What, to Americans Today, Is the Fourth of July?

A Report and Reflections on the Virginia250 Conference held in Williamsburg, March 18-20

By Nancy Spannaus*

March 25, 2024—It was my pleasure to join my husband in attending the annual conference of the Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission last week. Under the title “A Common Cause to All,” the Commission, in partnership with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, brought together 450 individuals from 37 states and all around Virginia, to discuss plans for commemoration and celebration of our nation’s 250th birthday, July 4, 2026. We were lavishly wined and dined, and able to meet and discuss with individuals devoted to celebrating American history.

What, to Americans Today, Is the Fourth of July?
The restored governor’s palace in Colonial Williamsburg, one of the conference locations

I was at first stymied in trying to conceive of how to encapsulate the two-and-a-half days of presentations and discussions. The speakers ranged from prominent politicians, like Virginia’s Governor Youngkin and former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina (now honorary chair of Virginia250), to myriad professors, authors, and museum organizers. All sought in their own way to address the problem of how to do justice to this momentous event, and bring national unity, in this time of historic political polarization and documented indifference or even hostility from the younger generation.

What, to Americans Today, Is the Fourth of July?
Virginia250 Honorary Chair Carly Fiorina

There is no question but that the speaker who moved this multi-racial assembly (probably split 50-50 between men and women) the most was The Honorable John Charles Thomas, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and the first African American to serve there. Justice Thomas electrified the audience with his portrayal of the stark contradiction between the Declaration’s assertions of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the hideous reality of slavery, giving an eloquent demonstration of what some call “reflective patriotism.”

It was in thinking about Justice Thomas’s speech that I hearkened back to the speech of another great African American on the contradictions between the Declaration and American practice, Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s most famous oration on that issue was made on July 5, 1852, the 76th anniversary of the nation’s founding, where he challenged his audience, members of the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, with these oft-quoted words:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy— a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.[1]

While Justice Thomas by no means confronted his audience so harshly, in a fundamental sense he and Frederick Douglass were pursuing the same aim. Douglass, like Thomas, praised the principles enunciated in the Declaration, and the courage of the men who asserted our independence on that basis; what he was excoriating was the hypocrisy of those Americans who claimed to celebrate those principles, while brazenly oppressing and justifying the oppression of millions of slaves.

Frederick Douglass as a young man

And Thomas, like Douglass, insisted that Americans today “draw encouragement from `the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions,” and fight for justice with the same passion and devotion that the Founding Fathers did in their time.

That said, I will focus the remainder of this report on a fuller reprise of Justice Thomas’s remarks; the remarks of Harvard Professor Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality; and some highlights of other panels.  I will conclude with a fuller discussion of the relevance of Frederick Douglass’ 1852 oration for our political situation today.

An “American Tapestry”

Keynoting the first full day of the conference, Justice Thomas began with what he called the “American schism.” It was reflected in what happened in 1619: on the one side, the establishment of the House of Burgesses, the first representative government on this continent; and on the other, the first boatload of enslaved Africans arriving on Virginia shores. This contradiction persisted, and as Thomas implied, was even reflected in Jefferson’s text for the Declaration.[2]

Then, in a sonorous voice that resonated in both the ears and the soul, Thomas recited the opening paragraph of the Declaration by heart.

Historians like to attribute the sentiments of the Declaration to John Locke, Thomas went on. But Locke’s trinity included the rights to life, liberty, and property, whereas the Declaration replaced “property” with “the pursuit of happiness.” The difference is crucial, especially when we view it from the standpoint of African Americans escaping any status as “property.”

What, to Americans Today, Is the Fourth of July?
Justice Thomas addresses the conference.

Among Thomas’s polemics was his challenge to the idea of the United States as a “melting pot.” Better, he said, to think of our nation as a tapestry, where different threads (cultures and races) are woven together to make a beautiful fabric. Later he provided another metaphor, citing the New World Symphony (#9) of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, as reflective of the composite of cultures in the United States. Indeed, Frederick Douglass would give a famous speech in 1867 entitled “The Composite Nation,” in which he elaborated on the benefits of just such a nation.[3]

We have to look at where our nation has failed, Thomas said, in order to provide the cure. It’s like going to the doctor: you first need to fill out your family history, so that the doctor knows the problem, and how to get the treatment right. But today, we face the fact that, according to polls, 41% of our young people don’t even value our hard-fought system of government. They claim they don’t believe in democracy; they don’t see anything to fight for. They are blasé about their freedoms.

