Gordon S. Wood: How the Complete Meaning of July Fourth Is Slipping Away


History Buzz

Source: The New Republic, 7-4-11

Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown University and the author, most recently, of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.

At least one of the Founders thought that Independence Day would become important. When the Continental Congress voted for independence on July 2, 1776, John Adams, who more than any other single Founder was responsible for that vote, was ecstatic. America’s declaring of independence from Great Britain, he told his wife Abigail, marked “the most memorable Epocha in the History of America.” He hoped that the day would be “celebrated by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated,” he said, “as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one end of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Although Adams was wrong about the day (two days later on July 4 the Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence), he was right about the celebrations, at least through much of our history. For us today July Fourth is still an important holiday, and we can be thankful that no one is suggesting that we move it the closest Monday. Yet the day no longer seems to have the solemnity and significance that Adams hoped it would have. To be sure, we have lots of parades, games, and fireworks, but much of the meaning of these festivities seems to have slipped away from us.

This is too bad, for July Fourth, 1776, is not only the most important day in American history, but because the United States has emerged as the most powerful nation the world has ever known, it is surely one of the most important days in world history as well. The Declaration legally created the United States of America. It announced to a “candid world” that Americans were assuming “among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them.” But it did much more than that. It stated all governments everywhere were supposed to derive “their just powers from the consent of the people,” and that when any one of these governments became destructive of the people’s rights and liberties, the people could alter or abolish that government and institute a new one….READ MORE

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