It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of our nation that it has a definite birthday. Most of the powers and principalities of history are wild-growth, with their ultimate origins lost to the mists of time and shrouded in legend. There is none to say, for instance, when England was born; the oak was mature and in full-leaf before it was aware of itself. The same could be said for France, Japan, Russia, and most other Old World nations, formed as they were out of peoples who had been present from time immemorial.
But America is different. For we are a man-made nation; that is, we did not grow up out of the soil, but were planted there, deliberately, and by men who knew what they were doing. There was a time when it definitely was not and a time when it definitely was, with a specific date marking the boundary between the two.
As a matter of fact, there are several, each with a good claim to the title. From what I can see, these are as follows (in chronological order):
-October 10th, 1492, when Christopher Columbus sighted land and dropped the first seed of European civilization in the New World.
-May 14th, 1607, the founding of Jamestown, and with it the beginning of English-speaking civilization in America.
-July 4th, 1776, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the symbolic birth of the Republic.
-January 14th, 1784, the ratification of the Treaty of Paris and the legal recognition of the Republic.
-September 17th, 1787, the signing of the Constitution and with it the creation of our current government.
Which of these we choose to adopt as the vital date is not so much a historical question as it is a question of national identity; of how we conceive of our nation. For each of these days carries certain implications in that regard.
For instance, to select January 14th, 1784 and the Treaty of Paris as our national birthday would imply that the American nation only came into being when the British Crown acknowledged it. This would mean it was subject to Britain until that moment, and is in fact a legal creation of Great Britain. Needless to say, this would not be acceptable to most Americans—though any Britishers in the audience who want to annoy their transatlantic cousins should take note.
When Did America Really Become America?
There is not space to explore all of these possibilities, so let us go straight to the official choice. The use of July 4th is really quite brilliant, as it follows on from the logic of the Declaration. The central claim is that “governments … derive their just power from the consent of the governed.” The Declaration was a formal rescinding of that consent, and thus, by hypothesis, the new nation was born the moment it was signed.
By this reading, America, or the United States, is defined by a particular political philosophy– that of Government by Consent–and its national identity is bound up in that premise. This is, indeed, what most people who consider the question seem to conclude; that America is a creedal nation defined by a certain idea of government and its relation to the people.
For my own part, though, and at the risk of offending the readership, I much prefer another date: May 14th, 1607 and the founding of Jamestown in Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
My first reason for doing so is purely historical. Just as a matter of fact, this was the beginning of what became the United States. Our national institutions, structures, and actions, the threads of our national history lead back there, to the arrival of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery in Chesapeake Bay. Beyond that, the only place to follow those threads (apart from the earlier, failed attempt at Roanoke) is back across the Atlantic. English speaking civilization in the New World began there.
Of course, there were others in the New World already; the Spanish had founded St. Augustine in Florida, for instance. But the American nation derives from the English thread. When the time came, the heirs of Jamestown took Florida and imposed their form of government, law, and language upon it; not the other way around. The same with New Amsterdam, New Orleans, and so on. These different threads had their influence upon the national character, of course, and remained strong in their local pockets, but it was the English-speaking, English-derived thread that set the tone.
Which brings us to another reason for selecting Jamestown as the national origin point; doing so founds the national identity on language and heritage, not political philosophy (without, by the way, necessarily rejecting that philosophy). By this reading, the American Nation might be defined as ‘English civilization in North America’, later splitting into two politically distinct branches in the late 18th century, and nearly doing so again in the 19th.
Again, I think this is more historically correct; the American nation grew out of the English Colonies. Its non-English sections were acquired by war and purchase. Its national government, institutions, language, and law are all derived from their English counterparts, and many were established before the Revolution and simply carried over afterwards (as happens in every revolution). The unique American character is a combination of the particular elements of the English people that were transplanted, its enormous, ever-growing, and long-empty territory, and the increasing hodgepodge of all Europe adding to that English baseline.
This is how I prefer to think of my nation: a cutting of the English oak, transplanted across the sea and set in the wild, vast soil of the new continent, and fed with the added spores of all other nations in their turn, until it became something vast and quite unique in human history.
It’s an endlessly fascinating story, with nothing quite like it in the world. But it all began on that May morning at Jamestown, four-hundred-odd years ago.