The above Italian phrase is apparently what Italian immigrants, unfamiliar with English and its sounds, thought they heard for the Fourth of July: il forte gelato, which means something like ‘strong ice cream.’ It makes no sense, but linguistic transpositions are often like this. The foreign speaker, mispronouncing the ‘th’ sound unfamiliar to Italians, hears something, ‘fort,’ that sounds like forte in his own language and thinks it’s a cognate that’s just as crazy as the new language itself. Or perhaps, seeing lots of people eating ice cream on the Fourth of July, thought ‘forte gelato’ made some kind of new world sense.
We’re all like this in a way. We hear “Fourth of July,” and we get images of holidays from our childhoods, with red, white and blue buntings and parades with marching bands in which we may have taken part, and outings to the beach with hot dogs and beer, and of course, thrilling fireworks displays at night. With perhaps some secret stash of firecrackers to be set off sometimes days or weeks before the actual holiday, but surely that night to frighten sisters or old people on the block or to blow up cans or unfortunate insects.
All these are symbols, of course, meant to evoke the fourth day of July, Independence Day, to commemorate something having to do with men in braids and wigs and funny coats who put their “John Hancock” to some old document on that day long ago (though, as it turns out, July 4 was the day only some delegates signed, many others signing in early August of 1776). And it had something, we recall vaguely, to do with independence. American Independence. Which made all its signers liable to be hanged, for they were allegedly declaring allegiance to a politics and philosophy that was so radical it would surely bring on war with Great Britain.
Except that this is not quite the case. As history tells us, the colonies in 1776 were already at war with the British. The Boston Tea Party (May 1773) and the battles of Lexington and Concord (April 1775) had already taken place. The English King, George III, was in fact quite well aware that the colonies were fighting against British rule, and had formally declared in February 1775 that his Massachusetts colony was in a state of armed rebellion. This was then followed by the first shots of the war (the shots heard round the world) at Lexington and Concord when British troops marched from Boston to put down the rebellion. Open conflict with accompanying deaths had already started, therefore, and was well under way by June and July of 1776 when the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. So why did the leaders meet, and why did they feel such a pressing need to formally declare their Independence?
According to a new Smithsonian article by historian Larrie D. Ferreiro (smithsonianmag.com, June 28, 2017), the meeting and drafting of the Declaration was not meant to declare war at all; nor was it even addressed to the King of England. Rather, it was primarily addressed to two other monarchs, those ruling France and Spain. And the Declaration was meant to serve as a plea with those two countries to aid the American colonies in their fight against England. The situation was critical. The colonies were losing because they were fighting the greatest military power in the world and were woefully short of ammunition, gunpowder and supplies, and had no navy or artillery as the British did. As Ferreiro notes, “America needed allies—and it needed them soon.” The problem was, as American leaders well knew, France and Spain would not and could not interfere unless the rebellious colonies could show that they were more than colonies—that they were an independent nation. If that were the case, then both France and Spain would be glad to join a legitimate war against their common enemy, England. Thus the case for the Declaration of Independence. It was in essence a letter to France and Spain, saying that since “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States,” the two European powers should, and could legally, join them in their war with England. The timing, Ferreiro shows, demonstrates this: the Declaration was approved by the Congress on Thursday July 4, and a copy was placed on a fast ship to France the very next Monday to get it to both the French and Spanish governments as soon as possible, so they could act (which they soon did, with devastating effect).
With this, we see that the Declaration of Independence was not primarily an announcement of a new type of government, a new mode of being governed, a new mode of being, as we have always been taught. It was a statement that the American colonies were not simply rebels in a dispute with their colonial masters, but rather a new nation that could legitimately be aided by other nations which also were rivals to Great Britain. And what this means is that, in a way, we Americans, most of us, are as misinformed about the Declaration and its celebration as Italian immigrants who called it forte gelato—a holiday having to do with ice cream. The Declaration, that is, is not so much a declaration of the reigning principle of a new way of life, a life of total independence and freedom; it is a reassertion of a much older one. It is an assertion or rather an admission that all nations, all peoples, need aid and cooperation from other nations. An assertion that no one nation—nor, for that matter, any one individual, one family, one state, one species—can go it alone. We are all related, all interconnected, all in need of each other. No matter how glorious the language or how ringing our declarations—especially in these strange days in our republic when we have a President vowing that we are for ourselves only, that it’s America for Americans only and fuck the rest of the world—no matter. The truth is that from the very beginning of our signature document and founding declaration, the United States of America has always needed help, allies, partners in the project to make itself a new nation in a more interdependent world. And for that, we can be grateful; and celebratory; and determined that, regardless of the jingoists who shout and scream for America the One and Only, this nation, like every other nation, will always recognize its ongoing need for the mutual respect, esteem, and, yes, aid of many many others.