What is it that Americans celebrate on July 4? To some, that would seem a facetious question – perhaps, even, an unpatriotic one to ask especially coming from a British writer. It is a question to which many Americans give little thought, however. Some would say it is the day on which the American Revolution is celebrated. Most would likely say it is a celebration of American independence from Great Britain. Neither of those statements would be historically accurate but the selection of July 4 as America’s Independence Day is, nevertheless, a deeply significant reflection of the entire motivation behind this country’s founding.
Compared to the way in which many other nations have selected national holidays to remember their respective beginnings, America bucked tradition and confounded national norms. The very choice of July 4 – as opposed to October 19 or September 3 – is itself, a reminder of American exceptionalism.
The final day of the last battle of the American War of Independence was September 3, 1781. On this day, the British garrison at Yorktown, Virginia surrendered to George Washington. Certainly, the anniversary of this climactic victory would have been a fitting choice for Independence Day. Other nations have chosen the anniversaries of decisive battles, on which to celebrate their births. Although the siege of Yorktown was the final military action, the war was not officially brought to an end until two years later, when the Treaty of Paris was signed September 3 and America officially took its place amongst the sovereign nations of the world. Surely, this was the real Independence Day. Nothing could be less fitting for the United States, however, than to choose, as its Independence Day, the anniversary of a treaty signed with Great Britain. It would be akin to celebrating the day that King George III of England granted the upstart colonies their independence; the day the European powers allowed America to be born. No, the moment of American independence had to be remembered as having occurred at a time and place of America’s choosing.
Thus, July 4, 1776, came to be recognized as the date on which the United States of America – by its own decision – was born. The Second Continental Congress voted unanimously for independence on July 2 of that year, and the text of the Declaration of Independence was ratified two days later. John Adams was bitterly disappointed that the 4th, and not the 2nd, was to be celebrated but, once again, there is a significance; America is a nation founded on law and the adoption of the written Declaration of Independence – rather than a mere vote on the issue – more suitably befitted the nature of this new country.
It could be said that, on July 4, 1776, the American Revolution ended. The military struggle against the British which was to continue for another five years was a War of Independence: One self-proclaimed nation fighting to free itself from the shackles of a distant Empire.
The Constitution was, yet, many years away but the seeds of a new system of government had already begun to germinate in the minds of the Founding Fathers and other prominent thinkers. A republican government – meaning government by the people – was to be its core. A federation of, largely, autonomous states, it’s building blocks. The Constitution, which came into effect in 1789, officially defined its structure and the respective authorities of its branches. Yet, the Founders were not unified – nor were they fully confident – in the Constitution’s ability to remain the untainted and supreme law of the land for all posterity. Anti-federalists rejected the Constitution and even those who framed it had their misgivings. The great dilemma was this; that government was, by its very nature, overreaching and oppressive. At the same time, a government was necessary for the cohesion of this fledgling nation, made up, as it was, by several states with their own governments, their own cultures, and their own interests.
The fragility of the Constitution was a concern for the Founders. Thomas Jefferson suspected that, eventually, the federal government would gather to itself powers not granted it in the document. In 1791, he wrote
I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground that ‘all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people.’ To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, not longer susceptible of any definition
Government of the people, for the people and by the people was a basic ideal cherished by the nation’s founders. It is the very meaning of republicanism. Thomas Paine was an early proponent of independence from Great Britain, even whilst many American colonists thought to preserve the links to the Empire. In 1776, Paine published a pamphlet entitled Common Sense, which laid out his argument for separation and national self-determination. Paine understood that, when electing representatives to the federal government, only men who lived among – and conducted commerce with – the very people they would represent, would govern fairly and wisely. He foresaw the perils of allowing a permanent political class to put their own interests above those of the common people. Frequent elections of new representatives – that is, term limits – was the antidote.
and that the ELECTED might never form to themselves an interest separate from the ELECTORS, prudence will point out the propriety of having elections often: because as the ELECTED might by that means return and mix again with the general body of the ELECTORS in a few months, their fidelity to the public will be secured by the prudent reflection of not making a rod for themselves. And as this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other…
James Madison also understood this. Writing in 1788, he described the strength of a republic as being “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior.” (Emphasis added).
Those great men who formulated America’s unique system of governance predicted the usurpation of power and the diminishing of individual rights which have become the hallmarks of the federal government, over many decades. They would not have countenanced the idea of a congressman holding his or her seat for thirty years. They would have shuddered at the thought of massive central government overruling private property rights or compelling states to submit to federal authority in matters not permitted by the Constitution.
The birth of the United States of America was a unique, wondrous and monumental feat of human will and endeavor, the likes of which had not been seen before and may never be seen again: The revolution against unjust rule; the proclamation of freedom; the battles for independence; the triumph and the forming of a unique system of government. All of this within the span of some sixteen years is astounding.
Such a nation is deserving of a people more determined to restore – and defend – the principles, the prized liberties, and independent spirit which set in motion this glorious journey.