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Celebrating July 4th as the “birthday of America” is a little arbitrary, a bit like celebrating the birth of a child on the day he was conceived, or the day Mom found out she was pregnant. The signing of the Declaration of Independence was but one in a series of events that culminated years later with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. A lot of really important things happened both before and after July 4th, 1776, but celebrating on this day makes as much sense as anything else, I suppose.

There’s an interesting mythology that has grown up around the American Revolution and a lot of people seem to be very comfortable spouting platitudes about what the “founding fathers” said and what they wanted. Most of this talk is pure nonsense designed to advance one political agenda or another. The colonies were far from unanimous on the issue of independence and in fact two of the 13 initially voted against independence, one abstained, and one couldn’t make up its mind. If anyone tells you “this is what the founding fathers wanted,”  ask them which of the founding fathers they’re talking about.

One of the most enduring images of the time is John Trumbull‘s Declaration of Independence, an enormous painting that decorates the rotunda of the US Capitol. Trumbull wasn’t there, the first version of the painting wasn’t created until 1795 and the final version wasn’t hung until 1826. It seems fitting, in a way, that our visual impression of this important event is as manufactured as our current understanding of its origins and meanings. We seem to have reached a point where we want to create the history we want to believe. That’s so much easier than learning what actually happened and why.

Still, we have much to be proud of and the Declaration of Independence stands as one of the most powerful, most inspiring documents ever written in any language. We should aspire to live closer to the spirit of its words instead of reducing it to a political cliche.

Declaration of Independence (John Trumbull, 1817-19)

 

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