Seasons of Freedom
Americans grabbed hold of July 4 as our Independence Day—and the celebrations began the very next year. That summer of 1776—245 years ago—became America’s first “Season of Freedom.”
John Adams thought that July 2 would be the day that Americans would celebrate their independence from British rule. It was on Tuesday, July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress approved the resolution that declared that the American colonies were independent from Great Britain. It was then that the Congress took up the discussion of the document that a small group of five had been working on since early June. They debated this document for two days before sending off the final document to the printer on Thursday, July 4, when their debate concluded. It actually wasn’t until August 2 that the document was finally signed by most of the delegates. But Americans grabbed hold of July 4 as our Independence Day—and the celebrations began the very next year. That summer of 1776—245 years ago—became America’s first “Season of Freedom.”
Some 87 years later, in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln described that first season of freedom as resulting in “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He was referring to the Declaration of Independence, which includes these stirring words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Among my greatest hopes is that we are once again experiencing a season of freedom. Two weeks ago, President Biden signed into law the bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19 to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. Standing alongside Independence Day, these two holidays celebrate where we have come from—and remind us how far we have to go. Our founding documents describe a “more perfect union,” and Lincoln affirms a nation “conceived in Liberty.” But that’s just the beginning of our journey, and the American ideal aspires to so much more.
Marylander Frederick Douglass eloquently and persuasively insisted that we recognize the great gap between the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the unjust realities facing Black Americans. In 1852 he declared, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
But this dire assessment was not Douglass’ final word. A determined hopefulness is found a little later in the same speech when he said, “notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.” Frederick Douglass is the herald of an ongoing season of freedom—when the ideals of our democracy are realized for all Americans, regardless of race or gender.
George Washington was not in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress where the Declaration of Independence was discussed and signed. General Washington was in New York with the troops. John Hancock sent him a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which he received on July 9. Hancock urged Washington to share the news with the troops—and their enthusiastic response was to go out and tear down a statue of King George III. The celebrating was short-lived, however. By August those same troops were engaged in the fight for freedom that would drag on for eight long years. They were fighting for their families and farms, but they were also fighting for the ideals of the new country—and they were fighting for us. They were making the Declaration of Independence a reality.
On this Independence Day, we celebrate everything that was done to secure our freedom. And we renew our commitment to the cause of liberty, justice, and equality for all. These are the ideals behind our own season of freedom and the celebration of Independence Day.