Fourth of July celebrations commemorate the most American of all holidays. We have traditionally invited friends and family to join us for cookouts, parades, fireworks, and all the rest. Every schoolchild knows, of course, that the day marks the moment when the Continental Congress in 1776 declared its independence from the British empire.
This year is obviously different.
The entire world has been mired in the worst viral pandemic in over a century, with hundreds of thousands of people becoming sickened or dying, or losing their jobs, while some businesses have closed temporarily or permanently. Accompanying this are ongoing protests highlighting not only law enforcement criminal misconduct, but the deep problem of racial and ethnic injustice and inequality plaguing the U.S. Although town officials have canceled most festivities, we will find ways to celebrate this historic moment when a few Americans in Philadelphia, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, pledged “to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to ensure America’s separation from Britain.
Though the Declaration was adopted by Congress on July 4, 56 delegates did not sign the document until a month later. Its adoption and publication did not signal the beginning of the American Revolution, which was not a revolution at all: Americans did not aim to transform the British government into a democratic republic, but wanted to set up a government based on democratic principles.
Some Americans had been arguing for independence and engaging British troops long before the Declaration. In June 1775, the Continental Congress named George Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army, such as it was, and two months earlier, the battles at Lexington and Concord took place, leading to bloodshed.
On August 23, 1775, King George III declared the colonies in “an open and avowed rebellion, by arraying themselves in hostile manner to withstand the execution of the law, and traitorously preparing, ordering, and levying war against us [meaning himself, the king].” He sent hundreds of ships to the colonies filled with the best-trained, best-equipped military force in the world to restore order because a recalcitrant people had been “misled by dangerous and ill-designing men, and forget their allegiance which they owe to the power that has protected and sustained them.”
Six months before Congress published the Declaration, Thomas Paine, writing in “Common Sense,” proclaimed that “the blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’TIS TIME TO PART.” And yet most Americans did not endorse the Declaration of Independence. Historians tell us that only about one-third desired separation; one-third wished to remain loyal British subjects, and one-third awaited the outcome to see which side would prove victorious.
Some leaders in the new 13 states considered their states independent not only of Britain but one another. Jefferson wrote in the Declaration that “as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.” They acted like independent countries until the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 and the creation of the first federal government the following year.
Congress during the war against Britain could not draft soldiers into the Continental Army. States chose to send their militias to join, or not. Congress lacked the power to raise revenue, so whatever states sent to Congress was considered a gift. With such disadvantages, it may seem that it was a miracle that the Americans were successful. We can thank France for ensuring our independence when they entered the war on the American side in 1778.
What a difference time has made in the 244 years since. From its 13 original states lined up along the East Coast with a population of a mere 2.5 million people, America has now grown to over 330 million people, who are far more diverse and complex. Our extensive landmass, not only from “sea to shining sea,” includes Alaska, Hawaii, and the territories the U.S. controls, from Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam to the U.S. Virgin Islands. From 865,000 square miles in 1776, the U.S. now encompasses over 3.5 million square miles.
Some may ask whether there is today a sincere “united” in our nation. The response must be an overwhelming yes, even though we may never approach 100 percent unity. Encouraging are the broad coalition of those protesting institutional racism across America and the recent Supreme Court guarantee that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay, lesbian, and transgender people at work.
If there ever were a time for us to come together, the moment has arrived. We have managed crises together before, sometimes with great loss and sorrow. Think of the Civil War, the consequences of which remain with us today — or the two world wars of the 20th century, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
American possess great resilience, creativity, know-how, and energy to get through the worst of times. It sometimes requires painful and tough decisions and difficult moments, but we can and will prevail. This is a time of renewal leading to our national healing, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We can achieve the full promise of the Declaration that we are all “created equal, that [we] are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jack Fruchtman, a part-time Aquinnah resident, has written books on Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and the Constitution.