By: Sandy Slater
As representatives from the far flung thirteen colonies gathered in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress, the summer heat blazed outside. Inside the stiflingly warm room, men argued in 1776 about the legitimacy of independence from Great Britain and many expressed their loyalty to the crown, fearing British military reprisal. These arguments were not new, nor were they especially interesting to most of those who assembled. And yet despite this, the disagreeing parties consented to form a committee to draft a document severing American ties from Britain. Five very different men, including Thomas Jefferson, a young representative from Virginia most notable for his literary achievement in the form of the Notes on the State of Virginia, John Adams, the bulwark for independence and representative from Massachusetts who annoyed literally everyone with his energy and adamancy, and also Dr. Benjamin Franklin, well advanced in years and the most famous American in the world at the time, served in an advisory capacity. The other two members, Robert Livingston from New York and Roger Sherman from Connecticut, long ignored or forgotten as members, also served, but with less distinction, often excusing themselves from discussions for various family needs. Thomas Jefferson, lovesick and missing his new wife, lamented that the drafting of this document kept him in Philadelphia and away from his beloved home, Monticello. Over the course the summer, Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian and southerner (an important fact given many southern loyalist sentiments and fears for the demise of slavery), labored unimpressively until his wife arrived in Philadelphia to join him. Inspired, shall we say, he took up the quill pen and wrote. The document he produced appeared before the Second Continental Congress and was not without fault, which Jefferson took quite personally, and angrily scratched out notes and amendments, keeping careful tabs of his original document. On July 2, 1776, the agreed upon the declaration was more than a statement of independence. The document included a scathing indictment of the inadequacies of King George III and the British crown, accusing the King of a multitude of crimes against his people. Treason, indeed. The document appeared with all signatures on the Fourth of July, initially creating both public celebration and fear. The war which began the year earlier as shots rang out in Lexington and Concord was now indefinite. Poorly supplied military troops, little money, and few allies incited somberness among both the supporters of independence and those in opposition. No one knew the outcome and it didn’t look good for the new nation.
In the years during and after the American Revolution, the Fourth of July came to symbolize the moment of American independence from Britain, but also served as a statement of unity; it was the first document of the new American nation, no longer colonies, but free. The cultural institution and practices began in earnest in 1777 and continue to this day. Feasts and celebrations began in 1777 in Philadelphia, even including fireworks. Thirteen shots were fired in honor of the holiday in various parts of America. The first official holiday following the creation of the United States of America in 1789, in 1791 Congress declared the 4th of July as Independence Day, conveniently forgetting that the document actually went into effect two days earlier. It didn’t matter. The document came to the people on the 4th and it became the people’s document. In 1826, 50 years to the day, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams lay dying. Separated by distance, but united in both their cause for liberty and their enduring friendship, the two men seemed to be waiting for something. As the bells rang out to celebrate Independence Day, both men slipped away, the last of the founding fathers. Both lived long enough to see the nation thrive and endure. The sentimental nature of the date of their deaths was not lost on the general population who mourned their passing with great displays. In the decades that followed their deaths people enjoyed an emotional and cultural detachment from the miseries that accompanied the American Revolution, the dangers of execution for treason, and the many years spent in anxiety, not knowing if the colonies would win the war. Instead, we remember the glories, freedom, and celebrate in ways that overshadow the true purpose of the historical moment. This year in particular, when faced with hatefulness or despair, let’s remember that our nation grew from similar pains and arguments around the nature of freedom. And in our hearts, let’s affirm freedom for ALL Americans and remember the necessity of fighting and defending liberty, a war not forgotten, a war not yet finished.