The Fourth of July is a special day in the history of the United States — and not just because it's the day when the newborn United States declared its independence from Great Britain. The events that set American independence in motion occurred about 22 years earlier.
Interestingly, those events revolved around the same man — George Washington.
On July 4, 1754, young George Washington retreated from the Great Meadows where he’d been defeated by French forces. But let’s back up a few days...
Young Washington had been sent northward to deal with the French, who'd built a fort at the Forks of the Ohio (Pittsburgh). The British claimed that territory, and Virginia's burgesses wanted the French to clear out.
On the way to the fort in the month of May, Washington came across a small party of French, and, in part due to the manipulations of an Indian named Half King, Washington, only 22 years old, had his men open fire, killing and injuring some among the French. Among the wounded was a young French officer Joseph de Jumonville, who had papers with him from the French that proved he was an envoy, not part of a military party. But much to Washington's horror, Half King, angry at the French for a variety of reasons, smashed in the wounded French officer's skull with his tomahawk.
Half King’s violent action broke all the rules of European warfare, and because Washington was the acknowledged reader of the party, the blame fell on him. And the French were outraged.
They sent a war party of French and Indians after them, as Washington knew they would. He had retreated to a place called the Great Meadows, where he erected Fort Necessity, a hastily constructed palisade with some wooden walls and a few trenches.
On July 3, the French and their Indian allies engaged Washington and, thanks in part to rain and in part to a rather poorly chosen location for a fort (it occupied the low ground and was surrounded by hills and forest), Washington and his forces were soundly defeated. Negotiations ensued, with a Dutchman acting as interpreter for Washington, who did not speak French.
In the end, Washington was persuaded to sign a document which, unbeknownst to him, contained his confession that he had “assassinated” de Jumonville.
On July 4, Washington and the surviving Virginians were allowed to retreat from Fort Necessity.
The events of July 3-4, 1754, lead in a chain of events to those of July 4, 1776, because they marked the start of the French and Indian War. And the French and Indian War led to irreconcilable differences between the American colonists and Great Britain.
If Washington had not attacked that French party and de Jumonville had not been killed, world history would be very different.
It’s ironic because during the French and Indian War, Washington wanted so very much to receive a commission in the British Army. However, his hopes were confounded, and his attempts to earn advancement through the military were rebuffed. Eventually, he left the military and in January 1759 married Martha Custis, a widow, and turned to helping her raise her two sons and running his plantation at Mount Vernon.
Here’s what I’m getting at: Not only did Washington inadvertently launch the war that drove the French from North America and alienated the British from the colonists, he himself was alienated from the British — another great historical irony. If the British had made him an officer, chances are he would never have sided with the Founders. But, having had his military ambitions brushed aside by unfeeling British superiors, he attended meetings in Philadelphia wearing an officer’s uniform he designed himself. He had no commission; he simply showed up in military uniform. He was later chosen to lead American forces, which he did with much more distinction that he'd led Virginians in the wilderness 22 years earlier.
When the Declaration of Independence was read aloud on July 4, 1776, Washington commented that he couldn’t help but think of the defeat at the Great Meadows and all that had transpired in the aftermath of that bloody event.
Somehow, that always gives me goosebumps.
But there’s more...
Among Washington’s friends were Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian, and John Adams, a jurist from Boston. Thomas and John were friends who worked together on the Declaration of Independence. They came to develop very different notions about what the Constitution meant. (In some respects, the arguments Americans have today are the same issues that Adams and Jefferson could not resolve between themselves. True fact.)
Despite their very heated differences — differences that sometimes drove them to extremes of emotion — Adams and Jefferson respected one another.
They both died on July 4, 1826. I find that rather amazing. Thomas Jefferson died a few hours before John, but John, not knowing this, uttered with his last breath, “At least Thomas Jefferson survives.”
Five years later, James Monroe, our fifth president, died. Yes, on July 4. Monroe was the last Founder to hold the presidency, a peer of Washington, Adams and Jefferson.
So why the history lesson?
I love history. History is nothing more or less than the lives of others remembered. The people who lived and shaped these events were every bit as real as we are. I love seeing through their eyes, breathing their air and sharing their world.
I admit to having a peculiar passion for the French and Indian War. The mix of cultures, the frontier, the toughness of the men, the strength of the women — it captures me like no other period in history. I feel it in my veins. Everything about it fires me up.
That’s why I set my MacKinnon’s Rangers series during the French and Indian War. Having researched it for Ride the Fire, I didn’t want to leave it behind.
Every year when we come to July 4, I think of Washington, defeated and muddy, trekking back to Virginia with his defeated troops, wagons carrying the injured and dying. I think of Washington listening as the Declaration of Independence is read aloud, remembering what had happened 22 years earlier and wondering how he was going to achieve victory with so few resources against the greatest army in the world. I think of his friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and their lifelong friendship and deep disagreement, lying on the death beds, taking their last breaths within hours of each other and thinking of each other.
And now the world is left to us, the nation they made, with its glories and its flaws, now in our hands.
Make something special of today. So many people spend it getting drunk, setting off fireworks and, in general, causing mayhem. (My neighbors have been setting off fireworks late each night for almost two weeks!) While we all have the freedom to do that, we also have the freedom to make something more of our lives and to offer our lives in service to greater ideals.
Happy Fourth of July — truly an extraordinary day in history.
Resources if you want more:
The War that Made America, DVD<-----------contains info about Mary Jemison (hint, hint)
John Adams, HBO miniseries, also on DVD
p.s. Just wait till we get to July 8! Another amazingly eerie day in U.S. history