They did so at the height of their mother country's dominance. Great Britain emerged from the French and Indian War in 1763 as the preeminent global power. Americans had fought in the war, which was international in scope but fought primarily in British North America. After Britain's stunning, come-from-behind victory, Americans never felt prouder to be English.
Thirteen short years later, Americans made the unprecedented move to declare their independence. Then, only twenty years after the Treaty of Paris of 1763 that ended the French and Indian War, another Treaty of Paris (1783) officially ended the American Revolution, extending formal diplomatic recognition to the young United States. The rapidity of this world-historic shift reflects the deep respect for liberty and the rule of law that beat in the breasts of Americans throughout the original thirteen colonies.
America is founded on ideas, spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and given institutional form and legal protection by the Constitution. Values--not specific ethnicity--would come to form a new, distinctly American nationalism, one that has created enduring freedom.
Rather than rehash these ideas, however, I'd instead like to treat you to the greatest political speech ever given in the English language. It's all the more remarkable because it continues to inspire even when read silently. I'm writing, of course, about Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Here is the transcript (Source: http://www.gettysburg.com/bog/address.htm):
"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
"Now we are engaged in a great civil war. . .testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. . . can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
"We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
"But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . . we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . .that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth. "
The Gettysburg Address is elegant in its simplicity. At less than 300 words, it was a remarkably short speech for the time (political and commemorative speeches often ran to two or three hours). Yet its power is undiminished all these years later. President Lincoln was only wrong about one thing: the claim that the "world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here" has proven untrue.
I will likely write a deeper analysis of the Address in November to commemorate its delivery; in the meantime, I ask you to read and reread the speech, and to reflect on its timeless truths.
God Bless America!
To read different versions of the Gettysburg Address--there are several versions extant--check out this excellent page from Abraham Lincoln Online: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm.