For his column commemorating Independence Day, my friend and Hofstra University professor Michael d’Innocenzo points out that in fact July 2 was the date that the Continental Congress took the decision to become independent. And indeed, in a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, John Adams predicted that “The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the history of America – I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”
But it was not the decision that is now celebrated; it is instead the document explaining its necessity. One might call today “Explanation Day.”
Even more important was Adams’s view of what led up to the Colonies’ declaration:
“Time has been given for the whole people, maturely, to consider the great question of independence and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their fears, and allure their hopes, by discussing it in newspapers and pamphlets, by debating it, in assemblies, conventions, committees of safety and inspection, in town and county meetings, as well as in private conversations, so that the whole people in every colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own act.”
One gets the sense that across the countryside, people have been talking about independence, weighing its pros and cons. In taverns, at crossroads, in kitchens, stables, salons. All throughout the nascent America. Thomas Jefferson’s document captured its ethos.
Michael points out: “Adams’ approach to transformational change in politics and society is worth bearing in mind during our current polarized political season. John Adams had confidence that Americans can engage in communities of discourse in which their views can ‘ripen’ so that common ground for action is found.”
This is the democracy that lives, persists, grows whether the political system is amenable to it or not. The ordinary exertion of self-governance by everyday people. I see it happening all around me today, even as worried think-pieces tell me “democracy is dying.” I have not yet brought out my funeral clothes. The institutional mechanisms of democratic government may be under great stress, but the roots still grow.