July 4 has been celebrated as our national birthday since 1776.
During a brutally hot summer in 1776, representatives from all thirteen American colonies gathered in Philadelphia to bemoan the critical impasse between their individual colonies and the “mother country,” Great Britain. Their lack of governmental representation (a given right of all “Englishmen”), excessive (to them) taxation, and a host of other grievances had been fomenting for several years.
Finally, acknowledging that bemoaning and gestures of conciliation were going nowhere, they concluded that in the 150+ years the American colonies had been part of the British Empire, the nature of its populace had evolved, and said colonies required a nation of their own.
The matter of independence had been batted back and forth for weeks, resolved on only one item: that the vote for “independence” needed to be unanimous. According to some, in an effort to gain a little more time to persuade the hesitant, it was Virginia delegate Thomas Jefferson who proposed a “declaration” be written, to lay their reasoning for such a monumental decision before the judgment of posterity.
A few weeks later, said Declaration of Independence was drafted, batted around some more, and finally, on July 4th, 1776, it was passed. We were a nation of ourselves.
There are always quibbles. Some said that it passed on July 2. Maybe. So what? All evidence points to the fact that it wasn’t even signed by all participants (in dribs and drabs) till several weeks later. Again, so what?
The point is that July 4th was established at that time, as the important date, recognized as our national birthday. And, as signer John Adams suggested, “…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.“
And so it has.
The First Two Guys
John Adams (1735-1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), both future Presidents, were not only signers of the great document, but actively participated in its creation. No one at the Continental Congress advocated so ardently and consistently for independence as Mr. Adams of Massachusetts. And no one argues the concepts and soaring language crafted into said document by Mr. Jefferson of Virginia. And no one argues the dedication of the members of the Continental Congress in editing, amending, adding, deleting and debating its every word. We got lucky.
Claiming our independence was the easy part. Selling it to the country – and to the future generations – took more time. The Revolutionary War was fought with virtually no government at all; merely an amalgam of disassociated ex-colonies, toothless and clawless in its ability to get anything done. When the Articles of Confederation were written and adopted, they were also flawed on many fronts, and the hopes for a truly united group of states were dwindling.
But by 1789, blessed with a few very brilliant men and a great deal of good fortune, a new Constitution was drafted and approved. And somehow it worked. And since they started out to form “a more perfect union,” rather than a perfect one, it appears they were a lot wiser than we sometimes give them credit for.
Fast forward 50 years to 1826. July 4, to be exact. The last living signers of the Declaration of Independence (by then always written with capitals) were breathing their last. In Massachusetts, John Adams, frail and toothless at 90, was still cogent, and very much aware of the significance of the day. In Virginia, a rapidly failing Thomas Jefferson was 83, having wished to survive till that day as well.
It always amuses the gods of coincidence that they both lived to ripe old ages, closing their eyes on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration they helped write for the country they helped create.
The Next Fellow…
James Monroe (1758-1831) was not quite a Founding Father. He was still in his teens at the time of Lexington and Concord, but when the call came, he left the College of William and Mary and enlisted in the Continental Army. He served with distinction, and even earned commendation (written, no less) from General Washington himself. Then he was injured.
Advised to spend his recuperation finishing his education, James Monroe opted to read law with then-Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson. The two men, a half-generation apart in age, got on famously, and became friends. For life. When Monroe was a full-fledged attorney with a modest practice, it was Foreign Minister Jefferson, then serving in Paris, who supplied his former ”student” with law books for his library.
Monroe eventually served in a wide range of elected and appointed political positions, from Virginia legislator to 2x Governor of Virginia, and even diplomatic roles abroad. When James Madison, became President (another lifelong friend), Monroe was summoned to become his Secretary of State. And following in the footsteps of both Jefferson and Madison, he became a 2x POTUS (1817-25).
He was 67 when he retired. He served on the Board of Visitors at Jefferson’s beloved University of Virginia, but his health was already beginning to show signs of age. After his wife of 40 years died, the decline was precipitous. He went to New York to live with his younger daughter and son-in-law, and died at 73 in 1831.
On July 4th.
The Last Guy
Very few people actually choose the date and time of their demise. Nobody, however, chooses the day they were born.
Nevertheless, on July 4, 1872, in the small village of Plymouth Notch VT, a son was born to John Calvin Coolidge, Sr. and his wife, Josephine Moor.
Little did anyone know at the time, but fifty-one years later, John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. (the ”John” was dropped at birth) would become the 30th President of the United States.
Butterfield, L.H. (ed) – The Book of Abigail and John – Harvard University Press, 1975
Ellis, Joseph – American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson – Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
McCullough, David – John Adams – Simon and Schuster, 2000
Unger, Harold Giles – The Last Founding Father – DeCapo Press, 2009