My Beautiful Wickedness

Why do we celebrate American Independence on July 4th?
July 3, 2007, 10:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

As most of my readers know, being the smart history wonks you are, nothing really happened on July 4th at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. All the major shouting had gone on for a month before, as they debated the Lee Resolves. The group of men assembled had authorized an army and appointed a general, but they had only reluctantly concluded that independence was the only step left to take — united in resistance to the King, but not yet willing to embrace union. (No power to tax, no power to requisition supplies or troops directly from the former colonies…)

On Friday, June 7th , Lee had risen at the behest of the Virginia House of Burgesses to propose the following:

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.

Massachusetts and Virginia were all for it, both colonies being under attack and their trade in some measure impeded by the King’s forces, but the Middle Colonies (and most troublingly, Robert Livingston of New York) were unresolved. The delegates had been in session since May 1775 and lacked instructions from their home governments on such a precipitous step. Livingston noted that many delegations — perhaps even his own — would have to “retire” and secede from the union if forced to vote so soon. So the Continental Congress agreed to defer the decision for three weeks while consultations were had — but some sort of declaration was needed to explain themselves.

They had plenty of experience writing justificatory prose. They’d written a similar document in the summer of 1775, begging for a peaceful resolution and an end to violence against the colonial citizenry, but the King refused to read it. Five men — John Adams, Roger Sherman, Ben Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson — met in committee to discuss what should be included, to outline the form, and so forth. Jefferson was left to produce the rough draft.

When the representatives met again on July 1st, only 9 of the 13 delegations were in favor. SC and PA opposed; Delaware split. New York abstained, as the NY Patriot Government was in session in White Plains and had not yet been heard from. (Truth was, the delegates from NY really didn’t want to do this at all.) By the revote on July 2d, SC changed its vote for the appearance of unity and everyone else but NY fell in line. (NY wouldn’t ok the measure until the document arrived and was read to great jubiliation in NYC on July 9th.)

They finally agreed to declare independence on July 2d.

On July 3d, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will 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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Now, with the hard political work done, all that was left was to tweak the announcement. (They wanted to strike the right tone, after all.) Down to work, the delegates edited the Declaration by committee. They spent the better part of two days editing, rewriting or chopping off large sections of text of the official announcement. Jefferson was miffed that his prose was being butchered. The most crucial (and some would say disingenuous) cut came when the whole Continental Congress agreed to drop a controversial paragraph in which King George was accused of waging “cruel war against human nature” by spreading and sustaining African slavery. In this passage, King George and his royal officials were also blamed for inciting slave rebellion in Virginia as a means of controlling his white subjects. – here, Jefferson had been referring to Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, which promised freedom to Virginia slaves who abandoned their Patriot masters and joined Loyalist forces.

Slaveowners thought it unwise to slam slavery, as they intended not only to keep it but expand it.

On July 4th, they sent the announcement to the printers. That’s it. The important work, to their mind, had been done two days before.

Nothing of great consequence happened until July 8th, when the document (now back from the printers and having been immediately dispatched so it could be read to the troops in NYC) was read aloud to the town of Philadelphia. Bells rang — though not the Statehouse (or Liberty) Bell, as the steeple that housed it was in crummy condition at the time (and besides, that bell had always sounded funny) — and flags flew (though not the Continental Flag, which would not be adopted until June 1777…more likely the red-and-white stripes of the Sons of Liberty). On July 9th, NYC got the news. Sons of Liberty and Washington’s army roped and pulled down the statue of King George III, to use the lead for bullets.

The Declaration was officially signed on August 2d, though many delegates missed the signing session.

So why do we celebrate on July 4th?

Would you believe me if I told you that it was an accident? The following year was an anxiety-filled year for the Second Continental Congress. No one remembered the July 2d anniversary until it had passed, on July 3d. By that time, it was too late to celebrate it on the appropriate day. So the Congress hastily scheduled some public celebrations and a dinner, just so it wouldn’t seem like they regretted the act. (And June 4th had been the King’s Birthday, so maybe there was just a little bit of “stealing thunder” going on by re-purposing the 4th of the following month to a Patriot cause.)

For many years, it was kind of a floating holiday. It wasn’t even a federal holiday until 1870…

Ahh…but why that is, and how the Declaration became the foundational political statement asserting human rights that has been copied worldwide, that’s a post for tomorrow.

Happy “Nothing Happened Today” Day.


12 Comments so far
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Wonderful post! I think you are awesome!

A question about this:
the whole Continental Congress agreed to drop a controversial paragraph in which King George was accused of waging “cruel war against human nature” by spreading and sustaining African slavery.

Did Jefferson write against slavery? was he really opposed to it? I am confused.

Comment by Nick Dupree

Somewhat similar to Christmas day, don’t you think?

Nick, my old mind is fading, but I seem to remember efferson wrote something along the lines of “I would like to free my slaves, but I am afraid of what they might do to me once I freed them”. Correct me if I’m wrong, Bridgett.

Not exactly a profile in courage, but it did show a desire to rid himself of that particular immorality.

