Why do we celebrate the 4th of July? Did you know we actually declared independence on the 2nd? My answer defines the American idea and how we can best celebrate this Nation under God on the 4th. I shared this thought some years ago but believe it worth saying again.
Richard Henry Lee, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Virginia, prepared a resolution proposing independence. He submitted his resolution on June 7th and it read, “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
Congress debated Lee’s resolution on Saturday, June 8th and again on the 10th. When it looked like declaring independence was probable they assigned a committee of five to write up a statement explaining the reasons for independence.
Lee’s resolution came back up for consideration on July 1st and was adopted on the 2nd. John Adams wrote home to his wife Abigail, "The Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival." The Pennsylvania Evening Post announced the decision to the world in its paper that evening: “This day [July 2nd] the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”
On the afternoon of July 2nd, with independence declared, the delegates took up the statement we now know as the Declaration of Independence, prepared by the committee of five but mostly written by Thomas Jefferson. They debated it that afternoon, the next day, and then adopted it on July 4th. The statement did not have a name. It was simply titled, “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” (Notice “united” is not capitalized. They were not the United States yet.)
The Declaration has 32 paragraphs and can be described in three groups. The middle section, consisting of 29 paragraphs, presents their grievances, the “train of abuses” to a “candid world.” It includes taxes without consent, quartering troops, cutting off trade, abolishing charters—it’s a long list. The final paragraph restates Lee’s resolution, the act already committed—“that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States . . . absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.” Thomas Jefferson added a few memorable words to Lee’s resolves, including—“we pledge our lives, fortunes and sacred honor.”
The first group of words—the first two paragraphs of the Declaration—are the most interesting. “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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”
These words are commonplace today, but in 1776—self-evident? There was not a single country in the world where all men were considered equal. There was not a government based on consent of the governed. There was not a county in the world where the government’s stated purpose—was the promotion of Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness—of its people. There was not a group of people empowered with electing their head of state.
So, why do we celebrate the 4th of July rather than the 2nd? (Remember Adams thought we were going to celebrate the 2nd.)
I like to think the answer is because on the 2nd of July we said who we were NOT—subjects of King George who were governed by "divine right." But on the 4th of July we said who we ARE—a nation of people aspiring to equality and liberty. On July 4, 1776 fifty-six of our best and brightest men, away from their families and occupations, on a hot summer day, in a room on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, put to paper the revolutionary ideals that would lead us on a never ending journey toward equality and liberty.
Some countries celebrate the anniversary of military assaults or victories that lead to their independence. In America we celebrate a day of words. On what day did our revolutionary war begin? We don’t remember. On what day did the war end? On what day was the most important battle leading to victory? On what day did we actually declare independence? Most Americans don’t know. And that’s okay. John Adams said, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced.” It was a change “in the minds and hearts of the people.” On the 4th of July we celebrate what was in their minds and hearts. On July 4, 1776 something much greater happened than mere independence. Fifty-six of our best and brightest put words on paper and committed their Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor to independence and to those words—that all men are created equal—endowed by a creator with certain rights—rights that come from God not from kings, including the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the right to a government, as Lincoln will say, “of the people, by the people and for the people.” What a beautiful way to celebrate an American Day—the day of our most beautiful words—words of our founding!
Abraham Lincoln said, “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all [people] and all times.” This is the most famous American document. These are our most important American words.
In this time of divisiveness, may I suggest the best way to celebrate America’s founding is to remember our original words—words of inclusion not divisiveness—and strive to make them so in the "land of the free and the home of the brave!"