Independence Day arrives this week. All across the country, Americans will be eating grilled hamburgers and hotdogs while watching firetrucks, beauty queens, and politicians ride in parades. Later in the evening, the night sky shine as neighborhoods, towns, and cities display bombastic fireworks. It is a day patriotism, patriotic music, tri-corner hats, and a celebration of who and what we are. In short, Independence Day is pure, unadulterated Americana. And it is wonderful!
Celebrating Independence Day with cookouts, parades, and fireworks is exactly what the Founders wanted. As John Adams famously told his wife, Abagail, he believed that Independence Day would become the “most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” and would “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.” We have not disappointed John Adams.
What many Americans may not realize is that John Adams wrote this letter on July 3rd. He believed Americans would celebrate independence on July 2nd, as that was the day the Second Continental Congress voted to declare the colonies independent. July 4th, however, proved to be the day Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. The signing of the Declaration occurred a month later and, even then, not everyone signed at all at once as John Trumball’s famous painting portrays. Historians believe the last signature, Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania, occurred as late at 1777 or 1778.
This forgotten history of the Declaration adds a level of further mystique to the quintessential American document. Nearly all Americans consider the Declaration as the most important document in American history, rivaled or surpassed only by the Constitution and can quote or paraphrase, the opening of second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As my years of teaching has taught me, American quite often think the Declaration’s second paragraph is part of the Constitution. That is obviously not the case, but it does testify to the seminal importance of the Declaration and its resonating calls for natural equality and rights.
For Americans in 1776, however, the opening of the second paragraph and its sweeping appeals were of minimal importance. The Founders absolutely embraced the ideas they espoused in the Declaration, no matter how tragically failed or hypocritical they may have been in upholding them. But despite being a reflection of American sentiment in 1776, the paragraph and famous clauses were of secondary importance. The most important part of the Declaration was the list of grievance leveled at King George III. Composing roughly 60% of the document, this part of the Declaration is all but forgotten today. Yet, its relevance remains as critical today as it did in 1776.
While there isn’t space here to detail each grievance, a quick look at the charges against George III provides the synopsis of why we declared independence. The list reveals how the violations of, what we could call civil rights, forced the toilsome separation. They are civil rights, as opposed to natural rights because they existed within civil society and established political order. For Americans of 1776, these rights were their historical and inherited rights as Englishmen. What England threatened, and our Founders believed they could only preserve through independence, where these civil rights that made self-government possible and desirable such as trial by jury, taxation without consent of the legislative assemblies, and “abolishing our most valuable laws.” The reason behind our independence was not only for philosophical precepts but also for the preservation of traditional civil rights. Understanding this neglected nature of our independence can help Americans today better appreciate Independence Day and inspire us to be better sentinels of our traditional rights and liberties. Do so upholds and strengthens the legacy bequeathed to us by our Founders.
So, take a moment to read the Declaration of Independence and the list of reasons for our separation. But don’t forget to celebrate in some form or fashion. Public celebrations, whether moments of deep reflection or lighter moments of “pomp and parade,” are vital aspects of civic culture. They help reinforce community bonds and help remind us of the social and political bands which connect us to one another. Happy July 4th!
About the Author: Nathan Coleman is a Professor of History at the University of Cumberlands. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Kentucky, a M.A. in History from the University of Louisville, and a B.S. in History from Cumberland College.
Nathan Coleman is the author of two books on American History - Click on each title to purchase the books: Debating Federalism: From the Founding to Today and The American Revolution, State Sovereignty, and the American Constitutional Settlement, 1765–1800
Professor Coleman was recently a guest on our Pegasus Podcast where he discusses these topics and more. Listen to the podcast conversation about the 4th of July HERE