John Adams imagined that America would always celebrate July 1776 as the beginning point of American freedom, but he was off a few days. “The Second Day of July 1776,” he wrote, “will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.” If Adams was mistaken on the exact date, he was prescient concerning the celebrations. “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.” Witnessing the pompous proceedings that surround Independence day—especially here in Utah County—reminds me that Adams was certainly at least half-right.
But Adams underestimated the power of the written document. July 2nd, the date that Adams felt would be celebrated, was when the Second Continental Congress declared independence from Britain. But it was July 4th that Congress ratified Thomas Jefferson’s document that spelled out that declaration—after much revision, Jefferson was oft to remind anyone who would listen. America chose to celebrate the written, not the oral, announcement of independence. Adams would always regret this decision; had he known the importance that would be attached to the document, he certainly wouldn’t have passed off the responsibility to Jefferson. Adams was bitter about a lot of things later in life, especially his role in America’s collective memory, but the debate over America’s birth was near the top of his bitterness.
Indeed, the Declaration of Independence as a text continued to have a significant role in American culture, as Pauline Maier demonstrated decades ago. Various groups and movements invoked the document in their own pleas for rights and progress. When Mormons fought over their American-ness, they too took part in this tradition. What follows was an anonymous editorial—most certainly written by Parley Pratt—that exemplifies how Mormons interpreted and framed their experiences in a way that placed them in the lineage of Thomas Jefferson and the other American Founders, thereby validating their reaction to perceived vigilantism and mobocracy. It was published in the March 1845 issue of The Prophet, the Saints’ New York periodical.
American Independence Declared Over Again; with Amendments to suit the times
When in the course of the divine economy it becomes necessary for one people to seperate themselves from the religious and political fellowship which has once bound them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth that just and equal standing to which God and nature has designed them, a decent respect for the opinions of others would seem to require them to show the causes which impel them to show the causes which impel them to seperation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that the “Mormons,” in common with all others, are possessed of certain inaleniable rights; among which, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, including the right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; and in short, to believe and teach that which in their judgment appears to be true and reasonable.
These rights are guaranteed to them in common with all American citizens, by the sacred constitution, and laws of the general and State governments.
All the officers of which are bound by the most solemn and sacred oaths to render equal justice and protection to every citizen.
With these self-evident facts before their eyes, the rulers and people of these United States have utterly refused, and entirely neglected to protect the mormons in their rights; and have thus violated every sacred principle of their laws and constitution, without the least regard to justice, honor or even the oath of office…
Think of it—O ye free born sons of American liberty!…
Think of it, O man! A nation turned pirates, robbers, and murderers!
Rulers, people, priests and religionists, verily guilty of the crime of murdering men, women, and children, and of robbing, plundering, and driving a people who are their own citizens and kindred, and only differ from others in faith and worship.
In all these proceedings, Americans have utterly made void the most sacred constitutions, laws, and charters made by themselves.
They have openly disregarded the most solemn oaths of office.
They have destroyed the liberty won by the sweat, blood, tears and prayers of their ancestors.
They have trampled under foot all that was dear and sacred to humanity.
They have become the open and avowed enemies of their country, and of all the rights of man both human and divine.
They are drunken with the blood of the Saints, with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.
In short, they have forfeited all claim to the political and religious fellowship of their fellowmen, and even to the mercy of God; being like Judas, guilty of betraying and ofshedding the blood of the innocent.
We, therefore, withdraw entirely from all fellowship, whether political or religious, with any of the rulers, priests, or people who are thus manifestly guilty of murder, treason, and other crimes.
And we hereby solemnly declare that Mormons and all other good citizens are, and by right out to be free and independent of such outlaws; and trusting to the protection of heaven, as well as to the justice and virtue of our course, we shall esteem all such rulers, priests, and people, from this time forth and forever, as we esteem all other pirates, robbers, and murderers; enemies in war, and in peace snakes in the grass. And whether in peace or war, doomed to the just and speedy vengeance of a righteous God, who, before many days, will visit this nation with thunder and with earthquake, and with a great noise, and with storm and tempest and flame of devouring fire. And when it comes remember what it is for, for we have told you before it is fulfilled.