Tag Archives: Independence Day

Why Celebrate July Fourth, or First?

Washington lit up by fireworks on July 4, 2012. Photo by Architect of the Capitol, US government, public domain.

July 1, 2017

Every American knows, or should know, that the 4th of July marks the birthday of the United States. But the reality is different, as it is in many or most countries, and the actual beginning of the country is more complex and confused.

The members of the Congress who met in Philadelphia decided on July 2, 1776 that the Colonies that were along the Atlantic coast should become independent, except for those from one of them. The delegates spent the next 2 days discussing the details of draft Declaration, mainly written by Thomas Jefferson. Most liked it, and this draft was approved by them on July 4. It then took some weeks to get a good parchment copy made for signing and even then, the delegates having gone home, some were not able to get to a place where they could sign it.

These delegates did not have the power to commit their home governments. They still had to go back and get their assent. That process began in August and was not finished until December 2. The British refused to recognize the declaration as having any legal force, and it took until 1781 before the British military gave up its efforts to subdue the new country, and it was truly independent.

So, why July 4? I’d guess, if you wanted a national holiday, one celebrating a document with symbolic importance, and inspirational to boot, July 4 would more than do.

Actually, Independence Day was not really an official holiday for the federal government until 1870. Various States had made it a holiday well before then, with Massachusetts being the first in 1781. It was first celebrated with fireworks and parades in Philadelphia in 1777, even though the British invasion forces were landing in Long Island and would, a couple of months later, occupy Philadelphia itself.

There was even a partisan contest for the ‘real’ date of Independence. The ringing words of the Declaration made for nice sentiments, the early Federalist partisans said, but it was General Washington who made the country a reality. If anything, the reality should take precedence over sentiment, so the real holiday ought to be Washington’s Birthday, which came in February, not July. Their Democratic opponents, led by Jefferson, disagreed. With the fading away of the Federalist Party after the election of 1800, Independence Day regained its luster.

Celebrations mixed patriotism with romance. In 1842, William Nowlin, the 20-year-old son of one of Dearborn Michigan’s earliest settlers, set off with his sister and a neighboring young woman, somewhat later to become his wife, to see the Independence Day celebrations in nearby Detroit.

He wrote many years later: ‘So when the morning of the ‘Fourth’ came, we started for town. We put up at the ‘Eagle Tavern’ on Woodbridge Street [in Detroit] and spent the day very patriotically … We visited all the sights we could hear of, and honored almost every display with our presence. When the salute of the day was fired, of course, we were there; they fired one big gun for Michigan. As the cannon thundered forth its fire and smoke, it seemed fairly to sweep the street with its tremendous force; it was terrible and grand….We thought we would go over to [Windsor] Canada to see what was going on there. When we were across [the Detroit River] we observed that the people didn’t seem to be paying attention to the ‘Fourth’. Of course, I was seeing all I could of Canada, but Miss Traviss took the greater part of my attention.’

After the Civil War, July 4th holiday celebrations were used by the federal government as a device for reconciling the people of the South to the American national tradition once again. Gradually, Confederate veterans were included in Independence Day parades and other celebrations.

One would have thought that the Confederacy would have adopted some kind of holiday to celebrate its ‘independence’, but it did not. There never was a Confederate ‘Jefferson’ to write a stirring document that rationalized Secession. As well the existence of the Confederacy was so short as to make any such memorializing tradition abortive.

Some Southern women’s groups created a Confederate Memorial Day in the late 1860s to honor its fallen soldiers. Then, the idea was appropriated by the North for the whole country, with Waterloo, NY, eventually acknowledged as its ‘birthplace’.

Also, Gen. Washington’s Birthday became a holiday. It was awkward to have this day move around the week with the vagaries of the calendar, so his ‘birthday’ was fixed for the third Monday in February. Close enough. Then, somebody suggested adding Lincoln, and eventually Washington’s birthday became Presidents’ Day.

Similar holiday-creating took place in Canada.

July 1, Canada Day, has become the equivalent of America’s Independence Day in 1867, as it was the date that British legislation creating a Confederation of 4 (now 10) Provinces came into force. Canada was self-governing, with the British continuing to control foreign policy for some decades. Later events, including the patriation of the Constitution in 1981, were subsumed into this holiday. Victoria Day, (a kind of Presidents’ Day), honoring the birthday of the great 19th Century British Queen, is fixed on the Monday before the Monday in May when Americans celebrate Memorial Day.

Canada’s equivalent of Memorial Day is November 11, the day when World War I ended. Small artificial red ‘poppies’ distributed by veterans’ groups are seen pinned to politicians and citizens alike on that day. The US celebrates Veterans’ Day on November 11, but it receives less attention than does the Canadian holiday on that date, likely because American participation in World War I was shorter and less traumatic than was that of Canada.

Just to complicate things further, Canada’s Thanksgiving comes in mid-October, when the harvesting is generally done. Most Americans think that their Thanksgiving is for the same reason, but the end of November is pretty late for a harvest feast. Actually President Lincoln suggested having a late-November Thanksgiving for Union victories during the Civil War. The rationale for the celebration was pushed over onto the Pilgrims and turkeys a lot later, by FDR in the 1930s, even though the Pilgrims did their actual feasting in October.

