According to John Adams, one of the most eminent of our Founding Fathers, we celebrate our independence from Great Britain on the wrong date.
He is right in a way, of course: the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 2 but was not published until July 4. But while Adams may have lost his argument about which day should be celebrated, his other suggestion has been observed on most of the July Fourths since the day the Declaration was made public.
Though he still referred to July 2 as the special day, Adams wrote his wife Abigail — let’s just call it Independence Day — it “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
(Those who lived and wrote during the age of enlightenment weren’t yet enlightened about the use of capitalization.) Nevertheless, Adams’ prescription for celebrating Independence Day couldn’t have been a more accurate description.
These days of course, most of us enjoy the Fourth as a celebration of summer and a day off for backyard cookouts, fireworks, a day at the lake or some other diversion. But I’ve noticed that most people seem more often to keep the purpose of the holiday more in mind than they may on other holidays.
(An aside) I had a (now deceased) good friend who was born a few minutes before midnight on July 3 or a few minutes past midnight on July 5 — I forget which. Mitch thought it a great injustice that he’d missed being born on the Fourth of July by such a short amount of time. It was also a terrible injustice that those fireworks and cookouts weren’t to commemorate his birth. So Mitch just claimed throughout his life to have been born on July 4.
This column is penned prior to the national celebration in Washington D.C. President Donald Trump has indicated this year’s celebration will be bigger and better than any before. Would you expect anything less from this president? (I’m talking about the claims and not the reality — remember his inauguration crowd?) But from the build-up it sounds as if this one will be militaristic, more in line with the parade in France which so impressed him — with fighter jets flying over and military equipment and personnel prominently on hand.
But it’s not without precedence. There were massive celebrations in Philadelphia, New York and other places on the first anniversary of Independence Day, and they included showing off the military such as it was at the time.
Trump reportedly will make a speech, something else unusual for presidents but again not unprecedented. Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford all made some sort of national Fourth of July address, though Nixon’s was pre-recorded. Still, it’s not the norm. But we’ve surely learned by now that in Trump’s world there is no norm.
He apparently will speak in front of the Lincoln Memorial — a decision which invites many unfavorable comparisons of the most recent Republican president with the first. Lincoln, sadly, headed a nation at civil war on each of the Independence Days he was in office. But he made one glorious speech about one Fourth of July at a little Pennsylvania town named Gettysburg where the armies of the north and south collided and fought for three days. That same July 4, Vicksburg fell to Grant and the tide began to turn in favor of the union.
The same union Adams helped construct and that we continue to celebrate on each Fourth of July, a celebration bigger than one person.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.