Failings of the Founders and the 4th of July

This time of year, my thoughts turn to the origin of this country and the sacrifices it entailed. We always hear talk about the “Founding Fathers” and, of course, the documents and system of government that they created remain amazing to this day. But the backbone of the revolution were the soldiers of the Continental Army. They were mostly young and inexperienced, especially if compared with the renowned, formidable British army.  Official enlistment age for the Continental Army was 16, but just 15 with parental consent.  Soldiers could sign on up to the age of 55.

Most Continental soldiers were young men, just 17 or 18 years old. Older soldiers had more responsibilities at home, such as families to raise and farmland to tend.  They usually joined local militias instead of the regular army, because the militia was a part-time commitment. Militia worked locally and didn’t have to march off to war wherever and whenever needed, like the Continental Army did.

I confess to being a history nerd, and my son is unabashedly following in my footsteps. These are just 2 of the wall hangings in his room:

Washington crossing the Delaware

and Declaration of Independence

Signing of the Declaration

The Declaration of Independence gave an eloquent and powerful voice to the values that were behind the launching of the American Revolution. Last year, when my then 14 year old son was choosing the artwork for his walls, I expected that he would want a print of this iconic painting by John Trumbull, an image of the Founding Fathers and Continental Congress assembled together, presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence for a July 4, 1776 signing. My son confided in me that it wasn’t really what had happened.  I pretended to be amazed at what he told me, so he could have the pleasure of telling me something that was so amazing to him.

Trumbull’s painting depicts June 28, when a draft of the Declaration of Independence was finally ready to be reviewed. The committee that presented the draft of the Declaration had five members — John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The Trumbull painting includes 47 portraits, although 56 men actually signed the Declaration.

So, the Declaration of Independence wasn’t actually signed on the 4th of July; that’s when it was formally dated and finalized by the Continental Congress, which had officially voted for independence on July 2. In fact, John Adams thought we should celebrate our independence on July 2nd.

Even in 1776, participants understood that this document was a really big deal. John Hancock and Charles Thomson signed early printed copies of the Declaration that were to be given to military officers and various political committees. Most of the other 54 men signed an official, finalized, bigger print copy on August 2, with others signing at a later date.

Early July 4th Celebrations

After years of having to hide their frustrations, the colonies erupted with joy upon hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence. Military personnel and civilians in the Bowling Green section of Manhattan tore down a statue of King George III. It was later melted into bullets. In Philadelphia, joyful patriots used the King’s coat of arms as kindling for a bonfire. In Savannah, Georgia, the citizens burnt the King in effigy and held a mock funeral for their vanquished royal enemy.

Independence Day celebrations began to look a bit more familiar the following year. The Virginia Gazette described the July 4, 1777 Revelry in Philadelphia:

“The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.”

Massachusetts recognized July 4th as an official holiday in 1781. It was the first state to do so. Congress didn’t even start begin designating federal holidays until 1870.

Oldest Annual July 4th Celebration

Long before the government recognized the 4th of July as a federal holiday, one tradition began that continues to this day. Described as “America’s Oldest Fourth of July Celebration,” the town of Bristol, Rhode Island, has been doing Independence Day right since 1785. That year, a local pastor who was also a Revolutionary War veteran, started the “patriotic exercises.” 2020 was its 235th anniversary. Town residents now begin to celebrate the United States on Flag Day, June 14, and host a variety of fun events right through to the 2.5-mile July 4 parade.. According to the website for the event, the parade this year will be just a car parade with participation by invitation, and safely masked spectators are welcome to watch.  Because of the pandemic, events are now being spread out further across the summer.

In 2020, the the National Retail Federation predicted Americans would spend around $6.52 billion on foods to celebrate the 4th of July. This figure included food and other cookout expenses, averaging out to about $76.49 per person taking part in a barbecue, outdoor cookout, or picnic.

