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Political Fireworks: On Independence Day’s Machiavellian Roots

Nomi Claire Lazar—

“The Second Day of July 1776, 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…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.” —John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776 

Here comes the 4th of July and Americans, newly vaccinated, are emerging from fifteen months of seclusion. Events in the course of that seclusion showed both democracy’s precarity and its seeming resilience. What’s more, Biden’s proclamation of a new Federal Holiday marking Juneteenth—the day in 1865 that news of emancipation reached enslaved people in Texas—has reinvigorated necessary conversations around what it means to build and celebrate freedom together. For all these reasons, Independence Day 2021, may be uniquely reflective. 

This substantive reflection is critical. But beyond substance, public holidays, as a medium of political communication, are fascinating technologies worthy of reflection in their own right. Shall we consider how they work?

As vehicles for political messaging, public holidays have deep historical roots. Romans celebrated imperial family birthdays with leisure breaks and public games. Medieval monarchs from Songhay to China commemorated victories and birthdays. And since 1748, British monarchs’ birthdays have been marked by a military parade.   

Such celebrations reinforced legitimacy because, especially in early modern Europe, a monarch’s physical person was closely bound up with the state. To celebrate one was to celebrate both. And legitimacy in Rome, Asia, and imperial West Africa relied partly on aspects of leaders’ character that such celebrations could showcase—filial piety, power, munificence, mercy.   

America’s founders faced the challenge of decoupling monarchy’s sacred personhood from the state, so that powers could sit with offices, not people. To communicate and reinforce new kinds of legitimacy would require celebrating a different kind of birth: Independence Day celebrates the birth of a body politic, and of no body proper. July 4th, marked informally with speeches, fireworks, and parties since 1776, became a paid public holiday in 1941. 

But this raises a fraught question: when does a body politic become? Why choose the date of the Declaration of Independence’s ratification, rather than its signing, as John Adams advocated? Why not choose September 17th, when the constitution was signed? Or March 4th, when it came into force? The communications strategist may note that across much of the 13 colonies, July makes for fine party weather. But there is more at work here.  

Designating a nation’s birthday is designating that feature essential to a nation’s identity, that date before which there was no such entity, and on the latter side of which there was. Evidently, there is no objectively correct birthdate, and such decisions are political. 

We should thus expect that at moments of political fracture, when citizens contest the state’s identity and core purpose, birthdates will come under the microscope. For example, whole clauses of the preamble to Hungary’s recent populist constitution raise and debate the salience of this date or that. It is evident too in the power of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, and Trump’s felt need for a 1776 response. Political engagement around dates is fraught precisely because, in questioning the temporal frames through which we understand ourselves, we question the salience of a nation’s defining values, the nation’s self-definition.  

Beyond communicating and promoting consensus around identity, public holidays are also technologies for its perpetuation. Five centuries ago, Machiavelli argued that for a state to last, peoples’ attention must be regularly drawn back to original principles. If some external attack did not bring this about by chance, a political leader had to engineer it. He called this “resuming the government.” Machiavelli’s example, true to type, was how effectively Cesare Borgia re-focused attention on his power by halving a ruthless henchman, whose two-part corpse greeted denizens in the town square. If the pun is not too sharp, Machiavelli had a point. Polities are apt to experience a certain natural entropy, and benefit from regular, powerful opportunities for communal refocus. In the American context, this means rehearsal of public values, and public holidays execute this function so effectively for three reasons.  

First, holidays, once inscribed in a calendar, automate “resuming the government.” Once a festival date is chosen, the calendar brings it again and again with no further need for political intervention. Better still, because calendars mark seasons, this annual symbolic communication becomes embedded in nature’s own rhythms. Celebrating Independence Day feels, at least in normal times, as natural as summer. Entrenched, invisible power certainly has its advantages in securing the status quo.  

Second, public holidays are effective because their symbolic communication is profound. For there is another temporal arc superimposed on nature’s rhythms alongside festival recurrence: the arc of individual lives. While pointing this out will hardly make me the life of the party, annual celebrations exist in part to ward off the ultimate temporal problem of death.  

Collectively, we know Januaries follow in endless succession, but individually, we each face our ultimate January. This fact renders every other temporal fact emergent. Most cultures have managed its terror by superimposing the linearity of individual lives onto broader life cycles. We celebrate rituals around birth, coming of age, marriage, etc, to engineer points of temporal confluence among our short individual lives, grand collective narratives, and the epic cycles of nature. National holidays, marked by annual traditions and modes of collective observance, serve this function too. Then, individual and national narratives intersect, and when we hitch a ride on these larger temporal arcs, our lives feel bigger, deeper. Critically, we feel less mortal. Propaganda and patriotism are balm for our most profound human fears.  

Leisure is a third and final feature, which renders public holidays a particularly effective political technology. Historically, when political leaders have attempted calendar reforms, the relative work / leisure ratio seems correlated with success. Stalin’s five day week had fewer rest days, and it failed. And, is it not striking that (outside the US) the decimal system took over nearly every kind of measurement except time? This makes sense if we note the French Revolutionary Calendar’s decimal week reduced leisure too. 

No wonder national holidays are ubiquitous. Like a flag or an anthem, they have become the very marks of nationhood. The fact is, it’s hard to argue with a nice day off, and even the most delicious propaganda tastes better washed down with a cold beer. 

Nomi Claire Lazar is Professor of Politics in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, Canada. She tweets at @nomiclairelazar.

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