Words of Wisdom on Independence Day

Sometimes it is easy to forget that the United States was once an unknown entity.  Independence may have separated the country from Great Britain, but the creation of a new type of government was a challenging and constant process.    Some ideas were presented and rejected; others were considered more worthy of attention and reflection.  As Independence Day approaches, we might consider the suggestions of one of our Founding Fathers.

In June 14, 1783, on the cusp of victory, General George Washington sent a circular to all state governors offering advice, while also requesting assistance from the legislatures (LLMC #39065).  He began his address by rejoicing in this country’s freedom, with its enviable position of “political happiness.”  General Washington went on to recommend:

“There are four things, which I humbly conceive, are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an Independent Power:

1st. An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head.

2dly. A Sacred regard to Public Justice.

3dly. The adoption of a proper Peace Establishment, and

4thly. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly Disposition, among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.

These are the Pillars on which the glorious Fabri[c] of our Independency and National Character must be supported; Liberty is the Basis, and whoever would dare to sap the foundation, or overturn the Structure, under whatever specious pretexts he may attempt it, will merit the bitterest execration, and the severest punishment which can be inflicted by his injured Country.”

While the words are stirring, our country did not always follow Washington’s advice.  For example, on December 2, 1861, Virginia governor, John Letcher, discussed the secession of Virginia and explained the reasons and aims of the Confederacy to the members of the Virginia Assembly, now part of the Confederacy (LLMC #99954).  In his State of the State address, Letcher argued that the “purpose of the federal president [was] to subjugated us and coerce us to remain in a Union.”  While ultimately the union was “indissoluble,” the Civil War was a demonstration of the damage caused by divisiveness within the country. 

Public justice was also challenging at times.  In the 1832 Treaty of Pontilock (Pontotoc) Creek, the Chickasaw Nation described themselves as “oppressed” and subject to state and federal laws that they could neither understand nor obey.  Conceding defeat to “this great evil,” they ceded their land east of the Mississippi River, primarily in Mississippi and Tennessee, and agreed to move further west to Oklahoma, in what infamously became known as “Trail of Tears” (LLMC #39341 and #71073). 

However, not all actions were challenges to General Washington’s ideals for democracy.  For example, a series of addresses and minutes from 1816-1819 demonstrated that although minds could differ on whether Maine should separate from Massachusetts, the discussions were generally reasonable and democratic (LLMC #23997-24006, 24010, 24011).   For example, an unnamed supporter for separation ended his examination of the issues by concluding the people would be the judge of the worthiness of his position; ultimately, they needed to do their duty to decide within the dictates of their conscience and understanding.  A civil debate, with a successful outcome for those supporting a separate state, came without bloodshed or extreme animus (LLMC #24000). 

Many more examples in the Early State Records Collection allow researchers to decide if our nation remained consistent with George Washington’s vision.  In a warning as apt now as then, he cautioned that “this is the moment to establish or ruin [our] national Character forever; this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our Federal Government, as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution; or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation” (LLMC #39065).  With Independence Day approaching, the fulfillment of his hopes remains in our hands. 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1028 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents, such as broadsides, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law