Unpacking John Adams and Independence Day

by | Jun 15, 2022 | Editorials and Opinions

A version of this letter appeared in the June 12, 2022 edition of the Rio Rancho Observer. The author, an active Democrat and teacher, gave permission to the Democratic Party of Sandoval Count to use his letter.


On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. 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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

We celebrate Independence Day on July 4 because, while the Continental Congress approved the independence resolution on July 2, the Declaration of Independence document is dated July 4.

There is much to unpack in Adams’ sentiments and the Declaration. First, Adams’ desire for a festive holiday seems ironic because Adams was viewed in his time as a party-pooper, though close family and friends saw Adams as a decently fun guy.

Adams’ reference to guns was not to intimidate, but to use guns akin to firecrackers. Adams referenced “God Almighty,” but as president in 1799, Adams signed a treaty with entities in North Africa, which treaty stated the U.S. government “is not one founded on the Christian religion…”

While often considered more “conservative” than other founders, Adams supported a federal government dedicated to infrastructure development and a government medical insurance program for naval personnel.

As president, in a near-state of war with France, Adams tried to limit immigration — yet Jefferson opposed restricting immigration. Also, the declaration specifically attacked Britain for not allowing more immigration.

Adams saw the declaration as “deliverance,” but race-based slavery was expanding in various states. However, Adams owned no enslaved people and was morally against slavery.

In a late declaration draft, Jefferson said slavery “violat(ed) (the) most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people.” In 1767, 1769 and 1772, Virginia’s colonial legislature enacted high taxes to limit importing slaves, but British officials overruled those laws!

A British court decision, in 1772, ended slavery inside Britain, but the British government strongly backed slavery in its colonies — only gradually beginning to end colonial slavery in 1833.

In 1776, New England states were closer to abolishing slavery in their land. The declaration horribly referred to Native Americans as “savages” — while Adams’ letter called for festivities from “one end of this continent to the other…” when the 13 British colonies were only on the East Coast.

This sadly reflects our founders’ general intent toward Native American removal — eventually, genocide — across the continent.

Our founders’ limitations concerning race and support for settler-colonialism are clear.

However, we should recognize their vision in providing a language for freedom and pluralism, which gives us a right to criticize today. It is good to celebrate the Fourth, and thank our founders for inspiring us to be more enlightened in ways many could only conceive in their most hopeful dreams.

Mitchell Freedman
Rio Rancho

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