The founders worried that political disunity at home would allow hostile foreign governments to exacerbate domestic cleavages, sow strife, and undermine America’s sovereignty.
John Adams predicted that July 2 would become a celebrated American holiday. Sensing the coming of a momentous vote on the Declaration of Independence, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” He believed that the date “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.” Adams got the date wrong—the actual signing of the Declaration took place on July 4—but he got the spirit right. Independence Day has since been treated as a celebration of America’s independence from Great Britain.
For all of Adams’ enthusiasm, however, his letter obscures the fact that America’s founders were, for the most part, a tragically-minded group. Those “present at the creation” of the United States were certainly driven by the audacious belief, as Thomas Paine wrote, that they had the chance “to begin the world over again.” Yet throughout the early years of the American republic, they also drew motivation from the tragic histories of the republics of antiquity. For the founders, those histories showcased the difficulties of maintaining liberal, self-governing polities in a hostile world, and they suggested that a proper appreciation of tragedy was essential to avoid a premature end to the American experiment.