Although the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 2, 1776, the first annual celebration of that event occurred on July 4, 1777, with some pomp and circumstance in Philadelphia. A number of ships festooned with the nation’s colors lined the harbor in the City of Brotherly Love, each firing a 13-cannon salute to the 13 states, along with a few parades and some fireworks. The event was reported on July 18, 1777, in a story dated July 5 in the Virginia Gazette.
In the two-plus centuries since, the nation’s observance of its independence has evolved, reverentially, with parades, fireworks, marching bands, and picnics across the breadth of the 50 states. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson opened the White House (also known as the people’s house in its early days) to residents of Washington, DC, and invited five Cherokee chiefs to join him there. A few hundred visitors were entertained with music and refreshments. In more recent years, American Presidents have retreated to the background on July 4, allowing its celebration to be uncluttered with partisan politics and reflect the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence as noted in its closing words:
. . . we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor.
That character of our national independence has marked the date since—until now, as the spirit of the celebration is subjected to hijacking.
The current president has made plans for July 4, 2019, to include an address to the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This usurpation and politicization of what has traditionally been a politics-free holiday and the selection of that speaking platform likely reflect Trump’s own lack of historical information. The then-candidate announced “most people don’t even know he (Lincoln) was a Republican” (speech to the National Republican Congressional Dinner, March 21, 2017). Since taking office, President Trump has continued to campaign for 2020 by scheduling and attending political rallies at over 60 such events in key electoral states. The day following his inauguration in January 2017, the new President filed FEC paperwork for the 2020 election. While most presidents have taken the time and opportunity to present policy pronouncements to the citizenry, including that of the State of the Union address, this administration has substituted cheering political rallies where crowds are reminded of the President’s electoral victory.
Consistent with reports of his business practices, the Trump campaign has failed to pay Washington, DC, for some $7 million in costs for the inauguration. Cities where rallies have been held also report a failure to pay costs, including security, even where there exists an agreement to do so. Amounts due localities range from $16,000 to $470,000 in cities including El Paso (TX), Green Bay (WI), and Mesa (AZ).
Up to this point, the White House has not held a formal press conference for over 100 days. Instead, information, policy points, hirings, and firings. are the subject of tweets. Other than slogans changed at rallies, such as “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” the major TV networks have not had to set aside time for a presidential address. Predicting the content of a July 4, 2019, speech results in concluding only more of the same. And that’s the problem. Given performance and behavior to date, it is likely to be no better on a national holiday that belongs to every American. That prospect of numbing sameness threatens the character of the July 4 celebration for all.
History may record that the editorial of the Orlando Sentinel on June 18 as the President officially opened his 2020 campaign was the loudest memorial statement possible. The newspaper declared that it would endorse any Democratic candidate but certainly would not endorse Trump. Fireworks explosions and the red glare of rockets follow. Sadly, now, we will have to repatriate our own national celebration from one person’s ego.