By John Copeland
This week, here in America, we celebrate Independence Day. For a lot of us, July 4th is filled with fireworks, parades, barbecues, picnics and baseball games.
But, you know, it is not the day America won its independence from England. The Treaty of Paris was signed on April 11, 1783.
What the Fourth of July does commemorate is the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress in 1776. July 4 was the first holiday established by our young nation, and it’s the only one that celebrates our United States.
However, Independence Day should really be observed on July 2, because that was the day the Continental Congress actually voted for independence from England. Even colonial newspapers announced that on July 2 the Continental Congress had “declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”
The Fourth of July was the day that members of the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Even though July 4 is the date at the top of the Declaration, the famous handwritten version was created after July 19, and not signed by most of the members of the Continental Congress until Aug. 2.
During the summer of 1776, copies of the Declaration spread through the colonies. Americans marked the occasion with bonfires, ringing bells and tearing down symbols of the British monarchy. But what exactly were Americans celebrating that summer? It was the news of independence, not the document that proclaimed it.
Curiously, celebrating on July 4 began by accident. In 1777, no member of the Continental Congress thought of marking the anniversary of America’s independence at all until July 3, and then it was too late to observe it on July 2. As a result, the celebration in 1777 took place on July 4, and that became the tradition.
After independence, the Fourth of July was the first holiday established by our young nation. But, surprisingly, it was not long before the Fourth of July declined in popularity and was not regularly celebrated.
Judging from contemporary newspaper accounts, when the Fourth of July was remembered it was not with the kinds of festivities we are familiar with today. Observances usually involved a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. No mention was made of Thomas Jefferson’s role in composing the document, since that was not yet public knowledge, and there was no suggestion that the Declaration itself was, as posterity has demonstrated, unusually eloquent and powerful.
It was as if that document had done its work in carrying news of independence and it neither needed nor deserved further commemoration.
The Declaration of Independence that we revere today is a document whose meaning now is very different from what it was in 1776.
Originally, the Declaration of Independence announced the end of Britain’s control over the 13 colonies and the emergence of the United States as an independent nation. But it has since been recognized as a statement of principles to guide stable and established governments, and it has come to usurp a role that Americans at one time delegated to the Bill of Rights
You’re probably asking, “How did that happen?”
Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and the other members of the Second Continental Congress had a different perception of what they were writing in July 1776. For them, it was enough for the Declaration to be “merely revolutionary.”
In the mid-1800s, a little-known lawyer and one-term congressman from Springfield, Ill., idealized the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and its assertion that all men were created equal. In Abraham Lincoln’s hands, the Declaration became a living document for an established society and a set of goals to be realized over time.
The Union victory at Gettysburg in July 1863 was for Lincoln a vindication of the proposition to which the nation’s fathers had committed themselves in 1776. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address stated briefly and eloquently the convictions he had developed over the previous decades to bring to “this nation, under God, a new birth of freedom.”
The Declaration of Independence that Lincoln left us with was not Jefferson’s Declaration, although Jefferson and other revolutionaries shared the values Lincoln stressed: equality, human rights and government by consent. Nor was Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence solely his creation. It remained an “expression of the American mind” — not, of course, what all Americans thought, but what many had come to accept. Over time, Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence has become that of our nation.
The Declaration of Independence’s power comes from its capacity to inspire and move the hearts of Americans living today. It has often been a cause of controversy, pushing as it does against established habits and conventions, as well as a unifying national icon, a legacy that binds the colonial revolutionaries to us, who continue to confront issues our Founding Fathers could not have envisioned.
This Fourth of July, whatever our political persuasions, we should all take a moment to reflect on the words Thomas Jefferson crafted, along with input from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, for unanimous approval by the Second Continental Congress. They are as important for us to reflect on today as they were for our colonial ancestors in 1776.
On this holiday Thursday, we Americans celebrate not simply the birth of our nation or the legacy of a few great men. We also commemorate the Declaration of Independence that is now our own collective work and celebrate the through-line that continues to define the promise of America.
Happy Fourth of July.