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Making Sense Of The Fourth Of July
The DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE is not what Thomas Jefferson thought it was when he wrote it—and that is why we celebrate it
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
John Adams thought Americans would commemorate their Independence Day on the second of July. Future generations, he confidently predicted, would remember July 2, 1776, as “the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America” and celebrate it as their “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.”
His proposal, however odd it seems today, was perfectly reasonable when he made it in a letter to his wife, Abigail. On the previous day, July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress had finally 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.” The thought that Americans might instead commemorate July 4, the day Congress adopted a “declaration on Independency” that he had helped prepare, did not apparently occur to Adams in 1776. The Declaration of Independence was one of those congressional statements that he later described as “dress and ornament rather than Body, Soul, or Substance,” a way of announcing to the world the fact of American independence, which was for Adams the thing worth celebrating.
In fact, holding our great national festival on the Fourth makes no sense at all—unless we are actually celebrating not just independence but the Declaration of Independence. And the declaration we celebrate, what Abraham Lincoln called “the charter of our liberties,” is a document whose meaning and function today are different from what they were in 1776. In short, during the nineteenth century the Declaration of Independence became not just a way of announcing and justifying the end of Britain’s power over the Thirteen Colonies and the emergence of the United States as an independent nation but a statement of principles to guide stable, established governments. Indeed, it came to usurp in fact if not in law a role that Americans normally delegated to bills of rights. How did that happen? And why?
According to notes kept by Thomas Jefferson, the Second Continental Congress did not discuss the resolution on independence when it was first proposed by Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee, on Friday, June 7, 1776, because it was “obliged to attend at that time to some other business.” However, on the eighth, Congress resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole and “passed that day & Monday the 10th in debating on the subject.” By then all contenders admitted that it had become impossible for the colonies ever again to be united with Britain. The issue was one of timing.
John and Samuel Adams, along with others such as Virginia’s George Wythe, wanted Congress to declare independence right away and start negotiating foreign alliances and forming a more lasting confederation (which Lee also proposed). Others, including Pennsylvania’s James Wilson, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, and Robert R. Livingston of New York, argued for delay. They noted that the delegates of several colonies, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, had not been “impowered” by their home governments to vote for independence. If a vote was taken immediately, those delegates would have to “retire” from Congress, and their states might secede from the union, which would seriously weaken the Americans’ chance of realizing their independence. In the past, they said, members of Congress had followed the “wise & proper” policy of putting off major decisions “till the voice of the people drove us into it,” since “they were our power, & without them our declarations could nor be carried into effect.” Moreover, opinion on independence in the critical middle colonies was “fast ripening & in a short time,” they predicted, the people there would “join in the general voice of America.”
Congress decided to give the laggard colonies time and so delayed its decision for three weeks. But it also appointed a Committee of Five to draft a declaration of independence so that such a document could be issued quickly once Lee’s motion passed. The committee’s members included Jefferson, Livingston, John Adams, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin. The drafting committee met, decided what the declaration should say and how it would be organized, then asked Jefferson to prepare a draft.
Meanwhile, Adams—who did more to win Congress’s consent to independence than any other delegate—worked feverishly to bring popular pressure on the governments of recalcitrant colonies so they would change the instructions issued to their congressional delegates. By June 28, when the Committee of Five submitted to Congress a draft declaration, only Maryland and New York had failed to allow their delegates to vote for independence. That night Maryland fell into line.