Americans have long used the Fourth of July not merely to barbecue, watch fireworks and celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but also to make new declarations of their own.
Thomas Jefferson, for instance, informed the nation that it would double in size with the Louisiana Purchase on July 4, 1803. In later years, the day was marked with grand groundbreakings for projects that would help Americans traverse that sprawling nation, such as the Erie Canal and the country’s first passenger railroad.
The stubbornly independent Republic of Texas announced its annexation by the United States on Independence Day in 1845, exactly when Henry David Thoreau chose to make his retreat to Walden Pond. Seven years later, Frederick Douglass chose the day to deliver an abolitionist oration on the shortcomings of democracy, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
This dependence on Independence Day only became more pronounced in the modern era. From across the political spectrum, countless movements have sought to establish their significance by linking their own partisan causes to the patriotic themes of the holiday. More often than not, though, such actions have backfired.
Independence Day has, from the start, been a touchstone for all Americans, whatever their politics. Its ceremonies and celebrations draw out basic principles, in broad strokes and bright colors, allowing all Americans to see themselves — and their political beliefs — as rooted in the ideas and ideals of the founders.
All partisans see themselves as patriots. As a result, any effort by one side to claim the day as theirs, and theirs alone, invariably sparks an angry reaction from the other.
In 1964, for instance, the Fourth of July figured prominently in the fight over civil rights.
Pointedly, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act on July 2, the anniversary of the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence. He did so only hours after Congress had passed the bill, rushing the signing ceremony so he could lay claim to the historic date.
In his televised address from the East Room of the White House, President Johnson invoked Independence Day to link the new measure to the nation’s founding principles. “One hundred eighty-eight years ago this week, a small band of valiant men began a struggle for freedom,” he intoned. “Yet those who founded America knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”