Thomas Jefferson’s opening lines of the Declaration of Independence are not the only immortal words associated with the Fourth. Today, when you’re not out grilling hot dogs, setting off fireworks, or narrowly avoiding a life-changing injury during “touch” football with younger relations, take some time to stretch out on the picnic blanket with a few of these classic Independence Day texts.
1. John Adams, Letter to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776: Penned on the eve of the signing of the Declaration, this letter is notable for its optimism — and foresight. A day before Adams and his fellow signers were to commit treason against the most powerful kingdom on earth, he foresaw a celebration that would range “from one End of this Continent to the other.” The future president of the republic lays out a rousing prescription for the observance of its birthday — worth consulting in advance, as you plan the day’s activities:
It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.
2. Frederick Douglass, Speech to the Citizens of Rochester, N.Y., July 4, 1852: Asked by the good people of Rochester to speak at their Independence Day festivities, the famous abolitionist and former slave praised “your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts”; but he denounced with fire and brimstone the lone American institution that still stood in defiance of the Declaration:
The existence of slavery in this country . . . is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. . . . Oh! Be warned! Be warned! A horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of 20 millions crush and destroy it forever!
3. Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress, July 4, 1861: The nation did not heed Douglass, and so nine years later President Lincoln asked Congress to approve the ongoing (but unofficial) war against the Confederate states. “Our adversaries,” he declared,
have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words “all men are created equal.” Why? They have adopted a temporary national constitution, in the preamble of which, unlike our good old one signed by Washington, they omit “We, the people,” and substitute “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States.” Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view the rights of men and the authority of the people?
Fort Sumter had fallen in April, and the president was obliged to lay out his reasons for a military response. He declared it the purpose of the Union to defend
that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.
4. Mark Twain, Closing Address to the Citizens of Keokuk, Iowa, July 4, 1886: Twenty-five years later, the Fourth was once again a joyful, peaceable occasion. In town for a family reunion, Samuel Clemens delivered a brief address to close the day’s festivities, which included (according to the local paper) “A Large Display of Bunting All Over the City, An Industrial Parade on Main Street . . . Good Music, Able Addresses and Orations,” and of course, “A Pyrotechnic Display.”
In his mostly comic speech, the author of Life on the Mississippi lauded the technological genius and imagination of his countrymen, who in a breathtakingly short span had popularized
the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and other great inventions. A poet has said, “Better fifty years of England than all the cycles of Cathay,” but I say, “Better this decade than the 900 years of Methuselah.” There is more done in one year now than Methuselah ever saw in all his life. He was probably asleep all those 900 years.
5. Calvin Coolidge, Address at the Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration, Philadelphia, Pa., July 5, 1926: On a day usually festooned with florid prose, Coolidge’s speech stands out for its measured, contemplative style. With scholarly thoroughness, the 30th president traced the intellectual and spiritual lineage of the Declaration, praising it not merely as a burst of revolutionary effulgence from a brilliant few, but as “the result of the seasoned and deliberate thought of the dominant portion of the people.” He stressed the religious origins of the American experiment:
Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these . . . have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish.
And in perhaps the most memorable passage, he affirmed the absolute truths contained in that document:
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.
6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Radio Address from Hyde Park, N.Y., July 4, 1941: While Wehrmacht divisions poured into Soviet territory and the Japanese naval high command plotted the attack on Pearl Harbor, America whiled away the rainy summer of 1941 with unease. In his July 4 radio address, FDR sought to rouse the country from isolationism, warning that “the fundamentals of 1776 are being struck down abroad and definitely, they are threatened here”:
All of us who lie awake at night, all of us who study and study again, know full well that in these days we cannot save freedom with pitchforks and muskets alone after a dictator combination has gained control of the rest of the world. . . . I tell the American people solemnly that the United States will never survive as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship. And so it is that when we repeat the great pledge to our country and to our flag, it must be our deep conviction that we pledge as well our work, our will and, if it be necessary, our very lives.
7. Ronald Reagan, “What July Fourth Means to Me,” July 4, 1981: In his first Independence Day address as president, Reagan began with an anecdote about shooting off firecrackers as a boy and a legend about a ghostly figure at the signing of the Declaration. However, he soon turned to more serious matters. In great detail the 40th president described the terrible sacrifice borne by the signers after their day of glory had passed — and with pride he reflected on the legacy that accrues to us from that sacrifice:
John Hart was driven from the side of his desperately ill wife. For more than a year he lived in the forest and in caves before he returned to find his wife dead, his children vanished, his property destroyed. He died of exhaustion and a broken heart. Carter Braxton of Virginia lost all his ships, sold his home to pay his debts, and died in rags. And so it was with Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Rutledge, Morris, Livingston, and Middleton. Nelson personally urged Washington to fire on his home and destroy it when it became the headquarters for General Cornwallis. Nelson died bankrupt. But they sired a nation that grew from sea to shining sea. Five million farms, quiet villages, cities that never sleep, 3 million square miles of forest, field, mountain and desert, 227 million people with a pedigree that includes the bloodlines of all the world.
— Will Allen is an editorial intern at National Review.