All Commentary
Thursday, May 1, 1975

The Great Anniversary Festival

Mr. Bradford is well known as a writer, speaker, and business organization consultant. He now lives in Ocala, Florida.

It was near midnight of a warm summer’s day in Philadelphia. An earnest, stubborn man from Massachusetts was writing a letter home to his wife. In it he told her of an event which had taken place that day — a memorable “Epocha,” he called it — which he believed would have profound consequences. And he predicted that in years to come the people of the country would celebrate that event as “the great anniversary Festival.” It ought to be commemorated, he added, “as the Day of Deliverance, by solemn acts of Devotion to God Almighty.”

His name was John Adams; the lady he addressed was his beloved Abigail; and the happening which he announced with such solemn pride was the adoption of the Declaration of American Independence. As a prime mover in the events which led to that action, he had good reason for pride and satisfaction; and as to the future, his vision was indeed prophetic. The Fourth of July celebration became a standard, almost a stereotyped, American institution. Its devotional content was perhaps never quite as elevated as he imagined it would be; but its patriotic fervor was strong and persistent.

Now we approach the 200th anniversary of that event. Nearly two centuries of American history and experience have been enacted on the world stage — in theatrical terms, a truly colossal production. Our physical growth and expansion have been phenomenal — from a narrow cluster of isolated colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, up the inland valleys, over the Appalachian ridges, across the prairies, plains and mountains, north to the gold-endowed and ultimately oil-rich Arctic, and far into the near-tropical mid-Pacific. American achievements, too, have been legion — invention, the cotton gin, the row planter, the reaper, the binder, the combine; railroads to span the continent; highways to augment, and maybe to supersede, the railroads; steel and aluminum fabrication; the automobile; synthetic products; longer life; general education; mass merchandising; atomic fission; nuclear power; aviation; rocketry; men on the moon — and now the illimitable reaches of space beckoning. A brilliant scene in the great drama of world history.

A Devastating War

But there were also vicissitudes of fortune. In the very first place, there was a war to be fought — a long and devastating struggle against overwhelming odds, with the American hopes sustained by an ill-trained, seldom-paid and poorly equipped little army. It was a time of low morale, deteriorating finances, incredible inflation and military humiliation. Armies need the stimulus of at least an occasional victory; and the early years of the American war for independence were an almost unrelieved disaster.

It was, of course, too much to hope that the struggling armies of a poorly organized colonial federation could prevail against the military might of Britain.

Even with the handicap of distance and the attendant problems of logistics, British power was great and formidable. The American leaders knew this. Most of them had understood from the beginning that war’s end might very well be rope’s end, so far as they were concerned. Washington, indeed, predicated his only hope for victory on somehow hanging on and prolonging the unequal contest until the exigencies of European power politics would bring France to the aid of his forces —not necessarily for love of America, but to harass the English.

In his diary for May 1781, Washington made a gloomy entry: “Instead of having magazines filled with provisions we have a scanty pittance scattered here and there in the different states. Instead of having our arsenals well supplied with military stores, they are poorly provided and the workmen all leaving them… Instead of having a regular system of transportation established upon credit, or funds in the quartermaster’s hands…we have neither the one nor the other; and all that business, or a great part of it, being done by military impress [that is, seizure by force] we are daily and hourly oppressing the people — souring their tempers and alienating their affections. Instead of having the regiments completed… scarce any State in the Union has, at this hour, an eighth part of its quota in the field and little prospect, that I can see, of ever getting more than half. In a word — instead of having everything in readiness to take the field, we have nothing; and instead of having the prospect of a glorious offensive campaign before us, we have a bewildered and gloomy defensive one.”

The only possibility of brightening this somber outlook, he muses, would be to receive a powerful aid of ships, troops and money from some generous allies. (No doubt he was thinking especially of the French.) But then he adds realistically that such aids, at the moment, were “too contingent to build upon.” And that, be it remembered, was in the fifth year of the war!

