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Americans Ponder the Meaning of Independence on July 4


July fourth is Independence Day in the United States, a day when Americans commemorate the signing, in 1776, of the Declaration of Independence, a document that formally severed political ties with Britain, then America's colonial ruler.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Those words, written by a 33 year-old activist named Thomas Jefferson and published by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776, are but a few the significant phrases in America's Declaration of Independence. Barnard College history professor Herbert Sloan reminds us that it was neither a declaration of war nor even the beginning of American independence from the British crown.

"It's not as if we were waiting for July 4, 1776 to act as an independent country. For the previous year and a quarter or so, there had been an active civil war against the British overlord going on," he says. " July 4, 1776 is the moment when there is the official statement that there is no turning back; we're not going to hope any more for a reconciliation."

In a sense, the Declaration of Independence, represented "a kind of a wishful thinking that 'if we say it is so, it will be so!'" Sloan says. "It was an investment by those who signed it to actually make good on the promise of independence and to let the rest of the world know 'we're extremely serious about this.'"

And Americans ever since have been extremely serious about freedom, says historian Eric Foner, of Columbia University, and the author of The Story of American Freedom.

"Liberty and freedom have been rallying cries throughout our history, whether it's 'a new birth of freedom' of Lincoln in the Civil War, or 'The Four Freedoms' of Roosevelt in World War II," Foner says. "It's no accident, that President Bush gave the name 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' to the war in Iraq because somehow associating a military venture with the ideal of freedom is a time-honored way of mobilizing popular support for that effort."

Herbert Sloan notes that unlike many nations, the United States does not link its origins to a military victory. In 1776, when independence was declared, the British surrender was more than six years off.

He says that founding father "John Adams is famous for saying it wasn't the military part that mattered but it was 'the change,' as he put it, 'in the hearts and minds of Americans before 1775. That was the real revolution.'"

While July 4th has been American freedom's symbolic anniversary since its founding, the U.S. Congress did not make Independence Day a federal holiday until 1870. By then, says Robert McDonald, a Jefferson scholar who teaches at the United States Military Academy at West Point, the date had already come to symbolize freedom in unanticipated ways.

"Henry David Thoreau walked out to Walden Pond and set up camp on July 4, 1845. That was no coincidence," McDonald says. "He was declaring his personal independence from the 'rat race' then going on. And The Tuskegee Institute for the education of former slaves opened in Alabama on July 4, 1881."

In the 19th century, July 4th was often a day for patriotic and political speeches - some of them quite angry. Eric Foner points to an 1852 address by the great African American orator and ex-slave, Frederick Douglass entitled "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro."

"In effect," says Foner, "Douglass said 'this day is white America's day. To black people, July 4th is a symbol of American hypocrisy. You talk about freedom, and yet you hold over three million Americans in slavery. What kind of freedom is this?'" Later on, the labor movement would pick up the Declaration of Independence in the movement for shorter hours or higher wages."

American Independence Day has also been a powerful symbol abroad. For example, during the decolonization of Asia and Africa following World War II, America was often praised as the first nation to throw off the imperial yoke. Even Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader, modeled Vietnam's 1945 Declaration of Independence on the American one, declaring it to be, in effect, a justification for revolution against the French occupation of his homeland.

But Robert McDonald likens July 4th to a sort of patriotic Thanksgiving, best savored in a tranquil mode. "July 4th marks the ratification of the document that celebrated not death and war, but life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness," McDonald says.

Despite the solemn principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, McDonald believes its commemoration should be joyful. "I think it's somewhat appropriate that Americans gather together with family and friends and other members of the community and shoot off fireworks and have backyard barbeques." Professor McDonald suggests that that is what being a free person may really be all about - celebrating life -- and giving thanks to all those who've contributed to our freedom.