Independence Wasn’t Won on the Fourth

We’ll all celebrate July 4 as the day America gained our independence from Great Britain.

Except that this is not true.

The Continental Congress actually declared independence on July 2, which is why John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that from that day on “the Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival." 

We celebrate July 4 as Independence Day because that’s the day the Congress approved Thomas Jefferson’s master work, the Declaration of Independence.

But a document, no matter how lofty and inspiring the words, doesn’t make anything so. The truth is that it took more than six long years of bloody war for the United States to win independence.  Remember, the fighting actually began a year before the Declaration.

America actually won her independence on Oct. 19, 1781 when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

Nevertheless, amidst all the hot dog gorging, beer drinking and fireworks you might indulge in on the Fourth of July, I suggest you take the time to read The Declaration of Independence. Better yet, read it to your children or to a group of young people.

Pay particularly attention to these words:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Politicians and the media will invariable focus on the points about “self-evident truths,” that “all men (and women) are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (but the might leave out the Creator part). They usually stop there. They rarely cover the rest of the story.

Yes, the Founders believed in regular elections as a check on government abuse of power, in particular setting two-year terms for members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The did not imagine, however, that even with that check we’d end up with a permanent political class of “elected” representatives who serve decades in office, often running without opposition.

Nor did they imagine elections in which voters had only two choices, in which all other choices and voices were squelched by restrictive ballot access laws.

The second part of that paragraph is most telling. When Jefferson wrote that when Government becomes destructive of rights  “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it” he was not talking about elections. Jefferson believed that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

He also believed “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is their natural manure.” When he said that, he was not talking about a professional military force overthrowing a foreign tyrant.

We should remind ourselves of that point every election year and reaffirm that the preferred method of revolution and rebellion is with ballots not bullets.