Reflections on the Origins and Meaning of America’s Independence Day

If you relish myths and enjoy superstition, then the flatulent speeches of America’s Independence Day, July 4, were just the thing for you. No religion on earth has more to offer along these lines than America celebrating itself.

Some, believing the speeches but curious, ask how did a nation founded on supposedly the highest principles by high-minded men manage to become an ugly imperial power pushing aside international law and the interests of others? The answer is simple: the principles and high-mindedness are the same stuff as the loaves and the fishes.

The incomparable Doctor Johnson had it right when he called patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels and scoffed at what he called the “drivers of negroes” yelping about liberty.

Few Americans even understand that Johnson’s first reference was to their sacred Founding Fathers (aka Patriots). I have seen a well known American columnist who attributed the pronouncement to Ben Franklin, a man who was otherwise admirable but nevertheless dabbled a few times in slave trading himself.

Johnson especially had in mind history’s supreme hypocrite, Jefferson, with his second reference. Again, few Americans know that Jefferson kept his better than two hundred slaves to his dying day. I know a well educated American who sincerely believed Jefferson had freed his slaves. Such is the power of the myths of the American Civic Religion.

Jefferson was incapable of supporting himself, living the life of a prince and being a ridiculous spendthrift who died bankrupt and still owing money to others, the man of honor being a trifle less than honorable in paying back the money he often borrowed. When a new silk frock or set of shoes with silver buckles was to be had, Jefferson never hesitated to buy them rather than pay his debts.

The date we now celebrate, July 4, is based on the Continental Congress’s approval of the Declaration of Independence, but in fact the date is incorrect, the document was approved on July 2.

Jefferson wrote the first draft of the declaration, but it was edited by the redoubtable Benjamin Franklin, and later was heavily amended by the Continental Congress. Jefferson suffered great humiliation of his pride and anger at the editing and changes.

Despite the document’s stirring opening words, if you actually read the whole thing, you will be highly disappointed.

The bulk of it has a whining tone in piling on complaint after complaint against the Crown. Some would say the whining set a standard for the next quarter millennium of American society.

In Jefferson’s draft it went on and on about Britain’s slave trade. The ‘slave trade’ business was particularly hypocritical, trying to sound elevated while in fact reflecting something else altogether. At the time there was a surplus of human flesh in Virginia, and prices were soft.

The cause of the Revolution is also interesting and never emphasized in American texts. Britain’s imposition of the Quebec Act created a firestorm of anti-Catholicism in the colonies. They were afraid of being ruled from a Catholic colony.

The speech and writing of American colonists of the time was filled with exactly the kind of ugly language one associates with extremist Ulstermen in recent years.

This combined with the sense of safety engendered from Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War)and the unwillingness to pay taxes to help pay for that victory caused the colonial revolt.

Few Americans know it, but it was the practice for many, many decades to burn the Pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day along the Eastern Seaboard. Anti-Catholicism was quite virulent for a very long time.

The first phase of the revolt in and around Boston was actually something of a popular revolution, responding to Britain’s blockading the harbor and quartering troops in Boston.

The colonial aristocrats were having none of that, and they appointed Washington commander over the heads of the Boston Militias who volunteered and actually elected their officers.

Washington, who had always wanted to be a British regular commander but never received the commission, imposed his will ferociously. He started flogging and hanging.

In his letters home, the men who actually started the revolution are described as filth and scum. He was a very arrogant aristocrat.

The American Revolution has been described by a European as home-grown aristocrats replacing foreign-born ones. It is an apt description.

Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and many others of the Fathers had no faith in democracy. About one percent of early Virginia could vote. The president was not elected by people but by elites in the Electoral College. The Senate, which even today is the power in the legislature, was appointed well into the 20th century.

The Supreme Court originally never dared interpret the Bill of Rights as determining what states should do. It sat on paper like an advertising brochure with no force. At one time, Jefferson seriously raised the specter of secession, half a century before the Civil War, over even the possibility of the Bill of Rights being interpreted by a national court and enforced.

The Founding Fathers saw popular voting as endangering property ownership. Democracy was viewed by most the same way Washington viewed the “scum” who started the Revolution around Boston. It took about two hundred years of gradual changes for America to become anything that seriously could be called democratic. Even now, what sensible person would call it anything but a rough work still in progress.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that early America was ruled by a portion of the population no larger than what is represented today by the Chinese Communist Party as a portion of that country’s population.

Yet today we see little sign of patience or understanding in American arrogance about how quickly other states should become democratic. And we see in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo, and in the CIA’s International Torture Gulag that the principles and attitudes of the Bill of Rights still haven’t completely been embraced by America.

