Monday, July 2, 2012

John Adams: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.”

All American history buffs know that the Continental Congress declared independence on July 2, 1776. The signing ceremony of the Declaration of Independence a couple days later was just a bit of theater for the press.

All the same, the ceremony on the 4th served some lasting purpose. Thomas Jefferson’s handiwork has some nice words in it, which still sound pretty good today, and the press-op helped make them famous. Congress modified his original wording here and there prior to the vote, and wherever it did the modification was for the worse. Congress hasn’t changed its habits much in that regard. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration, for example, blamed slavery (not really fairly) on King George: “He has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither.” The language indicated an aspiration to end the practice after victory, and that was precisely the objection to it from key slaveholders. (Tom himself was a contradiction: he repeatedly decried slavery and he tried to prevent its expansion into the West; yet, to the end of his days, he continued to own slaves, not even freeing them in his will as George Washington, another nominally anti-slavery slaveowner, had done.) Congress decided to fight one war at a time and to leave the fight over slavery for another day. The paragraph was excised, a decision unfortunate on innumerable levels.

If you trip up anyone on the question of when Congress declared independence, you probably can trip the same person by asking who was the first President of the United States. For some reason, Americans tend to forget completely that the current Constitution is the second one. Under the first, The Articles of Confederation, seven Presidents, each with a one year term, preceded Washington: Hanson, Boudinot, Mifflin, Lee, Gorham, St. Clair, and Griffin. The first, John Hanson, was responsible for commissioning and adopting several enduring symbols, including the Great Seal of the United States and the Presidential Seal, both still in use.


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