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:
- The 4th
of July is a celebration of the U.S. Constitution.
- The 4th
of July was the day that the 13 states established their independence.
- The chief
legacy of the 4th of July is the political philosophy
set out in the Declaration of Independence.
- The 4th
of July is a non-partisan holiday dedicated to recalling the legacy
of the American Revolution.
- The fulfillment
of the 4th of July lay in the establishment of a powerful
- The Declaration
of Independence stood for the rights of white, male property owners
- The fulfillment
of the 4th of July will come when the United States
has sponsored democratic revolutions throughout the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As you observe,
or perhaps participate in, 4th of July festivities
this year, note the pervasiveness of these myths.
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.