Every July 4 here in the United States, we celebrate the country’s birthday. The kids are out of school for the summer, many adults get the day off from work. We spend the afternoon at baseball games or barbecuing or going on picnics, and the evening watching fireworks. We call it Independence Day, though it was not the day our independence was truly earned. We use the day to mark the start of the Revolutionary War against Britain, but the war actually started in June 1775. We call it the anniversary of the country’s founding, but the present constitution wasn’t ratified and activated until 1789. So what is it we’re celebrating?
The actual historical event that makes July 4, 1776 such a revered date in American history is the ratification of the completed Thomas Jefferson draft of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. Once ratified, the Declaration was sent to a nearby printer, who spent the night running off 200 broadsides for distribution throughout the colonies. That’s the extent of the history made on July 4, 1776. George Washington didn’t see a copy until two days later. The hand-scripted “engrossed” copy most of us picture when we think of the Declaration wasn’t produced until July 19. Most of the delegates whose signatures crowd the bottom of the copy kept at the National Archives didn’t sign until early August. The two men most remembered for stoking the fires of revolution in the minds of the people throughout the 1770s, Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry, never signed it at all.
Yet it’s proper that July 4 should be the day we remember those men we’ve taken to calling our founding fathers. John Adams predicted that July 2, the day the Congress officially but secretly voted for independence, would be the date celebrated by future generations, but the Fourth was their nobler day. On that day in 1776 the fathers of the revolution stood up and declared their nation’s independence for all the world. Once that was done, there was no way back.
The founders made an interesting group. They wrote an elegant, forceful, poetic document declaring their human rights at a time when the dehumanizing institution of African slavery still scarred the continent, when many of the members of the Congress owned slaves themselves. They were of one mind on almost nothing. Some were unabashedly Christian, others were rational deists; some were staunch federalists, others argued decisively for the rights of the individual states to be paramount.
They were all products of their generation, which made them, despite their many virtues, racists and chauvinists when judged by today’s standards. Yet on July 4, 1776, and in the battles that filled the days and years that followed, they were men of honor and courage and foresight. They left many problems to be solved by future generations, but also a sturdy framework in which to solve them. Today they are vilified by some who cite their sins to indict us all, and revered by others who treat their ideals and intentions like scriptural dogmas. I don’t think either of these is fair. The men who ratified the Declaration on July 4 and the others who joined them soon after weren’t devils or saints. They were flawed just like the rest of us. They sometimes fell short in their morality and their ability. They were very much like you and me and the people we know today. And 231 years ago, they did something extraordinary. We should only hope to do as well, to help ensure that future generations will still have an occasion for picnics and fireworks.