This contrasts strongly with the Founders (and those who fought against slavery, I would add), as Thomas explained. They had a zeal for justice because they had experienced the opposite. This is what we have to inspire in our young people today. Thomas then concluded with another recitation, this time from the conclusion of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1849 poem, Sail On, O Ship of State:

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!

Sail on, O Union, strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

We know what Master laid thy keel,

What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,

Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,

What anvils rang, what hammers beat,

In what a forge and what a heat

Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!

Fear not each sudden sound and shock,

‘T is of the wave and not the rock;

‘T is but the flapping of the sail,

And not a rent made by the gale!

In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,

In spite of false lights on the shore,

Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!

Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee,

Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,

Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,

Are all with thee, — are all with thee!

The audience erupted with a standing ovation.

“Our Declaration”

I would argue that the second most  stirring presentation during this conference was given by Dr. Danielle Allen, the author of the 2014 book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Dr. Allen’s advocacy for the Declaration has inspired a citizens’ movement to sponsor public readings of the founding document every July 4 – a movement that my husband and I have participated in for the last several years in our small town.

What, to Americans Today, Is the Fourth of July?
Dr. Danielle Allen addresses the State Dinner at the conference.

Dr. Allen explained that she had been on a 25-year journey with the Declaration, and has come to the conclusion that its 250th anniversary must be celebrated. Yes, of course, she said, the drafters of that document were contradictory: they did great things but also made mistakes.  But, in her view, their Declaration provided the basis for American democracy to grow.

Keep in mind that John Adams, a lifelong opponent of slavery, played as much of a role in determining the Declaration as slave-holder Jefferson did, she said. And thus, that document declared that the enumerated principles — “All men are created equal”, “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and “among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – applied to all.

The sticking point came with the power to enforce those rights, she went on, and this is what is addressed at the conclusion of the second sentence: “laying its [the government’s] foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” To Allen, this phrase crucially points to the question of who is sharing in exercising the powers of government.

Clearly, over time, the view of who must share in the powers of government has expanded, as people come to understand that involving all Americans is most likely to effect our safety and happiness. That task continues today, she said, and we must take it up as our responsibility with due humility.

A Quick Overview

It is beyond the scope of this article to report or comment on all the panels I attended (which did not include the breakout sessions). The full agenda and biographies of the speakers can be found here. But I do want to highlight elements of a few of the presentations.

The most contentious of the discussions occurred during the “Fireside Chat with Jefferson and Early American Scholars,” which featured Professor Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina, and Jane Kamensky, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Holton took the approach that historians should begin teaching the flaws and contradictions of the American founding to children from a very young age. He resolutely objected to the compromises made by the Founding generation. At the conclusion, he even opined that he would have preferred that we stick with the Confederation government, rather than the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson’s contradictory role provoked an extensive debate.

Kamensky, on the other hand, was at pains to emphasize the complexity and flaws of not only the founders, but those who are judging them today. The United States was born a question, she said, and we must educate our children to participate in our democracy by both celebrating and criticizing its practices. Compromise was and is necessary to the preservation of the Union, which is a positive achievement, she asserted.

The panel on “Approaches to Public Engagement” laid out some of the large challenges facing those committed to the 250th celebration. Speaker Matt Williams works for a firm which does polling, and had been commissioned to carry out a study of Americans’ views of history in late 2022. The firm interviewed 2400 people, 50% of them young, and 50% on the Eastern Seaboard. The “bad” news was that 60-70% said that history made them anxious, and they were tuning it out. An additional survey of teachers produced the disheartening result that it was “very difficult” to engage students in studying history, especially in suburbia. Some potential remedies – the use of museums, primary documents, and digital presentations – were also discussed.

What, to Americans Today, Is the Fourth of July?
America250 Chair Rosie Rios addresses the conference

The National Chair of America250, Rosie Rios, gave a short presentation on the materials being prepared by the Commission, emphasizing that the focus will be on activating people on the local level. She also showed the short video which the Commission will be circulating nationally.

