Release Date: 
Tuesday, July 2, 2019

What Independence Day means

U.S. flag background, fireworks, Statue of Liberty

This message is part of a series that aims to raise our community’s awareness of major holidays, including cultural, historic, and religious observances throughout the year.

On Thursday, July 4, we will celebrate the federal holiday of Independence Day. Most public offices, organizations, and schools, including Henry Ford College, encourage employees to honor and celebrate this day with a paid day away from work activities. Like most institutions, we also suspend classes. Because July 4 falls on a Thursday this year, the College will also be closed on Friday, July 5.

What is Independence Day?

One of the most universally recognized American holidays, Independence Day is always on the 4th of July, and is sometimes called simply “The Fourth of July.” Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Until that time, the 13 American Colonies – which are today the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia – had been a part of the British Empire. They were governed by a series of charters under the authority of the King of England (George III at that time). Great Britain and the Colonies were separated by the Atlantic Ocean and a six-week journey aboard wooden sailing ships.

Due to this distance and a more than 150-year history of partial self-governance, in the 1760’s the Colonists began to resent British rule. Many Colonists resented the Crown’s taxation of the Colonies and refusal to allow a voice in the governance of the region. Tensions grew and caused hostile and sometimes violent confrontations, such as the Boston Massacre (1770), Boston Tea Party (1773), Intolerable Acts (1774), Massachusetts Government Act (1774), establishment of the First Continental Congress (1774), and the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (1775).

On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress secretly voted for the Colonies to declare their independence from Great Britain. Two days later, on July 4, the official wording for the Declaration of Independence was finalized, and the document was published. Delegates from all 13 Colonies began signing it a month later. Knowing this would be considered an act of treason against Great Britain, the signatories included the words at the end of the document: “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

The Declaration was primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, who would later become the third President of the United States. In an oft-cited historical irony, both Jefferson and John Adams, the second President of the United States, died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration was published.

The Declaration of Independence stated that the Colonies considered themselves a sovereign collection of states (not yet a nation as we know it today) and that each state was fully independent and free from any allegiance to Great Britain.

Achieving that independence took seven more years.

The American Revolutionary War, or the American War for Independence, had already been underway for a year, and would not conclude until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. This treaty officially ended the war and recognized American independence.

Our history is not unified

It is important to remember that the American Colonies, as well as the nation we now know as the United States of America, did not originate nor expand on unoccupied lands. Before European settlers arrived, scholars estimate that between 2 and 18 million people already occupied the current continental United States.

There is much to learn and know about our nation’s treatment of indigenous people (whom we usually call Native Americans). Unfortunately, that treatment includes exploitation and violence dating back to the earliest colonial settlements.

We should also learn and know about the treatment of African Americans, who were enslaved, and who – despite slavery and ongoing discrimination – have contributed in innumerable ways to the shared nation we now celebrate “from sea to shining sea.”

In addition to these populations, America has always been a nation of immigrants. In fact, unless you are a Native American or a descendent of slaves, you or your ancestors are immigrants. My own father is one example, who came to this country as a poor kid from Brazil. It was his father who moved a family of five to Michigan in search of a better life through educational opportunities. Our nation’s nearly 250-year history with immigration ranges from hostility to openly welcoming immigrants under the mantle of our Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island.

While we as a nation and as a College take pride in our country’s heritage, we must honestly acknowledge the less-prideful parts of our history. We revere the Declaration of Independence’s aspiration 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.” But we know this goal of equality is still a work in progress. Our history includes difficult truths of our society and laws being far less than equal to all citizens.

We should learn of and discuss our joint national history, particularly our missteps as a society, as a means to build our collective will to further improve our nation and to make our society as equitable, honorable, welcoming, safe, and free as possible. As I often say, difficult conversations are a way to drive progress, and our national history is no exception.

Celebrations and observances

Independence Day is a day of public celebrations across the country, including picnics, barbecues, beach parties, and public outings, with significant emphasis on the recognition and meaning of the nation’s freedom. Parades take place nationwide. Celebrations are often accompanied by patriotic songs. Red, white, and blue decorations and American flags are abundant. Other activities include sports and various competitions.

Some of the most popular celebrations are fireworks displays, which take place in cities and towns across the country at dusk or after dark. In fact, Michigan hosts one of the largest fireworks displays in North America over the Detroit River. The celebration, which took place June 24 this year, commemorates Independence Day in conjunction with Windsor, Ontario, which celebrates Canada Day. (Canada Day, celebrated July 1, recognizes Canada becoming an independent Dominion within the British Commonwealth in 1867.)

Many municipalities began hosting their fireworks in the days leading up to the 4th of July, to reduce congestion on that day or to spread out the celebration.

At Henry Ford College, we are working hard, every day, to make our community a place that is richly diverse, welcoming, and an inspirational example of the best that we can become. We seek to extend that experience to everyone we encounter.

Happy Independence Day to all of you! Enjoy your celebration of freedom with family, friends, and your community.

Russ Kavalhuna
Henry Ford College