By Mordechai Schmutter
Every year, on July 4th, our country celebrates one of its biggest holidays—July 4th.
That’s profound. It has another name too, but everyone calls it “July 4th.”
The other name for the holiday, of course, is “Independence Day,” in remembrance of July 4, 1776, which was a historic day (they were all historic back then) of the American Revolution. What happened was that the British were taxing us too much, so the Founding Fathers got together and decided that they should be the ones taxing us instead. Though they didn’t say it that way. They said things like “No taxation without representation,” but all we heard was “No taxation.”
The Revolutionary War was a big step in our country’s history, even though America has since come to realize that there are much worse things than being under England’s rule, and England has come to realize that America is not the kind of country that it wants anyway.
But as people who live in America and enjoy the freedoms therein, it behooves us to have some idea of the history behind this holiday, because people who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. And I might not know that much history, but I do know that I don’t want to repeat it. (If I remember correctly from history class, most of it is dates.) So here goes:
In the beginning, just about all the Europeans lived in Europe. So by the 15th century, a lot of them were anxious to leave Europe, which was getting pretty crowded, so they could get on a boat, which was even more crowded, and spend weeks heaving over the side until they got to wherever it was they were going, and say, “Hey! This isn’t India!” But they set up colonies anyway, because there was no way they were getting back on that boat.
For a while there, the countries of Europe wanted to hold on to whatever colonies they could, as opposed to recognizing them as separate countries, because back then no one realized how big America was. They thought it was a really long strip of land, one colony wide. Hence the name “colony”—they thought of it sort of like a bungalow colony. No air conditioning, a constant threat of being eaten by bears, and whenever the colonists wanted anything, they would have to send word to Europe and get someone to bring it over on the next trip.
England was the last to let go, and kept taxing the colonists under their rule. For example, there was the Stamp Act, which put a tax on stamps, and the Townshend Acts, which put a tax on Townshends, whatever those are. (Actually, Townshend was a chancellor in England who decided that it was more important to put his name on a tax act than to call it something that would actually help people remember what it did.)
To be honest, the colonists felt very nickeled-and-dimed over all this, although they were still using British currency back then, so more likely they felt penced-and-pounded, which sounds worse. So they started speaking up.
The Boston Tea Party
In 1773, England passed the Tea Act, which said that the colonists could buy tea only from Britain, and they had to pay a pretty big tax on it. The Americans felt this was mean, because they needed as much tea as they could get, seeing as they were all hoarse from spending their days rebelling in the streets. So to show their disapproval, they held the Boston Tea Party, wherein they snuck onto a ship and threw tea into the Boston harbor.
“There,” they said. “Now no one has tea.”
They also had the Boston Stamp Party, in which they snuck onto ships and threw stamps into the harbor, and the Boston Townshend Party, in which they snuck onto ships and threw Chancellor Townshend into the harbor.
The purpose of these parties, we’re guessing, is that the British would say, “Those Americans are crazy. Let’s stay on our side of the ocean, where there’s safety in numbers.”
But instead, the British passed the “Intolerable Acts,” act number 1 of which was to shut down the Boston harbor. They also demanded that the colonists pay for all the tea they’d dumped in, plus tax. They also passed the Quartering Act, which said that colonists had to have British soldiers over for Shabbos if they were in town, which was not easy, because the soldiers ate like bachurim.
One thing led to another, which led to fighting in the streets.
In the meantime, 56 colonists met to form the First Continental Congress, which as far as I can tell, was actually called that at the time, which is a lot like calling a war “World War I.” The point of the Congress was actually to coordinate a protest. Unfortunately, they realized that the king would never see their protest signs anyway, because he lived all the way in England. So they went outside and fought, like everyone else.
About a year later, they got together again and formed the Second Continental Congress. I don’t know why they had to call it that. It was in the same town and involved all the same chevra. What was wrong with the first one? Maybe they decided to rename their group so no one would know it was them.
The Second Continental Congress decided, “Forget this, we should form our own country.” Basically, America was like the first breakaway minyan. They wanted to break away because Britain was charging too much in membership fees, not letting them come to the meetings, and kept saying things like, “You can only have our pre-approved food at your kiddush,” and the Americans decided that enough was enough.
Their first act as a country was to decide to come up with a mission statement, in the form of a historical document called “The Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled.” And then they elected a “Committee of Five” to take care of it, because let’s face it, even the name needed work. The Committee of Five consisted of Thomas Jefferson, who was the head writer; John Adams, who was emergency backup writer; Roger Sherman, whose name sounds Jewish; Robert R. Livingston, in whose name the “R” stood for Robert (Yes, that means his name was “Robert Robert Livingston,” and no, I don’t have room to make fun of it); and of course Benjamin Franklin, who really got around in those days. Wherever there was a hock, there was Benjamin Franklin.
They eventually came up with the Declaration of Independence, whose historical words read as follows: “We the people, . . ., and liberty and justice for all. Yours truly, John Hancock.”
Actually, the declaration was signed by all the delegates, but the first person who signed it was the president of the congress, John Hancock, who didn’t realize he was supposed to leave room for everybody else. Everyone’s standing there, all lined up, wondering how they’re all going to fit their names on the bottom, and along comes Hancock, and he signs it inappropriately large, with a big swish underneath, and then he looks up and says, “What? Oh.”
This was before Wite-Out.
But by the way, that’s not what happened on July 4. According to most historians, they didn’t sign it until August 2.
On July 4th
So what did happen on July 4? Is that when the Americans won their independence? No, that happened in 1781. Is it when we started the country? No, that was later. Was it when we started the war? No, that was a year earlier. It had more to do with them saying, “This is why we’re starting the war. Let’s write it down, so we don’t forget.”
So was it the day it was written down? No. That was July 2. And then, as we said, it wasn’t signed until August 2. July 4, it turns out, was the day they finished editing it.
That’s what won us the war, right? The editing. But that’s why we celebrate.
What this has to do with fireworks, I don’t know. v
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.