Such patriotic holidays are symbols that help to bind a people together. Connecting dates to events doesn’t really matter all that much.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2017


Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America

Who is a Yankee and where did the term come from? Though shrouded in myth and routinely used as a substitute for American, the achievements of the Yankees have influenced nearly every facet of our modern way of life.

Join author Jim McNiven as he explores the emergence and influence of Yankee culture while traversing an old transcontinental highway reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific — US 20, which he nicknames “The Yankee Road.”


Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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Canada and the US: a foot in both worlds

July, 2015 

Flags-of-usa-and-canada copy

Many years ago, standing outside the main entrance to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, a street vendor was trying to sell me and my then-girlfriend (now wife) a rug. He made a remark praising Americans, trying to soften us up. I scrunched my eyebrows and said, “I’m not an American, I’m a Canadian.”

He then made the mistake of saying, “It’s the same thing,” to which I replied, “Just like there’s no difference between you and the Greeks.” Things went downhill quickly after that. No rug was sold.

I was ferociously Canadian in those days, as are almost all Canadians once they are outside Canada, particularly when compared to Americans. But times change, and I ended up married to an American and living in the US. I eventually decided to get American citizenship in order to vote, because I can’t live somewhere and not vote. I have dual citizenship now; I understand that, due to recent changes by the current Conservative government, makes me a “second-class Canadian.”

After 35 years in Canada and 24 in the US, I have a much more nuanced understanding about the difference between the two countries that, once upon a time, had the world’s longest undefended border. And since Wednesday of this week was Canada Day and Saturday is America’s 4th of July, I thought I would ruminate on the differences between the two for a few moments.

The late, great Canadian writer Robertson Davies, a devoted believer in Jungian psychology, once wrote an article on this issue for the 100th anniversary of the now-defunct Canadian magazine Saturday Night. He said Canadians were by and large introverts, while Americans were extroverts. Canadians he wrote, tend to think first and act later, while Americans tend to act first and think later. Canadians often overthink and paralyze themselves in inaction (think, trying to solve the Quebec constitutional issue), and Americans act too quickly, and then have to deal with the consequences (think the second Gulf War).

For many, many years Canadians have defined themselves by saying they’re not Americans (part of that comes from the founding of the country, which basically happened in order not to become part of the US). I think that’s changing, as Canada matures as a nation. But there is still a tendency for Canadians to feel both superior AND inferior to Americans at the exact same moment. It is an extremely annoying trait, and one I personally hope Canadians get over sooner, rather than later.

Americans just don’t care much about Canada, truth be told, but that’s because Americans don’t tend to care much about anybody but Americans.

There are some obvious differences on which I give Canada the upper hand: universal health care, no abortion law, gay marriage for over a decade, far more effective gun regulations, multiculturalism as a matter of public policy, a much-less politicized Supreme Court (despite the recent efforts of current PM Stephen Harper to change that). But I want to look beyond these obvious factors.

The first and most important difference, that became very apparent to me almost from the beginning, was the role that religion plays in public and political life. In the US, religion often dominates and dictates the direction of public debate. Anyone who publicly declared themselves an atheist (like me for instance) has no possibility of any kind to play a public role in the political life of the country. This may change in the next decade, as recent polls show the numbers of non-religiously affiliated and atheists growing in America, but for the moment such a declaration is political suicide.

The situation in Canada, however, was once described to me by a well-known Canadian politician like this: “If you stood up at a political meeting and told people you’re an atheist, the next question would be ‘Yea, that’s fine, but what are you going to do about the roads?’”

I have no idea what the religious beliefs of most Canadian leaders are, while the situation is the opposite in the US. Religious belief is a much more private matter in Canada, unlike America were it is very much a matter of public record. Canada gets the upper hand on this issue. You particularly see this on issues like gay rights and abortion.

Allow me one more story to highlight another key difference. In the late 90s I was visiting a friend in downtown Halifax. As I later waited for a taxi outside the building where his office was located, I overheard two young men discussing a business they had just started. “Yea, but if it doesn’t work, the government will bail us out,” one said to the other.

I’m a big fan of government and the very important role it plays, and I think Canadians have a much more realistic approach towards this then Americans do. But Canadians are TOO dependent on government and TOO willing to do what the government tells them to do. Americans are far more willing to take risks than Canadians are, and live with the consequences of those risks, and are far more willing to stand up to the government. There are pluses and minuses to this approach, but by and large, it gives Americans more control over their personal lives.

My final thought is this: Americans need to realize that Canadians are not Americans. There are fundamental cultural differences between Americans and Canadians, and culture is what makes us who we are. Now and then I see a columnist pen some ridiculous idea about Canada joining the US, and to me this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the two nations. I can tell you from personal experience it would never work.

Canadians on the other hand, need to realize that Americans are not the stereotypical buffoons often portrayed in Canadian media. I know many, many Americans who are deeply and passionately concerned about important issues with which many Canadians could identify. Things may take longer to happen in the US but when they do happen, they reverberate around the world.

In the end, I’m happy to have a foot in both worlds. I still love hockey, but I prefer baseball. There are some nice microbrews in the US, but Canadian beer is still far away the best. Now I just have to wait for Tim Horton’s (now owned by Americans) to come to Virginia, and all will be right in the world.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015 

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.







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