Historian’s Almanac for July 4, 2014

 

  July 4 being a holiday, I find myself with a little free time to think about why so many of my fellow citizens get excited.  July 4 is for many like all other holidays, an excuse to take a day off from their daily, and often boring, routine, to laugh, play, and eat without worrying about tomorrow.  For others, another holiday is but another opportunity to make money off the former.

Let us not forget that other group of our fellow citizens who are denied the enjoyment of leisure, because they must labor for “Ole Masssa,” helping him separate the more fortunate from their hard-earned money.  Holidays are for many just one more day in the daily struggle for survival.  An elderly gentleman who grew up in rural Mississippi during the first half of the 20th century told me that for him July 4 was just another day in the cotton field.

July 4 is an important day of remembrance in the life of American civil religion.  It is a day to celebrate and relive patriotic myths.  Much of what most Americans believe happened on July 4, 1776 is just that, myth.  It just didn’t happen the way our parents said it did.

The Continental Congress did not sign the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.  Yes, I know that seeing is believing and you have seen the painting by John Trumbull depicting the members of the Continental Congress signing the Declaration of Independence, but that is just an example of “putting a spin on the news,” 18th century style.  As historian David McCullough states in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of John Adams, “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”

The historical truth is that the Continental Congress voted on the colonies’ independence on July 2.  For those who want further proof, the PENNSYLVANIA EVENING POST reported:  “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”  History contradicts Jefferson and Adams, both of whom said the signing took place on July 4.  But we are not surprised to learn that those two honorable politicians were capable of telling a lie, or should I say, “correcting” the historical record?

John Adams expected July 2 would become the day for celebrating America’s independence.  In a letter to his wife Abigail, he expressed his belief that July 2, 1776 would be celebrated as the greatest moment in American history.  “It ought to be commemorated,” he wrote, “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 End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

As for Thomas Jefferson being the author of the Declaration of Independence, there is both truth and falsehood.  Jefferson received the commission only after both George Washington and John Adams refused it.  Jefferson was a great admirer of the English philosopher John Locke and “borrowed” much of what he wrote from Locke.  In fact, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence sounded so much like Locke that James Madison commented “The object was to assert, not to discover truths.”

Pointing out that much of our traditions associated with July 4 are patriotic myths is not meant to in any way diminish the importance of our ancestors’ struggle for independence or their accomplishments.  The United States is not all that we would like for it to be, but we need only watch the evening news to be grateful that we live here rather than most parts of the world.

In closing, I wish to note a few other events that occurred on July 4 in past years.  Both Jefferson and Adams died on July 4, 1826, and James Monroe died on July 4, 1831.  The deaths of both Jefferson and Adams on July 4, 1826 were taken by many as a sign of God’s providence in the founding of the United States.  If that be true, then the fall of Vicksburg to Union forces on July 4, 1863 was a sign of God’s judgment on the Confederate States of America.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always walk under the mercy.

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