Is President Donald Trump politicizing the Fourth of July, allowing the crassness of partisanship to intrude on a sacred civic celebration? That widely posed question is built on a faulty premise. From the very beginning, Independence Day celebrations have been deeply political—in fact, the early celebrations were far more overtly political than today’s festivities. The right question isn’t whether July 4 is being politicized, but rather which vision of American citizenship it’s being used to advance.
In July 1776, American rebels staged celebrations of independence that were at once spontaneous and also—in a strikingly modern sense—media events. Independence had already been in the air for at least a year; the Continental Congress had already created public holidays, declaring two national days of fasting, on July 20, 1775, and May 17, 1776. Yet when it forwarded the printed Declaration of Independence to the states, Congress did not recommend fasting, prayer, bell ringing, or any other observance. Congress would not order the nation to celebrate its own birth. Instead, many colonists devised their own celebrations to mark the event.
The declaration had thrust all blame onto the king, and its public proclamation set off public, symbolic murders and funerals for the king—inversions of the King’s Birthday celebrations. People in New York City tore down the equestrian statue of George III and hacked it to pieces. (It is said that metal bits of it were later used to make bullets.) In other places, the monarch’s picture and royal arms were ceremoniously burned. In Savannah, Georgia, George III was “interred before the Court House.” The press descriptions made sure to mention the ringing of bells and the bonfires—the two most important aspects of traditional King’s Birthday celebrations. These printed descriptions inspired new celebrations and stressed the loud and visible support of the people for the end of monarchy and the beginning of American independence under new forms of government. The celebrations and descriptions they inspired made it seem possible that the 13 North American colonies, which until that time had more connections with England than with one another, might unite to form a new nation.