Comment by Slartibartfast

Again, TJ was one of those “intelligent men of his day” — a human filled with contradictory impulses. His personal fortune and his lifestyle, the livelihoods of his entire social class, the very society that he lived in was dependent on coerced labor and the hierarchical relations of dependence assumed by slaveowning. He was a lawyer, so he well understood the foundational nature of common-law assumptions about who and what could be owned and how those ideas about alienable (sell-able) property rights inflected those “inalienable” (innate and un-vend-able) rights he talked about in the Declaration.

So, yes, he wrote against slavery. He thought it was cruel, he thought it was unnatural (which for an Enlightenment dude was a serious condemnation), and he pursued a piecemeal program of emancipating some his slaves (not to be too cynicial, but he was more likely to release bi-racial people — those biologically related to him or his family, people he assumed would be better fitted for liberty because he perceived them as smarter…more on his ideas on race in a moment). He knew enslaved people weren’t happy being slaves and fretted about the probability of large-scale rebellion. He turned to his enslaved workers for daily intimate companionship — Sally Hemings — though it would be going beyond the evidence to say too much about the emotional quality of that relationship for either party. Some things we just don’t know.

However, TJ was not willing or able to admit his own complicity in perpetuating this state of affairs — he blamed the British Crown (and sometimes the Dutch) for the introduction of slavery. Several times, not just in the excised paragraph in the Declaration, he pursued the line that the Americans had regrettably inherited slavery and although it was unjust, it was now an unpleasant burden that the slaveholder must bear stoically. For example, in a letter about the Missouri Crisis he wrote to John Holmes on April 22, 1820, Jefferson said, “But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” (Note the use of the singular on “ear” — the idea that the danger is there and snapping freely…most people misquote him and lessen the effect of the metaphor that he borrowed from the classical authors, maybe Terence. Terence’s version reads, “auribus teneo lupum: nam neque quo pacto a me amittam neque uti retineam scio.) Boo hoo. Poor slaveholders, having to put up with the nuisance of slavery. To be snide, if you look at the design of Monticello, you’ll realize that everything EVERYTHING in this architectural classic depends on slave labor. The house up on a gumdrop hill? The well way down at the bottom? The closet up on the friggin’ bedroom ceiling? That’s how you might design something if you never had to turn a finger to take care of yourself.

Whatever he thought of slavery, he had a very poor opinion of African-Americans themselves. In Query 14 of Notes on the State of Virginia, he endorsed the wholesale deportation of African-Americans (an early, but not the earliest, advocate of colonization, back to Africa because of the fear of race-based violence and the “differences that nature has made.” He then goes on to catalogue what he sees as the physical, moral, and mental deficiencies of “the African” which operates as a pretty good capsule of the state of scientific racism at the turn of the 19th century. Honestly, it’s painful for me to read.

Comment by bridgett

After re-reading this, I’m afraid people will get the idea that I’m saying that July 4th is an “empty” holiday. I don’t think that at all. It’s over-full, filled to the bursting with expectations met and unmet, lofty ideals, and a whole lot of blood sacrifice. No wonder it explodes at the end of the day — it’s an impossible holiday. But the simplified “this is the day where some old dudes signed that thingie, let’s eat some barbeque” version really isn’t it and robs us of the thrill of our history.

Comment by bridgett

Well, you know, this stuff does accrete. There’s a fast day, Tisha b’Av, that commemmorates the destruction of the first Temple. It has agglomerated every disaster in Jewish history to itself, and by now you can argue yourself blue in the face about the actual dates of these events and people will just blandly tell you that you’re wrong, they happened on Tisha b’Av.

As for the expanding meaning/value of the Declaration, once Magna Carta is taken as a foundational document of liberty anything is possible.

Comment by nm

Ah yes, Tisha b’Av. As though Jews suffered cataclysmic misfortune only one day a year….

Comment by bridgett

People get really, really mad at you when you point out the problems with that scenario….

Comment by nm

As I’ve always understood it, no one claims we only suffered on one day. The sages chose Tisha B’Av as our day of mourning because it is important to mourn the tragedies, but if we mourned every day we had a tragedy, we’d be paralyzed 365 days a year. Thus it makes sense to pick one day. We also mourn the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av.

Comment by Nick Dupree

[…] by Gerald on July 4th, 2007 In celebration of July 4, the day that nothing happened, I saw some friends, did some blogging, started reading a (relatively) new history of the Late […]

Pingback by I Saw Apocalypto « Virtual Bourgeois

Nick, I’ve got no problem with mourning all those things on one day. I’m talking about the widespread claims that they all occured on that day. Possibly over the past few years more people have come to recognize that that’s not true, and that would be a good thing. But I still see synagogues put out lists of tragedies that took place on Tisha bAv, rabbis sermonize on them, and newspapers print them. In fact, the New York Jewish Week published one such list about a decade ago, and a prominent scholar who used to write a regular column for them quit because they refused to print a correction because the editors were sure it was true.

Comment by nm

I accept that it’s near-impossible to verify if anything happened on Tisha B’Av. But still, I consider it “All-in-one Consolidated Day of Mourning.”

Comment by Nick Dupree

It’s easy enough to verify when events happened on other dates, but as for the spiritual purpose of the day, I’m with you there 100%.

Comment by nm

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