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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
The adoption of independence was, however, from the beginning confused with its declaration. Differences in the meaning of the word declare contributed to the confusion. Before the Declaration of Independence was issued—while, in fact, Congress was still editing Jefferson’s draft—Pennsylvania newspapers announced that on July 2 the Continental Congress had “declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States,” by which it meant simply that it had officially accepted that status. Newspapers in other colonies repeated the story. In later years the “Anniversary of the United States of America” came to be celebrated on the date Congress had approved the Declaration of Independence. That began, it seems, by accident. In 1777 no member of Congress thought of marking the anniversary of independence at all until July 3, when it was too late to honor July 2. As a result, the celebration took place on the Fourth, and that became the tradition. At least one delegate spoke of “celebrating the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,” but over the next few years references to the anniversary of independence and of the Declaration seem to have been virtually interchangeable.
Accounts of the events at Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, say quite a bit about the music played by a band of Hessian soldiers who had been captured at the Battle of Trenton the previous December, and the “splended illumination” of houses, but little about the Declaration. Thereafter, in the late 1770s and 1780s, the Fourth of July was not regularly celebrated; indeed, the holiday seems to have declined in popularity once the Revolutionary War ended. When it was remembered, however, festivities seldom, if ever—to judge by-newspaper accounts—involved a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. It was as if that document had done its work in carrying news of independence to the people, and it neither needed nor deserved further commemoration. No mention was made of Thomas Jefferson’s role in composing the document, since that was not yet public knowledge, and no suggestion appeared that the Declaration itself was, as posterity would have it, unusually eloquent or powerful.
THE FOURTH OF JULY was rarely celebrated during the Revolution and seems actually to have declined in popularity once the war was over.
In fact, one of the very few public comments on the document’s literary qualities came in a Virginia newspaper’s account of a 1777 speech by John Wilkes, an English radical and a long-time supporter of the Americans, in the House of Commons. Wilkes set out to answer a fellow member of Parliament who had attacked the Declaration of Independence as “a wretched compostion, very ill written, drawn up with a view to captivate the people.” Curiously, Wilkes seemed to agree with that description. The purpose of the document, he said, was indeed to captivate the American people, who were not much impressed by “the polished periods, the harmonious, happy expressions, with all the grace, ease, and elegance of a beautiful diction” that Englishmen valued. What they liked was “manly, nervous sense … even in the most awkward and uncouth dress of language.”
All that began to change in the 1790s, when, in the midst of bitter partisan conflict, the modern understanding and reputation of the Declaration of Independence first emerged. Until that time celebrations of the Fourth were controlled by nationalists who found a home in the Federalist party, and their earlier inattention to the Declaration hardened into a rigid hostility after 1790. The document’s anti-British character was an embarrassment to Federalists who sought economic and diplomatic rapprochement with Britain. The language of equality and rights in the Declaration was different from that of the Declaration of the Rights of Man issued by the French National Assembly in 1789, but it still seemed too “French” for the comfort of Federalists, who, after the execution of Louis XVI and the onset of the Terror, lost whatever sympathy for the French Revolution they had once felt. Moreover, they understandably found it best to say as little as possible about a fundamental American text that had been drafted by a leader of the opposing Republican party.
It was, then, the Republicans who began to celebrate the Declaration of Independence as a “deathless instrument” written by “the immortal Jefferson.” The Republicans saw themselves as the defenders of the American Republic of 1776 against subversion by pro-British “monarchists,” and they hoped that by recalling the causes of independence, they would make their countrymen wary of further dealings with Great Britain. They were also delighted to identify the founding principles of the American Revolution with those of America’s sister republic in France. At their Fourth of July celebrations, Republicans read the Declaration of Independence, and their newspapers reprinted it. Moreover, in their hands the attention that had at first focused on the last part of the Declaration shifted toward its opening paragraphs and the “self-evident truths” they stated. The Declaration, as a Republican newspaper said on July 7, 1792, was not to be celebrated merely “as affecting the separation of one country from the jurisdiction of another”; it had an enduring significance for established governments because it provided a “definition of the rights of man, and the end of civil government.”