Today is our favorite holiday of the year. It is about BBQ, beach, and conviviality to some extent, but it is chiefly a celebration of the first official public announcement of the Declaration of Independence here in Philadelphia two hundred and forty two years ago. The delegates of the Second Continental Congress actually approved the Declaration two days earlier. The vote was twelve in favor of independence, with one abstention (New York – which made it unanimous after the fact). John Adams predicted that July 2 would become a day of jubilation that would be “solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with shews, Games, Sports, Balls, Bonfires and Illustrations from one end of the Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Well, aside from being off by two days, Adams turned out to be right. The announcement date became more important than the vote itself. Plus, July 4 is the date on the signed document that sits in our National Archives.
Adams, by the way, was originally proposed to be the author of the Declaration, but he deferred to Jefferson. Even so, Adams and other members of the drafting committee (including Benjamin Franklin) edited Jefferson’s draft with a heavy quilled pen. Jefferson thought that the edits “mangled” his work, but we’d say the document turned out fairly well. The Declaration was really a legal brief supporting separation from Great Britain. But its second sentence also set out our country’s mission statement, which perseveres no matter how many times we manage to fall short: “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 them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” We’ll take that single sentence over the Parthenon, Colosseum, Notre Dame, Tower Bridge, or Great Wall (or any other wall).
The Fourth of July is a quintessentially American holiday. It is hot, loud, and rambunctious. We meant to order four big pieces of red, white, and blue bunting, but clicked the wrong button and ended up with eight. No matter. We climbed a ladder and hung it all over the front porch. John Philip Sousa would love our house. Meanwhile, the dog trembles in anticipation and terror. He seems to know that lots of cooked cow and pig and chicken flesh is coming his way, followed by a festival of sparklers, cherry-bombs, and Roman candles in the backyard.
Many other important American historical moments occurred on July 4, some purposefully coinciding with that date, and some being purely accidental. For example:
July 4, 1817 – Construction of the Erie Canal commences. Some point to the canal as the major reason why New York overtook Philly as the nation’s preeminent metropolis. Some of us still haven’t gotten over it. The 2009 World Series didn’t help.
July 4, 1826 – Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams perish 50 years after the first Independence Day.
July 4, 1827 – Slavery was abolished in New York. It is shocking and sad to think how long slavery lingered even in the northern states that claimed the moral high ground only a few decades later. (One of the edits that Jefferson believed “mangled” the Declaration was deletion of a passage condemning slavery.)
July 4, 1845 – Henry David Thoreau set up house on the shore of Walden Pond. Why? We can hardly improve on Thoreau’s explanation: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” The book marked another declaration of independence, this time with literary, cultural, economic, and spiritual ambitions.
July 4, 1855 – Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Like America, the book was always a work in progress. Over the years, it grew in size, greatness, and reputation.
July 4, 1863 – The Confederate Army withdrew from Gettysburg and Vicksburg surrendered. While the Civil War would wreak carnage and calamity for almost another two years, the conclusion now seemed inevitable.
July 4, 1881 – Tuskegee Institute opened.
July 4, 1910 – Jack Johnson knocked out Jim Jeffries.
July 4, 1939 –A stricken Lou Gehrig told a Yankee Stadium crowd that he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
July 4, 1966 – LBJ grudgingly signed the Freedom of Information Act into law.
The Fourth of July also witnessed the birth of people who exemplified the American character in various ways: Stephen Foster (1826) began the American songbook, Rube Goldberg (1883) conjured up crazy, convoluted machines to perform simple tasks, thereby giving rise to a wonderful adjective (“Goldbergian”), and George Steinbrenner (1930) contributed to that pesky New York dominance alluded to above. (Grrrr.)
Whether or not you manage to make history today, we hope you manage to make merry with loved ones. If it is too hot outside, take in a “shew.” If you light any fireworks or bonfires, by all means be careful! Go ahead and pursue happiness. Maybe you’ll even catch it.