Thursday, January 27, 2005

Thoughts on American independence

Ask any American when the United States became independent, and they'll tell, "July 4th, 1776." After all, the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence on that date. Pretty straightforward.

But what's straightforward to Americans might not be so for, say, the British. During a lecture I went to yesterday (on an unrelated topic, La Clemenza di Tito), the professor mentioned "The United States of America, which had gained its independence in 1783."

Oops. We've got a problem here. Americans think the U.S. became independent in 1776, the British seem to think it didn't happen until 1783. The underlying cause of this confusion is clear: from the American perspective, the Declaration of Independence was in force from 1776 onwards; from the British perspective, American independence wasn't recognized until the Treaty of Paris of 1783.

That both positions can be explained doesn't help much in deciding just when the United States, in fact, became an independent country.* What we need are some objective criteria for independence that match our intuitions.

One angle to take is that a country becomes independent when it declares its independence. This doesn't seem like such a great test; if, say, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania tomorrow declared its independence, I don't think anyone would accept Pennsylvania as an independent nation. I'm sure the British government from 1776-1783 had precisely this objection. As far as Britain is concerned, the United States gained independence when Britain decided they had become independent. This accounts for the present British perspective that the United States became independent in 1783.

Yet it's this very criterion that Americans use when they point to 1776 as the birth of American independence. Suppose Britain had not ratified the Treaty of Paris and didn't recognize American independence until 1850. Would that mean that the United States became independent in 1850? It seems a bit absurd to grant the previously sovereign power complete leeway in determining the moment of independence.

The American position that independence was achieved in 1776 is based on a teleological understanding of American history that sees a clear and inevitable progression from the Declaration of Independence to "real" independence after the American Revolution. If the United States had lost the Revolutionary War, we wouldn't highlight July 4th, 1776 as the birth of American independence.

In short, both the American and British positions have their flaws.

The (rather unsatisfying) solution is to view independence as a process rather than an event. American independence was not achieved in a single moment, either in 1776 or in 1783. Rather, the independence of the United States developed in the years in between, as American self-rule increased and British power in their former colonies declined. I suppose you could choose a marker of independence (signing treaties with foreign states, perhaps), but any such choice would be rather arbitrary and miss out on the complexity of the movement toward independence.

Still, we're left with those nasty, contradicting intuitions. Ask me when the United States of America gained independence, and I'll tell you July 4th, 1776. That claim is inextricably tied up with my knowledge of American history. Ask me when the Confederate States of America gained independence and I'll tell you that the CSA was never an independent nation, it was just a bunch of rebellious states. Yet if the CSA had won the American Civil War, people would probably think of Confederate independence as emerging at some point in early 1861. But because the CSA lost the Civil War and the southern states re-entered the Union, most people don't really think of Confederate independence. I know I don't.

The larger point here is that even the "facts" that seem most self-evident (is there a more famous date in American history than July 4th, 1776?) are the result of subjective interpretation. Calling 1776 the birth of American independence "cheats" by considering what happened after 1776.

History is complicated. As much as might hope otherwise, it doesn't fall neatly into discrete dates and events. I don't know if there's a way to escape thinking along those lines, but questioning your fundamental assumptions and beliefs every so often is a good start.

*It's a bit anachronistic to speak of the U.S. as a single nation at this point; under the Articles of Confederation, the former colonies functioned more as sovereign states than components of a larger nation. But that point isn't terribly relevant here.


At Jan 29, 2005 5:57:00 PM , Blogger Becca Rogers said...

While I can't and don't mean to offer a solution to your problem, I think that the issue of perspective deserves more attention than you give it. You mention that you don't consider the CSA to have gained independence at any point. But I bet that a fair number of people, namely those in the South, believe that from their declaration until the end of the civil war they actually were an Independent country. Like TJ in 1776, because the southerners were the ones doing the declaring, in their minds independence started at that moment. While this is mostly speculative (I don't personally know anyone who talks about the CSA as being independant at any point, and the fact that the war is universally called the 'civil war,' as in a war within one country, suggests that the South was never independent), there is a current and much more concrete example. The Palistinians to this day to not recognize Israel as a country, despite nearly the whole the rest of the world believeing it and having lost a war to Israel for the land. What do we do now? I suppose some could argue that the Israelis and Palistinians are still at war, but as far as most of us are concerned, Israel is independent and the fight now is over a different issue. obviously the roots of this conflict are much more complicated, being more religious and deeply cultural than political, but I don't think the reasoning matters so much: the point is the same - it is nearly impossible to ask "what is independence? how do we define it?" because it is so utterly different for the declarers and the other groups who have to accept it. To those who declare it, independence starts then. To those who don't want it to happen, independence only exists once it is granted or won in a war. and sometimes not even then. complicated indeed. On a lighter note, I had no idea the Brits viewed American independence differently than we do. Thanks for the enlightenment!

At Feb 3, 2005 5:18:00 AM , Blogger Danny said...

Actually, the American Civil War isn't universally known as the "Civil War." There are plenty of people who still refer to it as the War of Northern Agression. Oddly enough, that name suggests an acceptance of the fact that it was, in fact, an internal conflict, because the South can only refer to the North if they're part of the same country.

As to your broader point about defining independence, I think you're basically right - it's impossible to do it in such a way that would make everyone happy.

At Feb 4, 2005 3:28:00 PM , Blogger Doug said...

The CSA is a great example, but perhaps even better is Taiwan. That nation's inability to fully declare itself independent from mainland China is a travesty of justice for the Taiwanese.

Taiwan has a even greater case for independence then the CSA for it has maintained its freedom, economy and military for over 50 years.

Here is my own recently moved blog.

At Feb 4, 2005 4:11:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the southern US, the "Civil War" is called "The War Of Secession"

At Feb 5, 2005 11:37:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doug, the case of Taiwan is a great example. It's not exactly parallel to the case of the United States (the Republic of China claimed to be the legitimate government of the mainland until fairly recently, right?) but it illustrates just how difficult it is to come up with an objective, universally accepted definition of independence.

Anonymous, I'd forgotten that some Southerners call the conflict "The War Of Secession". But it's hardly universal, is it? "The War Between the States" is another...

At Feb 5, 2005 11:40:00 AM , Blogger Danny said...

Oops. That was me, of course.

At Jul 2, 2005 11:33:00 AM , Blogger DrPat said...

I have quoted this post in my Weekly BlogScan at, this week titled "Huffing Nitrites on the Fourth of July." To view the citation or join in the commentary, join the two lines below to make a complete URL.

Happy Independence Day!


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