"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 3 July 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Third of July


"The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America," wrote John Adams on this day 224 years ago. "I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be 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."

Reputation is as fickle as a cat. How could John Adams — the wise lawyer who defended both John Hancock and the Boston Massacre shooters ("It would be better for the whole people to rise up in their majesty, and insist on the removal of the army, and take upon themselves the consequences, than to excite such passions between the people and the soldiers"), the first President voted out of office, the shadowy mastermind of the XYZ affair (!), the statesman who wished his gravestone to read merely "Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France in the year 1800" — have known that someday he would be less famous than his second cousin, Brewer/Patriot Samuel Adams? Rather than chuckling that he got the date of Independence Day wrong, we should applaud Adams for accurately predicting how the holiday would be celebrated.


But Adams' prescription doesn't get us very far in our current inquiry: How was that first Fourth of July celebrated? The circumstances of the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first Passover — these are all well established, and all hotly disputed. But how did Americans celebrate that first day of autonomy? The easy answer is that they didn't — there was a war on. Indeed, the biographies in The Signers of the Declaration of Independence by Robert Ferris and Richard Morris reveal that the war's ravages didn't spare even those well-connected plutocrats who signed the new nation's release form. Georgia's George Walton was wounded and captured at the siege of Savannah, the Garden State homes of Richard Stockton and John Hart were destroyed (Hart, already in his sixties, was forced into wintertime exile, while his farm burned and his ailing wife died). And in a separate incident, English-born signer Button Gwinnett died from a gangrenous leg wound sustained in a duel with Gen. Lachlan McIntosh. James T. Austin's Life of Elbridge Gerry tells us that sometime in July the Declaration was "announced in Boston with military pomp. Gunpowder was plenty enough to allow of a grand national salute of thirteen guns. The public officers partook of a collation in the council chamber." According to Gerry himself, "In the evening the king's arms and every other sign with any resemblance to it ... together with every sign that belonged to a tory, were taken down, and the latter made a general conflagration on King's Street."

In her excellent book American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, Pauline Maier reports that drinks, 13-gun salutes, destruction of royal emblems and burnings of the king in effigy were general throughout the US during the month of July. But there is no mention of whether the Philadelphia signers permitted themselves a collation. Or more likely a libation, made especially festive by the presence of aging party animal Benjamin Franklin and the Brewer/Patriot himself. (We should also note that although he was in fact a failed brewer, Samuel Adams has the full support of this publication, both for making a failed peace overture to the people of Canada and for penning scabrous essays under the alias Candidus. We only regret that the Boston Brewing Company, with its fondness for spinoff labels, hasn't seen fit to offer a "Candidus Lager" along with its "Millennium Hefeweizen" and "St. Pat's Corned Beef and Cabbage-Flavoured Stout" varieties.)

This lack of detail surrounding such a signal moment in American history brings up a more pressing question: How does the story of American independence always manage to seem even more boring and remote than the tale of Pyrrhus and his victory? Partly, it's the bone-dry principles at stake. You could make a case for the American Revolution as the first information war — it was a tax on newspapers and documents that started the trouble — but as a casus belli, how interesting is that? And what could make for duller martial history than the patient, judicious non-engagement strategy of the American Fabius and his Continental Army? The revolution's great feats of daring, celebrated in word and image, don't capture the imaginations of even the most attentive schoolkids; and really, did they ever? Once again, the only memorable character is the villain, and even he's no great shakes.



Embarrassed by our own boredom, we seek to pull down the monuments. Slave drivers, skinflint merchants, bewigged popinjays, wooden-toothed pills — these founding fathers, we tell ourselves, were no better than we are. While that's a sentiment the wisest signers, after great deliberation, would probably have agreed with, it's not true. Take a look at the life of Dr. Benjamin Rush and see if you could have done any better.

Nonetheless, when faced with the bookishness of the main characters and the difficulty of dramatizing such uncinematic material as taxation without representation and the quartering of troops, the makers of Mel Gibson's new movie opted out, depicting the British as music-hall dastards in a generally apolitical revenge picture. While you can't fault filmmakers for putting entertainment first, the truth is they just haven't looked hard enough for kernels of Fourth of July lore. A better effort to plumb the folkways of independence might give the holiday a grounding in ritual beyond mere guns, bonfires and illuminations. Most Americans would jump at the chance to burn bonny Prince William in effigy — or even in reality — but there are other prospects.

Imagine, for example, if every Fourth of July children looked forward to a visit not from St. Nick but from Benjamin Harrison, Virginia's portly delegate to the Continental Congress (who also deserves credit for his pioneering work in fat-guy/skinny-guy comedy with Elbridge Berry — a dynamic that continues to serve comedians even to our own day). Maybe it wouldn't make sense to leave out a glass of wine for Elijah on the evening of the Fourth; but we could certainly set out a boilermaker for New Jersey's Francis Hopkinson, the patriot/composer whose love of liberty lives in the deathless lines of his song "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free."

Ask gliding waters if a tear of mine
increas'd their stream,

And ask the breathing gales if ever
I lent a sigh to them.

Could each Independence Day feature a parade of finery in the spirit of dandyish John Hancock (condemned by the Encyclopedia Americana as a "vain, flamboyant man who lived in princely splendor on Boston's Beacon Hill")? How about a basket of eggs and candy delivered by bespectacled delegate William Ellery, whose unsung but essential efforts helped make tiny Rhode Island a worldwide symbol of freedom?



We can start right now. If Christians around the world can continue to venerate the Shroud of Turin, why can't Americans set off on a Grail quest for the shipwreck that killed South Carolina's Thomas Lynch, the Declaration's second youngest signer? If we can make pilgrimages to Graceland, why not to Hopsewee Plantation, Lynch's birthplace? Think Lynch is a bore? We called up Mrs. Helen Maynard, current owner of Hopsewee, for comment:

Do you have any fireworks displays for the Fourth of July?

We don't do anything unusual, but we are open.

Do you have a re-enactor to portray either Thomas Lynch Sr. or Thomas Lynch Jr.?

No, we offer tours, but we don't dress up or anything like that.

Do you have any Lynch artifacts in the house?

No, the Lynches sold the plantation to the Hume family before they died, and built a new plantation on the south Santee river. That house was burned in the mid-1800s.

Burned in the Civil War or by accident?

That was an accident.

Do you have any ghosts in the house?

No, no ghosts.

Come on, you've never heard any weird noises?

Well, in an old house you hear noises, and then there's your imagination. But if there are any ghosts they've never bothered us.

How far out of town are you?

We're 12 miles outside of Georgetown. We have 75 acres around the house.

Sounds like you're living a pretty good life there.

You should come down and visit us.

So maybe Lynch was no dynamo. The 56 stalwarts like him, who risked everything for your inalienable right to shoot the Devil's Delight Fireworks Fountain at little kids, deserve to be remembered as proper American heroes. Where's Ken Burns, with his smoldering PBS punk, when America really needs him?

courtesy of theSucksters

Suck will be back tomorrow with a special overseas edition