American independence day, July 4, fell this year on Saturday. For the first time, there was no real fanfare of this national holiday but only a subdued observation with some fireworks because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This year’s independence day also came in the backdrop of the racial inequality problem that has shaken the very foundation of this country in ways that most Americans have never been seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Two hundred forty-four years ago, on June 7, 1776 when the Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, the Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies’ independence. The motion generated heated debate postponing a vote. The congress appointed a five-man committee—including Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York—to draft a formal statement justifying the break with Great Britain.
On July 2nd, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence from the Great Britain in a near-unanimous vote (the New York delegation abstained, but later voted affirmatively). On that day, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that July 2 “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival” and that the celebration should include “Pomp and Parade…Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”
Two days later delegates from the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
Initially, there was some debate as to whether to celebrate the 2nd July or the 4th July. For example, for John Adams it was the 2nd July and he refused to observe it on the 4th of July. But ultimately July 4 was chosen as the birthday of American independence. [Oddly, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.]
On July 8th, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read in Philadelphia’s Independence Square, along with music and the ringing of bells. Local celebrations occurred throughout the colonies as copies of the document circulated. That summer many colonists held mock funerals for King George III as a way of symbolizing the end of the monarchy’s hold on America and the triumph of liberty.
The following year the colonies collectively recognized the occasion on July 4th, with festivities that included bonfires and military displays. The tradition of setting off fireworks on the 4th of July began in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, during the first organized celebration of Independence Day. Ship’s cannon fired a 13-gun salute in honor of the 13 colonies. The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported: “at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.” That same night, the Sons of Liberty set off fireworks over Boston Common.
George Washington issued double rations of rum to all his soldiers to mark the anniversary of independence in 1778, and in 1781, several months before the key American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4th an official state holiday.
Small towns held parades on July 4 since the 19th Century. Independence Day speeches from politicians remained an occasion for people to gather and listen and carry on.
But the national holiday celebration only dates back to 1870 when the Congress declared the 4th of July a federal holiday. It was not a paid holiday though. Only in 1941, the provision was expanded to grant a paid holiday to all federal employees.
The Declaration of Independence has always been seen by many conscientious humans as a statement of values and human dignity. It reads, “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…”
Such phrases “all men are created equal” and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain “unalienable Rights” are an oddity in themselves since all those who signed that original document owned slaves who were neither viewed nor treated as being created equal to their masters; nor did the slaves had any right for life, liberty and happiness. The slaves were thought of as nothing more than a possession and perceived to have no souls. Even free white American women did not have any right to vote.
There was, therefore, occasional protests on the 4th of July for not living up to the high values of that declaration. Frederick Douglass, a famous 19th Century writer and abolitionist, in his speech at an 1852 event that was meant to pay tribute to the Declaration of Independence, complained instead. He said: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
As we all know, it took 89 years from that very day of declaration in 1776 before slavery was abolished in 1865 by the 13th amendment. Soon after, the 14th amendment established equal rights for all free people, and the 15th amendment gave African American men the right to vote.
As we also know very well now, in the midst of the latest “Black Lives Matter” movement all across the United States, the right to vote did not translate into equality in life, liberty and happiness. The race still matters in the land of Lincoln and a Black American is more prone to be killed by trigger-happy Americans for just looking different. So is the case with religious and racial minorities in many parts of our world, esp. in places like India, Myanmar and China where a Muslim is more prone to be killed for simply being religiously and ethnically different.
Hypocrisy runs so deep in our world that while an individual may sympathize with Black Americans and speak out against the racial injustice suffered by them in the distant USA, the same person feels no bite of conscience for either condoning or even participating in the crimes perpetrated by his fellow men against a religious or ethnic minority in his very backyard.
When can we see all human beings as children of Adam?
As we observe the 4th of July in 2020 in the midst of twin attacks from the Covid-19 and racial/religious injustice, let’s unite to realize the true values of the Declaration of Independence.