Wednesday, 04 July 2018 16:11

Our Celebration of Independence Day:  A Question of Accuracy?

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Declaration of Independence Declaration of Independence Image from Pixabay

HAMLET - “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation.”

These are the introductory words of the Declaration of Independence and they capture the essence as to exactly why we observe and celebrate Independence Day each year.  But how did we come to denote the 4th as THE day, and why?  What if we have it all wrong?  

Yes, the Fourth of July is upon us once again and, as has been the ongoing custom, we now celebrate the 242nd anniversary of our declared independence from Great Britain.  But what if we misread the “birth certificate” of the United States and are technically wrong about the actual date? 

John Adams, considered to have been the primary co-author (assisting Thomas Jefferson) of the Declaration of Independence itself, thought this to be the case.  

Adams wrote:  “But the day is past.  The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 Shews, Games, sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from Time forward forever more.”  

He sent this to his wife Abigail on the 3rd of July, 1776, in recognition of the initial approval of the RESOLUTION to declare independence from Great Britain; the Declaration parchment itself was still being penned and refined by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Sherman, and Livingston and would not actually be approved until Thursday, July 4th – thus our recognition (albeit arguably erroneous) of THAT date as the “birth” of the nation. 

However, on the “national” level, we might easily be celebrating some other date as our “Independence Day.”  It could just as well have been July 8th – given the amount of time it took in the 18th century for such events to be communicated and circulated, it was not until Monday the 8th that any “celebration” of note (e.g., the first ringing of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, etc.) took place.  Or as early as June 7th, the date upon which an official resolution of American independence was first introduced by Richard Henry Lee and seconded by John Adams.  Had it not been for the conservative elements of Congress continuing their efforts to ameliorate the growing rifts between the “Americans” and the English, THAT could have been considered the day upon which we became an entity unto ourselves.  A committee was appointed on June 11th to prepare an appropriate “declaration on independence” just in case the Lee resolution be adopted, but the conservative faction managed to postpone official Congressional debate on the resolution until July 1st.  

Other significant occurrences that effectively contributed to our movement toward declaring independence that are oft overlooked include:  the Stamp Act of 1765; the “Tea Act” of May 10th, 1773 and the Boston Tea Party that it precipitated on December 16th of that year; the September and October of 1774 meetings and resolutions of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia; the “ … give me liberty or give me death” speech of Patrick Henry in Richmond, Virginia on March 23rd of 1775;  the April 19th, 1775 clash between American “Minutemen” and British “regulars” at Lexington and Concord; the June 15, 1775 appointment of George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army; the July 3rd date of his actual assumption of field command; the January 15th, 1776 publication of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” pamphlet; and/or the signing of the Treaty of Paris in December of 1783 that officially established America’s independence. 

There are other dates that could also lay claim to representing the true commencement point of our independence, and two primary contenders have North Carolina roots.  The Mecklenburg Declaration and the Halifax Resolves should each be recognized as receiving due credit for having contributed to, if not indeed initiating, the movement towards the United States becoming an independent nation unto itself.  

The Mecklenburg Resolves document (which was only later “renamed” the “Declaration”) was a result of the May 20th, 1775 denotation of the ideas and sentiments of the Mecklenburg County Committee of Safety.  This committee had only recently learned of the armed conflict at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in April and was thus primed for some sort of retaliatory action.  The “Declaration” was ceremoniously adopted on May 31st and proclaimed that “all Laws...derived from the Authority of the King or Parliament, are annulled and vacated," and that the Provincial government "under the Great Continental Congress is invested with all legislative and executive Powers...and that no other Legislative or Executive does or can exist, at this Time, in any of these Colonies." 

The information was reputed to have been relayed (by Captain James Jack) to the North Carolina representatives Richard Caswell, William Hooper, and Joseph Hewes meeting at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  Similar resolutions were subsequently issued by other North Carolina localities (e.g., Tryon County, etc.) over the next fourteen months leading up to the ultimate vote to declare independence on July 2nd, 1776.  

It should be noted that none of these “mini-declarations” actually called for unadulterated independence from the mother country of England; rather, it was still hoped that a compromise of some sort could be achieved without any form of armed conflict that would most assuredly occur if a true “rebellion” were to be declared. 

It should also be noted that these dates (i.e., May 20, 1775 and April 12, 1776) are emblazoned upon our state flag in recognition of their respective significance. 

Resolutions adopted by the 83 delegates to the Fourth Provincial Congress of North Carolina meeting at Halifax on April 12th, 1776 were later given the name “The Halifax Resolves.”  This session led to the first official action in any of the colonies that called specifically for nothing less than total independence from Great Britain.  As none of the delegates to the Second Continental Congress had yet been authorized by their respective “home governments” to take any action that would lead to such a declaration.  The actions at Halifax effectively initiated such a movement that quickly spread through the other colonies, ultimately culminating in the 12-0 vote of July 2nd (New York abstained initially) in favor of breaking away from Great Britain. 

But despite this series of significant events and development of pockets of rebellion, the “air of entitlement to independence” that we generally accept today was NOT the predominant view of most colonists prior to, and even during, the summer of 1776.  The initial conflicts, skirmishes, and battles of the previous years (e.g., Boston Massacre of 1773, the “battles” of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, etc.) notwithstanding, the average “American” did not consider him/herself to be any such thing; we were still “British” and thus subjects of the King.  (That is why it is highly unlikely that Paul Revere ever espoused the words “The BRITISH are coming, the BRITISH are coming!”  WE were ALL still “British” in April of 1775, so he probably actually said “Redcoats” or “Regulars” – as in “regular soldiers of the British Army.”) 

The celebration of the “holiday” was not immediately established as an ongoing event.  The City of Philadelphia held a festival on July 4th of 1777, and General George Washington issued a double ration of rum to his soldiers and ordered the firing of a thirteen-gun salute on July 4th of 1778, but few other “official” recognitions have been noted.  The 1779 date fell on a Sunday so it was not celebrated by anyone till the next day.  It was 1781 before any state legislature (Massachusetts) voted to recognize July 4th as a state holiday.  Even after that, it can be argued that no “official” commemorative event of any significance was held until 1783.  It was then that the Moravian community of what is now Winston-Salem, North Carolina, held the first recorded festivities in honor of the birth of the nation.  Bristol, Rhode Island claims to have maintained the oldest continuous Independence Day celebration, holding a Fourth of July Parade every year since 1785.  Seward, Nebraska, a town of 6000, has held a celebration on the same town square since 1868 and was designated as “America’s Official Fourth of July City-Small Town USA” in 1979.  Its 4th events have witnessed as many as 40,000 attendees. 

But as for official status on the national level, it was almost a century (1870) before Congress made Independence Day a holiday, and even then it only applied to some federal employees and was an unpaid day off of work).  It finally became a paid federal holiday for these workers in 1938, and was soon (1941) expanded to include all federal employees and thus more akin to what we recognize today. 

There was a prolonged period during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which the night of July 3rd (think New Year’s Eve, Christmas Eve, and/or All Hallowed Saints Eve [Halloween]) was the time of fireworks and, more specifically, giant bonfires (e.g., 40 tiers of burning barrels and casks) of some significance.  In fact, the practice continues to this day in some New England areas. 

Regardless, though, of how it came to be, the reality is such that we do indeed celebrate July 4th as the anniversary of the date of commencement for our independence as a sovereign nation unto ourselves, so conduct yourself accordingly, despite knowing that we may be off a few days in our accuracy.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 July 2018 16:18