Myths of the 4th of July


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:

The 4th of July is a celebration of the U.S. Constitution.

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.

The 4th of July was the day that the 13 states established their independence.

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.

The chief legacy of the 4th of July is the political philosophy set out in the Declaration of Independence.

Since the 18th century, political radicals have argued for understanding the Declaration as a general warrant for the 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 a mere rhetorical predicate.

The 4th of July is a non-partisan holiday dedicated to recalling the legacy of the American Revolution.

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.

The fulfillment of the 4th of July lay in the establishment of a powerful national government.

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.

The Declaration of Independence stood for the rights of white, male property owners alone.

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.

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

No. 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.

Kevin R. C. Gutzman, J.D., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution.


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  4 Comments   Comment

  1. Kris from Malaysia

    Assalamualaikum and greetings to all.

    Dear Vicente, as to your question how was the Philippines and Indonesian archipelago came to be colonised by Muslims, I answer it this way. It was never colonised at all. It would be misconceived to ask that manner. Islam came to South East Asia by way of trade and missionary activities. More than 9 centuries ago. Islam came to Malaysia in the state of Trengganu in 1199, evidenced by the founding of the encraved stone which depicts the traces of Sharia laws.

    The traders were from the Arab continents and from some parts of India, Malabar and Gujerat. It was the ever willing embrace of the Asian populace that enable Islam to thrive. Please refer to the historians of Oxford and Cambridge for more details.

    Islam never came about by conquest, even when Europe Spain, Greek and other countries of that continent were ruled by Muslms, impartial historians will tell you that there was never a conversion by force.

    I hope that this brief replies will shed better light in relations to your question in your post.

    Regards,

  2. Romesh Chander from USA

    US 'war of independence' was in fact a civil war between the English ruling class in Britain and the English working class in the american colonies; yes, I call it a civil war.

    The end result of the civil war was an independent country (a new ruling class not much differfent than British ruling class); the only difference was the end of monarchy in US colonies and an experiment in 'representative government'. That experiment is still going on.

    US is a status quo power; it wants the situation to remain the same (as the current situation is favourable to US). Hence, it opposes any changes anywhere which it cannot control. It wants a government in Iraq (and Afghanistan) which is a puppet of US; if it cannot make it a puppet government, then it prefers Iraq/Afghanistan to be a failed and highly divided state not under the control of anybody; the same situation in Somailia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and probably in Sudan. And may be Saudi Arabia too.

    No, US does not want any kind of democracy outside the US unless it can control those countries. US tried to topple Venzulean democracy; it just did not succeed; but US will try to topple it at the next opportune monment.

    Does US like democracies in Europe? Only, because they are not any threat to US; the moment any one of them becomes a threat, you can rest assured, US will try to topple it.

    US ruling class wants to rule, democratically if possible; undemocratically, if necessary. It is that simple.

  3. Vincente Beazel from USA

    I am glad to see that their is sound historic support for this forum/article. Most people never take the time to study history, other than what they remember hearing from their professors, who seldom go any deeper than the textbooks.

    Would it be appropriate to recommend an area of research...according to the author of 1421, wich detailed documentation at the website: http://www.1421.tv;

    the Chinese Admiral that launched a trade exhibition around the world was Muslim!!

    I had always wondered how the Phillipines and the indonesian archipelago came to be colonized by muslims...any thoughts?

  4. Carin from USA

    I do not think that posting an article that basically slanders America throughout the whole article with a lot propaganda on Independence Day is a very respectful act. We are all in America for a reason, something good that this country offers us...whether it be financial opportunity, educational opportunity or otherwise. Let us celebrate why we are here on this day. The 4th of July not only celebrates the Constitution, but the states coming together as a nation, creating a stronger central government, instead of a collection of states as under the failed Articles of Confederation. I mean a lot of us live in America, and trust me, we know very well a lot of the negative sides of this country a little too well. On a day celebrating the 'nation-hood' of this country, how appropriate to have an article like this.