On the Fourth of July, we go to parades and picnics and watch fireworks in commemoration of the announcement of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. I'm fully on board with all of these activities, but since the day is also a celebration of American history, may I suggest that we remember another memorable Fourth?
It was on July 4, 1863, that the defeated Army of Northern Virginia, Gen. Robert E. Lee commanding, began its retreat from a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg. America's Civil War would run for nearly two years after that and kill tens of thousands of Americans on both sides before finally ending in April 1865. However, Gettysburg was the turning point. As he returned to Confederate territory, Lee knew that any hope he had of taking the fight into the North had been dashed.
It had been a very close thing. It is easy, in hindsight, to say that Northern victory and eventual preservation of the Union were both inevitable, but Abraham Lincoln certainly did not see it that way. He was so filled with overwhelming anxiety about Gettysburg that, as he put it, he was "driven to his knees" to pray earnestly about the outcome. As he did so, he said, he received a quiet reassurance that calmed him.
Sigmund Freud would say that Lincoln's prayer and the Union victory that followed it were nothing more than a combination of wishful thinking and coincidence. Perhaps, but Freud wasn't there and neither were we, so we cannot be sure. Whether or not you believe, as the Founding Fathers did, that "Providence" favors this nation, the Fourth of July is a proper time to review and contemplate many of the truly remarkable circumstances that have blessed it. Gettysburg is a dramatic example but not an isolated incident; our history is filled with beneficial events that have spurred our growth and saved our freedom.
In 1803, Napoleon, preoccupied with the political intrigues and challenges of Europe, stunned American negotiators by offering to sell us all of France's claimed territory in North America. The Louisiana Purchase roughly tripled our physical size.
In the 1880s, America experienced a wave of immigration so large that the government had to set up a federal immigration station on Ellis Island in New York harbor to handle it. These new recruits became the base of an expanded American population; nearly 40 percent of all current Americans have at least one relative who came in through Ellis Island. They poured in when they were most needed, swelling the ranks of our labor force just as the Industrial Revolution was taking hold.
In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, Hitler triumphantly controlled most of Europe while the Japanese were driving us out of the Philippines and threatening to invade Australia. As Japanese ships set sail to capture Midway Island, a key naval refueling station west of Hawaii, we broke their communications code and caught them by surprise, enabling us to hold on to Midway and damage their fleet enough to change the course of the war in the Pacific.
There are many more examples, and they all may have been coincidences. Nonetheless, history suggests that Providence has been good to a country created by Founders whose most important concept was their faith in its future. It was during our darkest time that Lincoln reaffirmed that faith, prophesying at Gettysburg that this nation would not only "long endure" but "have a new birth of freedom."
On this Fourth of July, as you celebrate the past, ponder the state of your own faith in America's future.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.