The Fourth of July Is Not America’s Birthday

independencecake

Over the past few days I’ve seen a number of references to “America’s Birthday” coming up on Friday. If a commercial advertiser wants to say this, fine (I guess). But I have spotted a couple of otherwise sober-minded writers using the “birthday” tag as well, and their ignorance is more disturbing.

July 4, 1776, was in no way the birthday of anything. It was the start of a long and savage struggle against the world’s most powerful empire at the time. If the United States can be said to have an actual birthday, that date should be June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution–the number specified in order for the Constitution to be in full and binding effect for all 13 former colonies. Those who prefer a winter birthday might want to go for Dec. 15, 1791, the date on which the required three-fourths of the states had ratified the Bill of Rights. (I know: much too close to Christmas, doesn’t have a chance.)

This “birthday” business matters because people who are utterly ignorant of their own history need to be slapped around a little.  As well, people who seem to think that the British Empire’s response to the 1776 Declaration was “Right, then: you want to leave! Ta!!” are also unlikely to appreciate the very significant role of religion in fueling the rebellion and driving it to victory.

Oddly, no professional historian has managed to tell the story as well and as thoroughly as non-historian Kevin Phillips tells it in his magisterial 600-page tome, The Cousins Wars (1999). Phillips notes that the fiercest American revolutionaries by far were New England members of the Dissenting churches (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists) whose forebears, in the preceding century, had battled the proto-Catholic Stuarts back in the Mother Country.

In the English Civil War, these middle-class sectarians, mocked as “Roundheads,” routed the aristocratic Cavaliers. They were driven to resistance and even to regicide by their fear of episcopacy: they feared that their model of congregational governance would be outlawed and they would be forced to suffer under bishops and use prescribed Anglican forms and formulas still reeking of their popish provenance. Some who fought with Cromwell came back over from Massachusetts and Connecticut in order to do so; the very judges who condemned King Charles to death were sheltered in a cave in New Haven.

Not surprising then, that American revolutionary and future president John Adams was called “John the Roundhead” as a young lawyer. Much later, in 1786, Adams made a special pilgrimage to key English Civil War battlefields, referring to them as “holy ground.” Looking back at the American Revolution during that same period, Adams recalled that “if Parliament could tax us, they could establish the Church of England with all of its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and titles, and prevent all other churches as conventicles and schism shops.”

In other words, Adams and many more like him viewed the American Revolution as but a new chapter in an ongoing war not just with monarchy but with monarchy’s boon companion, the established church.

English royalists understood this dynamic very clearly. George III himself called the colonists’ rebellion a “Presbyterian War.” Edmund Burke told Parliament in 1775 that the people to worry about were the New England Protestants “of that kind which is most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion” with a religion amounting to “a refinement of the principle of resistance.”

What’s most remarkable about the American Revolution is how a rebellion that had passionate religion at its heart was able, eventually, to give us total freedom of religion, including freedom from religion for those whom we might well regard as the ultimate Dissenters.

Application to this year’s Independence Day commemoration: No, in July of 2014 we don’t face the urgent threat of an established church, but we do face an ongoing and brutal struggle with those who treat freedom of religion as the opportunity to impose their religious tenets on the rest of us–particularly as regards abortion, birth control, and homosexuality. We don’t face actual royal power in the form of Redcoat platoons, but we do face an ongoing and brutal struggle against our economic royalists–the possessors of great wealth who are able to purchase political outcomes that serve their interests and thereby suck the life out of a once-vibrant popular democracy.

Speaking as an incorrigible Roundhead, I insist that the revolutionary struggle is far from over and that indifference and/or indolence are unacceptable in these circumstances. To use Paine’s language, we don’t need the the kind of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who will stuff themselves with “birthday” cake this weekend while remaining oblivious to the stakes in the present crisis.

peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.

  • Brian Holle

    Interesting post. I appreciate the link between the “Roundheads” and “Patriots”. My perception of the leading Patriots and Founding Fathers were that they were, within Protestants, in the liberal theology wing: deists, allagorical-only, critical biblical interpretation, and even closet agnostics as opposed to, maybe, Jonathan Edwards, the Wesleys (maybe there are better comparisons) who might represent the “conservative” wing of US protestants.

    Regarding imposing legal restrictions based on religion, I agree that religious organizations should not be able to enact civilly binding laws. However, individuals, acting in positions in government do have the right to attempt to legislate based on their personal sense of morality, which may be informed by their religious faith. Also, does a person have a right to not be compelled to act when that action is contrary to their morals, unless that failure to act hurts others?

