We all know what happened on July 4 in 1776: A new nation came into being, and we have celebrated the date ever since. Some of those Independence Days haven’t always been so happy, though. Some years have found the nation on July 4 facing challenges that tested its very soul. For instance:

1800: This year saw what may still be the most bitter presidential campaign the nation has ever suffered through, one that some thought would tear the young nation apart. John Adams was president, but an unpopular one. He was challenged by Thomas Jefferson, whom we tend to regard now as a demi-god (aside from that whole part about owning slaves), but who was then considered quite polarizing. The Adams camp called Jefferson an atheist who would unleash the French Revolution on American soil; the Jefferson camp called Adams a tyrant. The American experiment in democracy was on the line: How could the nation survive if the choice for president really was between a tyrant and a murderous revolutionary? Could there really be a peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party if Jefferson won? (He did, and yes.)

1814: The War of 1812 was now in its third year and was not going well. American attempts to invade Canada had failed, even though the bulk of the British Army was tied down in Europe fighting Napoleon. Meanwhile, the British Navy blockaded the American coast. The spring of 1814 brought the news that Napoleon had been exiled, and the British could now move more soldiers to North America — 15,000 of them under some of their best commanders. On July 4, 1814, it was by no means certain that America would survive as an independent nation. And this was before the British sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and burned the White House.

1861: This July 4 found a nation split in two and spilling blood. The Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln had mobilized an army, and the breakaway Southern states had established their capital in Richmond. Things would soon get worse, much worse.

1862: A year into the war, the Union appeared no closer to being preserved. July Fourth that year found Union troops retreating from an unsuccessful attack on the Confederate capital of Richmond known as the Seven Days Battles.

1863: This July Fourth was the bloodiest the nation had known — or would ever know. Thousands of Americans lay dead and dying on the fields of Pennsylvania. The day before had seen the Union turn back the invasion attempt by Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces. It was not immediately clear, though, what this meant; the South at the time regarded Gettysburg as a mere setback. That July Fourth brought other news from the west: Confederate forces at Vicksburg, Mississippi, had surrendered after a 47-day siege. In time, these two events would come to be seen as the high-water mark of the rebellion. But there was still a lot of war to be fought.

To be continued...

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