Ah, yes, the presence of the past.
A big topic, actually.
Take July 4, 1776.
And with that heavy duty date, take this:
Q: How many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were born in the United States?
(waaait for it…)
The United States didn’t exist yet, silly!
Yes, a silly trick question, but it nails what happened that day 241 years ago and why it’s still worth celebrating (indeed, to spite the circus currently being run in our government).
Nowadays, the room you see pictured above–where elected representatives from the 13 colonies convened as the Second Continental Congress and voted to declare themselves independent from Great Britain–that room in the Old State House in Philadelphia sits empty except for stand-in furniture selected to look like what was there in the 1770s and the click, flash and whir of camera phones dutifully snapped by the well-controlled parade of tourists, who are coralled safely along the edge so as not to damage this bit of history.
And it would be hokey if there were actors populating the room, accurately recreating the debates and vote calls meticulously curated for just such re-enaactments…wouldn’t it?
Maybe with holograms or VR or AR it could be ok. But the briefest of reflections makes such literalism perhaps unnecessary.
We the living, breathing people of the United States of America–from our countrymen-and-women serving in US armies around the world to home-renters in Modesto and all the rest of us–we are all the immediately compelling, real, hard and fast evidence of what went down in that room 241 years ago:
People who had been selected by the people they lived with in each of 13 different colonies to represent them in a collective and collectively minded ruling committee unanimously agreed to and did declare that together as a unit the 13 colonies they represented were as of then to be independent of the authority of England (aka Great Britain). And with that Declaration of Independence, the United States of America came into being, and we are all here now as a result.
The past is, in that sense, quite present.
It can also be a an interesting experiment to find out if or how many of your ancestors happened to be living here in America in one of those 13 East Coast colonies that July of 1776.
For my kids, they had 142 of their ancestors living here then! 18 of whom fought in or otherwise participated in the Revolution. But more on this later.
Why July 4th?
It is altogether fitting to deal up front with the whole date of America’s birthday issue. As the history geeks out there already know, August 2 is arguably our nation’s BDay…as is July 2 and or July 4. Cuz different aspects of the things that were required to make this a legally binding act all happened on those various days in the summer of 1776.
July 1776: the USA’s Birthday Month
July 2, 1776 — in Philadelphia, the 2nd Continental Congress approved a motion from Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee (and drafted by Thomas Jefferson with Ben Franklin, John Adams and a couple others, and debated on by all) that thereby, forthwith, and evermore a certain 13 British colonies on the mainland of America would be no longer part of Britain, but their own, independent and united states, such as they were. A nation of its own. This, a Tuesday, was the day the USA was born. (Massachusetts delegate John Adams was certain for a time that July 2nd would henceforth be the massively revered and celebrated holiday for generations to come.)
July 4, 1776 — Congress voted on and approved the document announcing this new independence and the reasons therefore, that had been drafted by its committee created to draft such a document. It was signed and endorsed by only the President of Congress, John Hancock of the Massachusetts delegation, and the secretary, Benjamin Harrison, of Virginia.
July 8, 1776 — in Philadelphia, the Declaration of Independence is officially read aloud publicly for the first time in the town square in front of the State House where Congress met.
July 9, 1776 — General George Washington has the Declaration read to his troops in New York City. A German translation is published in Philadelphia (analogous to a Spanish or Chinese translation being published if it were happening in California, today).
August 2, 1776 — the document is formally endorsed by the 2nd Continental Congress with each delegate signing his name to it (a few adding their signatures later.)
So since obviously none of the Signers were born in the United States since it didn’t exist, the valid question is how many of the 56 men who signed the Declaration were not born in America? And it turns out the number is eight, or 14.3% of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were not born in America.
26 of my kids’ 142 ancestors in America in 1776 were Fresh-off-the-Boat immigrants, or 18.3%, which happens to be statistically exceedingly close to the proportion of the Signers (8/56) …which also happens to be close to the proportion of the whole population of this place that’s born elsewhere since 1675 (clearly not including 100% since the arrival of Europeans to begin with! :-o)
That’s kind of amazing.
Of the 142, one was a quarter Native American. She was a 68-year-old widow, and with her son and his 13-year old boy represent the line that’s been in America the longest: the widow’s grandmother was of the Lenni Lanape people.
Here’s the interesting breakdown on those 142 ancestors, comparing them to the signers of the Declaration:
1 was 2nd cousins to John and Samuel Adams
1 was 3rd cousins to Samuel Chase
1 was 2nd cousins to Dr. Josiah Bartlett
18 (38% out of 47 eligible) served or fought in the Revolution (vs. 17, or 30% of the Signers)
13 (22% out of 59 eligible) owned slaves (vs. apx 33%, or 18 out of 56 of the Signers)
I have met America. And it is us.