Myths of the Fourth of July

by Kevin Gutzman

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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 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 mere rhetorical predicate.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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., Associate Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution.

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