This strip of four 13-cent stamps picturing the signing of the Declaration of Independence was issued at the bicentennial in 1976. It reproduces a painting by John Trumbull that hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. But its depiction of freedom depends on hiding the fact that many of these men owned at least one Black soul, and several, like Thomasa Jefferson, held the bulk of their wealth in enslaved men and women. (Wikimedia Commons)
On July 3, 1776, the 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress, many of them slaveholders, took a step over the void in the Philadelphia State House. Exactly one year earlier, George Washington, a veteran of the King’s service and now a General commissioned by rebels had taken charge of the Continental Army in Cambridge, MA. Washington promised as he left for occupied Boston on June 26 that “every exertion of my worthy colleagues & myself, will be equally extended to the reestablishment of peace and harmony between the Mother Country and the Colonies.”
It was not to be.
By July 2, delegates representing the 13 English colonies had settled their differences and had broken with His Majesty. (Click here for King George’s response.) As John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, July 2 was destined to become the young country’s first national holiday.
I am apt to believe that [Independence Day] 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 and Parade, with shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
As we know, Adams was only partially correct: Americans seemed not to care about the signing — it was the day when post riders first got to them to read the document, July 4, that became the national holiday.
We begin this week’s issue with the broken American promises that Independence Day celebrations ignore. On the occasion of the Supreme Court’s decision to delay the Trump administration’s latest attempt to end DACA, writer and scholar José Ángel Navejas writes about his 27 years as an undocumented immigrant — and the plight of the 10 million other living in the shadows for whom there is no plan. And law professor Gaga Gondwe explains why the elite institutions that claim they want to open their doors to Black students, faculty, and employees consistently fall short.
Next, we return to our ongoing coverage of political protests. Natasha Behl tells us why a women’s mobilization after the notorious 2012 gang rape in Delhi “created a political opening for gender justice in India.” Mark Cheathem insists that former presidents are not immune from history’s judgments and that the statue of Andrew Jackson across from the White House needs to come down. We also have two photo essays for you this week: Jo Freeman reports on three Black Lives Matter marches in Brooklyn, while sociologist Virág Molnár invites you to look at the art that protestors left behind in New York City’s Soho neighborhood.
We follow with the policy: what got us into this mess, and what could get us out. Political correspondent Heather Cox Richardson reminds us that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are still trying to knock off the Affordable Care Act — this time, in the middle of a pandemic. And Marshall Auerback points out that, as we rebuild the economy, a global economy will require a global tax structure.
Our readers love a return to the classics: we heard you! So did literary scholar Russ Castronovo, who explains why 19th-century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne would want all of us to wear masks. Finally, Laura Goldblatt and Richard Handler ask: why does Donald Trump hate the post office—the only government agency explicitly founded to serve the people?
Sadly, this year, there will be no Pomp and Parade, shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires or Illuminations—although word has it that vast numbers of fireworks have been going off in major cities for weeks, many more than is usual for this time of year.
But perhaps this July 4 can be a day of deliverance all the same. We need not celebrate an Independence Day that left slaveholding intact, women subordinate to men, and turned greedy colonists’ eyes westward for more land to colonize.
Instead, this year, let’s celebrate the anti-racist protesters who are still in the streets because they, and we, are still determined that all of us be free.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar, Professor of History at The New School for Social Research, and author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical.