, Congress considered Jefferson's draft of the Declaration, so was the die then cast? Or was it cast on June 10, when Congress voted that "a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration"?

The Declaration was first actually declared -- read aloud to a crowd (at the State House, now Independence Hall) -- on July 8. De Bolla says that unlike certain events, such as an earthquake or the beheading of a monarch, the birth of a nation has "a different kind of temporality," one constructed as a tradition. This is true even of the United States, which did not, like Germany and France, emerge over millennia from history's mists.

Fifty years later, less than two months before his (and John Adams's) death on July 4, 1826, Jefferson was determinedly protective of his reputation as "author" (he directed his tombstone to declare this) of the Declaration. Still, he candidly acknowledged that it "was intended to be an expression of the American mind," not "aiming at originality of principle or sentiment." Hence, "all its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day."
What de Bolla calls "the intricate history of the nation's founding document" does not and should not inhibit Americans from asserting the truth that their nation originated on July 4, 1776. They hold that to be a self-evident truth, which means they have decided to believe it, thereby making it a self-validating tradition. So there."

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