July 3rd is the perfect time to share these thoughts.
John Adams believed that July 2nd would be the day we would celebrate because the Continental Congress voted for independence that day. July 4 won our hearts because that was when the text explaining that July 2 vote was ratified.
That text contains language that speaks to heart and mind. We tend to gloss over the recitation of offenses and concentrate on that soaring language. In the decades and centuries since that text has spoken to many seeking freedom around the world. It sets a stage for the great American experiment to play out.
I joke to my family that there is a war on Independence when I see the holiday called July 4th or the Fourth of July. It is Independence Day or as Adams imagined, “The Great Anniversary Festival”. Ok not so hot, stick with Independence Day.
The question was once asked “Why is the culture of the US and Canada so different?” My answer was that we both lived under the same rules imposed by the UK. In the US we found the idea of being taxed and ruled by people who were so far away that it would take three months to ask our leaders a question and receive the answer intolerable tyranny. The Canadians on the other hand, saw the same situation as an OK deal since those taxes imposed without representation were lower than the taxes paid by the people in the UK who had representation. The Canadians were conservatives who preferred the status quo and respected law and order as it was. The people in the US who agreed with them over the course of the Revolution often ended up migrating there or back to the UK.
Like all the generations that have followed the Founders, we struggle with competing narratives advanced for political aims. On one hand, we have an impulse to take their quotes and elevate them to the holy canon of the American national scripture. An impulse so strong that people create fraudulent quotes to influence others. On the other hand, there are those who want to limit the thoughts of those Founders to their day and time.
Neither course is prudent.
They weren’t 18th century prophets. The Constitution was a product of their mistakes in the Articles of Confederation, a document so flawed that when they were charged with modifying it, they scrapped it completely. The Constitution they produced they found lacking and looked to modify with 12 changes. The first two were not immediately adopted but the next 10 were, our Bill of Rights. Not until 1992 was their second proposal adopted as the 27th Amendment which prohibits changing Congressional pay until the next swearing in of Representatives. Their first proposal will likely never be adopted because the House of Representatives would grow to over 6000 members from 435, far larger than the 650 in the UK parliament, 631 in Germany, and 630 in Italy, the three largest democratic national legislative bodies (even if the House had the same number of people per district as the UK the House would have around 3000 members).
The Constitution would be amended two more times while the Founders were running the country. The 11th which dealt with using the Federal courts to avoid state immunity claims and the 12th changing the electoral college process.
The men weren’t flawless. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase was one of the greatest decisions ever made to make the US a powerful and secure nation and also the sort of government action he had argued the national government did not have the power to do before he became president. Adams who once said “The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with the power to endanger the public liberty.”, was the president who signed the Alien and Sedition Acts taking away public liberty to be critical of his administration, prosecuting and jailing critics of his undeclared war against France.
They ranged from Patrick Henry who was the most easily identifiable of all the Founders as a Christian (unsuccessfully sought to reference Jesus in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom) to fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson who created his own Bible, an edited version of the New Testament that removed all miracles and ended with Jesus dead in the tomb.
Their greatness came not from agreement since they did not agree much with each other but from how they rose to the challenges they were faced with and failed to turn to tyranny. Washington could have seized power as a king/dictator at the end of the war, he resigned and went home. He could have again as president but he refused a third term and nearly refused even a second term, staying primarily on the advice of Hamilton and his own hope that another four years might defuse the national trend toward political parties, a hope that did not work out.
They valued discussion, debate and compromise.
Time after time their great experiment had the opportunity to collapse and each time they put this nation, they risked their lives to create, first. They would give up a point they considered critical to gain on another point. They fought, they argued, they insulted each other as false patriots and self-serving yet in the end, they found a way to compromise and move forward. The idea of refusing to even allow a matter to be debated in the halls of Congress came ten years after the deaths of Adams and Jefferson with the “gag rule”.
They left us a grand legacy. Sometimes those who followed have outshone them and sometimes embarrassed their legacy.
This Independence Day is a day to celebrate. John Adams writing on that July 3rd 240 years ago.
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.