Myths of the 4th of July

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America's national
holiday is the 4th of July, the anniversary of public
promulgation of the Declaration of Independence. The 4th
of July, like many other government holidays, is surrounded by numerous
myths. Some of the most notable:

  1. The 4th
    of July is a celebration of the U.S. Constitution.
  2. Actually,
    the U.S. Constitution's purpose was to remake the American governments
    of the Revolution by making the system less democratic. The delegates
    from 12 states who met in Philadelphia in summer 1787 had been
    sent by the states to recommend amendments to the Articles of
    Confederation. Instead, they instantly decided to meet in secret,
    and then the nationalists among them tried to win adoption of
    a national — rather than a federal — constitution.

  3. The 4th
    of July was the day that the 13 states established their independence.
  4. No, it was
    not. In fact, Virginia established its independence on May 15,
    1776, when its revolutionary Convention adopted resolutions for
    a declaration of rights, a permanent republican constitution,
    and federal and treaty relationships with other states and foreign
    countries. It was because the Old Dominion had already established
    its independence — had, in fact, already sworn in the first governor
    under its permanent republican constitution of 1776, Patrick Henry,
    on June 29 — that Virginia's congressmen, uniquely, had been given
    categorical instructions from their state legislature to declare
    independence. Virginia was not the only state whose independence
    was not established by the Declaration on the 4th,
    as New York's congressional delegation did not then join in the
    Declaration. In short, the states became independent in their
    own good time — some on July 4, some before, some after.

  5. The chief
    legacy of the 4th of July is the political philosophy
    set out in the Declaration of Independence.
  6. Since the
    18th century, political radicals have argued for understanding
    the Declaration as a general warrant for government to do anything
    it likes to forward the idea that "all men are created equal."
    Yet, that was not what the Declaration of Independence
    meant. The Declaration of Independence was the work of a congress
    of representatives of state governments. Congressmen were not
    elected by voters at large, but by state legislatures, and their
    role (as John Adams, one of them, put it) was more akin to that
    of ambassadors than to legislators. They had not been empowered
    to dedicate society to any particular political philosophy, but
    to declare — as the Virginia legislature had told its congressmen
    to declare — that the colonies were, "and of right ought
    to be, free and independent states." In other words, the
    Declaration was about states' rights, not individual rights, and
    the Congress that adopted it had no power to make it anything
    else. All the rest of the Declaration was mere rhetorical predicate.

  7. The 4th
    of July is a non-partisan holiday dedicated to recalling the legacy
    of the American Revolution.
  8. In the Founders'
    day, the 4th of July was a partisan holiday. It was
    celebrated in the 1790s and 1800s by Jeffersonian Republicans
    desirous of showing their devotion to Jeffersonian, rather than
    Hamiltonian, political philosophy. If you were a Federalist in
    the 1790s, you likely would celebrate Washington's Birthday instead
    of the 4th of July. If you believed in the inherent
    power of the Executive in formulating foreign policy, in the power
    of Congress to charter a bank despite the absence of express constitutional
    authorization to do so, and in the power of the federal government
    to punish people who criticized the president or Congress, you
    would not celebrate the 4th. The 4th was
    the holiday of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798,
    those great states'-rights blasts at federal lawlessness. It was
    the anti-Hamilton, anti-Washington, anti-nationalist holiday.

  9. The fulfillment
    of the 4th of July lay in the establishment of a powerful
    national government.
  10. Celebrants
    of the 4th of July in the Founders' day rejected the
    idea that the Constitution had created a national government,
    but insisted that it was federal instead. That is, they said that
    Congress had only the powers it had been expressly delegated,
    chiefly through Article I, Section 8, that the federal courts
    had no more jurisdiction than they had been assigned through Article
    III, and that the vast majority of government functions had been
    kept by the states. When federal courts grabbed for more power
    in 1793, these people added the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution.
    In response to the nationalists' war on France and Alien and Sedition
    Acts, they first adopted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
    of 1798, then elected Republicans — Jeffersonian states'-rights/laissez-faire
    advocates — to run their government.

  11. The Declaration
    of Independence stood for the rights of white, male property owners
  12. As noted
    above, the philosophical material in the first section of the
    Declaration, although commonplace at the time, had no legal or
    moral weight. Congress had no power to commit the states to it.
    Yet, given that fact, one might also note that revolutionaries
    who accepted the Lockean version of social compact theory did
    not necessarily believe that only white, male property holders
    had rights. Thomas Jefferson, for example, who was the author
    of the draft Lockean section of the Declaration, followed his
    belief in the idea that all men equally had a right to self-government,
    coupled with his belief that white and black people could never
    live together peacefully as equal citizens in America, to the
    conclusion that blacks must be colonized abroad to someplace where
    they might exercise their right to self-government.

  13. The fulfillment
    of the 4th of July will come when the United States
    has sponsored democratic revolutions throughout the world.

Both George Washington (in an address he co-wrote with Alexander
Hamilton and John Jay) and Thomas Jefferson counseled that the
U.S. avoid foreign entanglements, and thus foreign wars.

As you observe,
or perhaps participate in, 4th of July festivities
this year, note the pervasiveness of these myths.

3, 2007

R. C. Gutzman, J.D., Ph.D. [send
him mail
], Associate Professor of History at Western Connecticut
State University, is the author of The
Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution

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