The Greatest Movement
This country is a monument to movements. None other has been so restive, so thoroughly inclined to move, as she. Still a relatively younger state (comfortably in the adolescence of her age, having just celebrated her 242nd year this outgoing July), America remains something of a stripling in bloom. At least she does when compared with the other now ancient and now decadent European and Asian states. Nevertheless, disregarding her lack of antiquity (as one finds in a state like India or China) or her deeply potted roots in a timeless soil (discoverable in the likes of a France or a Germany), it’s upon America those old and tired dotards look from afar with a combination of envy and awe. She is, after all, the epitome of youthful vigor—the paragon of precocity and the inaugurator of liberty. She rather creates than adapts to the times. She’s all restlessness and frustration and brilliance and perpetual motion bundled into a dizzying and evolving mass.
America is a model of movements. From suffrage and civil rights, to philosophies and ideologies (of which we count the homegrown schools of William James’ Pragmatism and Taylor’s Taylorism), to republican governance and the separation of branches of government, to abolition and capitalism and anti-clericalism and beyond, America is her movements. She’s a nation whose very essence is built upon such eager feet—a nation who is animated by such stirrings of a rambunctious and endeavoring soul.
One can then appreciate the challenge inherent to picking the greatest of her movements. So many are they, and so biased and parochial we. Such a daunting task, however, needn’t forbid our attempt. Heeding these words, President Trump gave did just that and gave his two cents during an evening rally in Tampa Bay, Florida last night. Celebrating the victories of his past two years in office, the president called “this” the “greatest movement in the history of America”. Left uncertain, though, was by what exact terms the president defines “this movement”
Precisely what is the movement of which he speaks? Is it his unique brand of statecraft—through whose operation in recent months we’ve seen an unprecedented sycophancy toward foes and animosity toward friends? If the movement is not that, is it his vituperative attacks on the media—a manner of discourse (gratuitous and unprepossessing though it may be) that his base has fully adopted as its own? And if not that, and at the risk of exhausting my ideas as to just what this movement of his might be, is it the revitalization of his version of reactionary politics, of economic protectionism, of populism, of America’s invagination from the world and the globalist “cucks” who dangle it as a yo-yo on a string? Probably, this movement of which he speaks is a combination of all three: it’s a bold and—from one moment to the next—an either combative or an obsequious form of statecraft; a continuous haranguing of a sometimes deserving news media; and an “America First” policy that views all transactions as zero-sum games.
Insofar as its definition eludes us, I think it safe to say that this vaunted “movement” about which President Trump gloats isn’t quite, or at least isn’t yet, our country’s greatest. Perhaps in time it will be, but until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with an actually great movement. To do so, we need only start from the start.
Speaking of this country’s greatest movements, especially as we find ourselves so doing in the heat of these summer months, why not join me in traveling back to 1776? Not only was it 242 years ago, but very nearly 242 years ago to this exact day when our greatest of movements breathed into its lungs its first taste of life. It was August 2, 1776—not July 4th as we’ve come to know it, nor the less well-known though perhaps slightly more historical July 2nd—when the Declaration of Independence came to be. The fireworks and hotdogs belie the historicity; July 4th has become something of a national myth—a creation story only slightly more real than that of Romulus slaughtering brother Remus to claim Rome or Aeneas stumbling from Asia into Italy bearing his father on his back.
On July 2nd, the Second Continental Congress approved a resolution of independence that had been adumbrated by the Virginia statesman Richard Henry Lee. Working from that hotbed of revolution that was Virginia, Lee succeeded as none other had in outlining his ideas. A lesser known founding father amongst a group of luminary patriarchs, Lee was in many ways as important as they; he was able to not only explicate our grievances against the Hanoverian King, but to validate them as well. That was the tricky part; being able to show that we weren’t a mere querulous hodgepodge of ungrateful rebels without a cause, but rather an oppressed people with a rightful claim to sovereignty. In Lee’s words could be found a legitimate claim to home-rule that before him, hadn’t existed. He, before Thomas Jefferson—to whom we admittedly owe much more—hashed out his own “declaration” of independence before any other. Eventually, it would come to be known (or as the matter lamentably stands today, forgotten) as the “Lee Resolution”.
Yet here again, our history fails us; such is the recurrent theme when one begins an honest study of the American Revolution. Though the Lee Resolution was agreed upon by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776, the later Declaration of Independence—born, as it was, by the Lockean hand of Jefferson rather than by that of his fellow Virginian Lee—was to be adopted on July 4th. But a document, let alone a declaration of such import, is only as good as those who sanction it. And sanctioning, and thus, legitimating it meant signing it. Leisurely, the Declaration of Independence would be made to wait a full month (until August 2, 1776) before it would acquire all of the requisite signatures to be ossified and solemnized as an official decree. By that time, the fighting was at full tilt.
Of course, the American Revolution long antedates August 2nd, as it does the second and the fourth of July. The argument can be made (and often convincingly is) that it actually began between the years of 1754 and 1763. It was then, in the course of the French and Indian War (itself an overture to the larger Seven Years’ War that subsumed the entire European continent) that the British crown accrued a few decades’ worth of debt. Colonial territory was only to be bought and defended at a price, and that price proved steep indeed. After the Treaty of Paris had been signed and the passions of Europe had cooled to some degree (lest we forget, the War of the Austrian Succession had only just ended a few years before, which was itself a massively bloody affair), King George thought it not unreasonable to have the colonists foot some of the bill. They were, after all, his subjects. What’s a king if he can’t extract from his underlings a little tribute? Nominally Brits, they were distant cousins over whom his imperium ultimately presided. It was from his coffers that their protection was subsidized and their upkeep financed. Viewed in this light, the Revolution actually began with the French and Indian War. It began not with King George III, but with another venerable George—Washington in this case—who found himself donning a British regular’s epaulets and yearning for battlefield glory. Only then could he hope to receive a commission so as to serve with even greater ardor his British king.
More definitive a start date for the American Revolution would be April 19, 1775—a full year and three months before the day to which we presently tack America’s imagined beginning. Ironically, April 19th is but a few days after that menace of an anti-holiday that we call “Tax Day”. To place together the two seems a cruel joke of which only Uncle Sam would conceive.
Nevertheless, April 19th marked the original shot heard “round” the world, but the question was, by whom? In this case, as in any case, knowing the instigator was the most important piece of information. It was literally the fulcrum on which America’s future waited. Levying the blame on Britain would legitimize the inchoate American cause. Had the shots been first fired by an ordinary patriot, the entire casus belli would’ve been for naught; France and Holland and Spain might not have joined in recognizing our underdog of a country as a properly sovereign state. As such, all who’d been interviewed on that Lexington Green whose grass had turned red concurred that the first bullet wheezed out of none other than a British gun. It travelled from his nameless musket into the first officially American heart. The moment that heart stopped its beat was the moment when the Revolution and, consequently, America formally began.
This, and not some transitory yelp by President Trump and his base, was truly the greatest moment and the greatest movement in the history of America. And in this time of disunity and antipathy that has so inexhaustibly defined the relations between left and right, we’d do well to look back and celebrate this greatest of movements—our movement to liberty, equality, and unity.