‘JOIN, or DIE’

Now just four years shy of the 250th anniversary of our founding, Americans are faced with the same question this Independence Day that we have been since the first one: Was it worth it?

Most nations can point to moments in their history that served as hinge points, but Americans can always ask a more fundamental question about our past: Given all of the troubles, injustices, and unmet expectations of the past 246 years, would we do it all again? Our national identity is not just the evolutionary result of DNA, geography, and the march of empires (though it is all those things, too). To be an American means inheriting the consequences of a choice made for us by our forebears. The perceived merit of that choice therefore changes with the experiences and expectations of each new generation.

One could certainly argue that in the decade before our break with Britain, the mother country and its colonies had drifted into such alienation that by the summer of 1776, independence and war were foregone conclusions. After the abuses of the Townshend Acts and the Boston Massacre, it would have been hard to convince Americans to accept continued rule by a distant, arrogant Parliament and King George III. After the bloodshed of the spring of 1775 at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, it may have been impossible to restore the bonds across the Atlantic—certainly not as they had been in the 1750s, before the strains of the French and Indian War and its aftermath.

But even if rupture and war with Britain were foregone conclusions, the scope, ambition, and principles of the founding we celebrate today were far from obvious.

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