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July 4th

07/04/07 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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[HOST] Whatever it is we celebrate on July 4th, it's not clear that we're marking the actual anniversary of American independence. Commentator Vic Henningsen explains.

[HENNINGSEN] When the Continental Congress voted American independence, John Adams rejoiced. "This event," he wrote, "should be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great Anniversary Festival with pomp and parade, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other from this time forward, forever more." End quote. The date was July 2nd, 1776.

What about the Fourth? Well, that's the day that Congress approved the final draft of the formal announcement of separation from Britain. As historians like Pauline Maier point out, the so-called Declaration of Independence was exactly that - a declaration. It conformed to 18th century political theory, which required a formal proclamation ending a government and giving the reasons for doing so. To Adams, the Declaration was merely a legal notice of something that had already happened. If the actual moment of independence wasn't July 2nd, he argued, then it would have to be May 15th, when Congress adopted his resolution directing the colonies to dissolve their royal governments and write constitutions creating new ones.

Later in life, Adams pushed the date back even further, arguing that independence had developed "in the minds and hearts of the people" before the Revolutionary War began. He maintained that independence was a "radical change", but one that occurred gradually: an awakening that happened at different times for different people in different places. It shouldn't be tied to a specific date - certainly not to the Fourth of July.

But the fates were against him. In 1777, Congress almost forgot the first anniversary of independence. Only on July 2nd did anyone remember it; they discussed it on the 3rd; and held a formal observation on the 4th, a pattern that would be followed thereafter. By the 1820's the Fourth was commonly regarded as the moment of independence. In part, that reflects a human tendency to mark a momentous occurrence in a concrete and specific way. Over time a document which simply summarized and asserted in proper legal form reasons for separation from Britain, came to be seen as the precise moment at which independence occurred. In other words, those who came later, looking back, changed the importance of the Declaration and made it mean more than it had to those present at the time, turning the symbol into the thing itself. When Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4th, 1826 - fifty years to the day after Congress adopted the Declaration - the coincidence conveyed a kind of divine blessing upon the date and the document as the beginning of the American experiment.

So Adams got it wrong: we celebrate July 4th; not July 2nd, or May 15th. But he was surely right on the larger point: it's an idea we celebrate, not a date. To Adams and others of the 18th century, the Declaration was a way to formally mark the end of something. We celebrate what happened next.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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