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Do We Celebrate Independence Day Too Early?


We're switching gears now to a much happier subject. Hopefully you've got your sparkler set - the legal ones of course - the coolers filled and the hot dogs ready for the grill tomorrow, which will be July Fourth, our nation's birthday. But our next guest says we actually celebrate it two days late or a month early. Joining us now for some fun Independence Day trivia is Kenneth C. Davis. He's the author of the "Don't Know Much About" series of books, and he's with us once again. Welcome. Happy Fourth to you.

KENNETH C. DAVIS: Same to you, Michel. It's always a great pleasure, and indeed you're correct. We should have been celebrating the 2. As John Adams said, we should with pomp and parades and guns and illuminations as he described them - by which he meant fireworks.

MARTIN: Why July 2? What happened here?

DAVIS: Well, John Adams was convinced it would be July 2 because Congress had indeed voted on a resolution in favor of America's independence on July 2. And he wrote home to Abigail that night and told her so. But it was two days later that the Congress then took up Thomas Jefferson's draft version of the Declaration of Independence which explained why America was declaring itself independent. They had simply passed a resolution on the 2, and on the 4, they passed the document itself that explained why America should be free and independent. So we could celebrate the resolution of independence on the 2 of July, but what we really celebrate is the Declaration of Independence which came about on the Fourth of July.

MARTIN: What do you think we should do? We should spread it out. We should have two days of BBQs - or three, maybe.

DAVIS: Well, we can make it a movable feast. Three days, really stretch it out and celebrate in proper fashion.

MARTIN: Well, talking signatures - contrary to what I think a lot of people believe, George Washington was not a signer of the Declaration of Independence, correct?

DAVIS: He was not a signer of the Declaration. He wasn't there. Washington had left Philadelphia a full year earlier when he had been named commander-in-chief of what was then the first United States Army. At that time, they were surrounding the British in Boston, eventually forcing them out. Washington moves the Army to New York expecting that the British will make their next big move on New York and he was correct in that. It took until July 9 for the declaration text to reach Washington in New York, and the troops cheered. And they apparently went out and tore down a statue of King George the 3, melted it down - according to legend - and turned it into bullets that were then used in the revolution.

MARTIN: You were - we were talking earlier about the fact that a lot of people seem to have forgotten that George Washington was also a slave owner. But you are telling us that a draft of the Declaration of Independence mentions slavery, but it was eventually left out. Can you talk a little bit about that?

DAVIS: This is a very important idea. You know, a year before the Declaration is announced and before independence, the famous Dr. Johnson in England had written an essay about America in which he said, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes? And it's a reminder that most of the men in Philadelphia were slaveholders themselves or had something to do with slavery. Jefferson writes a draft of the Declaration which is debated for two days in Congress, and they delete a section that he had written in which he claimed that the King of England, King George III, was responsible for the slave trade and keeping America from stopping it which was completely untrue. But it's stricken from the Declaration. Jefferson later writes, it was stricken out of deference to the men who owned slaves, as well as those who were making a good deal of money transporting them. And it is a reminder that these men who were talking about liberty and equality were mostly slaveholders. Even Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush, who became early abolitionists in Philadelphia, owned slaves themselves. So it's this strange contradiction. It's a question that Dr. Johnson asked 235 years ago, and we're still really not sure of a good answer today.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're digging in on some July Fourth history. Our guest is Kenneth C. Davis. He's author of the "Don't Know Much About" series of books. So let's talk a little bit about how we celebrate. We often hear the saying, as American as apple pie, and I know that I'm working on my apple pie creation for the holiday - which I'm quite proud of. But when did apples become part of it? Apples aren't indigenous to North America, are they?

DAVIS: No. It's a curious phrase that has become a part of the language. American as apple pie - we use it all the time. But the apple wasn't a particularly American fruit. They'd been around and in Europe for a long time, but it just seems to have come down as the quintessential American meal. So I don't know. I suppose if we go back to Washington and that phony cherry tree story, maybe we should really be having cherry pie on the Fourth of July.

MARTIN: I think so. But what about hot dogs and hamburgers? Any idea how those became part of our July Fourth picnic?

DAVIS: Well, this really relates to a very important idea that we should talk about, in a serious way - about the Declaration of Independence, which is how much of America really comes from our immigrant roots. Of course we think of hot dogs and hamburgers, but they're traditionally thought of frankfurters from Frankfurt, Germany, and hamburgers from Hamburg, Germany - so part of the culinary contribution of the immigrant fathers.

Nine of the 56 signers of the Declaration were immigrants themselves - recent immigrants. Thomas Jefferson writes in the Declaration about the importance of immigration. So it's particularly interesting, ironic that at the very moment we're talking about liberty and independence and this history - we have people shouting, you know, go home, at buses of migrants. And we're having this debate about immigration, and it's been around as long as the Republic has been. After the establishment of the Constitution, there was a great deal of concern about Italians, Spanish, French immigrants because they were seen as danger. So even though we like to think of ourselves as the nation of immigrants, it's from part of our political DNA from the very beginning.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. Before we let you go, I have a bit of trivia for you. Did you know that there's a first daughter birthday on the Fourth of July?

DAVIS: I didn't know about a first daughter birthday.

MARTIN: Yes. July Fourth is also Malia Obama's birthday, so maybe this is a good time to wish her a happy sweet 16.

DAVIS: A birthday she shares, by the way, with Calvin Coolidge, the only president born on the Fourth of July.

MARTIN: OK. (Laughing) Kenneth C. Davis is a historian and the author of the "Don't Know Much About" series of books. He was nice enough to join us from our bureau in New York City. So happy July Fourth to you, Kenneth C. Davis.

DAVIS: Go and pursue happiness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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