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1776, the First Founding, and America’s past in the present

By Elvin Lim


When a nation chooses to celebrate the date of its birth is a decision of paramount significance. Indeed, it is a decision of unparalleled importance for the world’s “First New Nation,” the United States, because it was the first nation to self-consciously write itself into existence with a written Constitution. But a stubborn fact stands out here. This new nation was created in 1787, and the Fourth of July that Americans celebrate today occurred on a different summer eleven years before.

Declaration of Independence

The united States (capitalization, as can be found in the Declaration of Independence, is advised) declared themselves independent on 4 July 1776, but the nation was not yet to be. An act of severance did not a nation make. These united States would only become the United States when the idea of a collective We the People was negotiated and formally set on parchment in the sweltering summer of 1787. This means that while every American celebrates the revolution against government every July 4th, pro-government liberals do not quite have an equivalent red-letter day to celebrate and to mark the equally auspicious revolution in favor of government that transpired in 1787. Perhaps this is why the United States remains exceptional among all developed countries in her half-hearted attitude toward positive liberty, the welfare state, and government regulation on the one hand, and her seeming addiction to guns, individual rights, and negative liberty, on the other. In part because the nation’s greatest national holiday was selected to commemorate severance and not consolidation, (at least half of) America remains frozen in the euphoric tide of the 1770s rather than the more pragmatic, nation-building impulse of the 1780s.

The Fourth of July was only Act One of the creation of the American republic. In the interim years before the nation’s elders (the imprecise but popular nomenclature is “founders”) came together again—this time not to address the curse of the royal yolk, but to discuss the more mundane post-revolutionary crises of interstate conflict especially in matters of trade and debt repayment—the states came to realize that the threat to liberty comes not always from on high by way of royal governors, but also sideways courtesy of newfound friends. In the mid-1780s, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and their compatriots came together to design a more perfect union: a union with the power to lay and collect taxes, to raise and support armies, and an executive to wage war. This was Act Two, or the Second American Founding.

Custom and the convenience of having a bank holiday during the summer when the kids are out of school has hidden the reality of the Two Foundings. We now refer to a single founding, and a set of founders, but this does great injustice to the rich experiential tapestry that helped forge the United States. It denies the very substantive philosophic reasons for why one half of America is so convinced that liberty consists in rejecting government, but one half also thinks that flogging that dead horse with the King long slain seems needlessly self-defeating. As Turgot, the Abbé de Mably, put it in a letter to Dr. Richard Price in 1778, “by striving to prevent imaginary dangers, they have created real ones.” To many Europeans, that the citizens of United States have devoted so much energy—waging even a Civil War—against its own central government and fortifying themselves against it indicates a revolutionary nation in arrested development; a self-contradictory denial that the government of We the People is of, by, and for us.

The United States is thoroughly and still vividly ensconced in the original dilemma of civil society today, whether liberty is best achieved with government or without it. Conservatives and liberals are each so sure that they are the true inheritors of the “founding” because they can point to, respectively, the principles of the First and the Second Foundings to corroborate their account of history. And they will continue to do so for as long as the sacred texts of each of the Two Foundings, the Declaration and the Constitution, stand side by side, seemingly at peace with the other, but in effect in mutual tension.

This Fourth of July, Americans should not despair that the country seems so fundamentally divided on issues from healthcare to Iraq. For if to love is divine, to quarrel is American; and we have been having at it for over two centuries.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and is the author of The Lovers’ Quarrel: The Two Foundings and American Political Development and The Anti-Intellectual Presidency. He blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.

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