  • Sean Kelley

    Thank you, but it’s for practical reasons we commonly celebrate our nation’s birth on this day. not because of ignorance. Happy Birthday America!

  • Hunter

    I would love to slap you around a little. Happy Birthday America!

  • LordGreyFalcon

    You know, it’s a pissy little thing to get pissy about. There are bigger issues with the understanding of American history and you choose this. July 4th is the long accepted start to the final phase of transition from Colonies to Country. Similar to December 25th is the traditional and appropriated holiday marking the birth of Christ.

    July 4th obviates the need to roll up a list of possible dates that could include Lexington and Concord Days, Tax Stamp Day, etc.

    So, sit down, Pete, sit down, Pete, for God’s sake, Pete, sit down.

  • Sean Kelley

    Seriously! what a buzz kill.

  • Zach

    Sounds like “Somebody” didn’t get a nap today!

  • Thomas

    In the minds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, July 4 certainly was the “birthday” of the new nation! The ratification of the Constitution might be viewed as the young country’s “confirmation,” but July 4 is most certainly it’s birthday. While it may be fashionable to bash “traditional” views, you’d be wise to do so from a more informed and less biased perspective.

    Regarding your “freedom of religion” comments, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Why is it that those who want to exercise their freedom to believe what is no longer viewed as politically correct are treated as oppressors rather than the oppressed? Clearly, “traditional” religious values are being increasingly viewed as abhorrent by those of you who are more “enlightened.” Wasn’t one of the founding values of our country that all views should be heard, no matter how abhorrent? Why then, Sir, would you silence them? You sound more like a fascist than a patriot or an enlightened progressive thinker (or whichever moniker you would prefer).

  • Rmj

    I dunno; maybe it’s because I’m also a UCC minister, but I agree with the post.

    “This “birthday” business matters because people who are utterly ignorant of their own history need to be slapped around a little. As well, people who seem to think that the British Empire’s response to the 1776 Declaration was “Right, then: you want to leave! Ta!!” are also unlikely to appreciate the very significant role of religion in fueling the rebellion and driving it to victory.”

    That, it seems to me, is the heart of the matter. July 4 is celebrated now more with hamburgers and fireworks and military-themed music than anything else. The cultural influence of religion, especially from the “Roundheads,” is disregarded and considered perhaps vaguely improper, if not flat out un-Constitutional. In the meantime, I’m seeing subtle messages connecting July 3 to “Freedom” by way of military power, as we “thank” our veterans for “keeping us free.”

    That’s a malignant message that wouldn’t have been recognized as recently as 40 years ago, but now it’s the excuse for an increasingly militaristic society. Our freedom, of course, comes from our ideas, not our arms; but more and more we think less of our ideas, and more of our things.

    Which is another place where religion, be it Abrahamic or Eastern, would challenge our thinking, or lack of it.

    If we are going to observe the 4th, shouldn’t we honor it, too? Or should we just throw another burger on the grill and light another (Chinese) firecracker, and tell those who think we could do better to “Shet your gob!”

  • http://technologos.net/ Christian Marble

    July 4, 1776 was the birth of the nation. The Constitutional state was born at a different time. It’s okay for us to choose the birth of the nation as the primary focal point for celebration.

  • Derel Swanson

    Thanks for the history lesson. I admittedly didn’t know of most of the information in this article. Now, relax, and pretend the 4th Of July is America’s “birthday,” or don’t, and WE will still have a great time.

  • Derel Swanson

    I think the original post would have had a far more positive effect, had the author not felt the need to inject his impassioned, emotional, personal opinion in it by stating that people need to be “slapped around a little.” When someone is this “angry” in their writing, it says more about them and their personal baggage than they could possibly say about anything.

  • Jeff Byrnes

    I dare you to attempt to “slap me around a little.”

    It’s one thing to want to elucidate minutiae and quite another to ridicule people over what amounts to an ultimately petty detail, one in which you yourself admit their is no irrefutable consensus on.

    Everyone is guilty of spreading ignorance, especially arrogant “intellectuals” like yourself.

  • Jim Reed

    The myths might be fading, but they won’t fade quietly. If you attack too many at once, there will be a backlash. That is the American way.

  • VanzCantDanz

    Ironically, while you repeatedly refer insultingly to folks who celebrate July 4, 1776 as the date of the nation’s birth, calling them ignorant two or three times, you yourself erroneously referred to that date as “the start of a long and savage struggle” — though in fact that struggle had begun in April of 1775!