And don’t forget about the beer!. According to the Beer Institute, “more beer is sold on and around the Fourth of July holiday than during any other time throughout the year.” Generally, Americans will spend around $1 billion on beer for their July 4th celebrations. They will spend over $560 million on wine. This is certainly keeping with tradition.  During the Revolutionary War, Americans’ toasts often took the form of slams and insults aimed at the British:

“To the enemies of our country! May they have cobweb breeches, a porcupine saddle, a hard-trotting horse, and an eternal journey!”

After the war, Fourth of July celebrations were always accompanied by toasts to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and thirteen toasts in honor of each of the thirteen original colonies , turned states.  Huzzah!

Presidents who died and who were born on July 4th

Many people know both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was recognized as adopted. They’re not the only presidents to have died on the Independence Day. James Monroe, America’s 5th president, died on July 4, 1831.

Though the holiday might seem like it has it out for former presidents, there was one future leader born on Independence Day. The country’s 30th Commander-in-Chief, Calvin Coolidge, was born on July 4, 1872.

 Women Were Not Included in the Vision of the Declaration

When Thomas Jefferson and those who helped draft the Declaration of Independence described their vision of a new nation, they did not include women.  Under the laws of the newly independent United States, just like in England, women were denied property rights, could not vote, could not enter into a legal contract.  In colonial America, women were pushed to the sidelines as dependents of men.  Married women were under control of their husbands. The only women that had more rights were widows, and they were often left financially vulnerable and at the mercy of either their closest male relative, or in need of another husband.

During the Revolutionary War, and in the period leading up to it, women played an important part boycotting British goods, creating local alternatives to British goods, and organizing fundraising activities to support the patriot cause.  During the war, many women acted as nurses and caretakers for wounded soldiers.  A small number of women and girls joined militias. Since women were not allowed to join the army or militias at the time, women soldiers disguised themselves as men by cutting their hair, binding their breasts, wearing men’s clothes and adopting masculine aliases. Women served as spies and reporters of intelligence gathered.

The work done by women was considered unofficial, so actual records of women in service to the cause were scarce. We know the number of women who served in the Continental Army is small compared to the hundreds of women who fought in the American Civil War. (More on that another day). Some of the women were discovered while in service but their names are unknown because military officials declined to provide them in the official papers and records, possibly to protect their identity when they returned to civilian life.

Some women were identified because their identity was discovered after they were killed in battle, or because they later applied for military pensions.

Founders and Slavery

It is hard to reconcile the creators of a document that begins with glorious rhetoric about all men being “created equal,” with the fact that many of the founders were also slaveowners. A committee of 5 delegates were assigned the task of drafting the Declaration. They sent portions back and forth between them to edit and revise. Thomas Jefferson, in an early version of the Declaration, drafted a 168-word passage that condemned slavery as one of the many evils foisted upon the colonies by the British crown. There was huge irony that this man wrote these words, because he was by far the largest slaveholder of all the founders. The passage was cut from the final wording of the Declaration.

Some of it reads, “He [meaning King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”

So, Jefferson called slavery a “cruel war against human nature itself”, which actually underscored the incredibly confounding paradox between what they said and what they did. Jefferson, after all, had been given the responsibility with writing a document to reflect the interests of an assemblage of slave-owning colonies that had a major commercial interest in preserving the slave trade. 1/3 of the Declaration’s signers were slave owners. Even in the North, where abolition was more widely supported, states passed “gradual emancipation” laws designed to slowly phase out the practice, instead of just stopping it outright. Between July 1 and July 3, congressional delegates debated the full document, during which time they eliminated Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause.

Removal of the clause was mostly driven by political and economic pressures. The 13 colonies were deeply divided on the moral and ethical issue of slavery, but both the South and the North had financial stakes in keeping it. Southern plantations, a key driver of the colonial economy, needed free labor to produce tobacco, cotton and other cash crops for export back to Europe. Northern shipping merchants, who also played a role in that cash crop economy, were dependent on the triangle trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas – a trade pattern that included the dealing in enslaved Africans.

