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John Adams was quite the visionary. On an evening in early July 1776, just hours after he helped hammer out America’s Declaration of Independence from what was then the greatest colonial, imperial, military, economic power on earth, he wrote a most remarkable note to his wife. Among other things, the Founding Father and future president predicted that Independence Day would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
Here we are, 235 years later, and many of us will attend a parade or take in a baseball game. In many cities, bells will toll. And wherever there are Americans, there will be illuminations—fireworks, as we call them nowadays. In Adams’ home state of Massachusetts. In the states that once left the Union and returned. On the far side of this vast continent. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Even where North America almost touches Asia.
It’s quite a spectacle, this transcontinental display of amateur pyrotechnics. Although I hate fireworks, I love the reason people light them on the Fourth, even if they’re unaware of what Adams wrote more than two centuries ago.
It’s worth noting that Adams did write a few other things about our independence that have nothing to do with fireworks.
For instance, he knew that what he helped write in the summer of 1776 was not just a declaration of independence, but also a declaration of war. “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 he was confident that the 13 formerly British colonies hugging the Atlantic seaboard—a tiny sliver of territory in what was then the backwater of the world—would survive and thrive. “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.”
Why did he have such confidence in his cause and his country? To be sure, he had the confidence that comes from knowing a cause is just, from being on the right side of history: As Adams well understood and deeply believed—he even put it in writing—all men are created equal; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights; the people confer legitimacy and defer powers to the government, not the other way around; concentrated, centralized government is an enemy of freedom.
But there was more to Adams’ optimism than the power of enlightenment and reason. He was confident about America’s future as an independent, self-governing people because he submitted his “hopes and fears to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the faith may be, I firmly believe.” Hence, he thought Independence Day should be “commemorated…by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”
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