Thursday, June 30, 2011

Independence Day

Dressed in layers of ruffled-neck shirts, vests, and cut-away coats and legs in silk stockings, in the heat of the summer of 1776, fifty-six men representing thirteen American colonies sat in Philadelphia behind closed doors debating the nature of their relationship with Great Britain. On the day British soldiers landed on Staten Island, July 2, this assembly of men voted to “dissolve the connection with Great Britain,” and thus committed treason.*

Levying of war against “our lord and king in his realm” was a treasonable offense in 1776. Conviction required two witnesses. Among the penalty options, if convicted, included quartering, cutting off of the head, and hanging. Until this step the American patriots only disagreed with Parliament, not with King George III. Thus, Benjamin Franklin who supposedly quipped “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we hang separately,” the act was not without serious consequences.
On the other hand, John Adams writing to his wife, Abigail, said that the July 2nd declaration “will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival….It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this times forward forever more.”

On a pleasant, cool day, July 4th, without much fanfare the Continental Congress again meeting behind closed doors voted on the wording of “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America." This document, mainly written by Thomas Jefferson, set forth the reasons that impelled the colonies to separate. The case for this action was that the equality of men gave them certain unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Twenty-seven abuses of these rights by Great Britain were enumerated. Among the abuses specified were the “quartering of large bodies of armed troops” and “imposing taxes without consent.” John Hancock signed the document.

The first authorized printing of the Declaration of Independence appeared in Philadelphia on July 6. As the document reached the colonies there was ringing of bells and bonfires and other celebrations. While the Congress was now charting the course for a new country and its war with Great Britain, the delegates signed the document on August 6.

The 1776 celebrations of independence, which was not unlike the previous celebrations for the King’s birthday, now included the mock funeral for King George III. In 1781, Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4 an official holiday. After the second defeat of Great Britain in the War of 1812, patriotic celebrations on July 4th spread across the country. Thereafter, ground breaking events such as the opening of the Erie Canal and of the B&O Railroad were planned to coincide with this celebration. Not surprising, African-Americans did not/could not participate in the celebrations even though many of their leaders encouraged supporting the ideals of the Declaration. In 1870, Congress made the date a federal holiday. John Adams’ prediction of the celebratory activities came true. The most common symbol of the holiday is the American flag and the anthem it inspired.

In Harrisonburg, July 4, 2011, a ten-year tradition of celebration will include a parade, food booths, family-fun activities, and, of course, fireworks. The celebration begins at noon in front of the Court House with the reading of the Declaration of Independence and ends with nighttime fireworks.

*The New York Delegation abstained on this vote.  Several delegates who opposed separation absented themselves during the voting so their colony would vote in favor of the action.

Sources:
David McCullough.     John Adams.  Simon and Schuster.  2001.
                                   1776.  Simon and Schuster.  2005.

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