The Fourth of July is always associated with the flag, family cookouts, and fireworks, but we sometimes forget what exactly we are celebrating and how groundbreaking a moment in history it was when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. In essence, they committed an act of treason in turning their backs on King George III and the mother country, Great Britain. The penalty for treason is death, so liberty or death was exactly what they had chosen.
It is also easy to forget that not everyone living in the American colonies at the time was on the same page. The American Revolution divided families and for many it pitted brother against brother since the momentous decision to fight for freedom was not something most people would take lightly. For some, the taxes weren’t too bad, and having the might of Great Britain behind them seemed like a fine arrangement.
The mercantile system in which the colonies were run for the economic benefit of the mother country, led to high tariffs, especially on manufactured goods. The high tariffs then led to calls for “no taxation without representation” and created America’s first pastime, smuggling. Mercantilism often features a system of triangular trade, the best-known being the transatlantic slave trade which operated from the late 16th to early 19th centuries. Following the trade winds in the era of sail, ships carried slaves, cash crops, and manufactured goods between West Africa, the Caribbean or American colonies, and the European colonial powers, with the northern colonies of British North America, especially New England, sometimes taking Europe’s role in the triangle.
The colonies began collaborating with each other, developing a shared identity, and protests escalated into hostilities with the Boston Massacre (1770), the burning of the Gaspee, a British customs schooner enforcing the Navigation Acts (1772), and the Boston Tea Party (1773). The actual date for the start of the American Revolutionary War is not the Fourth of July, but the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Over a year later, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence on July 2, 1776, but the actual declaration was made two days later.
The day after the Fourth of July in 1852, Frederick Douglass made the speech now titled, What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? (Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, NY, July 5, 1852, edited by Leonard Harris, Scott L. Pratt, and Anne S. Waters and published in 2002 in American Philosophies: An Anthology) in which he compares the plight of the slaves to that of the colonists who lived under oppressive British rule over 70 years earlier. “They were statesmen, patriots, and heroes, and…with them, justice, liberty, and humanity were final; not slavery and oppression,” Douglass said.
He noted that true Christians should stand up for the rights and liberty of others, adding that “intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth.”
Douglass’ words resonate today when we see so many struggling under oppression of various kinds, not standing up for the voiceless, the needy, the homeless, goes against the core beliefs, ideals, and values not only of faith, but of the United States as well. The Hellenic ideals and values of democracy, philanthropy, philoxenia, and philotimo also fit in with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mentioned in the Declaration of Independence which in turn influenced declarations of independence all over the world, including modern Greece in its struggle for independence.
The rights and freedoms we take for granted today were not always guaranteed and many gave their lives so that future generations could be free, so remember to honor their memory as well as we celebrate the nation’s independence and have a Happy Fourth of July!