No General Government

The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that there was really no American government, in the present sense of that word. In the discouraged diary entry just quoted, Washington does, to be sure, refer to both “the States” and “the Union” — but the Union was still a half-hearted dream, and the States remained an aggregation of mutually jealous, distrustful and often antagonistic colonies. Some of them actually had tariff regulations to prevent the importation of goods from neighboring colonies. There was still little comprehension of nationhood. When a man from Williamsburg spoke of “his country” he didn’t mean all of colonial America; he meant Virginia. In the same way, “the country” of a man from Boston or Concord was not a string of colonies on the edge of a continent; it was Massachusetts.

For a long time efforts had been made by leaders of vision to bring the scattered colonies into some sort of union for the advancement and protection of their mutual interests — but to little avail. As early as 1643 an attempt at a defensive union was undertaken by the Plymouth, New Haven, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut settlements. It was a very loose-knit alliance, born mainly out of fear of Indian depredations. It lasted about ten years, and collapsed.

The next move toward unity was from an unlikely source — London, of all places; the King’s ministers, of all people! In 1688 they tried to consolidate the New England colonies with those of New York and New Jersey, primarily in the hope of making them more effective against France’s adventures in the New World, and also against the Indians. The new arrangement was to be called The New England Dominion; but it was accompanied by so much royal ruthlessness that it met no favor among the colonials and was eventually abandoned.

Plans of Union

Others reached for unity from time to time. William Penn proposed a plan of union, but the colonists, fearful that their rights might be abridged, rejected it. In 1754 all the New England colonies held a conference with those from New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, primarily to deal with the matter of their treaties with the Indian tribes. At the conference Benjamin Franklin presented what came to be known as the Albany Plan of Union. It was approved by the Conference, and submitted to the several colonies, and to the King. Hope for some kind of colonial union seemed at last on the way to realization. But the Plan was roundly rejected —by the King because it gave the Colonies too much self-government, and by the colonial assemblies because it didn’t give them enough!

And so it had gone, through the decades. Only the repressive measures successively (and stupidly) imposed by the British government, such as the Stamp Act, gradually forced the colonials to embrace more cooperative attitudes and led finally to the First and Second Continental Congresses, and to the beginnings of nationhood under the Articles of Confederation.

What was the reason for this stubborn aversion to centralized government? Was it ignorance —unawareness — lack of vision? Something of all that, perhaps, since the colonials were average human beings. But they were also influenced — maybe it is not too much to say they were guided —by something else. Average citizen and political leader alike, they were afraid of government! This fear was a result of their own experience with oppressive British policies; and more remotely it was a heritage out of the experiences of their parents and grandparents, whether as colonials or as citizens of European countries. Their experience with the institution of government had not been such as to lessen their distrust of it. Even Thomas Jefferson, you may recall, was convinced that “the best governed are the least governed.”

The strange, hard-to-understand thing was the behavior of successive British ministries toward their fellow Englishmen who happened to be living in America instead of in Lancashire or Cornwall. Their own history had been replete with struggles to obtain the very rights which they so persistently denied to the colonists.

Steps Toward Freedom

In 1215 the Magna Carta had been wrested at sword’s point from King John by the Barons at Runnymede. By it the principle of limited monarchy was established, and the rights of Englishmen under law were set forth. Never mind that the barons could scarcely be called “the people,” or that their quarrel with the King had small resemblance to a popular movement. The villeins, or peasants, who made up most of England’s population at that time got very little out of the Great Charter, and that little was theirs mainly because they were considered to be the property of the barons on whose land they lived. Their civil and political rights were only incidentally at issue. The issues, indeed, were primarily those of conflict between royal exactions and baronial privilege, of how much “scutage” or shield charge the king could collect from them (or they from their own retainers); of the restoration of riparian seizures — and all with a strong undercurrent of reconquest-of-Normandy international politics into the bargain. But never mind all that. A great blow had been struck. Principles of deep human import had been formulated. A symbolic monument to freedom had been erected.

