Over the past eight years or so, with two exceptions, we’ve helped put on a large block party, complete with games, food, strong drink, music, patriotic readings, and, when the sun goes down, plenty of fireworks. I love the fellowship. I’m dismayed at the ignorance of some of my fellow Americans, of course. But I think the holiday can serve an educational purpose without dampening the fun.
And as with any holiday, one often looks for reasons to, shall we say, stretch it out a bit. Why celebrate American independence and liberty just one day out of the year? Several years ago, I found a good excuse in two letters John Adams wrote to his beloved wife, Abigail. This was just after the delegates at the Continental Congress cast the fateful vote to separate from Great Britain and draft a Declaration of Independence. Adams, along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, formed the drafting committee. These were heady days, the culmination of years of argument, abuse and violence… with more on the way. And Adams, standing at the center of history, took stock.
I read and re-read (and post and re-post) the full text every year. I post it again, below. The words grab me every time. What’s great about these letters, written the morning and evening of July 3, is how wrong and how right Adams was. July 2? Annexing Canada? No and not bloody likely. Yet read through, with the benefit of hindsight, and marvel at the great man’s prescience. It isn’t difficult to feel in the final paragraphs Adams’ excitement and trepidation at what was to come.
Tonight, I do what I’ve done every July 2 for the past decade: Raise a glass to Adams and those “iron men” who pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor for freedom. I hope you will join me in reflecting on their wisdom and courage.
Philadelphia July 3d. 1776
Had a declaration of independence been made seven months ago, it would have been attended with many great and glorious effects. We might, before this hour, have formed alliance with foreign states. We should have mastered Quebec, and been in possession of Canada.
You will, perhaps, wonder how such a declaration would have influenced our affairs in Canada; but, if I could write with freedom, I could easily convince you that it would, and explain to you the manner how. Many gentlemen in high stations, and of great influence, have been duped, by the ministerial bubble of commissioners, to treat; and, in real, sincere expectation of this event, which they so fondly wished, they have been slow and languid in promoting measures for the reduction of that province. Others there are in the colonies, who really wished that our enterprise in Canada would be defeated; that the colonies might be brought into danger and distress between two fires, and be thus induced to submit. Others really wished to defeat the expedition to Canada, lest the conquest of it should elevate the minds of the people to much to hearken to those terms of reconciliation which they believed would be offered to us. These jarring views, wishes, and designs, occasioned an opposition to many salutary measures which were proposed for the support of that expedition, and caused obstructions embarrassments, and studied delays, which have finally lost us the province.
All causes, however, in conjunction, would not have disappointed us, if it had not been for a misfortune which could not have been foreseen, and perhaps could not have been prevented – I mean the prevalence of the smallpox among our troops. This fatal pestilence completed our destruction. It is a frown of Providence upon us, which we ought to lay to heart.
But, on the other hand, the delay of this declaration to this time has many great advantages attending it. The hopes of reconciliation which were fondly entertained by multitudes of honest an well meaning, though short-sighted and mistaken people, have been gradually, and at last totally, extinguished. Time has been given for the whole people maturely to consider the great question of independence, and to ripen their judgment, dissipate their fears, and allure their hopes, by discussing it in newspapers and pamphlets – by debating it in assemblies, conventions, committees of safety and inspection – in town and country meetings, as well as in private conversations; so that the whole people, in every colony, have now adopted it as their own act. This will cement the union, and avoid those heats, and perhaps convulsions, which might have been occasioned by such a declaration six months ago.
But the day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. 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, shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.
You will think me transported with enthusiasm; but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of light and glory; I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph, although you and I may rue, which I hope we shall not.
(Cross-posted at Freedom Pub.)