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America’s Birthday: The True Meaning of July 4 (Part 1)

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Declaration of Independence is the birth announcement of the American Republic. Do we understand its full meaning? Does our modern Republic live up to its promise?

The American Calendar project is a series of nine e-anthologies — one for each national holiday — whose stories, speeches, songs, poems, letters, and essays help us think about the meaning of each occasion. Compiled by educators Amy Kass and Leon Kass, they are all available free of charge at http://www.whatsoproudlywehail.org.

The rationale for the collection is simple, explain the Kasses: “National holidays offer wonderful opportunities to learn about and to become more knowingly attached to the American Republic. For the national calendar, as a whole and in each part, provides an excellent introduction to the diverse strands of our national identity and the meaning of our common life and purpose.”

The Kass e-book, “The Meaning of Independence Day,” contains over 50 selections from colonial times to the present, chosen and arranged to illuminate a series of themes: declaring, securing, and maintaining independence; the promise of the new republic; seeking a more perfect union (with special attention to securing equal rights for blacks and women); and celebrating the holiday and remembering its national promise. The readings were chosen for their differing perspectives and for their ability to speak both to hearts and minds about the meaning of Independence Day. Today, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we will be reprinting excerpts from the commentary offered by the Kasses. In celebration of July 4th, we hope you will take the time to read and think anew about these documents and stories and to consider the questions Amy Kass and Leon Kass have raised about them.

The Editors

Declaration of Independence

THOMAS JEFFERSON

On July 4, 1776, two days after it adopted the Lee Resolution that declared the united colonies’ independence from Great Britain, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), which explains that decision by “declar[ing] the causes which impel them to the separation.” These causes are laid out in the bill of particular charges against the king, the listing of which constitutes the bulk of the Declaration. But in addition, the opening paragraphs of the Declaration provide the first and most authoritative statement of what we might call “the American creed.” For in separating from Great Britain, the united colonies ground their claim to political independence in a teaching about individual human rights — to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to which rightful freedoms all human beings are said to be equally entitled.

In articulating the four self-evident truths (natural equality, inalienable individual rights, government founded on the consent of the governed, and the people’s right of revolution) and compiling the list of the king’s abuses, Jefferson claims to have done nothing more than “place before mankind the common sense of the subject.” “It was,” he explained years later, “intended to be an expression of the American mind.” Even so, this birth announcement of the American Republic reveals that it is the first nation anywhere to be founded not on ties of blood, soil, or lineage but on a set of philosophical principles for which the document — and the nation — are justly celebrated.

Read the full Declaration.

Questions for the Reader

Careful study of the text will attend to both the universal principles and the particular grievances, as well as to the question of the relation between them. What, according to the Declaration, makes the American colonists a distinct “people,” entitled to a “separate and equal station” among the peoples of the world? What is meant by the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and how are these related to our “peoplehood”? What is a “right,” and where do individual rights come from? What is a “self-evident” truth, and in what self-evidently true sense can we say that “all men are created equal”? How does the Declaration understand the relation between the individual and the collective? Between our rights and our responsibilities (or duties)? Do we Americans today still hold these truths (or any truths) to be self-evident?

Review carefully the list of grievances. Which ones strike you as most egregious? To what do they all add up? Why does the document emphasize the deeds of the king, downplaying the complicit role of Parliament? What is the relation between these grievances and the philosophical principles stated earlier? Are you persuaded that revolution was in fact justified? Imagining yourself in Philadelphia in July 1776, would you have pledged your life, fortune, and sacred honor to support this declaration? Would you — and in the name of what? — make such a pledge today to support the American republic, should comparable support be needed?

—Amy Kass and Leon Kass

My Kinsman, Major Molineux

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

Taking his bearings from the pre-revolutionary tensions between the colonists and their mother country, this story, written in 1832 by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) draws our attention to the dark underbelly of what many had described as a “new Eden.” The story, set in the 1730s, describes the disturbing adventures of a young man, Robin, who has come from the country to the city (probably Boston) in search of his kinsman, Major Molineux, an officer of the British colonial government, who had offered to help him make his mark in life. The story offers a sobering picture of social and political life amidst a people, Hawthorne tells us at the start, who “looked with jealous scrutiny to the exercise of power, which did not emanate from themselves.”

Read the full story.

Questions for the Reader

The 18-year-old Robin is surely innocent and inexperienced, though he is also said to be “shrewd” (eight times), and he walks through the town armed with a cudgel. Why does Robin encounter the hostility he does? How do you explain his reaction to it? When he finally does encounter Major Molineux — tarred and feathered and paraded through the streets by a raucously mocking crowd — and his eyes and his kinsman’s meet, Robin’s “knees shook, and his hair bristled, with a mixture of pity and terror.” But, we are told, as “the contagion” spread “among the multitude, it seized upon Robin,” who “sent forth a shout of laughter that echoed through the street. . . the loudest” of them all. How do you explain Robin’s reaction, as well as his almost immediate subsequent desire to return to his home? Should he follow the advice of the kindly gentleman who urged him to remain in town for at least a few more days, arguing that, because he is a “shrewd youth,” he “may rise in the world without the help of [his] kinsman”? What do you think Robin did, and what became of him?

What have Robin’s nighttime adventures taught him? What do they tell us about the various tensions — personal, social, and political — that they explicitly and tacitly reveal, for example, between town and country, past and future, church and society, authority and individualism, the rule of law and mob rule, or between youth and age? Do you think that Hawthorne shares the crowd’s attitude toward Major Molineux? Does he share the advice of the kindly gentleman, both for Robin and for the republic? What, finally, is Hawthorne saying about the promise and pitfalls of our new republic?

—Amy Kass and Leon Kass

Amy Kass and Leon Kass, along with Diana Schaub, are editors of the anthology, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song. Their website is www.whatsoproudlywehail.org.

FURTHER READING: Leon Kass also writes “What Silent Cal Said About the Fourth of July” and joins Walter Berns to discuss Steven Spielberg’s film "Lincoln." Berns also writes the book Making Patriots. Karlyn Bowman, who helps us in “Understanding American Exceptionalism,” joins Jennifer Marsico and Andrew Rugg to analyze “Polls on Patriotism.” Jonah Goldberg talks about “Freedom: The Unfolding Revolution” and Ralph Kinney Bennett hails “This Astounding Enterprise.” Mark J. Perry claims that “The Founding Fathers Were Bloggers.” Charles Murray examines the changing nature of presidents' sense of responsibility in “Of Presidents and Duty.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group. Background photo by Todd Taulman / Shutterstock

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