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The small falsehoods and great truth of the Fourth of July

A lot of the lore that surrounds the holiday isn't accurate, but its meaning and power are undeniable.

July 04, 2009|Peter de Bolla | Peter de Bolla, a professor of cultural history and a fellow of King's College at Cambridge University, is the author of the recently published "The Fourth of July and the Founding of America."

Each Fourth of July is celebrated in the time-honored way -- fireworks, parades, cookouts and, oh yes, recommitment to the fine principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence: those "self-evident" truths and "unalienable" rights.

It is curious, however, that so much of the inherited lore around the Fourth of July is based in misapprehension.

For starters, the day itself, July 4, isn't exactly America's Independence Day. John Adams believed that July 2 would become the significant day in the new republic's calendar of celebration. That's because it was on July 2, 1776, that delegates from the 13 Colonies at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in fact voted to proclaim independence from King George III and his ministers.

What happened two days later? A decision to make the July 2 decision public. The delegates gave the statement they'd agreed on to a printer, and the "broadsides" he published carried the July 4 date.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the physical document revered as the Declaration of Independence, a vellum scroll kept in the National Archives in Washington with 57 signatures proudly sitting at its foot, has no claim on being the unique founding document. It was hand-copied later. As to the signatures of those who pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor, they were added later still -- some were inscribed by new congressional delegates, men who hadn't even been in the room on July 2.

Moreover, although generations of American schoolchildren have learned that the declaration's author was Thomas Jefferson, this is also a slightly inaccurate portrayal of the facts. Jefferson did indeed draft the text, but others in the Continental Congress had their own views about the best form of words to use. The last paragraph, for example, containing the words "that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free independent states," was in fact penned by another Virginian, Richard Henry Lee.

In 1776, there was no public proclamation, no formal "declaration" read to the Colonists on either July 2 or July 4. And the news that resolutions against the king had been adopted could of course only travel at the speed of the fastest horse and rider. Therefore, the celebration of any selected day as the birth of the nation could only ever be a convenient fiction.

Nevertheless, in 1777, the members of the Continental Congress did decide to note July 4 by not meeting. A small and very low-key celebration was mounted, and everyone went to church. There was some talk of muskets being fired, but gunpowder was in short supply as the Colonies were at war.

Each subsequent year, celebrations were held in towns and cities, and each began to develop traditions for observing the day. The text of the declaration was read aloud. Dinners were held, often in the open air, with elaborate toasts, commonly 13 in number representing the original Colonies. Fireworks were from early on a feature of the day. Parades of the local great and good took place in town squares. By the time of the 50th anniversary in 1826, the traditions of the public celebration were fully established.

Perhaps it is best to see the Fourth of July as a story that, although not strictly speaking true, nevertheless conveys a belief: that the nation came into being on a particular day in 1776, signed, sealed and delivered. And each and every Fourth of July, as if for the first time, the story is both celebrated and instantiated, "America" -- by simple force of a declaration -- is founded again.

Today most of you will take the day off, put some hot dogs on the grill and open a few cans of beer. Some, like the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1992, will unfurl the Stars and Stripes and sing "Happy Birthday." But however one chooses to celebrate independence, may it also be remembered that the birthday of the nation, and the declaratory act that founded it, created and continues to create an architecture of belief. In 1776, it had the power to change the world. For good or ill, it still does.

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