An Urban's Rural View

What We Celebrate on Independence Day

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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The Declaration of Independence is a seminal document in history. Its ringing declaration of the equality of all men and their possession of rights was as important as the formal statement of political separation from Britain. (Public domain image)

July 4 is the date dogs dread; the exploding fireworks make many canines cringe. Yet despite the puppies' protests, this dog-loving nation continues to shoot off fireworks on Independence Day.

Fireworks fans say the founders would approve. John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the nation's second president, said the day "ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade ... bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more." For most of American history, at least since the War of 1812, it has been.

Amid the exploding illuminations, it's worth taking a moment to ponder the meaning of the day being solemnized.

Ever since the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, nearly every country has a national day of some kind. On Jan. 1 China celebrates the day in 1949 the Communist Party took power and declared the People's Republic. On July 14 France celebrates the storming of the Bastille prison on that day in 1789, which touched off the French Revolution. On Sept. 16 Mexico celebrates the beginning of its war of independence from Spain in 1810.

(The United Kingdom is one of the few countries without a national day. Asked why on the website Quora, a patriotic British wag replied, "When you're British, every day is a cause for celebration.")

The Fourth of July is different from other national days. We call it Independence Day, but the States that eventually United had been fighting a war of independence with Britain for more than a year before they declared independence.

What distinguishes the U.S. national day as much as anything is that magisterial document, the Declaration of Independence.

On the 4th of July, America celebrates its formal divorce from Britain, but just as importantly, it celebrates the declaration's key idea, that all men are equal before the law and have rights.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Those eloquent words have been much quoted, much copied, much analyzed. Abraham Lincoln alluded to them in his Gettysburg Address.

The "new nation" brought forth by "our fathers," Lincoln said, had been "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Many have noted, though, that the Constitution creating the United States in 1787 did not incorporate the declaration's idealism. For one thing, it failed to abolish slavery. That only happened when the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865 after the North won the Civil War. Up until then, some men were definitely not equal in the eyes of the law.

To some today, this failure is evidence that the unamended Constitution was somehow racist. As further evidence, they cite the notorious three-fifths clause, which allowed three-fifths of all slaves to be counted in a state's population. This gave the Southern states additional votes in Congress to head off efforts to do away with slavery. It also seemed to treat black human beings as only three-fifths of a person.

Arguably, though, the Constitution wasn't so much racist as it was an awkward compromise. Insisting on an antislavery clause would have been an empty gesture; Southern states wouldn't have signed a document abolishing their "peculiar institution." Slavery was going to continue in the South whether or not the states agreed to set up a federal government.

The original Constitution didn't endorse slavery; its silence on the subject left the decision to the states. The words "slave" and "slavery" were not even mentioned. Escaped slave Frederick Douglass argued forcefully in 1860 that the Constitution did not guarantee any "right to hold property in man."

The original Constitution, then, didn't repudiate the Declaration of Independence even if it didn't echo it. The Bill of Rights and post-Civil War amendments eventually incorporated the declaration's idealism.

Our national-day celebration isn't shrouded in hypocrisy, as some argue. Granted, our country doesn't always live up to its ideals. While we've come a long way since the days when slaveholding was legal, we still have more work to do.

Our progress in that work is uneven, but we shouldn't denigrate the ideals simply because we sometimes fall short of them. To quote Frederick Douglass again, "A chart is one thing, the course of the vessel is another." The Declaration of Independence is a chart well worth celebrating.

I wish you a happy Independence Day celebration.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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