The Commonwealth Blog

Guest post: What the Fourth of July means

Jul 8, 2013 @ 12:31 PM

By Joseph Ellis


The awkward truth is that not much happened on July 4, 1776. History is almost always messier than we remember, and both the popular play, "1776," and John Trumbull's iconic painting, "The Declaration of Independence," reinforce several popular misconceptions.

The Trumbull portrait shows five men approaching a desk. The most recognizable of the figures are John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The man behind the desk is John Hancock. Most viewers think the painting depicts the signing of the declaration on July 4. But the date is really June 28, when the committee responsible for drafting the declaration presents its draft to the president of the Continental Congress.

The culminating scene in the musical "1776" has the main characters, again Adams, Jefferson and Franklin, stepping forward on July 4 to sign the document that Jefferson drafted. This is dramatically correct but historically incorrect. No one signed the declaration on that date. Most delegates signed the parchment copy that now resides under bullet-proof glass in the National Archives on Aug. 2, but stray delegates and reluctant revolutionaries were adding their signatures as late as October.

A letter from John Adams to his beloved Abigail on July 3 further complicates the confusion: "The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 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."

Adams got everything right, including the obligatory fireworks, but he got the date wrong because he thought the vote on independence itself more significant than the vote on the declaration two days later.

He had a point, because the vote on the Virginia resolution "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states" on July 2 was the decisive moment politically. But history has chosen to remember the approval of the declaration on July 4. All the delegates did on that day was send it to the printer.

Fifty years later, on July 4, 1826, Adams and Jefferson conspired to sanction the problematic anniversary. In a scene that no novelist could have plausibly imagined, they died a few hours apart, symbolically signifying their consent. Jefferson's last coherent words were, "Is it the Fourth?"

The debate over dates has been lost in the mists of time. What remains for us to contemplate during the barbecues and exploding skyrockets are Jefferson's words, which have levitated out of their historical context in 1776 to become the magic words of American history. Here they are.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

In 1848, the women at the Seneca Falls Convention thought these words sanctioned sexual equality. In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln believed they necessitated the end of slavery. In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that they demanded the end of racial segregation.

None of the delegates to the Continental Congress in July of 1776 foresaw the meaning of Jefferson's words for subsequent generations, including Jefferson himself. But there they are - the seminal statement of the American creed. The question for us to ponder is what those words mean to us. My sense is that gay men and women are about to be folded into our revolutionary legacy.

 

Your chance to meet the author! Joseph Ellis will be speaking at The Commonwealth Club on Thursday, July 11, 2013. More information here. Ellis is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, whose most recent book is titled, "Founding Brothers, American Sphinx and Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence." 

This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle