Well . . . look at you, America! 246 and counting!
On June 7, 1776, the Second Continental Congress listened as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed a resolution declaring the United States independent from Great Britain:
“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
It was a bold move. Several states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and South Carolina were not yet ready to support this potentially fatal step. Failure to approve the resolution could lead to the collapse of the shaky alliance between the 13 colonies. An earlier proposal by John Adams on May 15 declaring that “it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed” barely passed. Four colonies voted against it and the delegation from Maryland stormed out of the room in protest.
Congress agreed to delay the vote on Lee’s Resolution until July 1. During that time, Congress appointed a committee to draft a formal declaration of independence to accompany the resolution. Consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson, the committee selected Jefferson to be the primary author of the document. A rough draft of the document was presented to Congress for review on June 28.
Debate followed. And on July 2, 1776, the Congress voted to approve the resolution that had been proposed a month earlier – declaring the United States independent from Great Britain. After voting for independence, Congress turned its attention to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining their decision. Members debated and revised the wording of the Declaration, finally approving a final version of the document on July 4. (There is some debate on when the document was actually signed with the National Archives suggesting an August 2 date.)
We celebrate on the 4th but John Adams understood that it was the fateful vote two days earlier that is what we are really observing. In his famous letter to Abigail:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. 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 time forward forever more.
But even John later realized that the 4th is as good a day as any to celebrate. So grill a burger. Eat a hot dog. Munch on some watermelon. Enjoy the fireworks. Wave a sparkler or two. Heck . . . go out and light a bonfire.
Because we all believe that America is a pretty special place, especially compared to a lot of places around the world. And the Fourth is all about celebrating the ideals articulated in the Declaration that helped create that special place. But as you wave that sparkler – and you should – don’t forget that there is some responsibility involved.
I recently re-watched the movie Free State of Jones complete with vivid depictions of the conditions endured by former enslaved Americans after the Civil War. And went back over Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I’ve spent some time with a variety of Indigenous groups in Oklahoma and listened to their stories. Watched film clips of anti-immigrant groups yelling and worse at Muslims outside their places of worship. Read accounts of anti-Semitic attacks. Viewed tweets encouraging violence against members of the LGBTQ community. Listened to politicians trying to find ways to limit voting rights.
So today, as we’re celebrating the idea of a perfect place – and we should, we also need to remember that this place we call America is not yet perfect.
When 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern of South Dakota accepted his party’s nomination, he delivered what became known as his Come Home, America speech. Part of what he said seems appropriate this morning:
“It is time for this land to become again a witness to the world for what is just and noble in human affairs. It is time to live more with faith and less with fear, with an abiding confidence that can sweep away the strongest barriers between us and teach us that we are truly brothers and sisters.”
And that after the hot dogs and the “bells, bonfires, and illuminations,” we need to go back to work, finding ways to make real the words of Thomas Jefferson:
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 . . .