Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

On July 4, Cokie Roberts Answers Questions About Independence Day

NOEL KING, HOST:

On July 4, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed a large crowd at Independence Hall in Philadelphia where he celebrated the durability of the Declaration of Independence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: To read it today is to hear a trumpet call for that Declaration unleashed not merely a revolution against the British but a revolution in human affairs.

KING: Here to answer your questions about the Declaration of Independence, both the document itself and the Fourth of July celebrations it gave birth to, is commentator Cokie Roberts. She answers your questions every week about how the government works. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: All right. Our first question comes from Twitter from Kurt Rex Cooper. He writes (reading) what documents did they use as a model? I'm thinking of the charges against Charles I and other documents from English history.

ROBERTS: Well, Charles I was a British king who was executed in the 17th century as Oliver Cromwell established parliamentary power. And the whole affair, including the charges against him, were pretty underhanded. So it was not a place where the founders would be looking. Instead, they stuck close to home. They looked at the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had just been published a month before, and other states' calls for rights. North Carolina claims to have written the first declaration of independence. May 20, 1775, the citizens of Mecklenburg County separated themselves from Britain, but the Congress was not ready to declare independence then. It took another year and pressure from outside, especially among some women.

KING: So women were involved in politics back in 1775.

ROBERTS: Boy, were they - very much so. Mercy Otis Warren was writing plays and poems published all over the country vilifying British rulers. And think about that. You know, that was treason. Abigail Adams was writing incessantly to her husband, John, in Congress saying I long to hear that you have declared an independency. She had no patience whatsoever with attempts to reconcile with the crown.

KING: Get it done, John (laughter).

ROBERTS: Right.

KING: Our next question is about reconciling two conflicting ideas. It comes from Collette Hanna. She writes (reading) I understand what it took to make the declaration, but what was the rationale behind gaining independence from one country while enslaving people from other countries?

ROBERTS: Ironically, Jefferson, the slave owner, had included a paragraph condemning the king for his refusal to allow legislation to, quote, "prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce," meaning slavery. But it was struck from the declaration in order to get full congressional agreement. Decades later, Jefferson said it was the slave owners of Georgia and South Carolina and the slave traders of the North who insisted on excising the language.

KING: Oh, that's interesting. And that actually brings us to our last question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYLVIA BROWN: Sylvia Brown - Hope, Ark. How have black Americans and indigenous peoples been celebrants? Are there equivalent independence events?

ROBERTS: Well, famously, Frederick Douglass, when asked to give a Fourth of July speech in 1852, told his audience that to the American slave, quote, "your celebration is a sham." Now, that changed with emancipation. But some African-Americans do celebrate independence on Juneteenth. That's June 19, 1865, the day the last of the slaves are believed to have been freed. As to Native Americans, after their religious and cultural rituals were outlawed at the end of the 19th century, many took to celebrating the Fourth of July as a way to keep those customs alive somewhat surreptitiously. But, you know, Noel, both groups correctly remind us that their ancestors fought with the colonists for independence and in every American war since.

KING: Cokie Roberts, happy Fourth of July.

ROBERTS: Same to you.

KING: Thanks, Cokie. That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting at us with the hashtag #AskCokie.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATRIOTIC PLAYERS' "COOL STAR BANNER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More from Hawai‘i Public Radio