Darrell Berkheimer: It was the compromising spirit that united us
There’s a certain spirit that comes with the celebration of July 4th each year. It’s not just one of picnicking, back-yard barbecues, parades and fireworks.
It’s one of unity in pride over the democratic freedoms that we share.
And I suspect, for many of us, our minds wander back to the community of our youth, where we were raised, and how July 4th was celebrated there.
For me, that also means re-telling the story of my home area, because it is so steeped in the history surrounding the birth of our nation. And because my home town of York, Pennsylvania, was the first capital of our nation.
Huh? What was that?
That’s right; you read it correctly. My home town of York, PA, was the first capital of the United States.
Before explaining, I need to create a mental map of that area’s geography for you.
York is approximately 100 miles due west of Philadelphia — home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. York also is only 50 miles north of Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay — where our national anthem was written during the War of 1812.
And it’s 25 miles south of Harrisburg, the state capital; only 90 miles north of Washington, D.C.; a little less than 200 from New York City, and just 30 miles east of Gettysburg.
The old country church that my father attended as a young man has two graveyards — the first of which has a metal archway entrance with the dates of 1700 to 1905 on it. That graveyard contains some of my ancestors.
OK; I know, you want me to get back to the first capital story.
The Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. That was on July 2 – not July 4. But some of the signers did not add their names until a month later – on Aug. 2. The July 4th celebration date was not decided upon until the next year, 1777. And the failure to observe July 2nd irked John Adams who refused to appear at July 4th events.
The Declaration of Independence, however, did not create our United States. Instead, that document only says that the 13 colonies were “free and independent states,” no longer to be governed by Great Britain — with each assuming the right to do “all acts and things which independent states may of right do.”
The 13 colonies didn’t form a union until more than a year later — in late 1777. That was after the Second Continental Congress fled from Philadelphia, when the British army led by General Howe was approaching the city.
Bundling public papers into guard wagons, the representatives moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, about 65 miles west of Philadelphia. But Congress stayed there only three days because its members felt too vulnerable to a forced march on Lancaster by the British troops.
So Congress moved another 30 miles west, across the Susquehanna River to York Town, a community of about 200 houses.
Although it may be a bit hard to visualize for folks accustomed to seeing rivers much smaller, the Susquehanna River between York and Lancaster counties is a mile wide. So the river, about 13 miles east of York, provided an excellent geographic obstacle, giving lookouts along the river an opportunity to sound an early alarm should British troops attempt to cross.
Congress convened in York on Sept. 30, 1777, and quickly was involved in daily debate over a draft of the Articles of Confederation. After nearly seven weeks of debate, on Nov. 15, the Articles officially were adopted. And Article I stated: “… this confederacy shall be The United States of America.”
Until that document, there was no such place as the United States.
The Articles were not ratified until March 1, 1781, when the delegates from Maryland were the last to sign. But all attorneys and historians know that ratification, by definition, means approval as of the original event.
So York, Pennsylvania, was the first capital when our United States was formed. And the event was recognized with a commemorative stamp issued 200 years later, in the fall of 1977.
Congress continued to meet in York for eight months — until May 27, 1778. Then they returned to Philadelphia.
All of that is a part of what I learned during my youth — before I went off to college at Temple University in Philadelphia. There I made friends with Jewish and black students and residents.
After several years working for the hometown newspaper, I moved west to Utah. During a dozen years there, I made friends with numerous Mormons. After that I worked for newspapers in Georgia, Texas and New Mexico, where I experienced the cultures and friendships of Southern Baptists and Latinos.
I also spent nine years living in Butte, Montana, before moving to Grass Valley. There I became aware of both a mining and early unionizing heritage among the descendants of Scandinavian and Irish immigrants, some of whom became my friends.
In each of those areas, I felt the people had just as much unity in pride over the history of our nation as I did. And the people in those places, no matter what their backgrounds were, wanted basically the same things. They wanted to earn a decent living, share life with family and friends, and provide a better future for their children.
Today, our nation can boast of many achievements as a result of our spirit of unity through compromising — not despite our diversity, but because of our continuing and growing diversity.
Both the Articles of Confederation and our Constitution of 1787 were adopted only after many compromises necessitated by the diversity of thought and ideas that existed within the 13 colonies. And that spirit of compromising initiated a certain freedom to innovate that resulted in our country’s rise to greatness.
So now, in this period of divisiveness that we have been experiencing, we must foster a return to that compromising spirit that gave birth to our nation.
That’s how things get done; and how we must attack the many issues we face today. It’s what propelled us to greatness.
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He is the author of six books available through Amazon. His latest, Essays from The Golden Throne, also is available at Book Seller in Grass Valley. Contact him at email@example.com.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to state the words to the national anthem were written during the War of 1812.
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