In his own autobiography, Jefferson wrote, “The clause…reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in compliance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under these censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”

So while Jefferson is credited with imbuing the Declaration with inspirational ideals of freedom and equality, the nation’s founding document is brutally silent on slavery. That deafening silence create a legacy of exclusion for black people that set in motion centuries of struggle for basic human, civil rights … rights stated in the Declaration.

Black Soldiers in the Continental Army

It is estimated that around 5,000 black men served as soldiers in the Revolutionary War. On this, also, there was terrible indecision. The Continental Congress in November 1775 voted to ban blacks from joining the army.  Black soldiers already serving were told they would not be allowed to re-enlist. Quickly, this decision was changed to allow existing black soldiers to re-enlist.

The policy was abandoned completely because states leaders realized they needed all the soldiers they could get, and that race didn’t matter in the Revolutionary War effort. The Continental Army was a desegregated, integrated army, with black soldiers serving alongside white soldiers. It would not be so again until 1948.  Black men served on both sides of the Revolution. Northern states had opened up their state militias to freed slaves. But in the south, it was illegal to give weapons to slaves; plantation owners feared slave revolts.

The Royal Governor of Virginia issued an emancipation proclamation in November 1775, promising freedom to runaway slaves who fought for the British. Sir Henry Clinton, Commander in Chief of British forces, issued a similar proclamation in New York in 1779.

In response, George Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. All-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and many of those enrolled were slaves promised freedom for serving.

Words of Some Founders on Slavery

To be sure, the Founding Fathers weren’t abolitionists. But they were overwhelmingly antislavery.

George Washington: “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”

—Letter to Morris, April 12, 1786, in George Washington, A Collection, ed. W.B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1989), 319.

John Adams: “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States…. I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in …abhorrence.”

—Letter to Evans, June 8, 1819, in Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams ed. Adrienne Koch et al. (New York: Knopf, 1946), 209-10.

Benjamin Franklin: “Slavery is …an atrocious debasement of human nature.”

—”An Address to the Public from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery” (1789), Benjamin Franklin, Writings ed. J.A. Leo Lemay (New York: Library of America, 1987), 1154.

Alexander Hamilton: “The laws of certain states …give an ownership in the service of negroes as personal property…. But being men, by the laws of God and nature, they were capable of acquiring liberty—and when the captor in war …thought fit to give them liberty, the gift was not only valid, but irrevocable.”

—Philo Camillus no. 2 (1795), in Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961-), 19:101-2.

James Madison: “We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”

—Speech at Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787, in Max Farrand, ed., Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937), 1:135

Should We Still Honor July 4th ?

In a climate of understandable racial strife, human pain and social unrest, I have seen some people stating we should not honor the 4th of July because the founders were all racists and misogynists. From all I have studied over the years, I do not really think that is true although on the face of it it often seems to be. I mean, you can’t get more racist than owning slaves, right? Can’t be more misogynistic than treating women like infant children. It’s tough to discount that argument.

It’s very hard for us to put our mindset into that of people living over 240 years ago. It seems to me that the big thinkers who created the government structure that has survived the test of time for us, probably never thought it would take us so long to get this all straightened out.

They were facing the monumental task of trying to achieve independence from England. They had to manage to keep all the colonies in line together to fight that crucial war and win. The subject matter may nauseate us, but these were clearly very political decisions, much like the bad political decisions that get made in our modern-day Senate. The give and take, positioning and negotiating of politics is well-known. It is an ugly truth that dates all the way back to the birth of the idea of this nation.

We can second guess everything the founders did forever, and it’s good to do that. The founders were certainly not perfect, and they didn’t hold themselves up to be so. Yet the Declaration of Independence was incredibly bold and fearless.

They built upon it with the other origination documents that define the aspirations of the United States of America. in the preamble to the Constitution they write:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The goal of all their efforts is “a more perfect union” – a statement that accepts and acknowledges that the America can always be better. Should always be better. It is our responsibility to acknowledge the good and the bad, and strive to improve what needs to be improved.


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