Perspectives on the Fourth of July

 

Background

As copies of the Declaration of Independence spread through the colonies and were publicly read at town meetings, people lit great bonfires, illuminated their windows with candles, fired guns, rang bells, and tore down and destroyed the symbols of monarchy on public buildings.

But what exactly were people celebrating? A speech or a written document? Freedom or equality? Inalienable rights or the right to rebel?

The actual Fourth of July holiday may have been started by accident. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to approve a Virginia motion calling for separation from Britain, with nine colonies expressing approval. Two days later, on July 4, the Declaration was formally adopted by twelve colonies after some revision. (New York approved the Declaration fifteen days later.) Aside from John Hancock, the Declaration did not have many other signers until August 2, and a significant number of them did not sign the actual Declaration until the following year. (Ultimately, fourteen men who had not even been present on July 4 signed their names to the document.) Congress did not discuss celebrating the anniversary of independence at all until July 3, 1777, when it was too late to honor July 2. As a result, the celebration took place on July 4, and marking the Declaration of Independence on that date became the country’s tradition.

By 1786, the tenth anniversary of independence, the Fourth of July had become a historical ritual in some cities, with cannons or bells sounding early in the morning. Militia or volunteer units marched in parades, joined by citizens, to an official oration site. People joined in song and later gathered around bonfires and set off fireworks. The celebration was treated as a holy day, "the Sabbath of our Freedom." (See Raphael, Ray. Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past. [New York: The New Press. 2004], 248-51.)

In 1941 Congress declared July Fourth a federal holiday, and today it is celebrated across the country.

 

Materials

This lesson should follow homework assignments and classroom discussions of the reasons for the creation of and the impact of the Declaration of Independence. A copy of the Declaration can be provided for reference to each group as you begin this lesson.

 

 

Essential Question

How does the celebration of Fourth of July help us understand the ideals upon which the United States was founded?

 

Learning Objectives

 

  • Students will review the content of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Students will analyze July Fourth from the multiple perspectives of various people from the American past.
  • Students will assess the reasons for the popularity of the holiday today.

 

 

Motivation

Students do a "quick write" for ten minutes on one of the following prompts:

 

  • What did you and your family do last Fourth of July?
  • What does the Fourth of July mean to you?
  • Explain how the Fourth of July differs from other days.

 

 

Procedure

 

  1. Students respond to one of the motivation writing prompts in their journals or on a piece of paper. Responses are usually personal accounts of picnics or barbeques, trips, time spent with friends and family, and fireworks.
  2. Students brainstorm from their writing or experience about commonalities in the way they celebrate the Fourth of July. Choose two to three students to record ideas on the board.
  3. Separate the students into seven groups. Each group is given one of the seven position papers included at the end of this lesson. Each position paper represents the point of view of a person from the past about celebrating the Fourth of July.
  4. Each group meets to research, discuss, and develop a brief presentation on its assigned position. The students should be fully prepared to explain and support their positions.
  5. Using the reasoning of the paper it has discussed, each group presents a position opposing or supporting the celebration of the Fourth of July.
  6. Following the group presentations, the teacher engages the students in a class discussion in which they debate whether the ideals represented by the Fourth of July were applied to all Americans in the past.

 

 

Summary Questions

  1. Given the opposing views of some of these groups in the past, why is July Fourth so widely celebrated today?
  2. How do these celebrations help us to better understand the ideals upon which this nation was founded?

Application: The US Congress is sponsoring a contest to help Americans appreciate the importance of the Fourth of July. Create an advertising slogan (rhyme, image, or phrase) that will help increase awareness of the meaning of the Fourth of July for all Americans today.