True, the rights outlined at Runnymede soon began to be eroded by kingly and ministerial usurpations; and by the year 1628 they were largely ignored by the government of Charles I. But the old fires were not completely banked; and by that time, moreover, the average citizen was more deeply concerned than had been the case in the days of King John. So again a king was compelled to yield, not by force of arms this time, but by the expedient of a parliamentary withholding of his revenues. Brought to terms, Charles signed an instrument called the Petition of Rights — a document, by the way, which asserted several of the principles that were named a century and a half later in a statement known as the Declaration of American Independence.

But it was a slow and often a discouraging battle, that struggle to make government an instrument of the people, rather than the other way around — to insure that the people could live under laws enacted with their consent and approval, rather than under whimsical royal decrees imposed upon them. And one of the compelling reasons men left the comfort of their ancestral homes and emigrated to America was simply because of their deep desire “to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.”

A Bid for Home Rule

And that was the reason, finally, for the so-called American Revolution. So-called? Yes; because it was not a revolution in the sense of being a “fundamental change in political organization, or in a government or constitution.” It was a revolt, if you like — a determined effort to get rid of the restrictions and exactions of a government on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a bid for home rule. It was not aimed at creating more government, but less. Aside from getting out from under the sometimes petty but always irritating tyrannies of London, the colonials were not contending for radical changes in the social contract.

That statement, of course, is a denial of certain kinds of propaganda that have been slipped into some of the developing material for the Bicentennial celebration. There is frequent reference, especially in some of the television programs, to colonial leaders as “radicals,” with the obvious intent to give a coloring of respectability to some of today’s political extremists. But it is a mistake to equate the protests of the Sam Adamses and John Hancocks and Patrick Henrys with the present-day “radical” demands for socialism, communism and superstatism generally. The colonials didn’t demand or want a radical revision of governmental forms; they didn’t want to “revolutionize” British institutions. They didn’t propose to set up a socialistic Utopia in America. They simply wanted to be the directors of their own lives and destinies, under the simplest and least restrictive form of government they could devise.

So strong was this desire, and so intense the distrust and fear of government, that for some time —all during the war and for several years thereafter — the American people came perilously near to having no general government at all. However, it was obvious that some central authority was needed — at first to formulate and express the colonial grievances; and thereafter to conduct the war for independence. This need resulted in the First and Second Continental Congresses. The situation, in brief, was this:

The people of Massachusetts had resisted the tax on tea, among other things. Feeling ran high and culminated in the purely symbolic but historically important Boston Tea Party. It was just a bit of theatrics, of course — but it was drama, not comedy; and it was excellent propaganda. And it went deeper than farcical theatricality, for it expressed a very firm colonial determination. The British government could shrug off the Tea Party, but it couldn’t shrug off the hard-cash fact which the Tea Party symbolized — namely, that the people of Massachusetts had no intention whatever of buying any more English tea. That was a stab in the pocketbook, and it hurt.

So England retaliated with what the colonials called the “Intolerable Acts” of Parliament — abolition of local government in the colonies, closing and blockading the port of Boston, quartering troops in private homes, transferring title to the vast Northwest Territory from the colonies to Canada — and so on. Meanwhile the colonials were busy with their committees on correspondence; and before long, upon a call from Virginia, the First Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia.

Rights of Englishmen

With remarkable speed and clarity, it protested the British treatment of the people of Massachusetts, got out a Declaration of Resolves and Grievances, and asserted that the colonies were entitled to preserve their rights under their several charters — and under the British Constitution. You see? There was no “revolution,” expressed or implied. They wanted to proceed under existing laws and agreements. There was, however, a threat, not too heavily veiled, that if the British government failed to take remedial action the Congress would meet again the following year.

