Independence Day

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The Spirit of '76

Independence Day is the celebration of the birthday of the United States of America, referred to in secularized language as July 4th or the Fourth of July. On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence; thus, breaking ties with the Kingdom of Great Britain, and a new nation was born.[1] The document, primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, served as a formal announcement that the 13 American colonies were no longer part of the British Empire and would henceforth be free and independent states.[2]

Independence Day has long been the most important of all American anniversaries, and its very first celebration was held in the nation's capital, then Philadelphia. Congress established Independence Day as a holiday in 1870, [3] and as a legal holiday in 1941. This is year number 238 of our Independence.

Most American businesses are closed and the citizens enjoy the summer holiday with cookouts, get-togethers, concerts, baseball, picnics, barbecues, bon fires, parades, and at night time enjoy displays of fireworks. Some people hold re-enactments of Revolutionary War era and some people give political speeches at events across the nations cities and towns.

The Flag and symbols of it are in evidence everywhere, in this annual outpouring of patriotism. An expression of pride and hope can be found in many patriotic songs such as the national anthem The Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, God Bless America, My Country 'Tis of Thee and The Stars and Stripes Forever. [4]

Contents

Patriot Quotes

Spirit of 76.jpg

John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3rd, it reads: [5]

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward for evermore.

In a letter written on June 24, 1826, Thomas Jefferson says of the Fourth of July:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains ... and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. ... For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

John F. Kennedy said:

We dare not forget that we are the heirs of that first revolution.

The Declaration of Independence:

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 these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Historic Patterns

In 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims the independence of the United States of America from Great Britain and its king. [6]

The first celebrations of the Fourth of July began in 1777, but it was not a major holiday until politics intruded. By 1800, partisanship had become bitter in the First Party System. The Federalist Party, in its strongholds like Boston, turned the Fourth into a day of celebrating the party and denigrating the opposition. The Jeffersonian Republicans, believing the Federalists had misappropriated the American Revolution and neglected the role of Thomas Jefferson, staged their own, more democratic, celebrations. Disorder sometimes marred the festivities, but the public enjoyed both parties' observances. The War of 1812 saw the substitution of solemn observances for the noisy partisan celebrations.

By the Era of Good Feelings after the War of 1812, the holiday became nonpartisan and was enthusiastically celebrated across the land. It encouraged national identity and unity with orations, dinners, militia musters, parades, and fireworks.

The Fourth took on a military dimension that stressed masculinity. Festivities were opened to the entire public and exemplified republican and egalitarian principles, but they increasingly depicted a militarized, masculine ideal of citizenship and accorded women few roles other than as spectators.

Especially in small cities and towns the holiday combined patriotism and entertainment in an attempt to reaffirm common values and reinforce community solidarity. The festivities' main ingredients, often covering several days before 1940, were civic and patriotic oratory, parades, sports and games, carnivals, dances, fireworks, music, and food.

The Fourth celebrates prowess—first national strength and in recent decades individual strength. The Peachtree Road Race was begun in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970 and is held each year on the Fourth of July. The first ten-kilometer race attracted a mere 110 runners; by 1994, the number of participants had grown to some fifty thousand.

During the 1960s and 1970s, some cities with large antiwar elements, such as Denver, saw parades and picnics replaced by demonstrations and rioting ridiculing patriotism and denouncing the Vietnam War. Those protests were gone by 1975.

The Fourth is an affirmation of Americanism for Americans in remote locations (such as the Overland Trail in the 1850s) and for Americans overseas. They hold special celebrations at embassies and consulates, as well as private parties wherever expatriates gather.

Oratory

Typical celebration in the west during the early 1820s paid tribute to the pioneers, observed the customs and traditions of their old homes, alluded to current problems, and sought to reconcile political interests for the occasion. Lawyers were called on to read the Declaration of Independence and to discuss its current and future meaning. Special tribute was paid to Washington and the Founding Fathers, as well as to the personification of the "Genius of Liberty" which would advance both the spiritual and material basis of the United States and counteract the influence of Europe's despotic monarchism. The moral and religious tone of the celebration was accompanied by a general interest in eating, drinking, and offering toasts. The general acceptance of verbose, exaggerated, and ungrammatical Fourth of July oratory was not the result of ignorance. It was based on the idea that people were in danger of losing their liberty, when they forgot to commemorate the manner in which it was won.

As the fireworks grow louder and brighter, the oratory grows softer and dimmer, and often is dispensed with.

Antebellum Southern Whites

From 1778 to 1821 orations in the South reflected the nationalist feeling of the period, but in the next decade the threat to the expansion of slavery created an undertone of suspicion. In 1831 and 1832 nullification dominated the celebration, and the abolitionist threat and the horror of slave revolt appeared next. In the 1840s and 1850s the orators defended the institution of slavery. In the five years before the outbreak of the Civil War orators in Charleston and other deep South cities began to accept secession as inevitable. From 1847 to 1860 the orators spoke increasingly with one voice against the hostile action of the federal government. In the border states the emphasis was more on preserving the Union at all costs.

Blacks

Before the Civil War free blacks found fault with the Declaration of Independence for inconsistency and the closely related grounds of hypocrisy and ineffectuality. They held negative attitudes toward Thomas Jefferson and dismissed the Fourth of July because it did not include freedom for blacks. Black leaders and white abolitionists fought to insure that the Declaration would remain an inescapable commitment.[7]

The Fourth is a celebration of freedom and no one had more cause to celebrate than the freed slaves. African American celebration of the Fourth of July in southern cities such as Memphis, Tennessee, in the years following the Civil War featured a major parade with all the local black organizations marching or making floats, followed by picnics and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, Fourth of July celebrations by the white community tended to be much more subdued.