Contrary to all the posturing amongst the Patriots – who few were a minority at the time – about tyranny, the historical facts indicate that Britain on the whole actually had offered good government to its North American Colonies.

Everyone who visited the Colonies from Europe noted the exceptional health of residents.

They also noticed what seemed an extraordinary degree of freedom enjoyed by colonists. It was said to be amongst the freest place in the known world, likely owing in good part to its distance from the Mother Country. A favorite way to wealth was smuggling, especially with the Caribbean. John Hancock made his fortune that way.

Ben Franklin once wrote a little memo, having noted the health of Americans and their birth rates, predicting the future overtaking of Britain by America, an idea not at all common at the time.

Indeed, it was only the relative health and freedom which made the idea of separation at all realistic. Britain was, of course, at the time viewed much the way, with the same awe of power, people view America today. These well-known facts of essentially good government in the Colonies made the Declaration of Independence list of grievances sound exaggerated and melodramatic to outsiders even at the time.

The combination of the Quebec Act, anti-Catholicism, dislike of taxes, plus the desire to move West and plunder more Indian lands were the absolute causes of the Revolution.

Britain tried to recognize the rights of the aboriginals and had forbidden any movement west by the Colonies.

But people in the colonies were land-mad, all hoping to make a fortune staking out claims they would sell to later settlers. The map of Massachusetts, for example, showed the colony stretching like a band across the continent to the Pacific. Britain did not agree.

George Washington made a lot of money doing this very thing, more than any other enterprise of his except for marrying Martha Custis, the richest widow in the colonies.

The tax issue is interesting.

The French and Indian War (the Seven Years War) heavily benefited the Colonists by removing the threat of France in the West. Once the war was over, many colonists took the attitude that Britain could not take the benefits back, and they refused to pay the taxes largely imposed to pay the war’s considerable cost.

And Americans have hated taxes since.

By the way, in the end, without the huge assistance of France, the Colonies would not have won the war. France played an important role in the two decisive victories, Saratoga and Yorktown. At Saratoga they had smuggled in the weapons the Americans used. At Yorktown, the final battle, the French were completely responsible for the victory and for even committing to the battle. Washington had wanted instead to attack New York – which would have been a disaster – but the French generals then assisting recognized a unique opportunity at Yorktown.

After the war, the United States never paid the huge French loans back. Some gratitude. Also the United States renounced the legitimate debts many citizens owed to British factors (merchant/shippers) for no good reason at all except not wanting to pay.

It was all a much less glorious beginning than you would ever know from the drum-beating, baton-twirling, sequined costumes, and noise today. And if you really want to understand why America has become the very thing it claimed it was fighting in 1776, then you only need a little solid history.

John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company. Copyright © by John Chuckman. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on July 7th, 2008 at 10:29am #

    On anti-Catholicism: the original NJ state constitution of 1776, for example, banned Catholics from voting or holding office. That ban was only removed in the second constitution of 1844. The same ban existed, of course, in Britain, until 1829 and, indeed, was quite a liberal disposition in 1776 since it was a criminal offence in GB to be a Catholic until the 1780s (the infamous Penal Laws!).

  2. bozhidar balkas said on July 7th, 2008 at 10:31am #

    ah, constitutions. full of promises just like quran, torah, bible, politicians, clergy, generals, et al.
    consider “pursuit of happiness” what does that mean? and does a person or persons tell another person. Eh, pursue happiness! u idiot!do i have to tell u that, u moron!
    oh what wd clergy/political class of life do if they were not allowed to make promises?
    next time a politico or cleric makes a promise tell him to get lost or laugh.
    i made only one promise to my wife. i told her, If u marry me, u’l have lots of trouble! she sure did. i also told her, I came to make mistakes.
    but obama is not going say that even tho we know w. certainty that he’l make a bundle of them.
    and not just mistakes but also do crimes against weekest among us. thank u
    why do we put up w. this nonsense?

  3. Giorgio said on July 7th, 2008 at 12:27pm #

    As for virulent anti-Catholicism in Britain at the time (and today in Ulster) what better than a quote from one (Alexander Pope) who in his lifetime was also repeatedly, and mercilessly, attacked by his detractors who mocked his despised religion (Catholicism) and deformed sick body at one and the same time by referring to him
    as A. P**E.

    RELIGION blushing veils her sacred fires,
    And unawares MORALITY expires,
    Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
    Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
    Lo! thy dread empire Chaos! is restor´d;
    Light dies before thy uncreating word:
    Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
    And universal Darkness buries All,

  4. Hue Longer said on July 7th, 2008 at 8:37pm #


    pursuit of happiness was TJ’s take on property…but that meant several things things too.

