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Clouds of history

Jill Wellington

Tomorrow will be the Fourth of July : a day for fun in the sun, if there is any sun, and the traditional beginning of two months of beaches and barbecues before Labor Day. But it is also a historical moment. Certain dates serve as signposts in the fog of history, and this is one such date. Everybody knows that the Glorious Fourth commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

A professor of history once told me that the Fourth of July was the wrong date. I didn’t believe it until I checked, but he was right. The Declaration was adopted by Congress on July 2, which legally broke the tie to Britain right then. John Adams, who was to be the secondpPresident of the United States, predicted that “July the Second will become a great American holiday.”

The events that followed — the proclamation on July 4, the public reading at Independence Hall on July 8, and the signing on July 19 were mere bureaucratic formalities. Some latecomers to the convention didn’t sign until the second of August. In fact, the first Independence celebration in 1777, was held on the appropriate date, July 2. Congress later changed the date to the fourth, for reasons that are obscure.

This is a good example of the arbitrariness of what we call history. But it doesn’t really matter at all except to historians, and in any case history itself seems to be a lost cause, and least in schools. High school seniors tested were more or less incapable of distinguishing between World War Two and the Peloponnesian War. Who can blame them? The past is such an overwhelming mass of dates, names, and events that it seems impossible to grasp without myths and stories. These are the dramatic high points that we call our “history.”

Almost every nation has a patriotic date celebrating one of these high points. The English have their rather embarrassing Saint George’s Day, widely ignored, on April 23; the Scots have Saint Andrew’s Day, 30 November; the Irish have St Patrick’s Day of course; the French commemorate Bastille Day on July 14 when revolutionary crowds stormed the Bastille prison and released a rather disappointing total of seven political prisoners; and the Serbs celebrate the Battle of Vidovdan on 28 June 1389, which they lost.

So a national day may be about a patron saint, a revolution, a great leader, or a battle won, or lost. But some national celebrations are just an excuse to keep ancient hatreds alive. A few nations cherish their grievances from hundreds of years ago, passing the poison on lovingly from generation to generation, so that nothing can ever be forgotten or forgiven. That’s why history so often repeats itself.

But not here. The Fourth of July comes without grudges or hatreds, which makes it a particularly fine national day. The generosity of this nation to its enemies has been legendary, and puzzling to other nations who suspect a plot. But there is no plot. It's just that the past is wiped off the slate as soon as it happens. When we say: "That's history," we mean that it is irrelevant, gone, and forgotten. This benign historical amnesia is one of the most liberating things about American culture, and we have the schools to thank for it. If nobody remembers any history, we can have whatever history we want.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.