Americans love to celebrate—even when they do not exactly know what it is they’re celebrating.
The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, by the Continental Congress.
The Fourth of July, for example. This holiday commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, by the Continental Congress. By that act the thirteen American colonies declared that they regarded themselves as a new nation, the United States of America, and no longer part of the British Empire.
Given its historical significance, one would expect Americans would know the basics about July 4th. Apparently they don’t.
Reporters and bloggers have done Jay Leno-type “Jay Walking” type of quizzes of everyday Americans in various cities, some on university campuses, where one would expect to find a highly educated group of folks. The responses illustrate that many Americans don’t know what the 4th of July represents.
In 1776, did the United States declare its independence from…Mexico?!
For example, when asked what country broke away from England to start their own country in the late 1700s, a good number of people responded with variations of “I don’t know.” Some responses were outright bizarre, viz.: Independence Day recognizes the day we “overtook” the south and declared independence from the south. When asked what country the United States declared independence from, the answers ranged from “I have no idea” to Mexico, France, Canada, and Spain.
The above anecdotal examples correlate with polls that show the stunning level of ignorance many Americans have regarding the Fourth of July. A 2011 Maris poll found that only 58% of Americans know that the United States declared its independence in 1776 and about 25% have no idea what country the U.S. declared its independence from. The poll found that 14 % of teens believe the U.S. declared independence from France, and another 5 per cent thought it was Canada.
Not to mention the racist aspects of Independence Day…
“We hold these truths to be self-evident”or so it would seem.
Just as large swaths of the American public don’t know the basics about the Fourth of July, most Americans are ignorant of the racist hypocrisy inherent in the Declaration of Independence. Probably the most famous and most quoted part of the Declaration is: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, many of the signers of the Declaration were slave owners and didn’t abide by the lofty principle that “all men are created equal. ”
The Declaration of Independence rested on a litany of grievances of the colonists against the British monarchy. Two of these grievances spoke to racist issues.
One was that the British offered to grant freedom to slaves who ran away from their masters and enlisted in the British army or navy. Many plantation owners, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, were upset because they lost slaves who took up this offer.
There was debate as to who had the right to conquer and enslave Native American “savages.”
Another grievance was that the British had encouraged the “inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages” to fight the colonists. In 1763, King George of England proclaimed that the colonies no longer had the “right of discovery”—i.e., to take over Indian lands—west of the Appalachian Mountains, reserving that right solely for the crown. Thus, the indigenous inhabitants of the country were dehumanized as less-than-human “savages” who stood in the way of westward expansion.
Just as slavery would be a major factor in the Civil War a century later, slavery factored into the Revolutionary War, as did an insistence on the “right” to commit genocide against the indigenous inhabitants of the country.
Ignorance is no excuse not to spend money…
Americans invest tons of money in celebrating that which they know nothing, or very little, about. Americans spend billions of dollars on Fourth of July activities and goods. Just on beer alone, it is estimated that Americans spend about $1 billion. Billions more are spent on food and related items—hot dogs, hamburger meat, chicken, buns, condiments, watermelon, ice cream, sodas, charcoal and lighter fluid, etc.
Millions more are spent on fourth-of-July themed clothes, decorations and flags, and fireworks. And millions are spent on the ubiquitous Fourth of July mattress and furniture sales and on gasoline by those who travel on this weekend.
Truth be told, capitalism has completely taken over the Fourth of July. For sure, there are Americans who know the history and significance of the Fourth and celebrate it as a patriotic event. But I think these folks are a minority. The Fourth of July is now a vehicle for money-making hoopla.
Ditto for St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo…
St. Patrick’s Day celebrations introduced Gaelic to Americans.
St. Patrick’s Day originated in 18th- and 19th-century Ireland as a religious celebration in honor of Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick, who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century. On March 17 (the date of his death) bars throughout Ireland were closed and most people observed the day by going to church (the bars didn’t begin opening on March 17 until the mid-1960s).
