Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy "Declaration of Independence" Day!

Today, the Fourth of July is erroneously called Independence Day.

In fact, independence was declared on July 2nd, prompting John Adams to write:

"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 forever more."

And, even though independence had been declared, the War of Independence would rage on until the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 with actual independence being recognized by the ratification of the Treaty of Paris of September 3, 1783.

The Declaration of Independence wasn't even signed on the 4th of July, as most (but not all) of the delegates signed it on August 2, 1776. The 4th of July actually commemorates the adoption of the specific Declaration document penned largely by Thomas Jefferson. Rather than being the actual declaration of independence (which was passed on July 2), it is an apology, an enumeration of the reasons, and a philosophical explanation of, independence. The actions of Congress were not made public until July 8, 1776 - when the document was publically read behind what is today called Independence Hall in Philadelphia to a cheering crowd (many of whom, no doubt, would argue that we should be celebrating on July 8th instead).

On July 19, 1776, the New York delegation was given permission to approve the resolution, thus making it unanimous. It could be argued that independence was not really even declared before that time, as the signatures did require ratification.

Furthermore, there is the added complication that several states had already declared independence, as the Commonwealth of Virginia did on May 15, 1776 - more than a month before the Continental Congress. The War of Independence began a year earlier ("the shot heard around the world") at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, April 19, 1775. In June, the Continental Congress created a Continental Army under the commandership-in-chief of General Washington. Some even date the beginning of the War for Independence at March 5, 1770 ("the Boston Massacre") - as armed resistence to British rule and a cry for home rule had begun.

Even further complicating matters is the fact that the United States as we know it today is not the same government as that of 1776. The Articles of Confederation were approved by Congress on Nov 15, 1777. Because of the need for all of the states to ratify the document, the Articles did not actually go into effect until March 1, 1781!

On September 17, 1787, Congress adopted a new Constitution. It went into force among nine of the states on June 21, 1788 (thus abolishing the "perpetual union" of the Articles of Confederation) when New Hampshire became the ninth to ratify. Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island were independent republics, apart from the United States, from this date until their subsequent ratifications. The last of these independent states to ratify was Rhose Island, when on May 29, 1790, after nearly two years of independence from the U.S., and under a good deal of political pressure, ratified the U.S. Constitution and rejoined the Union.

Then, there is the added complication that the United States was completely reconstituted between 1865 and 1877, when the relationship between state and union was changed from one of federalism to one of nationalism.

So, ironically, July 4th is only one of many mileposts in American independence. I would think July 2nd stakes the best claim for true Independence Day (though American independence as a fait accompli was still many years off). July 4th is probably more accurately called "Declaration of Independence Day" - as it celebrates not only the July 2nd resolution, but the adoption of the actual declaration which eloquently defends secession as a legitimate and perpetual political expression against governments that are too large and/or too distant to serve the people.

The Declaration of Independence is not only a philosophical defense of secession, it is also a specific "Americanization" of that universal right, a defense of the rights of American States to unilaterally declare independence from a larger political union, as well as a working definition of when a government becomes tyrannical, including: centralized taxation, burdensome regulation and bureaucracy, and the suppression of the armed sovereignty and independence of the states.

Fortunately for the federal government as it is now constituted, most people celebrate the 4th of July with a cook-out instead of actually reading the document dated "July 4, 1776." The last thing federal politicians want is for the American people to define "tyranny" the way our forefathers did, and claim the same rights to do something about it.

But anyway, here's to American Independence!


Paul McCain said...

Larry, the phenomenally good John Adams series that HBO ran, and that is now out on DVD, has a number of special features on it, including a scene of John Adams visiting the John Adams archives. That quote you include in your post is from a private letter that John wrote to Abigail. On the DVD the archivist hands the letter to David McCullough, who reads that portion of the letter.

Paul McCain said...

Rats: correction to last: "that includes a scene of DAVID MCCULLOUGH visiting the John Adams archives"

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Paul:

I had heard good things about the book, and I recently saw the DVD set at Barnes & Noble - and I was wondering how the series is.

"Phenomenally good" is quite an endorsement!

I'll have to check it out.