July 4, 2012

Don't Forget Your History on the Fourth

Ah, yes. The Fourth of July: that magical day when you can prove you're a true American patriot by stuffing your face with hamburgers and hotdogs, downing no less than 50 Budweisers (in honor of the 50 states, duh!), and drunkenly stumbling through the words of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a local fireworks display.

It's dawned on me that while we're busy lighting off firecrackers, shooting at squirrels in the backyard with our cousins' pellet guns, and crushing empty beer cans on our foreheads, we can sometimes forget why the hell we're even celebrating. There are some solid centuries of history behind the Fourth of July, and being better in touch with that history can not only help us justify our celebratory improprieties, but it can also help us shed the awful title of "ignorant Americans."

So, if a tourist comes up to you this Fourth of July, asking why you're partying so damn hard, have these following facts on hand.

The no-brainer: The Fourth of July (aka Independence Day) commemorates July 4th, 1776, which was when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. Translation: it's our country's birthday.

However, Congress had already formally declared independence two days earlier on July 2nd, 1776. Declaration-signer and future-president John Adams believed that the Second of July would be “the most memorable epocha in the history of America.”

The common misconception: The engrossed (aka officially inscribed, aka legit) copy of the Declaration wasn't signed until August 2nd, 1776. And several delegates, specifically Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean, and Matthew Thornton, didn't sign until an even later date.

Just to be clear: The approval of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776 didn't mark the end of the Revolutionary War, nor did the signing of it on August 2nd, 1776. The American Revolution didn't end until September 3rd, 1783 (with the signing of the Treaty of Paris). This means we declared ourselves a free country well before we were 100% sure that we'd actually get to keep our freedom. (Good thing we won!)

Why do we celebrate the Fourth of July and not the Second of July or the Third of September or some other date? Bottom line: we had to pick a date to celebrate. But the approval of the Declaration on the fourth is still a significant event in our country's history, especially from a literary perspective. On the fourth, we approved the first truly American document; the first thing we'd ever written as a free (or aspiring-to-be-free) nation. And those words...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...carry a lot of weight.