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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

July 5, 2022: 4th of July Contexts: The Adams Letters

[In honor of the 4th of July, a series highlighting various historical and cultural contexts for this uniquely American holiday. Leading up to a special weekend post on patriotism in 2022!]

On the myths, and the realities, revealed about the Revolution and its leaders in the Adams letters.

Writing to his wife Abigail on July 3rd, 1776 (she was back at home in Braintree managing the family farm and raising their children), the day after the Continental Congress had drafted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams argued that “the Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epoch, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

On one level, the letter reveals just how much myth-making is inherent in any national celebration—we celebrate independence on July 4th because the Declaration was signed, dated, and sent out to the American public for the first time on that day; but Adams’ emphasis makes clear that the date was and is an arbitrary one, and of course that Revolutionary acts, like all historical moments, develop over time. On another level, however, Adams’ letter reveals quite impressively how aware the Congress was of the significance of what was happening: not only in his quite thorough prediction of the celebrations that would come to commemorate the event; but also in his recognition of all that would follow the Declaration. “You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not,” he wrote. “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.”

Reading the Adams’ correspondence offers even more Revolutionary realities than those. For one thing, it deeply humanizes the second President (and by extension all the framers); I defy anyone to read John’s heartfelt July 20th, 1776 letter of concern for both his ailing family and his own separation from them and not feel differently about the man and moment. For another, the letters provide a visceral and compelling argument for the Revolutionary era’s hugely impressive community of American women—Abigail was not as publicly minded as peers such as Judith Sargent Murray and Annis Boudinot Stockton, but she makes a thoroughly convincing case for what Murray called the equality of the sexes: in her overt arguments for such equality, but just as much in her intelligence, her eloquence, and her strength in supporting both the family and its business and her husband and the nation’s. Many of my posts in this space, like much of my writing and work everywhere, have sought to complicate our idealizing national myths, but the Adams letters remind us that some of our realities have been just as ideal.

Next July 4th context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other 4th of July histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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