Learning more about the Fourth of July

I appreciate and enjoy the opportunity to speak with faculty, as their experiences and insights are so valuable. I always learn something. As July Fourth approaches, I asked our outstanding Professor of Communication Jennifer Mercieca, a world-renowned expert in political rhetoric, to give us her take on this quintessential American holiday.  

MKY: You write about the Fourth of July in your scholarship and you teach Aggies about it in your classes. Why are you so interested in the Fourth of July?

JM: The Fourth of July is both commemoration of an historical moment and also an “epidictic” occasion, which means it is an occasion for community building. When Americans celebrate July 4th with BBQs, when we gather for fireworks, when we listen to the local symphony or re-read the Declaration of Independence, we are participating in a tradition that ties us directly to the nation’s founding and also makes it possible for the nation to continue into the future. It’s also a moment each year when we ask, “what does America mean?” and I think it’s really important that we ask that question. America is a nation, but it’s also an idea and an ideal, and celebrating the Fourth of July gives Americans a chance to think about what we value and whether or not we’re living up to our nation’s potential.

MKY: What parts of the Declaration do you think Americans value most today?

JM: In 1776 not too many Americans paid attention to the Declaration of Independence’s Preamble, but today it is the part of the text that is most celebrated and is often memorized by kids in school. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson on behalf of the Continental Congress, “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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The keywords of American politics are all there — equality, rights, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the consent of the governed. Americans today still value these same principles: a 2018 Pew Research Center report found that most Americans value the rights and freedoms of all people, equal opportunities to succeed and the right to peacefully protest. While it may seem like our politics are very divisive today, we actually share a lot of common ground about our fundamental political principles and values. I’m inspired by that.

MKY: President Trump will give a speech on July Fourth, participating in the long history of Fourth of July Orations. What should we expect in a typical July Fourth speech?

JM: In the early republic, the Fourth of July Oration was an important moment of commemoration, celebration and reaffirmation in which Americans paid tribute to the heroes of the revolution and the ideals of freedom and liberty. Citizens would gather to listen to orations delivered by prominent statesmen such as John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Horace Mann. A typical Fourth of July Oration would praise the virtues of America, often describing the Founders in grand terms and asking current Americans to live up to their illustrious role models. 

MKY: You wrote in your book Founding Fictions that the most important Fourth of July after 1776 was the one on America’s Jubilee, July 4, 1826. What happened that year?

JM: Americans in 1826 spent the whole year celebrating and commemorating the 50th anniversary of Independence, which set the stage for the dramatic deaths of the “twin stars of liberty,” Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, on the Fourth of July. If today we can recognize that it was odd that two of the remaining three signers of the Declaration would die on the same day and that day was the 50th anniversary of the Fourth of July, think about how it must have seemed to Americans at the time. They took the twin deaths as a sign from God about the nation, but they weren’t sure how to read the sign. Did the deaths of Adams and Jefferson on July Fourth confirm the nation’s divina origine — its divine origins — or did the twin deaths mean that the nation was no longer under God’s care? Americans in 1826 chose to interpret the deaths as a sign of American Exceptionalism, which helped to provide stability to the nation after the founding generation was gone.

I wish to thank Dr. Mercieca for this enlightening conversation. And to all of the Aggie community, I hope you have a safe and wonderful Fourth of July.

Michael K. Young