Ask the Expert: What’s the Big Deal with July 4?

America’s independence wasn’t decided on just one day. So what exactly are we celebrating on July 4? – by Chuck Taft

We recently celebrated our nation’s independence, but in fact, America’s independence wasn’t decided on July 4, 1776—delegates from the 13 colonies (the Second Continental Congress) made that vote on July 2. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on July 4 either; that didn’t happen until August 2. Why then is July 4 so important? And why do I relish starting every school year with that date?

July 4 is the date that the Second Continental Congress agreed on all the edits and changes to the draft of the declaration originally submitted on July 2, thus approving the final wording of the document, which proclaims why the 13 colonies established independence.

The declaration states that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” It reinforces America’s social contract—that the government derives its power from the people and therefore must answer to the people—which is the root of our, and any, democracy. The document’s fundamental ideas are the foundation of our country, and of our study of American history in 8th grade.

In my mind, the most important concept that I can stress to my students is that the declaration crystallizes the growth mindset of America’s story. It captures our country’s continuous efforts to reconcile the document’s ideals—that all people are created equal—with the often-difficult reality.

During 8th grade we examine America’s history, the highs and the lows, and discuss how we still strive to make the concepts of equality, liberty, and democracy a reality. Each topic we study, from the continued push for civil rights for all, to America’s involvement in global conflicts, allows us to better understand how we still are pushing for growth. And, when we see the actual Declaration of Independence on our annual trip to Washington, D.C., the impact becomes all the more powerful.

So, while the fireworks and parades from Independence Day celebrations may be finished until next year, Americans should never stop celebrating the real glory of the Declaration of Independence. Think of it as a 243-year-old proclamation on what makes our country so exceptional—and then challenge yourself to make it a reality.

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