By JANET HANKS, Featured Weekly Columnist
Today is the Fourth of July, the day Americans traditionally celebrate our national independence from Great Britain. This is an interesting choice of day, because not much of a patriotic nature happened on it. In an attempt to shine a ray of light–or perhaps a barrage of ballistics–on it, the Research Department worked overtime, which made it rather grouchy and late to the fireworks.
It discovered the following facts: The Revolutionary War “unofficially” began on April 19th, 1775, when shots were fired in Lexington and Concord. The Declaration of Independence was signed (mostly) on July 2, which prompted John Adams to say that Americans would be celebrating the second day of July into all perpetuity. The war was over, except for the shouting, after George Washington’s army whacked that of Cornwallis in Yorktown in October of 1781. The colonies actually became independent, un-confederated states on September 3, 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Confused yet?
Wait until you try to figure out what happened on July 4, 1776.
It’s not easy to sort through. On July second, in a sweltering room in Philadelphia, representatives to the Continental Congress voted to publicly declare what was already true in practice: The days of being a convenient source of revenue for Britain were over, and now everybody needed to grab a musket, not just New England. Remember, though, that fighting had been going on for over a year.
John Adams and a committee had written a draft Declaration in May 1776, incorporating some of the many local and colony-level resolutions that had already been passed. This committee version stank, as committee-written literature usually does. Rumor has it that John Adams and some other guys locked Jefferson in a bedroom until he cranked out a readable version, which is the Declaration we (don’t) know and love.
The Declaration of Independence in its final form wasn’t read in public until July 8th, and it wasn’t “officially” signed and sent away until August 2rd.
We all know the beginning bits: Jefferson said that when one group of people wants to sever its civil ties to another, it had better state the reasons for so doing. He went on to plagiarize John Locke in a mighty way, saying that everybody knows that God gives all white, property-owning males the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Locke had said “property,” which goes to show either how idealistic Jefferson was, or how much we equated the two even then).
Most Americans think the Declaration stops after the inalienable rights, but it goes on for quite a long time afterward. Among other things, it lists twenty-six crimes of King George that make him a.) a tyrant and b.) unfit to govern a free people.
In addition to the things you would expect–taxation, quartering troops in private homes, dismissing legislatures–Jefferson says the king has perverted justice, practiced nepotism, committed theft, and finally, murdered people and pillaged the coasts.
The Declaration of Independence could describe a pirate if you took the “king” word out. Of course, it could also describe a common bandit, highway robber, or the Federal Government for the past thirty years, particularly in the taxation and standing-army areas.
So why, we reiterate, do we celebrate Independence Day when we do? Because the Continental Congress approved Jefferson’s revisions on July 4, so the Declaration bears that date.
That’s it. It’s a revision date. Everybody said, “Oh, hey, this IS better,” and went to lunch, nervously, because the British really were coming. America did not pay much attention to the Fourth of July until some people in Freeport, Maine, threw a patriotic party in 1820, and the traditions mushroomed from there.
Now, as the ancient and irascible Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of the story. The Research Department suggests that you go out and set off some fireworks anyway.