    Remove the plank from your eye, sinner!

  • Adrian Deon

    I believe all 56 of those who signed the Declaration of Independence would have a good idea who needs the slapping around. Take a look at the last 6 lines where it clearly renounces our allegiance to the British Crown. That is the birth of a nation, the struggle was in order to keep that birthright.

  • Paul

    Thank you,Peter, for your robust recitation of history about which I was only dimly aware and had not connected the dots: “Roundheads”, “fiercest American revolutionaries,” a monarch’s judges hiding out in a Connecticut cave, and Adams’ visit to “holy ground.” If Adams wrote of his visit to English Civil War sites with the feeling of pilgrimage, one can reasonably infer that his confreres would have understood that informing lineage of memory and reverence.

  • Jordan

    This is the most un-American article I have ever read. Pure blasphemy!

  • Gaby

    Lol I don’t know why everyone’s getting upset. It’s the truth and it’s your history and you’re all ignorant to it. I mean celebrate the Fourth of July! Have fun with family! But at least know your history at the end of the day. I find it so ignorant when people say “happy birthday America”

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ the Old Adam

    Yes, yes…and Jesus was REALLY born in the middle of Summer.

    Who cares?

    Relax and enjoy the holiday and think about the great things that our Founders did for us.

    Life’s too short to let the details make you crazy.

  • SeanG

    Too bad you weren’t around in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1777, when they celebrated the 1st anniversary with speeches, parades and fireworks, with ships decked out in red, white and blue bunting. You could have told them they were wasting their time, because you clearly know better than those who lived it.

  • Jim Reed

    They needed to take a day off from fighting the war and celebrate what would be their victory in a few years.

  • Jim Reed

    Blasphemy is a necessary stage in growing beyond myth.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Wow. I guess you shouldn’t attach critical commentary about religious issues to July 4 and our declaration of independence – ever. To me, a perfectly logical essay was totally missed. Now I remember why I had to back off of following the daily stuff on RD. In a group discussion, a German pastor of the Lutheran Church in Europe was shocked to hear about the style of the evangelical conservative bent in America. Yes, we are “protected” in our personal religious beliefs, but that can be, and is here in the U.S taken too far. Its way too personal, and I’m doubting it’s religious.
    To me, this essay provided some fresh arguments in which to look at recent events;, i.e. the Supreme Court, HobbyLobby, and the so-called “religious” right within Congress. I thought it was good to measure this situation in the light of July 4. To me, July 4 is a to strong reminder of where we’ve lost our way. And yes, I celebrated July 4 by watching two excellent programs about the revolution and the sacrifices made by our people on behalf of “all the people”.

  • Judith Maxfield

    To Peter: I wish we did not have to identify ourselves as “progressive”. I see this as allowing other versions of Christianity to own the Gospel and the history of the church. I’ve attended several presentations of Diane Butler Bass and she had several interesting comments on that.
    There are good reasons not to do that. I’ve changed from using tag lines. When I’m engaged in a conversation of good listening and a faithful response of care for the other person, I do not apologize for being simply Christian. The other party will already understand who I am as a friend who cares about their life and this world. They tend to ask me about the rest of the story and what it meant to me. I see this as a sacred time between two people who walked together for brief moment as companions.

  • guppy06

    Lol I don’t know why everyone’s getting upset

    Because it’s a slap to the face of the very ideals we’re supposed to be celebrating.

    July 4, 1776 is about the rule of law, republican government and self-determination. A group of elected representatives passed a legislative act that officially severed the colonies from Great Britain; we are independent because we say we are. If that is not the most important aspect, if we instead focus on the actual bloodshed or the forced consent of a distant monarch, then the American Revolution, the very idea of the United States, is ultimately a failure.

    It’s not supposed to be about the War, but the Revolution.

    It’s also disingenuous to disclaim continuity with the prior government under the Articles of Confederation. It certainly wasn’t the intent of either the framers or the ratifiers of the new constitution to establish a new nation, just the government that the new nation agrees to organize itself by. To claim that the Articles of Confederation “don’t count” denies popular agency, republicanism, the very right of a people to choose how they are to be known, who they associate with and how.

    Mr. Laarman would have far better luck arguing against the French observation of Bastille Day: no republic was established that day, French republicanism is discontinuous, and the French are on their (gasp!) fifth republican constitution.