It was all to no avail. London was determined to punish the recalcitrant colonials; the latter were equally set on resistance. Such a tense situation could not continue without violence; and so before very long there were Lexington and Concord. There was Bunker Hill. There was the burning of Charleston, the shelling and burning of Falmouth. There was the siege of Boston. And, as had been promised (or threatened) there was the Second Continental Congress, the protracted debate, and finally the passage of Richard Henry Lee’s little 47-word resolution. And so the die was cast. It was to be Independence. It was to be war. For seven long and discouraging years, it was to be war!

Incredibly, in five of those seven years, with no Chief Executive or other supreme magistrate, the war was conducted by the Congress, simply because it was the only thing in existence that bore any semblance to an organized, central government. It was weak, shot through with dissension and jealousies; it lacked authority over the states or colonies; it had little spirit of nationalism or unity. This was not surprising when the several colonies themselves were bidding against the Congress in the matter of raising troops for the Continental army by offering a higher enlistment bonus for their local militia than the Congress was offering for recruits to Washington’s pathetic little army ! We have seen in the earlier quotation from Washington’s war-time diary how the states ignored the requisitions of the Congress for his pressing military needs. Despite all this, it was a working Congress, with many committees whose members toiled long hours day after day through those weary years.

And all the while, devoted leaders were working to bring some order out of the developing chaos. They had not forgotten that Lee had matched his Independence resolution with another which called for a central government. This germ was never allowed to die, and from its base the Articles of Confederation were finally developed. Consideration of these Articles produced more division and acrimony, but at last they were passed. Provision was made for a Congress; but the powers granted it, or rather denied it, made its ultimate failure almost a certainty. As a single example, one Article provided that each State should retain its sovereignty, freedom and independence! Is it any wonder Washington sometimes wept into the pages of his diary?

Muddling Through

But the colonials, as was said of the British at a much later date, had a genius for “muddling through.” Also they were fired by the inspiration as well as the practical imperatives of their Cause. They didn’t quit. They hung onto their dream. And the war dragged on. Names and places emerged and got into the pages of history: Brooklyn Heights, Kips Bay, Trenton, Monmouth, Ticonderoga, Saratoga, Valley Forge; the British Howe brothers — the General and the Admiral; Johnny Burgoyne; Lord Cornwallis; the American General, Washington, flanked by the impetuous LaFayette, the stolid Steuben, and the brilliant Hamilton; Arnold, able and traitorous; Greene, resourceful and steadfast; and finally the tactful Rochambeau and the ponderous De Grasse. For the French did come in, prodded by the wise and resourceful Benjamin Franklin. And so at long last into the history books came a little place called Yorktown… and the tedious, bloody business was finished — on the battlefield, that is. It was still two more years before the peace treaty was signed.

So much for the beginnings. Independence was at last achieved. But even so the “blessings of liberty” had not yet been fully realized, for the country was still the disorganized, headless wonder that it had been, governmentally speaking, from the beginning. Moreover, it was heavily in debt to both foreign and domestic creditors. Also, some 200 million dollars in paper money had been printed, and these “continentals” had become almost worthless. And, of course, the lack of a strong national authority was leading to political and economic chaos. But a strange dichotomy existed: the people recognized the need for a strong central government — and they had a deep fear of just such a government.

At last, common sense plus intelligent self-interest prevailed. In May of 1787 a convention was assembled; the problems and the proposed solutions were long and sometimes bitterly debated. Hamilton had a plan for something like an elected monarchy. Others had their favorite prescriptions. But finally the so-called Virginia Plan, as drafted by James Madison and presented by Edmund Randolph, became the basis for what eventually emerged as the Constitution of the United States of America. It had taken four months of work to hammer it through the Convention — but more work was ahead. First, the existing Congress had to approve the new plan — and did so. Then it had to be adopted by the several States. Some of them moved quickly; others dragged out their decision, notably Virginia and New York. But those two pivotal States ratified in June and July of 1788 — and the United States of America was in business!

