On Tuesday, June 30 — almost exactly 150 years ago — “troops massed blindly around the little town of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. They did not realize it was the turning point of the war in the east,” writes the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri. ”
When we hear the word “Gettysburg,” we naturally think of the turning point in a bloody struggle. But prior to the battle, it was just another town. And if you find it fascinating that the very people involved in what George Will calls the “hinge” of history didn’t fully appreciate its significance at the time, consider this from a letter John Adams penned to his wife some four score and seven years prior:
“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” (Bold mine.)
Adams was mostly right. He was just off by two days. It turns out that nothing much really happened on July 4, 1776. But it is interesting that Adams, who was intimately involved, failed to correctly predict which date would be celebrated as “Independence Day.” As Bill Kristol observes, “This slight variance is perhaps emblematic of the way the new nation never quite turned out the way John Adams hoped.”
Not even presidents can control history. When asked about his legacy the other day, former President George W. Bush said, “I won’t be around, because it will take a while for the objective historians to show up.” I suspect his record will be viewed as mixed. Still, his instincts about history taking a while to sort itself out seems wise.
As we’ve seen, quite often the deciders themselves don’t always know how things will shake out.