In the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day became a cultural-identity anchor following the arrival in the 19th century of large numbers of Irish immigrants who were confronted by militant nativism and were characterized as drunken, violent, and diseased criminals and were subjected to all manner of discrimination. To display their civic pride and the strength of their identity, Irish Americans began publicly celebrating their Catholicism and patron saint and praising the spirit of Irish nationalism in the old country. By the end of the 19th century, the localized Irish celebrations evolved to broader public events and parades, bringing home the point that Irish Americans were a political and civic force in America.
St. Patrick’s Day became a bar promotion.
By the 20th century, St. Patrick’s Day became a capitalist marketing bonanza—greetings cards and imported Irish shamrocks on T-shirts were in stores everywhere and the food and drink that became associated with the day became bar promotions. While there are many Irish Americans who know the history of St. Patrick’s Day and celebrate it seriously, that is, who express their pride in their Irish heritage, St. Patrick’s has devolved into a capitalistic orgy during which Americans spent about $4.7 billion dollars.
Thanks to American marketing campaigns, everyone—especially those of drinking age—is Irish on March 17. St. Patrick’s is most often associated with drinking alcohol (particularly, Guinness or beer dyed green). A 2016 poll showed that about a third of those who will celebrate St. Patrick’s will do so at a party or a bar/restaurant. Many people celebrate St. Patrick’ s Day simply by buying and wearing green apparel with an Irish twist (shamrocks, a witty saying, etc.).
It’s safe to bet that the overwhelming majority of St. Patrick’s revelers know absolutely nothing of the history and significance of the day.
The same dynamics apply to Cinco de Mayo.
Cinco de Mayo marks a Mexican victory over French invaders in 1862.
Despite popular lore, Cinco de Mayo does not commemorate Mexican independence (that’s Sept. 16). It actually marks the victory of a tiny army of untrained and poorly equipped Mexican farmers over the well-armed French military during the Battle of Puebla, during the War of French Intervention, on May 5, 1862. The unexpected victory energized the country and became emblematic of the perseverance of a nation.
Outside of Puebla, Cinco de Mayo is not a major holiday in Mexico—schools, banks, government offices, and businesses are all open and conduct business as usual. In Puebla, parades and battle reenactments fill the day, and traditional dishes are shared.
As St. Patrick’s Day was for the Irish Americans, Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. began as an anchor of ethnic identity and pride for Mexican Americans.
In the 1860s, Mexicans in northern California celebrated the Mexican resistance to France by firing off rifle shots, singing patriotic songs, and making fiery speeches. The celebration of Cinco de Mayo picked up in the 1940s, during and after WW II, when Mexican Americans were routinely discriminated against in virtually every realm of life. To combat the sense of inferiority that American society was trying to impose on them, Mexican Americans began celebrating Cinco de Mayo as a vehicle of cultural pride. In the 1960s-1970s, the Chicano Movement took Cinco de Mayo out of California and into the rest of the U.S.
Cinco de Mayo, however, did not become a national phenomenon until the 1980s when marketers, especially beer companies, saw the profit potential in it and started promoting it. Thus, Cinco de Mayo has lost any historical and ethnic significance it may have once had. It’s now seen as an occasion to drink beer, margaritas, and shots of tequila, while eating tacos and sporting sombreros. Many revelers apply fake mustaches and adopt faker accents. It is estimated that Americans buy more than $600 million worth of beer for Cinco de Mayo, more beer than is sold for the Super Bowl or St. Patrick’s Day.
Like with St. Patrick’s Day, it’s safe to bet that the overwhelming majority of Cinco de Mayo revelers know absolutely nothing of the history and significance of the day.
The larger, underlying story here is that the U.S. insists on transmogrifying the historic roots of ethnic groups before accepting them. The price of admission into Americana, as it were, is the trivialization and commercialization of culture and history. c/s