POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Liberty and Union, Now and Forever

by David Trumbull

June 29, 2007

On Wednesday, July 4th, at 10:00 o’clock in the morning, someone will step out onto the balcony of the Old State House—where on July 18, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was first read to the people of Boston—and read that founding document of American liberty out to the assembled crowd at the meeting the State and Devonshire Streets.

We call it the birthday of America. One could argue that “the shot heard ‘round the world” in 1775 on the April day we now observe as Patriots Day was America’s “birthday.” Or perhaps the “birthday” is that cluster of days in 1781 when the Americans finally defeated the British at Yorktown. Those are important dates in our War of Independence. But neither is celebrated as our national birthday.

The nations of old Europe developed organically. People living in the same region and speaking the same language or observing the same customs came to be gathered under one king. Thus emerged the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of France, the Kingdom of Spain, etc. America—meaning the United States—became a nation quite differently, by subscribing to an idea, a theory of government. We, through our representatives in the Continental Congress, declared:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…

And so was born a new political entity, the union of American States. To effectuate the union the Americans needed to (1) win the war, (2) figure out a way to function as a nation unlike any that they had immediate experience of in old Europe.

We’ll leave the stories of the Revolutionary War for another time. As for the new government, on July 12, 1776, a first draft—by John Dickinson of Delaware—of a constitution was introduced in Congress. In November 1777, after substantial debate and amendment, that constitution was approved as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The Articles went into force March 1, 1781 and continued so until 1789 when our present Constitution of the United States went into effect.

Although superseded by the Constitution, the Articles are of interest as the first baby-steps of the infant born on the Fourth of July.

First, it is from the Articles that our nation gets its name. While the Declaration used the phrase “United States of America” descriptively, it is the Articles of Confederation that clearly established the legal name our nation has carried ever since.

The Articles also established that this “Union shall be perpetual.” And when the Constitution replaced the Articles, it was adopted, not to weaken the Union but “in Order to form a more perfect Union.” Sadly, our rallying cry of “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever” was neglected, first in the early nineteenth century when some New England States threatened—and later in that century when the so-called Confederate States attempted—secession.

But the Union was preserved, and in 1892, in the pages of “The Youth’s Companion” of Boston, just in time for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America, appeared the earliest version of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of our indivisible nation.