By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 11/16/2018
Posted: 7/3/2006
Topics/Keywords: #History #Constitution Page Views: 3570
What is the 4th of July really about?

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. I'll have the day off—sort of (I don't get paid for holidays, but I can't go to work since the building will be closed) and we'll be having grilled hamburgers and hotdogs and watching the fireworks in the evening like most other Americans. The biggest difference is we probably won't be drinking any beer—none of us really likes beer.

The old joke goes, "Is there a 4th of July in Mexico?" The answer, of course is yes—it comes a day after the 3rd of July. The American holiday is not "the 4th of July;" the holiday is Independence Day and it happens to fall on the 4th of July, in the way that Christmas happens to fall on December 25th.

It's interesting what Americans think of when we think of the Fourth of July. For example, on a number of conservative blogs I found posts claiming that the Fourth of July celebrated "God and Country."

Freedom

But Independence Day does not celebrate "God and Country." It celebrates "Independence," specifically, the independence from Great Britain declared by the American colonies in 1776.

A surprising number of people think that the American Revolution actually started on July 4, 1776 and that that's what Independence Day celebrates. However, America was already deep in revolution by then.

While relations between the colonies and Great Britain had been strained for years—especially due to heavy taxes levied upon Americans to pay for British wars—the April 18, 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord is said to be the first, official, skirmish of the war. British General Gage had sent 900 soldiers to seize munitions stored in Concord, Massachusetts; American "minutemen" appeared from out of nowhere to defend the battery and bottled up the British as they tried to retreat back to Boston. Considering the amount of time it took to sail across the ocean, and the fact that there was no other way to communicate with the King, it's clear the British had intended this to become a war; because less than two months after Lexington and Concord, a fleet of ships delivered 4500 additional British soldiers to American shores and the war was on. In July, 1775, George Washington, recently made general of the colonial forces, took over and managed to stand against the British for the rest of that year and through the winter into 1776.

All through this, people in the colonies did not seriously consider seceding from Great Britain. It's important to remember that the majority of these people thought of themselves, proudly, as British citizens, just as today a Texan or New Yorker or Oregonian thinks of him or herself as an American first, and a citizen of his or her state, second.

It was the press that helped people evolve to this new vision of themselves as Americans, and by that I mean, largely, the private press. Newspapers were notably pro-British as the war began; but individuals such as Thomas Paine—who first published his pro-independence monograph "Common Sense" anonymously—impacted the public as no pro-status-quo newspaper ever could. 120,000 copies of "Common Sense" are said to have been distributed, even though there were only a few million free adult Americans to read them.

So, by summer of 1776 it had become acknowledged that the possibility of declaring independence from Great Britain existed; and the topic was hotly debated, with the conservatives of the time resisting change (which is the definition of conservatism) and the liberals of the time arguing for it.

On June 7, 1776 the "Lee Resolution" was passed by the Second Continental Congress. It read:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

This was, of course, technically treason as far as Great Britain was concerned; and if America lost the war those who supported the Lee Resolution would surely be hung. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." So it became imperative that the Second Continental Congress find a way to re-phrase the somewhat uninspiring Lee Resolution into a declaration of purpose that would be so compelling that Americans who read it would agree that a fight for independence was the only reasonable course an honorable man could take, and that might even convince an Englishman that Americans were reasonable in following this course.

So, less than a week later, five members of the Continental Congress were requested to draw up such a declaration. The group included Ben Franklin as well as Thomas Jefferson. But, as good (and famous) a writer as Franklin was, the group insisted that the declaration needed the touch of a lawyer. And so Thomas Jefferson wound up with the job.

The Declaration of Independence drew heavily upon the Dutch Oath of Abjuration, in which the Netherlands declared their independence from King Phillip II of Spain. And it included the apt observance that people do not find themselves resisting their current government easily:

Prudence indeed, will dictate, that Governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.

This observation highlights Jefferson's accurate understanding of people: That then, as today, people will tolerate the suppression of their freedoms only up to a point. Then, as happens with most things in nature, they explode.

The first draft of the Declaration of Independence also included an impassioned plea against the slave trade, which Jefferson blamed on King George III. Jefferson owned slaves he had inherited from his father; but that they were people to him is demonstrated by the fact that he fell in love with one. And his insistence that this passage remain in the document almost defeated the entire cause. It was almost certainly Benjamin Franklin, who hated slavery as much as Jefferson did, who gently reminded Jefferson that one couldn't fight every battle at once. And so, the passage was removed.

The Declaration also includes a section in which King George III's shortcomings are listed. Some of the things of which he is accused, were actually carried out by his administration rather than by himself. But in those days the king of a country was assumed to be the final authority—he could never lay blame on a department in his government or "bad intelligence." Prior to specifying 27 specific crimes, Jefferson wrote,

The History of the Present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

The Declaration of Independence was formally adopted on July 4, which is why Independence Day is celebrated on that day. It wasn't signed then. On July 19, 1776, Congress ordered a copy be handwritten for the delegates to sign. Most of the delegates signed it on August 2. A few signed later; two never did. This is the copy on display at the National Archives (and stolen by Nicholas Cage in the movie National Treasure).

There is an Internet meme that makes the rounds this time each year, claiming that the signers of the Declaration mostly died in poverty after being imprisoned, tortured, and robbed. Most of the claims in this meme are false or misleading. However, one paragraph is dead on the money:

They gave you and me a free and independent America. The history books never told you a lot about what happened in the Revolutionary War. We didn't fight just the British. We were British subjects at that time and we fought our own government!

The gift given the world by the author and signatories of the Declaration of Independence is not just America, and it isn't just democracy or the abstract notion "freedom." The real gift is the concept, daring in 1776 but most perfectly phrased almost a century later by Abraham Lincoln, that "we the people" are not the subjects of a government; we are its masters. That we have, and have a right to, a "government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people…"

The President is our employee. Government does not exist for the benefit or profit of corporate greed, lobbyists, pork barrel projects, or the aggrandizement of politicians no matter how noble their words or patrician their heritage. And as long as a single American is homeless, or doesn't have health care or a job or the freedom to marry whomever he or she chooses, that government—our government—is not doing the job the Second Continental Congress envisioned for it.

A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every Act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

Because the freedom that we celebrate is not the freedom to do any damned thing we want.

It's freedom from the tyranny of a man who would be King…and it is this freedom, and no other, that we must all be ready at all times to defend with our lives—because there will always be those who will use their wiles, money and power to convince us we should abdicate our freedom to them.

And not all of them will be named "George."