I know you will not read this post for a few days, but just so you know, I am writing this on Independence Day. I was thinking back to what an exciting time it must’ve been for our Founding Fathers. I get excited when I create minor things like this website, but I can’t imagine the thrill of creating something as amazing as a country. Very few people have the opportunity to be a part of a project that, 243 years later, we know changed the world quite literally. Of course, they did not know what their efforts would lead to. For all they knew, they were going to be captured by the British and hanged for treason. They knew they were declaring their independence from the crown, and a few years later they would be building the massively complex, living organism.
However, with this gargantuan task laid at their feet, it has always been surprising to me how small the world actually was. There were not that many people around overall.
In 1776, the colonies had an estimated population of 2.5 million people. For little bit of perspective, in 2018, my home state of Vermont had approximately a quarter of that, 626,299 people. Vermont is one of the smallest states, but our population is a rather significant portion of the entire colonial population. I can’t pretend that I know everyone in Vermont, but if I reflected over my entire life and considered how many people in the state I have come into contact with, it would not be a small number. Also, people did not travel nearly as much back then as they do now, so you would become very close to the people that were geographically closest to you. I have gone to many doctors outside of my state. In 1776, besides the fact that there would be no treatment for my condition, I would have gone to the doctors closest to me. It would not really have been realistic for me to travel from what were the New Hampshire Grants to Maryland like I do in modern times.
Why is this all significant? When you think about who the delegates were who signed the Declaration of Independence, it was much easier to make sure that you are putting forward people that actually represented your state because the likelihood of you knowing your representatives was significantly higher. If you did not know your representative, it would be a much easier process to either find someone who did or find that representative yourself.
That strikes me as highly significant when you are trying to find someone that you want to be in the room as your country is being built. Let’s face it. Most of us don’t really know our representatives. As a Vermonter, I have said hello to Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch, but I don’t believe I have ever spoken to Patrick Leahy unless I just don’t remember. But, like I pointed out above, I live in a small state. The odds of me meeting my representatives are much greater than people in states with larger populations. As a result, we don’t really know very much about the actual people that we put forward. I know that we try our best to learn. I tried to be educated about my voting decisions, and I hope that you try to be as well. However, I’m largely voting on the images people portray. It is not a personal connection like I imagine would be more possible in 1776.
The obvious piece of contradicting evidence is the difficulty of travel as I mentioned above. What is a two-hour drive today very well might be a multiple day trip in 1776, so if you wanted to be a part of that event, it would take a lot more effort. Therefore, even with the reduced population, it might be much more difficult to become educated like I suggested I try to be today.
However, reputations travel. Do you work in a place where rumors spread? Assuming that you work, then the definitive answer is yes. We all understand how that works. Even if I was not capable of traveling to meet a particular person in 1776, it would not be as difficult to find someone who had. Personal impressions I have to imagine involved much fewer degrees of separation.
Again, why do I mention this? As I mentioned above, these people were given a remarkable task. Not only did they have to declare separation from the most powerful entity in the world at that time, but they also had to build something that did not exist and would not exist if they did not do their jobs. You would want to make sure that you have the right people in the right position to represent you. Obviously, these men were far from perfect, and they certainly did not do everything right by any means. Nobody said that. However, what I am suggesting is that the world in 1776 had something that we do not have. With fewer people around and less geographic mobility and an increased likelihood of living in one’s hometown long-term, the chances that the average person would know the person representing him or her I would imagine would be higher. Perhaps I am wrong, and if you know some research that contradicts what I am saying, please email it to me.
However, if my theory is accurate, then I think that there is a very important truth that applies to all of us today. We all want to know the people who are making decisions about us. We want to feel like they know us and care about us individually. I don’t think that desire has gone away even as our country has grown and perhaps we have even grown more connected by social media. You can have friends from across the country instead of the geographic limitations that existed in 1776.
However, there is a trade-off there. I know people from around the country and around the world, but that means that I do not invest as much time in knowing the people around me. Ironically, in the case of the United States, that may mean that instead of investing my time in knowing people who actually have an impact on my life, I am investing more time in other things that do not have a direct impact on me.
I do not write this to denounce all online friendships. Plenty of you reading this are people that I will probably never meet in person. That’s okay. However, I think that that needs to be a critical balance. We want to make sure that we are cultivating our local relationships as well. Because, at the end of the day, I think we somewhat desire the conditions of 1776. If we put down deep roots in a particular town, we want to know the people that are living there with us. We desire that direct human connection in person. Again, not to insult any online friendships, but there is something absolutely different about meeting someone face-to-face. In fact, the people that you meet face-to-face in your local area are much more likely to impact your life in significant ways, much like the representatives in 1776. It was important for people to know them, and it is important for us to know people directly around us as well.