A great many books have been written about the Constitution, by authors whose opinion of it range from the cynical thesis that it was a compromise agreement engineered by men of wealth and privilege to protect their interests, to the almost religious belief that it is the greatest governmental document ever devised. I incline strongly to the latter opinion; but it is not my intention to undertake here any further analysis or debate. It is enough to say that it has stood the test of 187 years, which makes it the fundamental law of perhaps the oldest government in the world today. And, let it be added, the greatest!

So the new nation was launched. The dream of John Adams (and of countless others) was on its way to fulfillment. But the way was long that it must travel. Washington, already feeling old at war’s end (he was 53) had to leave Mount Vernon and spend eight pioneering years as the first President. Adams served four; Jefferson, Madison and Monroe served eight years each; and thus the first 36 years of the new nation’s life were in the molding hands of five great figures out of the Revolutionary period. Nor was the country’s experience with war ended, for in the Presidency of James Madison came the second war with Britain, called the War of 1812. Though political enemies of the President liked to call it “Mr. Madison’s War,” to most Americans this was another struggle for principle, long remembered and patriotically venerated — freedom of the seas, no search and seizure, and no impressment of American seamen. To most Englishmen, however, it was a minor episode of empire, little noted or long remembered.

“That Little War”

In London some years ago my wife and I were entertained at luncheon by a former Lord Mayor — a charming gentleman of wide interests and broad education. He had been a member of a crack British regiment, and he rather proudly told us that a few years previously this regiment had visited the United States and among other appearances had taken part in a parade.

“We were the first British regiment,” he said, “to march under arms in an American city since the Revolutionary War.” I asked him if he was real sure about that, and he replied, “Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Well,” I answered, “I seem to recall that as late as 1814 certain British regiments marched under arms through the streets of an American city called Washington — and by a strange coincidence, that same night both the White House and the Capitol caught fire and burned.”

He laughed ruefully. “Touche!” he said. “I confess I’d forgotten all about that little war.”

Just an incident, that little war? Yes — to most Englishmen, and even to many Americans nowadays; but it was part of the process of our maturing. Other incidents, other episodes, made up the mosaic. There were the decades of settlement — Appalachia, Mid-America, the Far West. There was to be the tragic bloodletting of the Civil War and its slow healing; the railway, steamboat and industrial age; the 90-day war with Spain, which launched our country onto the world stage in a new character. There would be Wilson and the First World War, with its idealism and naïveté; the second Roosevelt and World War Two, with its enormous costs and world involvement. We were victorious in both those titanic struggles — or thought we were. As a result of our part in them, at any rate, we became a world power. For a time, indeed, it could almost have been said that we were the world power — a dangerous eminence.

A New Role in the World

And then strange new things began to happen. Under the influence of a kind of benevolent auto-hypnosis we undertook the role of international benefactor. Some of this, to be sure, was in the service of our proper self-interest, as in the matter of restoring devastated areas in western Europe. But we went much farther. It was not enough that our country had helped defeat ruthless aggression in two hemispheres, or that we should be committed to enormous expense in maintaining an impressive military presence abroad. No, we also assumed, before long, the role of world almoner, and began dispensing fantastic sums, in cash and credit, to the so called emerging nations, and to many others. I do not have the latest figures by me as I write— and the exact amounts are not important. But certainly a substantial portion of our 500-plus billion dollar debt was occasioned by this lavish and indiscriminate foreign aid program. The debt was further swollen by the heedless expenditure of other billions in excess of our national tax receipts, including enormous outlays for Korea and Viet Nam.

Ideologically, we have, as some people like to say, “outgrown the bucolic ethical and financial attitudes of our yesterdays.” Once, for instance, we had a healthy fear of debt. We understood its usage in both public and private finance; but we knew and feared its dangers and avoided the pitfalls of excessive and long-term deficits. But now, in a kind of Keynesian euphoria, we have put debt on a pedestal, proclaimed that it should never be paid or even reduced, and made it an instrument of alleged national progress and development — all the while that the value of our money was being disastrously eroded and the financial security of our people drastically reduced.

