This holiday tends toward the broad and the grand.
It’s the day we celebrate the birth of the country. Our declared independence. Our armed refusal to buckle under to a king. Our freedom.
But the actual events that occurred on this date 243 years ago were nothing quite so broad or grand. They were specific and limited and mundane – one small but crucial turn of a gear in a process that had been unfolding for years and would continue to unfold for years, involving debate and disagreement and divisions and changes and compromises and mistakes, and that had to pass through the slow, methodical governmental processes that most of us profess to hate.
What happened on July 4, 1776, was just one link in a long chain: The representatives of the 13 colonies took a vote on a finalized version of something they had voted on already.
That’s right. Today, we commemorate congressional lawmaking in all its repetitiveness, formality and mundanity. We commemorate Congress, the least popular American institution, in its fledgling stages.
By this date in 1776, after all, the revolution was well underway. The tea had been thrown into the harbor. Paul Revere had ridden at midnight. The shot had been heard ’round the world.
The Continental Congress had voted to declare independence two days earlier. In fact, John Adams, in a letter to his wife, famously predicted that July 2 would become the biggest celebration in the new country: “It ought to 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.”
The actual Declaration of Independence, dated July 4 because of the formalized congressional vote, would not be signed for another month or so, on Aug. 2, and would not be delivered to King George until November.
What this date echoes from history is the importance of the Continental Congresses and the birth of American representative lawmaking. That was as central to the American Revolution – if less invigoratingly memorable – as the drilling of beleaguered soldiers at Valley Forge.
Two-hundred-and-forty-three years later, the reputation of American representative lawmaking is low and lowering. Congress has never been popular in recent history, broadly speaking, but has gotten less and less so. Gallup polling on congressional approval began in 1974; between then and 2009, the average national approval rating for Congress was 37%, according to an analysis by CNN.
Not great. But, in a trend that tracks our increasingly divisive partisanship, it has worsened in the years since 2009, to an average of 17 percent.
A different Gallup poll taken last June asked Americans about their trust level in 15 social institutions. Congress came in last. Eleven percent of respondents said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in Congress.
That fell below TV news (20%), the criminal justice system (22%), newspapers (23%), big business (25%), organized labor (26%), banks (30%), religion (38%), police (54%) and the military (74%).
There are a lot of reasons for this. Many of them are well-deserved. Whatever your politics, you are surely well-armed with stories of malfeasance and dishonesty and bad behavior among the congressional representatives of people you disagree with. They abound. Whatever your chief goals for the institution and our government – whether it’s resolving social injustices or bringing down the national debt – you have reason for disapproval.
I think Congress’s unpopularity is also partly due to its large and various nature, however. There are a lot of different things to dislike about a body of 535 people engaged in a system of government that seems obscurely complicated and a style of politics that has become increasingly bitter and distasteful. It’s a cliché that a lot of people hate Congress but like their own congressperson.
Deserved or not, the national appreciation for this institution is low and lowering. On Independence Day, it wouldn’t hurt to recall how absolutely central it is – in terms of making law, setting a national agenda, checking or excusing presidential power, spending and raising money – to the American experiment.
The Continental Congresses were as vital to the revolution as the Minutemen. From 1774 to 1789, representatives of the colonies – elected or appointed – governed this tadpole nation in successive assemblies, formalizing objections to British taxation, engaging in trade skirmishes, forming an army and naming its commander, acting as the official voice of the colonies in communicating with King George, forming alliances for battle, and eventually, declaring the country’s independence.
The Continental Congress did that, provisionally, on July 2, 1776.
What we mark today was another vote on that vote. A finalized version of a draft version of an idea that had been building for years.
A quarter-turn of one gear in a massive revolution.
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