Make the Fourth of July Safe Again!

fireworks

Over at Smithsonian.Com, history student Michael Waters tells the story of early 20th-century reformers and activists who were concerned that Independence Day celebrations were too dangerous.  They championed a “Safe and Sane Fourth.”

Here is a taste of his Waters’s piece:

Charles Pennypacker, a lawyer and legislator from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was fed up with Fourth of July. The holiday, he insisted in 1903, was hopelessly out of control. Hundreds of people across the U.S. were dying from a mix of firework explosions and poorly shot toy guns, all in the name of celebrating their country’s founding.

“A spurious patriotism has brought a day of terror, misery, noise, destruction, and death,” Pennypacker lamented in a letter published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He urged citizens to focus on a “quiet and sane observance of the Fourth” that prioritized family gatherings.

Instead of setting off fireworks, Pennypacker begged the people of West Chester to take a trolley ride, spend “a quiet day under the trees,” or at the very least bake “cake with deviled eggs” and “bread with lemon butter.” In a speech that the Louisville-based Courier-Journal reprinted under the headline “Avaunt! Toy Pistols; Enter Cake and Eggs,” Pennypacker lectured his fellow Americans: “Spend your money for sandwiches instead of squibs,” referring to the explosive devices. “The price of five skyrockets will buy a hammock, whose swing delights youth and old age in all lands,” he said.

Pennypacker’s crusade enraged locals. A year later, the Inquirer reported that his continued push for reform in West Chester “had been resented by the young men of the town.” Late the night of July 3, 1904, a “large number of young men” gathered outside Pennypacker’s house, clutching Roman candles and other combustibles. When midnight hit, “there was a sudden flash and roar that jarred all the houses in the neighborhood,” the paper said, and for at least 15 minutes the men set off explosives outside of Pennypacker’s window—all to punish the legislator for trying to reform the most patriotic holiday.

Read the rest here.

What Happens When You Tweet the Declaration of Independence in the Age of Trump?

This.

Apparently Trump supporters are worried the the “liberals” at National Public Radio are trying to foment a revolution by tweeting the words of the Declaration of Independence.

There are a lot of things to say here, but I will refrain for now.  It does seem clear that some of those upset with the words and phrases tweeted did not realize that these were the words of the Declaration of Independence or did not care to do the simple research that would confirm this.  As a historian and educator this worries me the most.

 

The 100 Other Declarations of Independence

MaierBy this point you are probably getting sick of July 4th posts.  But I have at least more for you before we put them aside for another year.

In 1997, the late Pauline Maier taught us that the Declaration of Independence signed in 1776 was one of many such “Declarations of Independence.”  Her book American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence explored the nearly 100 state and local “declarations” that were written during 1776.

Rutgers University history professor David Greenberg recalls Maier’s work in his piece “America’s 100 Other Declarations of Independence.”

Here is a taste:

Colonists expressed this newfound conviction in the “declarations of independence” that Maier discovered. A handful of these were self-consciously drafted in the same spirit as the Declaration we know today—proclamations issued by Virginia or New Jersey that formally disavowed British rule as a prologue to establishing their own constitutions. Others were simply enunciations of the sentiments of bodies that lacked formal political power but wished to take part in a conversation occurring across the colonies. Several came in the form of instructions issued by colonial legislatures to their congressional delegates, who had assembled in Philadelphia and were by the spring of 1776 taking up the question of independence. The state and local proclamations were meant to contribute to—to be in conversation with—the grand debates and discussions taking place in Philadelphia.

The everyday colonists’ declarations of independence from Britain give evidence that they considered the work of their appointed delegates to be of consummate importance. Assertive as they were in challenging the king, they deferred to what one town called “the well-known wisdom, prudence, justice, and integrity of that honourable body the Continental Congress.” Their conception of democracy was predicated on a regard for and trust in their chosen leaders. And the leaders, in turn, had regard for the will of the people. As one delegate to the Continental Congress put it, Congress wouldn’t call for a formal split until “the voice of the people drove us into it,” since “without them, our declarations could not be carried into effect.”

The documents that the people drafted exhibited a striking consistency in their reasoning and language. In place of Paine’s sweeping calls for a new age of mankind, colonists offered detailed, particular, pragmatic reasons for severing their bonds with Britain. The “declaration” was a familiar form, a genre, with roots in British politics, and colonists emulated past declarations, especially the English Declaration of Rights of 1689, which had justified the deposition of King James II. Following this form, colonists enumerated the specific wrongs committed by King George, citing mainly the offenses of the last two years—especially the Prohibitory Act of 1775, which blockaded American ports—and not the longer train of incidents dating to the 1760s. Also common to most of these documents was the claim that the call for separation was a last resort—a step taken only because the king had rejected their previous entreaties and no alternatives remained.

Read the entire piece here.

Happy Independence Day

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I wanted to get this post up before midnight. Why?  Because July 2, 1776 is the actual day that the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain.  July 4th, as historian Joseph Ellis points out in today’ Los Angeles Times, is the day Congress sent the Declaration of Independence to the printer.

