Iowa Fireworks, Independence Day Myths, Tommy Boy … and divorce
There’s been a ton of newspaper and social media articles over the last couple of weeks celebrating or lamenting the fact that Iowans can now legally(?) “celebrate July 4th like the rest of the country” with fireworks. In certain towns, and between certain hours, allegedly. And as one of my military friends put it “it’s not the celebrating July 4th with fireworks that bothers me, it’s the celebrating July 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on and so forth.”
So, what are we and the rest of the country actually celebrating when we shoot off our fireworks and post the videos to Facebook?
Obviously, it’s Happy Fourth of July! Independence Day. The day the Thirteen Colonies, united from the start against the tyranny of King George III and his clueless Prime Minister, Lord North. Representatives from each colony met in Philadelphia flushed with thoughts of independence. Thomas Jefferson was asked to write a proclamation, he sequestered himself for days, went through draft after draft and came up with “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
The Continental Congress was moved to tears and unanimously voted to break all ties with Great Britain and form the United States. The signing ceremony was July 4, 1776, the Liberty Bell was rung, every delegate signed – after John Hancock (or was it “Herbie” Hancock? See below). John Hancock wrote his famous … um, John Hancock, so large because he knew George III had poor eyesight and he “wanted to make sure he saw it.”
The signing of the Declaration was immortalized in 1817 by a young painter from Connecticut, John Trumbull, who tracked down every signer and meticulously captured every detail correctly – although John Adams hated it and the painter because Trumbull has Thomas Jefferson stepping on Adams foot in the painting, a pointed comment about their relationship. The painting, hanging in the Rotunda in the Capitol Building since 1827, shows the moment the delegates began to sign the Declaration.
We’ve written a lot about myths in this blog over the past year. We still are. Everything above is a myth. Except for Lord North being clueless, that’s dead on.
The Declaration of Independence was adapted by a vote of the thirteen colonies, with New York abstaining, – on July 2, 1776. John Adams, and others, wrote that they expected July 2nd to be celebrated as Independence Day. They did not foresee that Independence Day would be celebrated on the day Congress announced the adaption of the Declaration of Independence – July 4th.
It passed after months of debates, outright arguments, negotiations, and very real drama. Many of the delegates went to Philadelphia to effect a reconciliation with Great Britain, to reach some kind of accommodation, mostly along the lines of representation in Parliament. Even when hopes for that were dashed – mostly by the actions of Lord North – there were still holdouts, men who were still loyal enough to England to hope that the King would intervene.
Those in favor of breaking with England decided to put it in writing. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman were appointed as a ‘Committee of Five’ to draft the document on June 11, 1776. They met and asked Jefferson to write the first draft. He rushed through it because Congress was so busy he had little time left to work on it. The other four offered suggestions and were instrumental in editing his draft before it was submitted to Congress on June 28.
Congress then jointly edited the document. Over the course of several days, fully one-quarter of the draft was deleted. Other edits were debated and approved. Jefferson was on record as singularly unhappy with the changes.
The opening words of the Declaration of Independence are not, “We hold theses truths …” they are “When in the Course of human events …”
The term “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America” was not added until July 19th after a Congressional resolution.
The Declaration was official when it was passed by the vote. There was no need to sign it. Indeed, while quite a few of the 56 men who ultimately signed it did so around the 4th, others signed during August, the last man to sign did so in November. John Hancock wrote big because he was President of the Continental Congress.
The Liberty Bell did not ring on July 4th for the simple reason that no bells rang in Philadelphia or anywhere else that day. The announcement was low key. Bells rang on the 8th to celebrate the printed edition of the Declaration. The Liberty Bell, however, most likely did not ring – the steeple in Independence Hall was in such poor repair it was feared that the loud ringing could bring it down.
John Trumbull was hardly a young ‘snotty’ painter in 1817. He had served as General Washington’s aide early in the war and had seen action in three campaigns. He did track down some of the surviving signers for the painting, he hardly needed to do it for many, he had known them and sketched and painted them for years.
The painting does not portray the signing of the Declaration – it portrays the moment when the Committee of Five presented their draft to Congress to begin the editing process. Jefferson is not stepping on Adams foot – but you have to look closely.
So, a ton of myths. Not surprising, it’s a mythical moment in our history.
Here’s what’s real about that day – be it the 4th or the 2nd or the 19th – the 56 men who voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence, fought each other verbally, sometimes amazingly viciously, then came together in a common cause.
They didn’t need to sign the Declaration, yet they put their names to it knowing that in doing so they risked everything. They very openly labeled themselves traitors. They knew how Great Britain treated traitors, they had only to look at what the British did to Scotland after the Battle of Culloden in 1748.
Most of the 56 were wealthy, some were the wealthiest men in the country. All were successful in their fields, all
would have lost it all if the revolution failed. It must be noted that when the Committee of Five made presented their draft to Congress a massive British and Hessian army under General Howe had just landed on Staten Island. Things were looking dire for Washington’s army, trapped in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
They signed despite the foreboding news. All of them stood by it despite the horrible trials, tribulations, and losses of the next years. That’s reality.
This was the ultimate divorce, you might say…a lot to lose, but so much more to potentially gain. Change is scary enough, let alone when your partner is the King of England. What was it that kept these courageous men and women moving forward, despite the danger, and made them see the course through?
Whatever it was, that’s what we should be celebrating.
If we look past the myths and understand what really going on, what realities these actors were facing, and how they reacted. As a metaphor, it speaks for itself.
Happy Independence Day, everyone.
And, as promised, the answer to that toughest of American History questions: