There's a tendency to focus, for good reason, on July 4, 1776 when we celebrate Independence Day. (Even though the Declaration of Independence was approved July 2 and signed by John Hancock on July 4.) After all, the early days of July 228 years ago were when we declared ourselves a nation, with the leaders who did so putting their own lives on the line to make that statement.
But July 4 was also the first day of silence in Gettysburg 87 years later after three of the bloodiest days in American history to that point. And it was several months later that Abraham Lincoln succinctly summed up the purpose of that battle: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."
A new birth of freedom. That is a weighty calling, and it is the call that we have been trying to answer now for 150 years. In many ways, the Civil War and its aftermath marked the beginning of the second iteration of the American nation. It was not uncommon in antebellum days for Americans abroad to name their state when asked where they come from. Shelby Foote famously documented the change in Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War:
Before the war, it was said 'the United States are' -- grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always 'the United States is,' as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an 'is.'
It's for that reason that I find it kind of tragic that we as a country have basically ignored the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, even as the years that are a part of that milestone barrel by. We are as much the country we are today, and perhaps more so, because of the Civil War as we are the country we are today because of the summer of 1776.
The United States was not founded in one day, and it was arguably not even founded once. We had two constitutions in less than 15 years. The foundation of America, and the fight for a new birth of freedom, is the work of each generation. Let us hope that we carry our part of the responsibility as well as the men in Philadelphia in 1776 and the men in Gettysburg in 1863 carried theirs.