At this point I am moved to turn backward again for a moment, to quote a paragraph that was addressed to the American people some time ago by a somewhat worried citizen. He began by saying that we ought to cherish the public credit as an important source of strength; and then, with great pertinence to our present financial policies, he concluded with these words, which I am putting in italics for emphasis:

“Avoid likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts… not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”

Pertinent counsel, it seems to me, in our present period — the more so because the somewhat troubled author of those sentiments was a tall gentleman from Virginia named George Washington.

Advice Unheeded

It would be easy to dwell upon how far we have departed from that good advice, and the extent to which we have abandoned the ideals of work and achievement and morality that we like to think motivated our colonial forebears. Certainly the political, economic and moral formularies of our past are now questioned, debated, discounted, sometimes ridiculed, occasionally violated; and one frequently encounters a cynical attitude toward what used to be accepted as proper and valid American ideals and values. Personal industriousness (the “work ethic”) is often scoffed at. The worth of frugality is questioned. Capitalistic enterprise is often under attack by those who think of “capitalism” as wicked aggregations of rich men intent on plunder, rather than as a convenient economic vehicle through which many investors can pool their savings for both personal and societal advantage.

And so on… and on… and on, in a doleful threnody that would pound fear into the heart of anyone who loves this country, values its past, and has hopes for its future. Unless, that is, unless….

Unless he probes somewhat beneath the surface, both now and in the history of those colonial days. He will find that all was not sweetness and light then, either — that the demand for Independence was for a long time a minority sentiment; that there was little enthusiasm for the war; that the army was plagued with desertions; and that there was political chicanery and humbug, then as now. And as to the current scene, the despairing lover of this country today will despair less and hope more if he will consider the other side of the medallion, remembering that the voice of criticism is nearly always louder than the voice of approval; that fear is usually more strident than courage; that hope is quieter than despair. What one sees in a casual survey of the country, and especially what one sees on the tube or in the press, is a surface picture — the froth on the wave, the noisy sibilance of the breakers, not the calm surge of the tide.

Our country has always had its doubters, its detractors, and alas, its betrayers. John Adams himself witnessed such things, even at the beginning. It is not too surprising, human nature being what it is, that the heroism of a Nathan Hale was shown in the same war that brought forth the treachery of a Benedict Arnold. Washington himself was traduced and slandered and made the victim of a vicious and nearly successful cabal. All of which is simply to say that men are men, of whatever nation and whatever generation.

Look Back With Pride

As we approach the Bicentennial of our nationhood we can take stock of our country and its institutions with pride and satisfaction. We have done a lot to it, we Americans. We have burdened it with unnecessary debt. We have cheapened its money through inflation. We have depleted its resources through profligate exploitation. We have extended its powers and functions beyond anything dreamed of by its founders. We have put it into business in competition with its own people. We have converted it into a gigantic bureaucracy which today employs more people than there were in the whole country in 1780. We have, in short, done our worst to overload and bankrupt it. But like a tall tree in a wasteland, it stands up well among the troubled nations of this wobbling world.

If weak and unscrupulous men have betrayed the trust reposed in them by their fellow citizens, that is a matter for our sorrow, but not our shame. The shame is theirs, as their guilt is confessed or determined. The fault is theirs, and not that of the American system. As citizens under that system we are able to look in cold-eyed disapproval on venality, betrayal and political humbuggery and yet continue to know and confidently assert that our country is still, as Lincoln said of it, the last, best hope of earth.

And we can imagine John Adams, grown old, but stubbornly immortal, peering downward and backward out of the mists of eternity, and taking renewed satisfaction in observing the strength and resilience of the nation he helped to found — and being happy to see that the Nation is once more celebrating its birth in fitting style with the Great Anniversary Festival of which he dreamed. 

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.