Most people in the English-speaking world know that today marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress meeting at the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776. What very few people know is that two signers of the document, John Adams (2nd president of the United States), and Thomas Jefferson (3rd president of the United States), died on this date, exactly 50 years later in 1826. That really is some coincidence. Once again I will take this opportunity to point out the huge gulf between people’s perceptions of “important” anniversaries, and the reality.
As I have been at great pains to show in several previous posts, July 4th, 1776 cannot truly be said to be the most momentous date in the long journey of the 13 British colonies to independence. Not by a country mile. But, because the date has been adopted and enshrined as the “nation’s birthday” the events of that date have assumed a much larger significance than they deserve. War broke out between one of the British colonies and British forces on April 19th, 1775 at the battles of Concord and Lexington http://www.bookofdaystales.com/lexington-and-concord/, and the War of Independence that these battles started was not concluded until the surrender at Yorktown http://www.bookofdaystales.com/surrender-at-yorktown/ on October 19th, 1781. The Treaty of Paris http://www.bookofdaystales.com/treaty-of-paris/ that finalized the terms of peace between the North American States and Great Britain was signed on September 3rd, 1783. In strictly historical terms, these three dates are much more important than July 4th, 1776. In fact, in July 1776, the members of the Continental Congress imagined that July 2nd would go down in history as the vital anniversary, not the 4th.
Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed a Resolution of Independence to Congress on June 7th, 1776 after receiving instructions from the Virginia Convention and its President Edmund Pendleton. Lee’s full resolution had three parts which were considered by Congress. Along with the independence issue, it also proposed to establish a plan for implementing formal foreign relations between the states and other nations independent of Great Britain, and to prepare a plan of a confederation for the states to consider. Congress decided to address each of these three parts separately.
Voting on the first part of the resolution was delayed for several weeks while state support and legislative instruction for independence were consolidated, but the press of events forced the other less-discussed parts to proceed immediately. On June 10th, Congress decided to form a committee to draft a declaration of independence in case the resolution should pass. On June 11th, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston were appointed as the Committee of Five to accomplish this. That same day, Congress decided to establish two other committees to develop the resolution’s last two parts. The following day, another committee of five (John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Benjamin Harrison V, and Robert Morris) was established to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers; a third committee was created, consisting of one member from each colony, to prepare a draft of a constitution for confederation of the states.
Lee’s Resolution for independence was passed on July 2nd with no opposing votes. It was not passed unanimously, however. New York abstained. The Committee of Five had drafted the Declaration to be ready when Congress voted on independence. John Adams, who had been a leader in pushing for independence, had persuaded the committee to select Thomas Jefferson to compose the original draft of the document, which Congress edited to produce the final version. The Declaration was a formal explanation of why Congress had voted on July 2nd to declare independence from Great Britain, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. Adams wrote to his wife Abigail,
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.
I would like all my readers born in the United States who joyously celebrate July 4th as Independence Day to read that statement over very carefully. The vote for independence came on July 2nd and in Adams’ mind that was the crucial date, not the 4th. July 2nd was the date he thought would go down in history. All that happened on July 4th was that the exact wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress after several changes to the document prepared by Thomas Jefferson had been made. Celebrating the 4th is the equivalent of celebrating the day that you approved the minutes of a previous meeting when the actual decisions were taken. The world-altering decision to declare independence was made on the 2nd not the 4th.
I guarantee that the great bulk of US citizens have no idea what is in the Declaration of Independence other than “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “All men are created equal” and I know for a fact that many of them confuse the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Constitution of the United States was ratified by sufficient states to become law on June 21st, 1788, and came into effect on March 4th, 1789. The Bill of Rights was approved on September 25th, 1789, and ratified on December 15th, 1791. Thus, we have a welter of dates from the “shot heard round the world” in 1775 to the final agreement of how the new nation should be governed in 1791, and any or all of them could be marked as “significant” – 16 years of warfare and political strife out of which to choose one date: the date. July 4th got the nod.
The actual historical significance of July 4th is lost on the vast majority of US citizens, never mind the fact that there are numerous dates that are equally important, or more important, in the nation’s history. July 4th is a good day to have parades and barbecues because it is the height of summer in North America. It’s not so good for fireworks because the date falls very close to the northern solstice when days are at their longest, and so you have to wait until 9 pm or later in many regions for it to be dark enough for them. I suppose the good aspect of all of this is that parades, barbecues, and fireworks can be strung out over a very long day without bumping into each other. For many years I was either a participant in parades as a firefighter or an observer of my son as a town musician (or just a general observer because I like parades). I went to civic fireworks almost every year wherever I lived because I love fireworks. I usually cooked out in my own back yard because I found the generic US barbecue inexpressibly dull. Hot dogs and hamburgers with cole slaw and potato salad on the side are depressingly universal. It’s true that charcoal-grilled hamburgers are miles better than commercial varieties, but they are still just hamburgers. People in the US eat millions upon millions of them at fast food joints every single day of the year. Why should they be seen as so utterly special for July 4th and why should millions of families across the country invest 100s of dollars in elaborate propane-fueled grills with lava rocks as the heating element to cook generic hamburgers as the big celebratory meal? Most of these highly average hamburgers are not even cooked over real charcoal.
One memorable July 4th I showed my young son (around 7 years old at the time) how it was possible to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner at our fire pit. He was captivated – especially with breakfast. I don’t eat standard Western “breakfast foods” (cereal, eggs, bacon, toast. etc.) for breakfast, first, because I eat only one meal a day, and it is rarely at what is the conventional “breakfast time,” and second, because if I do eat a meal at “breakfast time” it is almost never conventional “breakfast foods.” It is more usually soup or curry or whatever I have on hand. Back when my son was little, however, I did prepare him three meals per day, and his breakfasts were more conventional than mine. On this particular July 4th I used both my fire pit and my charcoal grill/smoker. First order of business was to make a big fire in the fire pit and let it burn down into hot coals. I showed my son how to make toast by finding a long stick, impaling some sliced bread, and toasting it over the coals. Meanwhile I heated one of our cast-iron skillets over the coals and cooked him bacon and eggs in much the same way as I would do at the stove.
For lunch my son cooked some hot dogs on sticks (which he loved immensely), accompanied by my chili which I kept warm in a big pot over the fire. I made chili dogs in toasted buns for myself, but my son was content with charred hot dogs dipped in chili. After that, I showed him how to make ‘smores in the fire using sandwiches of graham crackers with chocolate and marshmallow, wrapped in heavy foil. For dinner I fired up my grill and made grilled chicken, marinated in a fiery sauce, plus assorted grilled vegetables including corn grilled in their own husks, followed by toasted marshmallows, which was probably my son’s favorite part. Ever after, whenever I lit a fire in the fire pit he toasted marshmallows, whether I cooked anything else on it or not.
I don’t expect you to cook three meals today out in the open, although it’s worth a shot once in your life. I will make an earnest plea however: Cook ANYTHING other than hamburgers and hot dogs today !!! Cook steaks, pork chops, lamb chops, rabbit, goose, duck, quail, oysters, prawns, . . . anything. Save the hamburgers and hot dogs for the other 364 days of the year.