In any year, Fourth of July celebrations are political
Not all politics are partisan — celebrating a nation’s independence is political no matter how you spin it.
Earlier this week, The Washington Post noted the high price tag for this year’s Washington, DC Fourth of July celebration, branded a “Salute to America”. Most press outlets covering this and related stories state that taxpayer money cannot be used for “political purposes”, and that the current president tends to use even the most neutral platforms for partisan means.
Yet few reports draw a distinction between “political” and “partisan”, implying that most Fourth of July celebrations are not political at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once again, we’ve failed to recognize that not all politics are national, nor are all politics partisan. As semantic as it seems, this nuance matters — the 1939 Hatch Act is generally interpreted to prohibit spending government funds on partisan political activities.
All partisanship is political, but not all politics are partisan
The top definition of “political”, per Merriam-Webster, is “of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government.” Only one of the four or five definitions mentions political parties at all; all recognize the existence of nonpartisan politics.
Beneath Merriam-Webster’s definitions for partisan, it notes the word “is actually most often used as an adjective, usually referring to support of a political party.” In the United States, many media outlets use “political” when this use of “partisan” would be more accurate.
This mix-up comes from a place of privilege. When your only engagement with politics is partisan, you’re not living with a politicized identity. Marginalized groups and those who frequently come into contact with the government have many encounters with politics that have nothing to do with political parties.
Revolutions are political, as are celebrations of those revolutions.
In my case, as a transgender person, having my gender identity recognized on my driver’s license is a political issue. It requires reconciling how the government identifies me with my self-concept, and in most states I would need a court order to make this sort of change. I did need such an order to change my name on my driver’s license.
While civil and political rights for transgender people are increasingly also partisan issues, these are realities my community and others have faced for much longer than they’ve been front and center. People who immigrated to the United States had to go through a political process to prove they should be allowed entry, and those who naturalized underwent yet another political process to prove their allegiance to the US government. Issues like these predate today’s partisan environment.
Because the Fourth of July commemorates independence from England’s government, it’s a political holiday. Revolutions are political, as are celebrations of those revolutions. Keep in mind that at most half of white colonists supported the Revolution, and the Continental Congresses were political bodies that operated as such.
The bigger picture: Social and cultural realities of the American Revolution
Beyond mere linguistics, we as a country must remember that other countries exist, and that the Continental Congresses represented a mere fraction of those in the original 13 colonies. Issues of inclusion in government were and are political, and the mere existence of the Continental Congress in a region controlled by England was political.
International politics are important, too
Trying to argue that Fourth of July celebrations aren’t political would be laughable in the United Kingdom, a country which still exists. Those of us living in the United States too often take our central position in global politics for granted. It’s too easy to forget that other countries have their own politics when even their news outlets report on our national issues.
Viewing the Fourth of July as apolitical neglects how contentious and fragile our independence was. Both within and outside the American colonies, certain groups saw those fighting for independence as essentially having a temper tantrum. The first government crafted following independence failed — leading to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Just a few decades after the Revolutionary War ended, the United States again fought British forces in the War of 1812.
Yes, we’re now over two centuries removed from these struggles, but that doesn’t stop us from celebrating the Fourth of July every year. The very least we can do is acknowledge that the United States is not the only country on Earth, and that any country’s celebration of its own independence is political.
Black Americans in the revolutionary struggle
One of the men killed in the Boston Massacre was Crispus Attucks, an African American man who escaped enslavement and became a sailor. Along with four others, he was killed by British troops in March 1770 in an event that became “a symbol of British tyranny and an important stepping stone on the road to rebellion.”
As those involved in the Continental Congresses demanded independence from England, Black Americans and abolitionists in the colonies repeatedly petitioned the Massachusetts colonial legislature for racial equality. Early petitions used religious arguments, but the colonists’ own struggle for independence offered more potent rhetoric.
In 1777, a year after the Declaration of Independence was signed, a petition noted the white colonists’ hypocrisy and referred to Black Americans’ own “natural & unalienable right to that freedom, which the great Parent of the Universe hath bestowed equally on all Mankind, & which they have never forfeited by any compact or agreement whatever.”
If you really want to go there, you can argue that those with abolitionist tendencies in the Continental Congresses compromised those values to appease the enslavers among the Congress and find “common ground”. Even this admits a political calculation was made — to forfeit the notion of a truly free nation in order to have an independent nation at all. The politics were even more complex than this, as Jefferson himself enslaved people (and repeatedly raped teenager Sally Hemings) while he recognized the cruelty and injustice people like him inflicted.
Descendants of early Black abolitionists certainly exist within the United States today, among the descendants of those who survived the Middle Passage more generally. Their ancestors’ exclusion from the early Republic, and the prominence of their ancestors’ abusers in the Continental Congress, makes celebrating the Fourth of July complicated — and yes, absolutely political — for Black Americans today.
The post-revolutionary colonization of the United States
The genocide that began with Columbus’ 1492 landing on Hispaniola did not magically cease when the Declaration of Independence was signed. In fact, the Declaration itself listed among its complaints that King George III had “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
It’s also true that “a disproportionate number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on or near the 4th of July and are often the social highlights of the year.” When tribes were prohibited from conducting their own spiritual ceremonies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some were allowed to conduct ceremonies on the Fourth of July because of the date’s patriotic connections.
With this frame, Fourth of July celebrations are overtly political. At the height of our attempts to eradicate indigenous cultures, some governments allowed prohibited elements of such cultures to exist on a single day each year. Without some connection to the United States government, these ceremonies were illegal; with a symbolic connection that “proved” allegiance to the overall nation, they were conditionally acceptable.
Another nation which began as a British settler colony, Australia, recently began to grapple with this issue. A conversation has arisen around their own national day, Australia Day, because it’s celebrated on the anniversary of the colony’s founding (though date only became consistent a few decades ago). Indigenous people in Australia feel this excludes them from Australia Day celebrations, as the date represents the beginning of the end of Aboriginal self-governance. It’s not a direct parallel to the Fourth of July in the United States, but it’s the closest they have — and it’s clearly a political issue there.
Especially on this topic, precise language is vital. This year’s celebration differs from prior years’ in key ways, but it is no more or less political. It is more partisan, and this is where the presidential administration may run into legal trouble. This all depends on the full contents of his speech — and whether praising the military is neutral in an increasingly partisan political atmosphere.
Differentiating partisanship from politics as a whole gives space to marginalized people and those with nonpartisan political issues. The conflation of “partisan” and “political” leads to confusion around phrases like “the personal is political,” a popular feminist slogan. It doesn’t mean that personal issues are always partisan, though they often are. It means the government can and does insert itself into personal issues, and it has since its earliest days.
Using government funds for Washington, DC’s Fourth of July celebration is, by definition, spending taxpayer money for political purposes. Some taxpayers would probably rather their money be spent on issues they see as more important in any given year. Moreover, the United States’ very existence is political; who counted as part of the United States on July 4, 1776 was political; and Anglo cultural dominance in the United States is political.