Confused about Independence? Parade Anyway!

One of many Norman Rockwell illustrations that tweak American values. Image from Saturday Evening Post.

Maybe the United States was always just people who liked to party! Looking at the history of why this day is celebrated, July 4th in particular, I came across many pictures of people marching, making speeches, and eating, but also so many claims that were kinda sorta not quite right. Maybe it’s buried in our history (oh, in everybody’s history) to blur those pesky details and bring on the fireworks.

To digress a moment, last in night in Zumba class, our instructor as usual picked something inspirational to stretch at the end. She likes themes of “celebrate yourself” or “be good to others”; Bob Marley works well. Last night, she decided to play “God Bless the USA,” because it was the day before July 4th. But that song is a jingoistic, uber-Christian celebration of the military. She even interjected at the end, perhaps sensing the over-the-topness of the sentiment– “the world, too, not just the USA” — but of course that misses the point of the song, which is that America is Number One and Everyone Can Suck It Because They Don’t Have Our Freedoms. And I’m looking around at a room, full of the diversity of the East Bay (Asian, Latino, Russian, Black, White, and all things between), 100% full of people whose ancestors were immigrants. We do all bless the U.S.A., but NOT for the reasons that the singer was espousing. This is SUCH a confusing country. Yet, from the time we declared Independence Day, the people in this country were always going in multiple directions at the same time, so maybe it all fits.

John Adams Was Confused

As I wrote before, the movie 1776 does a pretty good job of evoking the spirit of ’76, even if it wasn’t correct in all details. Adams did strong-arm Jefferson into writing the key document, despite there being a “committee” of writers. The Continental Congress did refuse to vote for Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence until he took out the anti-slavery clause (ironic, since Jefferson had slaves and used them unpleasantly to his great advantage). Congress approved the adjusted declaration on July 2nd.

A few Internet folks have written that the declaration would have been signed on July 2nd, which would have been Independence Day, except that Congress then balked at the slavery clause… (making July 4th a “racist” day) … that’s not true. The document wasn’t going to get past the south with its four votes–Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina–with that clause in it, period. The words were stricken BEFORE they voted on the 2nd.

Adams thought for sure that July Second would be forever celebrated as Independence Day, and he defined exactly how it should:

I am apt to believe that 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.

Well, they got the guns part right. And the Illuminations, i.e. things that go bang, and the Parades.

New York July 4th, 1860 “To the right” photo from Library of Congress.

Adams was wrong about the date, though. Congress diddled around with editing the draft for two more days (as they say in the movie, “but what about deep sea fishing rights?”) until then they officially approved it. The document had to be sent to the printers, not signed on the spot. Most of the group returned on August 2nd to Philadelphia to sign it. So should Independence Day be 07/02, 07/04, 08/02 or something else? Holidays work that way. You just have to pick a day.

The 41st Congress Was Conflicted

Independence Day was officially declared a holiday in 1870, as you may read. But not because they were praising America’s Freedom. Also, many say it was the biggest secular holiday, but I call bs on that. First off, what does holiday mean, anyway? Like Arbor Day? like Hanukkah? Valentine’s Day? those are holidays.

The 41st Congress in 1870 declared four federal paid holidays for workers in the District of Columbia. So holiday, let’s say, means federally-declared. That 1870 list included Independence Day, New Year’s Day, Christmas, and a Day of Thanksgiving (*actual date to be named later). Now, is Thanksgiving secular or not? Washington and Lincoln describing it as a day of prayer and fasting, so sounds pretty Christian. But by the 20th century, America ditched the prayer and added an “e” to make it a feast day, a harvest day! (Also, New Year’s Day is pretty secular; Christmas is really the only non-secular federal holiday.)

These first four holidays were paid days off–but only for federal workers in the District of Columbia. Many were veterans of the Civil War, naturally, so marrying glorification of the military went hand-in-hand with the rising labor rights movement. The 41st Congress was essentially the first after the end of the Civil War that was getting back to business, the 39th being focused on ratifying proclamations and the 40th on Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial. Ulysses Grant was President of the U.S., James Blaine was Speaker of the House, and Schuyler Colfax President of the Senate. (Yeah, S.C. was a cousin of Angelica and Elizabeth Schuyler.) That particular Congress did quite a few things: paid back the civil war bondholders, enforced the civil rights act, outlawed the KKK, and elected the first Black Congressmen. Reinforcing the holidays was more of a carrot than stick, since paying people to party on behalf of the newly reinforced Union of United States would have been super popular.

