The British colonies in North America had been in open rebellion for over a year when the leadership of those 13 legal entities saw fit to issue a formal declaration of their intensions and reasoning on July 4, 1776. The publication of that Declaration of Independence is the date we have demarcated as the starting point for the United States of America.
In the 100 years that followed, those sparsely populated mostly agricultural communities spread West and came to dominate North America. Through the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-America War, the United States managed to clear out competing claims for the Western part of the continent. Once the issue of slavery in the new territories was settled via civil war, all the stood between a multi-ocean colossus and the original 13 colonies was a few isolated pockets of land and hundreds of native tribes. Those remaining lands and peoples fell under the wave that spread west via horse, buggy, train, and often, settlers on foot.
So, by 1876 when the country celebrated its centennial, it was a celebration of what four generations of Americans had been able to accomplish in just 100 years. A young man in 1876 could have boasted that his Great-Grandfather had fought the British to secure independence. The country was still suffering from the bloody Civil War, ended just 11 years earlier, but the opening of the West and the onset of rapid industrialization papered over the hurts from the war years and the United States celebrated its 100th birthday confident and secure in its destiny to become a great and powerful nation.
In the following 100 years, from 1876 to 1976, those brash promises made by the 1876 Americans were followed through on and the United States did, in fact, emerge the dominate military, cultural, and industrial power on earth. The European powers forfeited those claims by starting two catastrophic wars in 1914 and 1939, and by 1976, both they and their empires were gone along with much of their wealth, influence, and millions of their citizens who were killed in the wartime slaughter. The big winner in the world wars was the United States and this dominance culminated in the 1969 moon mission, watched the world over, where a few American men literally planted a United States flag beyond the earth.
The bicentennial celebrations, however, were a subdued affair in a few ways, mostly due to recent events. In 1973, the US ended a long and protracted war in Vietnam via a peace treaty, but in 1974 when President Richard Nixon resigned just ahead of Congress filing articles of impeachment, the North Vietnamese rightfully calculated that the United States would abandon the South if the North violated the 1973 treaty, and they were right. In 1975, Americans watched on the same TV sets they had watched the moon landing as thousands of desperate South Vietnamese attempted suicidally dangerous escape attempts rather than face the Communist army, which was the same army US troops had died fighting for 8 long years. From 1973 to 1975, Americans watched as we lost a war, abandoned an ally, and a President resigned just ahead of being forced out of office. The 1976 celebrations occurred in these shadows.
The loss in Vietnam came on top of years of protests by baby boomers, those kids born just after World War 2, who in addition to opposing the Vietnam War, were embracing a counterculture that was inimical to the traditional view of who the Americans were and what the Americans wanted and stood for. The cultural gap between the baby boomers and previous generations was bigger than anyone had seen or remembered, and what this shift in values meant for the future was not clear in 1976, but many believed it was not going to be good. The rise of the counterculture also infused the bicentennial celebration with doubt about the United States, its purpose, and its future.
Will there be a United States to celebrate its tri-centennial on July 4, 2076, now just 55 years away? In 1991, the arch nemesis of 20th century America, the vast Soviet Union, dissolved itself, and so in theory extended US dominance after 1976, but just 10 years after the Soviet fall, a rogue non-state led by a fanatical follower of Islam managed to ‘bomb’ New York City and the epicenter of US military power, the Pentagon, and trigger two new and largely un-won wars with the United States military. During this entire period, the Communist Chinese were doing the supposedly impossible by retaining political control but engendering economic freedom. Powered by 1.5 billion new consumers and little doubt about itself, they have surged forward on every front: scientific, economic, and in many ways, cultural. The supposed “lone Superpower” still has powerful rivals and the industrial edge once enjoyed by the US is long gone. The technological edge is waning.
In addition to the Chinese challenge, there are tremendous centrifugal forces within the country now pushing the parts of the country away from each other.
In the run up to the Civil War, slavery was the burning values issue that separated people by opinion, but the slavery issue was manifested as a conflict over the rights of states to have their own laws that reflected their values. The legal concept of nullification, where a state refuses to follow federal laws, and secession, the right of a state to leave the United States, was hotly debated and then settled with musket, cannon, and sabre.
There are now similar values conflicts in play and simmering issues of nullification and perhaps soon, another secession crisis. Americans are sharply divided ideologically by many competing values, including patterns of energy use, land use, personal freedoms, who should be allowed into the country, and the role of government to tax and distribute wealth and what services the government should provide. These issues are framed in a moral context and the passions flamed by a willing and decentralized press. What if the federal government simply outlawed the extraction of oil? Would Texas or Alaska comply? What if California were to vote via its elastic referendum system, for independence? Would the US Army be sent to hold the state to the Union by military force? Before 2076 arrives, we may find out the answers to these and many other combustible questions.
The first 100 years of US history were clearly an era of conquest and consolidation over North America. The following 100 were about rising dominance that allowed the United States to lead in nearly every aspect of human affairs. If the following 100 become a tail of bungling leadership, infighting, and ultimately decline and break up, 2076 will not arrive. We are almost at the halfway point of that era, and if this 100-year period is to become a tale of continued power and prosperity, we will need a shared vision of what the country is about and what actions we should take. Currently, finding a shared vision seems to be the one thing the United States cannot do.