A special treat was the sneak preview of the upcoming film series by Ken Burns entitled “The American Revolution,” which promises to be highly influential. The six-part series was begun eight years ago and will be released in the fall of 2025. The preview was provided by Paula Kerger, President and CEO of the Public Broadcasting System, and Sarah Botstein, an associate of Burns who is working on the film. Botstein described the intensive process of scholarly research involved and the problems of dealing with a lack of physical evidence and images – unlike in Burns’ films about the Civil War and Vietnam. She then showed two short sketches, one dealing with the role of women in the resistance to the Tea Act, and the other to Bunker Hill. (Strict instructions were given not to take pictures or videos of the excerpts.)

What, to Americans Today, Is the Fourth of July?
Kevin Govern, Undersecretary for Museums & Culture from the Smithsonian Institution

I would be remiss if I did not mention the contributions of two members of American Indian nations who participated in the events, as the involvement of the Indian nations is considered a vital element in assuring that all cultures involved in the fight for independence be heard during the celebration. Kevin Gover, a joint citizen of the United States and the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, discussed plans by the Smithsonian to commemorate, contemplate, commit, and celebrate the 250th. In the face of an erosion of confidence in government, we intend to tell “truth in a troubled time,” he said. The other participant was Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe, who gave brief remarks at the opening dinner, and the prayer before the States Dinner on the next day.

The closing keynote, a presentation by the president of the National Constitution Center Jeffrey Rosen, focused on his latest book, The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America. As we had to leave a short time after he began, my comments on his book will have to wait until I have been able to read it.

What’s to Celebrate?

In my view, the United States urgently needs to “rediscover” its Founding principles, and the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence provides a perfect opportunity to do so.  But, as this conference demonstrated, the obstacles are great.

Frederick Douglass, speaking in 1852, faced a political situation that many have compared to ours today. The nation was moving rapidly toward Civil War, as the advocates for slavery insisted on its expansion, and violence over the slavery issue was on the rise. The earlier view that slavery was a “necessary evil” had been replaced in many quarters by an active advocacy for this barbaric practice. This was the period right before “Bloody Kansas” and right after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. The political parties were splintering on the slavery issue, and no one knew what the future might hold. Discussions of secession abounded.

Yet, Douglass was able to say that he had hope that the divide between the principles of the Declaration, and our nation’s practice, could be overcome. “There is consolation in the thought, that America is young,” he said. The reformer may “hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny.” As long as those reformers pursued their objectives with zeal.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull.

Douglass also took hope from the fact that, contrary to the assertions of many abolitionists at the time, the U.S. Constitution was “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” (emphasis in original)

One hundred and fifty years later, we face a more daunting task. True, our nation is still young by historical standards, and significant progress has been made in terms of involving previously unrepresented sections of our population in our political process. But after all the fights for political rights, including the right to vote, we find huge sections of our population turning their backs on political involvement, especially on the major issues that will determine the future of the nation. Thirty percent of eligible voters didn’t vote in any of the last three national elections (2018, 2020, 2022).[4]  Survey after survey shows our citizens to be grievously uninformed or misinformed about our history and our principles of government.

Thus, in my view, an overriding task of America250 is not just to plan great celebrations, or reach diverse and under-represented populations to get them to tell their story. Above all, we must inspire our people by teaching, getting them to read our founding documents and speeches, bringing to life the ideas, as well as the conflicts, which led to the formation of our highly imperfect Union.

Lincoln’s view on the Declaration comprised the central theme of his debates with Stephen Douglas.

As a final note, let me cite Abraham Lincoln, who is in my view one of the foremost authorities on questions of America’s founding principles and system of government. Lincoln gave a speech on July 10 in Chicago in 1858, where, in the course of countering the views of his opponent in the Senatorial election Stephen Douglas, he addressed what it means to be an American. It has come to be known as the “Electric Cord” speech. Noting that perhaps half the people in the United States at that time were not descended from the generations which fought for our independence, Lincoln said:

We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.

If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are.

That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

*Nancy Spannaus is a public historian and author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System, and Defeating Slavery:  Hamilton’s American System Showed the Way.

(function() { window.mc4wp = window.mc4wp || { listeners: [], forms: { on: function(evt, cb) { window.mc4wp.listeners.push( { event : evt, callback: cb } ); } } } })();

[1] The full transcript can be found here.

[2] As emphasized later by Danielle Allen, it is actually a mistake to attribute the Declaration’s text solely to Jefferson. It was the product of a committee, and Allen asserted that John Adams has a claim to equal authorship.

[3] See the speech here: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1867-frederick-douglass-describes-composite-nation/

[4] See the relevant Pew Research survey here https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2023/07/12/voter-turnout-2018-2022/