In 1870, Grant and the pols might have gone on July 4th to listen to Henry Ward Beecher– abolitionist, temperance and suffrage advocate, and believer in Social Darwinist–give a darned long speech in Connecticut, while all the pols sat and dreamed of campaigns contributions.

July 4, 1870 drawing of Woodstock celebration, from Library of Congress.

There’s some debate about who was paid on July 4th, according to Congress. Some historians said absolutely these were paid holidays, while others said not until the 1940s. Perhaps, some definitely got paid and some were only advised to offer payment. There’s also being paid in the federal government, and everybody else. Apparently, the bankers and business men wanted July 4th as a holiday, but maybe the moneymen didn’t need to get paid. Maybe they offered an unpaid holiday, which at least meant the owners got a day off to watch parades and picnic even if they didn’t pay their workers while they sat and listened to Henry Ward Beecher. (Who, again, was an abolitionist and teetotaler but thought workers could live on bread and water alone.)

At any rate, Americans have always loved parades. A search of Fourth of July in the late 19th century surfaced a ton of photos with parades. From Alaska to New York, from Florida to Calaveras County, California, Americans loved to watch and march in those parades, like this one in tiny Canyon City, Oregon. The parade has that military feel to it, though there are fewer in uniforms, probably because those guys were panning for gold out west while Lee and Grant were mixing it up back east. But they can march and wave flags!

Frederick Douglass Was Eloquently P.O.ed

Not everybody was wholly enamored with all the marching and speeches about freedom, though. It was a particularly sore subject in the first half of the nineteenth century for slaves, former slaves, and people were trying to end slavery, not to mention immigrants, indentured servants–the group was pretty large. One notable Fourth of July anti-celebration took place at the Benjamin Banneker institute, also founded in Philadelphia to honor That Guy I wrote about earlier, the famed mathematician and abolitionist.

Chairman Jacob White at the Banneker Institute, in 1859, was mild-mannered in calling for unity and hope in his anti-slavery speech, saying that “at some day not very far in futurity, our grievances will be redressed [and] … we will stand up, and with our once cruel opponents and oppressors rejoice in the Declaration of our common country…” Fifty years after Banneker wrote Jefferson criticizing the treatment of Blacks, and things seemed to be getting worse, not better.

Frederick Douglass was a little more blunt about it in a lengthy speech delivered to the Ladies of the Anti-Slavery Sewing Society in Rochester, NY in 1852, shortly after the Fugitive Slave Act had passed. He was asked to deliver an oration, but this was no snoozy, post-prandial praisefest of the U.S.A. (although it is long!). Douglass pulled no punches.

Your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

from Douglass’ speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Douglass praised the men who broke off from the English tyrants and tories but described the country as having trampled on its promise 76 years later.

Strangely, it doesn’t get the same amount of play today as “I Have a Dream.” Kind of a bummer, right? However, I encourage you to give it a read. Besides, Martin Luther King Jr. did have a parade, and he was in federal-land, Washington D.C. Where by 1963, there were seven paid holidays for federal workers, and across all the states, not just D.C.

Which reminds me, too, that among the parades and the talk about those who died for you and me, fighting somewhere not close to here (the Philippines? Hawaii? Afghanistan?–oh I kid!), we should also remember all those who died building this country for us. Plenty of immigrants and slaves also died building this country, quite literally building the District of Columbia, the White House, the Capitol, the railroads, the Erie Canal, etc. The Fourth is not just about parades of the military, but an appreciation of all the history. And it’s a story we’re still writing.

Bless Us, Everyone!

Lee Greenwood, the author of “God Bless the U.S.A.” says he was inspired to pen the song in 1983 because of the Korean Air Lines Flight 007. He wanted America to come together. Again, ironic, since KAL 007 was shot down by the Soviets during the Cold War because they thought Ronald Reagan was going to bomb them after putting Patriot Missiles in West Germany. Contrary to Greenwood’s concept of lost Americans, most of the passengers on the flight were South Korean or Japanese.

So what, though? Sure, let’s have God Bless the U.S.A! And Allah bless. And Jehovah, Brahma, The Goddess, Buddha–although Buddha was a philosopher, not a god or avatar, technically–but let any deity bless the good old U.S. of A., in all its confusing and fractured being. We need all the help we can get to keep this weird experiment of a nation together.

Another Rockwell, one of several with a firecracker exploding under a sleeping man. Trying to tell us something, Norman?

As Ben Franklin said on or about July the 2nd or the 4th or some time in August, “You have your republic, if you can keep it.”

Party On America! says 6-year-old Lee, photo by kajmeister many years ago.

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