Ellis explains:

On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote two letters to his beloved Abigail exuberantly reporting that history had been made: One day earlier, the Continental Congress had voted to declare American independence from the British Empire. Henceforth, Adams predicted, July 2 would be celebrated by every generation with parades, speeches, songs and what he called “illuminations.” He got everything right, even the fireworks. But he got the date wrong.

Or perhaps we get the date wrong. The widespread assumption is that the Fourth of July is the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, the actual moment the founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the Great Question of Independence.

The popular musical “1776” dramatically depicts a signing ceremony on the Fourth. And the iconic painting “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, a version of which hangs in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, is often captioned “July 4, 1776.”

But neither the musical nor the caption is historically correct. Trumbull’s picture depicts the moment on June 28 when the committee that drafted the declaration presented its work to John Hancock, chair of the Continental Congress. The play’s signing ceremony is theatrically compelling, but it never happened.

There was no singular moment when all the delegates signed the document. Most put pen to parchment on Aug. 4. (It had taken some time for the final draft to be “engrossed” — formally hand-copied.) Some signatures were added as late as November.

So why do we celebrate the Fourth? Because that is the day the declaration was sent to the printer, who then put that date on the top of the document, copies of which were distributed throughout the colonies and beyond. It became the date that readers then, and Americans ever since, recognized as the anniversary of American independence, even though nothing of historical significance actually occurred on that day.

By all rights, Adams’ choice, July 2, makes more sense. That was the day independence was officially decided and declared: “A Resolution was passed,” John told Abigail, “without one dissenting Colony ‘that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States….’ ” The revolutionary lightning struck at that moment, and the publication of the Declaration of Independence two days later was merely the thunderous aftermath, the sound following the fury.

Read the rest here.

Can an Independent Counsel Be Truly Independent?

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J. Edgar Hoover

I hope so.  But, as Yale historian Beverly Gage argues, history reminds us that partisanship is difficult to overcome.

Here is a taste of her New York Times piece “Can Anyone Be Truly ‘Independent’ in Today’s Polarized Politics“:

In colonial America, “independence” meant something relatively simple: freedom from economic dependence, or the ownership of land and wealth. By the 18th century, though, the word had acquired a more explicit political meaning: Men needed to be “independent” in order to think clearly about the common good and thus to rule themselves. For the founders, this came with many limitations of race, gender and class. As a political vision, though, it communicated a higher purpose: Officeholders would have to reject the temptations of partisanship and personal interest lest, as George Washington warned in his farewell speech, “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” use the white-hot animosities of party politics to “usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

This ideal of the selfless federal servant was always partly a noble fiction; as “Hamilton” fans know, the founding era’s hostilities were vicious enough that a vice president killed a former Treasury secretary. The aspiration to meet that ideal nonetheless held sway well into the 1820s, creating what became known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” It was as debates over slavery and territorial expansion heated up that party warfare returned. The Civil War itself erupted in the aftermath of a partisan event: the election of the country’s first Republican president.

Two decades later, the assassination of President James Garfield brought a new round of national soul-searching. The deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau, said he committed the deed in order to unify the Republican Party and because he felt he had deserved a patronage appointment as a European ambassador. A couple years later, in 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, the nation’s first comprehensive Civil Service law, designed partly to calm the roiling political waters. Under these new rules, many federal jobs would be parceled out according to “merit” rather than party patronage, ensuring the independence and integrity of at least some of the people serving in government.

As the 20th century dawned, and Americans embraced the promise of apolitical government expertise, administrative agencies and bureaus proliferated — among them the tiny Bureau of Investigation. Founded in 1908, the bureau started out plagued by the very problems Civil Service law was designed to eliminate: incompetence, corruption and crony appointments. Then, in 1924, a bustling young director named J. Edgar Hoover set about whipping the bureau into shape. Hoover is often seen today as a tyrant and a violator of civil liberties, but when he came to office, he was considered a reformer and an enemy of “politics,” a man who could be relied upon to tell the truth when everyone else seemed to be lying for partisan ends.

He was no political naïf, however. Despite his fealty to the idea of nonpartisan professionalism, Hoover fought to keep his agents out of the Civil Service, sure that its rules and regulations would limit his autonomy as director. This sleight of hand gave Hoover’s F.B.I. its peculiar character, at once a respected investigative body and a personal fief. It also helped to insulate Hoover from the fate visited upon James Comey. As the Times journalist Tom Wicker noted two years before Hoover’s death in 1972, the F.B.I. director achieved “virtually unlimited power and independence.” No president, Republican or Democrat, ever dared to fire him.

This is one example of how bureaucratic independence can go awry. In the mid-1970s, alarmed by abuses of power during Hoover’s nearly 48-year directorship, Congress decided that future F.B.I. directors should be subject to a 10-year limit. The policy effectively split the difference between autonomy and accountability: The president still had the right to fire an F.B.I. director, but the law established a standard period of service longer than any president’s two terms. One of several things Trump’s showdown with Comey calls into question is whether this arrangement is still enough to ensure a reasonable level of F.B.I. independence — especially under a president disinclined to observe political norms.

Read the entire piece here.