4th of July, Independence day. According to Steve Vladeck very few speeches are more recognizable than the Gettysburg Address. President Abraham Lincoln’s speech at the November 1863 dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery stands alone among ceremonial occasions in American history for its shrill statement of American purpose: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
In the beginning of his speech, Lincoln took care to connect the core ideals on which the United States was founded, and for which the Civil War was being fought, not to the Constitution but to the more aspirational Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson over a decade before the Constitution was ratified. “Four score and seven years ago” wasn’t just a clever turn of phrase; it was a subtle but significant elevation of 1776 at the expense of 1787.
Why do we celebrate July 4th? Independence Day is a reminder that America is more than our constitutional part. What defines America’s greatness as well as its shortcomings is far more aspirational than the rules of our legal system.
“Declaration of Independence,” a painting by John Trumbull depicting the drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Few speeches are more recognizable than the Gettysburg Address. President Abraham Lincoln’s speech at the November 1863 dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery stands alone among orations in American history for its clarion statement of American purpose: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Union soldiers weren’t fighting for the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, or even the supremacy of the federal government although that theme had often been invoked in the earlier years of the war; They were fighting for liberty from tyrannical government and the equality of all men (and, belatedly, women). Despite the fact that no provision of the original Constitution reflected such principles.
Our “founding,” in the views of Lincoln’s, was not when we agreed to the legal system under which we currently operate; it was when we agreed to a more fundamental commitment to everyone’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As we go to parades, host barbecues and watch fireworks, we neglect the significance of the fact that our national birthday is July 4, not September 17 (the day in 1787 on which the Constitution was signed) or June 21 (the day in 1788 on which it entered into effect), or April 30 (the day in 1789 on which George Washington was sworn in as our first president).
This choice of birthday suggest that, whereas we are governed by the Constitution, our national ethos is more than just the sum of the rules of our legal system which, too many times in American history, we have indulged, if not directly perpetuated, inequality and oppression.
We aspire more because that was our justification for breaking away from the British in the first place. Every since 1870, July 4, and not any other date, has been recognized by Congress as the day on which we celebrate America’s birthday defining our core national identity as one of egalitarianism, first and foremost.
Encourage yourself: A simple review for all of those who are uncertain as to why we celebrate 4th of July, Independence day. Above is just a few of the words of Steve Vladeck. Below is a different standpoint on the 4th of July, and its meaning to people of color.
On July 4, 1776, The Declaration of Independence was signed, marking the colonists’ independence from Great Britain. But some 75 years later, some black Americans weren’t ready to celebrate.
Abolitionist movement leader Frederick Douglass gave a scathing speech the day after Independence Day in 1852, saying: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”
Douglass reminded listeners that when the Declaration of Independence was signed, many blacks were still slaves. Even the British were more likely to offer freedom to blacks than the colonists.
Fast forward to 2012, where many Black Americans still remember Douglass’s sentiments.
As one reader of Politico’s Playbook writes in to reporter Mike Allen Thursday: “Independence Day is odd for black people. Today, America is a better bet for everybody, but in 1776 most blacks would have sided with the Brits (and many did).”
Chris Rock made his feelings known more plainly on Wednesday. Hours before celebratory fireworks went off across the nation, the comedian wrote on Twitter: Quote; “Happy white peoples Independence day, the slaves werent free, but im sure they enjoyed the fireworks”.
Complicated or not, some black Americans find reason to celebrate the holiday.
In a Washington Times’ op-ed, Stacy Swimp notes that at least 5,000 black men fought for the Continental Army against the British, men who believed that freedom from Britain would ultimately result in their freedom from slavery. Swimp also names Black founding fathers he believes should be remembered on the 4th, like Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, and Salem Poor.
And he points out that while slaves weren’t free at the time of the declaration, it is as a result of that document that every American, under the U.S. Constitution, is equally guaranteed individual freedom.