Beyond bells and bonfires

John Adams hoped for the fireworks, as well as "general knowledge" of what they celebrate.

Posted: July 02, 2010

By Bruce Cole

The American Revolution Center owns a copy of the July 2, 1776, Pennsylvania Evening Post. It makes for fascinating reading.

Sandwiched between a call for troops to fight the British and an advertisement for the brigantine Two Friends is a simple sentence of earthshaking importance: "This day the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES."

This is the first printed notice of American independence, inserted hastily between the news and the classifieds.

The next day, July 3, an excited John Adams wrote from Philadelphia to his wife, Abigail: "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." Adams recommended that it be "solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one end of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

Adams was off by two days, of course. We now commemorate American independence on the Fourth of July, when the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress. Nonetheless, Adams' call for celebration was prophetic.

Unfortunately, knowledge of what we're celebrating and why it's important is fading from our national memory.

Last year, the American Revolution Center commissioned a major survey of adult Americans on the subject of our nation's birth. The good news: Americans overwhelmingly (90 percent) said knowledge of the American Revolution is important. And, when asked to grade their own knowledge of it, they were confident; 89 percent gave themselves a passing grade.

But when given a test of their knowledge, 83 percent failed, with an average score of 44 percent. More than a third thought the right to assemble, march, protest, or petition the government is "important but not essential" or "not that important at all." More than half thought the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the War of 1812 came before the Revolution. Meanwhile, 81 percent had no trouble identifying Michael Jackson as the performer responsible for "Beat It" and "Billy Jean."

Students don't seem to know much more. Fifty-seven percent of 12th graders showed less than a basic level of knowledge of U.S. history on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, and more than 80 percent of seniors at elite colleges and universities flunked a simple American history test.

Why should we care or remember what happened in Philadelphia during that long-ago summer? Adams put it well when he said, "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people." Ben Franklin, when asked if the Constitution established a monarchy or a republic, replied, "A republic, if you can keep it."

If you can keep it! That's the worrisome thing about our historical amnesia. If we don't know why this country was founded, what the great creed of the Declaration of Independence is, or what the Constitution - the national blueprint - proclaims, we lose the ties that unite us: the principles and ideals won by the American Revolution and forged by our founding documents.

So this Independence Day, let's remember what we're celebrating. And if our memory is fuzzy, let's read the Declaration of Independence and think about why it's still important.

Bruce Cole is president and CEO of the American Revolution Center. For more information, see

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