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What Did "Independence" Mean on July 4, 1776?

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4 July 2010: What Is the Meaning of Independence Really?

Dear Reader: Don't worry. I won't begin with a Webster's definition, as much esteem asI have for that publication, the ultimate authority, a Bible for editors.

But I'll ask you a question as someone without expertise but with a sincere interest in American history.

Were the colonies back in colonial days dependent on Great Britain really? Seems to me, having read some of the Howard Zinn series on what really went on in those days that each family had their own home and really needed firearms. There was a real excuse back then.

Unlike the rosy scenarios portrayed by Sturbridge Village and Colonial Williamsburg, peace did not reign. There were constant disputes between Tories and patriots, Native Americans ("mercilessless Indian Savages" in the declaration; there is no mention of slavery) trying to coexist peacefully while invaders scooped up their properties, and others who weren't so accommodating. There were territorial disputes between neighbors unrelated to politics.

There were no police. No EMTs, no penicillin.
There were imports but colonists grew their own food and hunted for their own meals in a wilderness replete with game. The trick was to protect your fields from vagrant thieves, animals, and so on, and of course there were the whims of weather.

There were town merchants to sell other provisions.

Without a direct source, I'd guess that the very wealthy benefited most from luxurious imports, and herbal tea could be produced here as well as there.


Of course, self-government is a function of politics, and there were the same problems there as now--the minute you put two politicians in one room, anything goes. Multiply that and think about it. There was lots of factionalism, usurpation, and other events you can imagine in both rural and urban contexts.

The colonists made their own clothes, wove their own material; there were cobblers general stores in towns and cities.

The colonists were fully capable of independence from Great Britain. Enclaves of patriot towns abounded, ousting British delegates long before the real war, which couldn't have been won without late assistance from the French.

The esteemed General Washington suffered from constant desertions, from farmers who needed to be home half the year, many worried about their wives and children left alone to fend for themselves, with sons stuck with the work Paw usually did, if there were sons old enough for that. Others were just plain miserable or ailing--shoeless ramshackle militias in ragged tatters compared with the sartorial splendor of the British, intimidating as well as pleasing to the eye. How did they keep their whites so white before the days of Tide and Cheer? The colonists made their own soap and I'm sure the Brits were well supplied, though they did need to add mercenaries to their numbers--thanks heavens for those drunken Hessians up against the freezing shoeless in my hometown, Trenton, New Jersey, right after Washington's crossing.

*****
So what are we really celebrating each July 4--getting rid of the British, though loyalists still abounded in the colonies? Getting rid of all those infernal taxes, a reminder of which persists on Washington, DC, license plates that all read "Taxation Without Representation" (except for license plate #1--I don't know if Obama has added back this slogan that Bush 43 subtracted.)

True, the Declaration of Independence is so named, but its bottom line relates to human rights and HAPPINESS, of all things. That's another blog in itself.

We're really celebrating FREEDOM FROM THE BRITISH, in my 'umble opinion.

The beloved declaration extends the escape from domination by British repression from which the first colonists declared their alienation by coming here. George III was "unfit to be the ruler of free people," Jefferson wrote.


OK, OK, Jamestown was settled thirrteen years prior to the Plymouth Rock landing, for very British reasons. But Virginia did become one of the thirteen colonies and donated, among the colonies, the largest number of U.S. presidents to our history from any state, including Thomas Jefferson, intellectually eclipsed, in my opinion, only by Ben Franklin, in the area of creativity and innovation anyway.

And we journalists will of course rally around Tom Paine, the journalists' journalist, voice of the common people, who not only penned the bestsellers Common Sense and The Crisis that set off so much fury and activism but accompanied the armies, more like rag-tag militias, on their perilous routes through wilderness and freezing weather, an embedded troop in the best possible sense of the term.

So what would we honestly name July 4 if not Independence Day? Our declaration asserts proudly that all men are created equal, but some clearly were more equal than others, to quote George Orwell, writing two hundred years later about the ultimate hypothetical usurpation of human rights.

July 4 commemorates freedom from or liberty from British tyranny.

An elementary school teacher once asked us why we won the Revolutionary War. She answered that the British were at a disadvantage having to invade from so far away onto enemy shores. But it was such a fleet that rescued us once and for all, and the French drew inspiration to initiate another revolution that resulted ultimately in dictatorship rather than the democracy we are still aspiring toward--most of us anyway.

Liberty Day or Freedom Day, not freedom fries (how ironic a response to the same friends in need), rather than Independence Day.

Independence Day sounds so much loftier, and we are so used to it. July 4 is a synonym as well as a crucial date. How about Declaration Day--or does that sound too much like Decoration Day? July 4 does celebrate the declaration rather than the victory.

Like John Paul Sartre ("like" in the very broad, reverent sense), I might next ask, who is really free? There are good and bad forms of servitude that define our lives.
Independence is something toward which we all strive in one way or another---certainly to a lesser extent during these troubled times, where survival is the goal, even in the homes of parents, relatives, or friends; still others inhabit tent cities--upscale tents the last remnant of previous prosperity--or the streets.

We're fighting a new war for freedom, or better, against tyranny again--of the super-rich against the lower two classes.

Even life and liberty, especially liberty, were relative terms back then. Would you call the first Puritan New England colonies democratic? We had a ways to go. We always will.
But imperfect as the greatest democracy in history is, it's still something to celebrate on a grand scale, pray for its continued survival ("In God We Trust" adorns the seed of our present struggle, coins and $1, $2, and $20 bills).

Happy Fourth of July. May we recover, most of us, to celebrate more Freedom Days as we evolve toward a freer society where all are truly equal.

PS: I have just found some significant dates to celebrate in addition to the signing of the Declaration: the British general Cornwallis's surrender on land and sea at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19, 1781; the signing of the Treaty of Paris by the Americans and British on September 3, 1783; and, to extend the holiday season, September 17, 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was signed. I guess October 19 is the most significant of them all. On that day, we became free of the British albatross.

(C)

 

http://www.wordsunltd.com; http://www.editingunltd.com

A jack of some trades, writing and editing among them, Marta Steele, an admitted and proud holdover from the late sixties, returned to activism ten years ago after first establishing her skills as a college [mostly adjunct] professor in three (more...)
 

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NOT A FREE REPUBLIC AND NEVER HAS BEEN AND NEVER W... by MARGARET BASET on Monday, Jul 5, 2010 at 3:28:30 AM
Margaret,Will there ever be one, is there one, or ... by Marta Steele on Monday, Jul 5, 2010 at 6:01:19 AM
A MUST READ THANK YOU.Jubilee 2012 - The Hidden Em... by MARGARET BASET on Monday, Jul 5, 2010 at 3:30:11 AM
Have you been sleeping for the past 10 years? Our ... by Philip Dennany on Monday, Jul 5, 2010 at 4:52:51 PM
Marta Steele, Glad to see you read Common Sense. T... by Alfred P. Verhoeven on Monday, Jul 5, 2010 at 9:36:27 PM
Hmmm. You need to read your Lucretius. God is God.... by Marta Steele on Tuesday, Jul 6, 2010 at 7:37:07 AM