By Darryl Alder
Jul 04, 2019

Was 1776 Our Nation’s Nadir?

It’s 4 am on Independence day. This is the view of flags outside my office window. The kids are just heading out to the parade route to save seats, but for me this will be a stay-at-home 4th of July. This will give me time to read 1776 and reflect on what was perhaps our nation’s lowest point, the true nadir of our history.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, John Adams, writer and historian David McCullough shared a letter from John Adams to his wife:

ohnAdamsThe Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

As a nation, I think we have done what he expected. I know I have.

As a five-year-old, I rode a float as “East Millcreek Lions King.” In later years I celebrated the bicentennial with the biggest bonfire at camp I have ever seen, watched fireworks by music on the National Mall with my oldest son, watched Stadium of Fire in and out of the stadium, ran in the Freedom Run, and marched in the Freedom Festival parade helping carry the BSA centennial balloon. Celebrations have been at camp, at home, and on vacation, but the tradition of celebration runs long in our home, Scout units, and nation.

But in some ways it is odd that we celebrate 1776 as our birth; we did not win the war with England until 1783. In fact, in 1776, that war was actually one of defeats and discouragement.

The later years of the war showed Washington with big successes against Cornwallis and Rall, but not in McCullough’s 1776.  Though a historian, McCullough’s treatment of the subject in this book feels more like an adventure novel; its gripping narrative offers interesting insight on how to move forward in spite of defeat. We can all learn from our predecessors determination to press on, despite grim circumstances.

Washington crossing the DelawareWashington and his men lost battle after battle, retreating miserably until the very end of the year. That’s when Washington crossed the Delaware and took Trenton by surprise, which gives the book a kind of surprise ending.

Centering mostly on Washington, McCullough offers a few glimpses into other players. For example, King George III, the King of England, who is villainized by most American histories, comes across more provincial than royal. McCullough shows a side of the King suggesting a sincere desire to bring the colonies back into the fold and not go to war.

On the other hand, the author develops Washington’s character through his own correspondence, which shows Washington as a self-made Virginian. He, like so many other colonists, was a born leader, but came with limited military experience; what he knew came from books. His fortunate marriage to Mary Washington Custis, a wealthy widow, took him from country surveyor to wealthy land and slave owner and allowed him to pursue his growing interests in architecture and décor. His dignified make-up comes through, both in the reports of his heroic deeds but also through interactions with his officers and men.

Today, I have time to reflect and think about these things as I make ribs in the smoker, corn on cob on the barbecue, and potato salad—all things American. I hope to see the hot air balloons from my home-office in the cool Provo morning air. In the dawn’s early light, I see neighbors have festooned homes with red, white and blue.

It appears to be another 4th of July, my 66th. May yours be festive and “the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America!”

Darryl Thumbnail
Author: Darryl Alder | Strategic Initiatives Director, Utah National Parks Council, BSA, collects and loves historic flags and their related history.

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