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 8th, 2008 at 5:02am #

    Thanks for this masterpiece, John Chuckman. More couldn’t be said in fewer words about celebrating the Fourth of July in America in 2008.

  6. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 8th, 2008 at 5:09am #

    And lest readers think Chuckman eschews humor, they might read his (first?) Dissident Voice article:

    Falwell’s Legacy
    by John Chuckman / May 16th, 2007

    That great bulk, Jerry Falwell, has eaten his last family-size bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

    Yes, Jerry has ordered his last tent-sized silk suit, taken his last bag of cash from lonely old ladies, and ordered his last truckload of cheap, merchandising Bibles with his picture stamped on the cover. Gone on to his reward, as they say.

    He donated his organs, the only gesture of kindness recorded in his adult life, but they were all rejected, except for the spleen, reportedly large enough to serve three.

    The following piece, written some years ago still aptly summarizes his legacy….

  7. Samson said on July 8th, 2008 at 5:58am #

    Amazing. To me, these ideas in the Declaration of Independence are the strongest card that we have that we can play. The strongest way to attack the crimes currently occurring in America is to refer back to the ideals the country was founded upon. The strongest way to attack the crimes currently occurring is to remember that our founders were revolutionaries who overthrew a tyrannt.

    By quoting their words, we get to go onto the attack. By recalling the ideals that the country was founded upon, we get to claim that we are the true American patriots. By bringing back to life the revolutionary tradition, we get to speak of real change today as a heritage that it is ours to own.

    Its a powerful attack against those who wrap themselves in the flag. To refer back to what that flag war really supposed to mean.

    But hey, in the finest traditions of the left, instead we just open fire on our allies. Lets trash something that could be of help to us. I get the feeling sometimes that there are plenty on the left who just like to tear down and destroy. Instead of writing a powerful piece about how different America is today from those ideals written in 1776, lets just attack those ideals and the people who wrote them. Basically, aim gun at foot and pull the trigger.

    Who cares if America never reached those original ideals? Who cares if colonial America wasn’t some fantasy wonderland that was the perfect utopia? Who cares if the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence were human beings, which means that they weren’t perfect?

    These are powerful ideas that have force in America today. All the more so because today’s tyrants try to wrap their tyranny in a twisted version of these ideals. That makes it the perfect jujitsu style attack to take those ideals and turn them back upon today’s tyrants. To use these ideals that fly so falsely today to restore freedom.

    But hey, its so much easier to write a whiny slash-and-burn article attacking what should be our best tool and natural allies. Like I said, in the finest traditions of the left. No friggin wonder we are on such a losing streak.

  8. Samson said on July 8th, 2008 at 6:03am #

    Funny how all the comments on ‘anti-catholicism’ don’t mention Maryland, isn’t it? Maybe that’s because Maryland was a colony of Catholics who fled the anti-catholicism of England in the day. As usual with very shallow thinking trying to bunch everything under a very broad brush, it doesn’t quite account for reality and the many different things one might find in 13 colonies scattered up and down the eastern US coast.

    BTW, the name Maryland itself is a hint. Its named after Mary, Queen of Scots, the catholic sister of Elizabeth.

  9. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 8th, 2008 at 6:51am #

    It’s not a temple in Judea(?), Samson.

  10. John Wilkinson said on July 13th, 2008 at 8:00pm #

    this is all well and good, but why doesn’t chuckman ever take a look at his canada. i’m a little tired of the self-righteous preachings from the hypocritical canadians. they still kiss the british queen’s ass (and all that stands for, throughout history) — yes they are part of the british commonwealth and recognize the queen as their supreme master; and exult in the rape and pillage of their own native population. but hey, they’re the aristocracy, and we’re the uncouth hillbillies who need lessons by those who speak gentlemanly condenscending queen’s english while twirling knives in others’ backs. why doesn’t chuckman say something about the american war objectors who are being kicked out of canada?

    chuckman is upset that we no longer recognize his queen as our own, that we no longer heel before our english masters while the canadians never made that step.

    maybe we can write a few stories about your royalty, chuckman, about all their vices and then stack them up against the vices of the u.s. founders and see who’s worse and who’s more hypocritical.

    and why is canada joining us in all those adventures? and why was canada OK with us paying for and providing their defense during the cold war and afterwards, so that now they have money for all those social goodies while we don’t. a little house cleaning is in order for your own house before you cast stones at another.