Reagan: What July 4th Means to Me

Representative of the traditional meaning of the Fourth is this oration written and delivered by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. It captures the essence of what the holiday means to millions of Americans:

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For one who was born and grew up in the small towns of the Midwest, there is a special kind of nostalgia about the Fourth of July.

I remember it as a day almost as long anticipated as Christmas. This was helped along by the appearance in store windows of all kinds of fireworks and colorful posters advertising them with vivid pictures.

No later than the third of July - sometimes earlier - Dad would bring home what he felt he could afford to see go up in smoke and flame. We'd count and recount the number of firecrackers, display pieces and other things and go to bed determined to be up with the sun so as to offer the first, thunderous notice of the Fourth of July.

I'm afraid we didn't give too much thought to the meaning of the day. And, yes, there were tragic accidents to mar it, resulting from careless handling of the fireworks. I'm sure we're better off today with fireworks largely handled by professionals. Yet there was a thrill never to be forgotten in seeing a tin can blown 30 feet in the air by a giant "cracker" - giant meaning it was about 4 inches long.

But enough of nostalgia. Somewhere in our growing up we began to be aware of the meaning of days and with that awareness came the birth of patriotism. July Fourth is the birthday of our nation. I believed as a boy, and believe even more today, that it is the birthday of the greatest nation on earth.

There is a legend about the day of our nation's birth in the little hall in Philadelphia, a day on which debate had raged for hours. The men gathered there were honorable men hard-pressed by a king who had flouted the very laws they were willing to obey. Even so, to sign the Declaration of Independence was such an irretrievable act that the walls resounded with the words "treason, the gallows, the headsman's axe," and the issue remained in doubt.

The legend says that at that point a man rose and spoke. He is described as not a young man, but one who had to summon all his energy for an impassioned plea. He cited the grievances that had brought them to this moment and finally, his voice falling, he said, "They may turn every tree into a gallows, every hole into a grave, and yet the words of that parchment can never die. To the mechanic in the workshop, they will speak hope; to the slave in the mines, freedom. Sign that parchment. Sign if the next moment the noose is around your neck, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the Bible of the rights of man forever."

He fell back exhausted. The 56 delegates, swept up by his eloquence, rushed forward and signed that document destined to be as immortal as a work of man can be. When they turned to thank him for his timely oratory, he was not to be found, nor could any be found who knew who he was or how he had come in or gone out through the locked and guarded doors.

Well, that is the legend. But we do know for certain that 56 men, a little band so unique we have never seen their like since, had pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Some gave their lives in the war that followed, most gave their fortunes, and all preserved their sacred honor.

What manner of men were they? Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists, 11 were merchants and tradesmen, and nine were farmers. They were soft-spoken men of means and education; they were not an unwashed rabble. They had achieved security but valued freedom more. Their stories have not been told nearly enough.

  • John Hart was driven from the side of his desperately ill wife. For more than a year he lived in the forest and in caves before he returned to find his wife dead, his children vanished, his property destroyed. He died of exhaustion and a broken heart.
  • Carter Braxton of Virginia lost all his ships, sold his home to pay his debts, and died in rags. And so it was with Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Rutledge, Morris, Livingston and Middleton.
  • Nelson personally urged Washington to fire on his home and destroy it when it became the headquarters for General Cornwallis. Nelson died bankrupt.

But they sired a nation that grew from sea to shining sea. Five million farms, quiet villages, cities that never sleep, 3 million square miles of forest, field, mountain and desert, 227 million people with a pedigree that includes the bloodlines of all the world.

In recent years, however, I've come to think of that day as more than just the birthday of a nation. It also commemorates the only true philosophical revolution in all history.

Oh, there have been revolutions before and since ours. But those revolutions simply exchanged one set of rules for another. Ours was a revolution that changed the very concept of government.

Let the Fourth of July always be a reminder that here in this land, for the first time, it was decided that man is born with certain God-given rights; that government is only a convenience created and managed by the people, with no powers of its own except those voluntarily granted to it by the people.

We sometimes forget that great truth, and we never should. [8]

Happy Fourth of July,

Ronald Reagan
President of the United States

Symbols of Liberty in the United States:

See also

Further reading

  • Martin, Howard H. "The Fourth of July oration," Quarterly Journal of Speech, Volume 44, Issue 4, 1958, Pages 393–401
  • Quarles, Benjamin. "Antebellum Free Blacks and the 'Spirit of '76'" Journal of Negro History, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Jul., 1976), pp. 229-242 in JSTOR
  • Sweet, Leonard I. "The Fourth of July and Black Americans in the Nineteenth Century: Northern Leadership Opinion Within the Context of the Black Experience," Journal of Negro History, Vol. 61, No. 3 (July 1976), pp. 256-275 in JSTOR
  • Travers, Len. Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. (1997). 304 pp.
  • Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (1997)
  • Warren, Charles. "Fourth of July Myths," William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jul., 1945), pp. 238-272 in JSTOR, by leading conservative scholar

References

  1. The Congress had already voted for independence on July 2, 1776 and on July 4 it gave the reasons in the Declaration of Independence..
  2. Jefferson Writes Declaration of Independence. The History Channel website. 2010. Accessed Jul 4, 2010.
  3. History of the Fourth PBS.org
  4. Patriotic Melodies The Library of Congress
  5. July 4th History Kidz101.com
  6. U.S. declares independence
  7. Benjamin Quarles, "Antebellum Free Blacks and the 'Spirit Of '76.'" Journal of Negro History 1976 61(3): 229-242.
  8. What July Fourth Means to Me: Ronald Reagan
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