American Defiance

John Adams wrote on a hot July night in Philadelphia that the day behind him “will be a memorable epoch in the history of America.” Adams went on, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

It turns out he was wrong. That letter was dated July 2, 1776, the day the Continental Congress decided to approve the Declaration of Independence, but two days before most of the delegates signed it.

The important point, though, is how close he was to being right. It is a peculiar thing that we celebrate our country on the day we broke away from England, especially because at that time we were hardly a nation, and barely united colonies.

This is important. America’s birth was a negative act-a breaking of bonds-rather than a positive act-the passage Articles of Confederation or the approval of the Constitution. This detail distinguishes us from most of the world, and plays a central role in current U.S.-Europe tensions.

It both reflects our character as a people and also forms our souls that we associate freedom with defiance. As school children, Americans need explained to them the difference between liberty and independence. The nature of our founding inseparably intertwines the two ideas.

Europeans, in large part, are different in this regard. In Germany, the national day is October 3 to mark reunification. In Belgium, the birth of their country is marked by King Leopold’s ascension to the throne. Sweden, similarly celebrates King Gustav’s crowning.

Our national identity is tied up with freedom. Becoming free, like becoming American, is an act of breaking away. Becoming German or Belgian is an act of coming together under one rule.

In this light we can understand why so many Europeans are eager to turn their continent, effectively, into one nation. What we see as sacrificing sovereignty, they see as strengthening and unifying. This is understandable, not just because of the manner of their birth, but because of the 20th century experiences of these European nations.

In the first half of the last century, many of them were conquered or at least walloped by foreign aggressors. In the second half, they lived in the shadow of the Soviet Empire or even in its iron grip. The Europeans were thrice-bitten in the “American Century,” called so because we destroyed Nazis, Communists, and a handful of other enemies whom we vanquished so thoroughly we don’t even really remember who they were.

This is the setting on which the current drama of the International Criminal Court plays itself out. The Europeans eagerly submit to this international prosecutorial body in the hopes that it will keep them safe, because the only thing that has kept them safe for the last 100 years is the very American military might they resent.

But Americans have been under European rule before. We know what it is like to have foreigners across the ocean put us on trial on bogus charges. Last time they attempted this, we soaked them in tar and covered them with feathers.

The European mindset–this drive to tear down walls–is one we also find in many liberal American intellectuals. New York Times editorialists and Economist writers often think of themselves as above local or national distinctions. The Times puts the international section first and the local section last.

Being American, in part, means resisting this cosmopolitan way of thinking. It is a denial of our nature to claim that our country, our state and our nation do not make a difference. The American way is defiance. The European way is appeasement.

For this reason, it is hard to have a discussion on the ICC. Europeans can’t understand why we would not subject ourselves to that court. Most Americans don’t even feel they need to make an argument against it–the reasons are self-evident. Our different natures and experiences on the question make it difficult even to talk about it.

Great American poet Robert Frost articulated it well in his dialogue poem,
“Build Soil.” One character, a poet who writes on a farm and calls it farming,
explains “we are too unseparate.” He goes on:

My friends all know I’m interpersonal.
But long before I’m interpersonal,
Away, ‘way down inside, I’m personal.
Just so before we’re international,
We’re national, and act as nationals.

As Americans, every July we are reminded of this. We celebrate the shattering of an empire, the breaking of bonds.

Meaningful interaction and real justice cannot happen across an ocean. Americans and Europeans learn much from each other and benefit through cooperation. But the serious business of justice must be carried out on a smaller scale, with people who have a more shared idea of right and wrong, crime and punishment.

The other character in Frost’s poem (who actually grows food) makes this point well when he ends the dialogue by telling us that “going home from company means coming to our senses.”

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