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The meaning of 4th of July for American colonies

These Islands By Robert A Underwood

Independence Day is the greatest day in the American calendar. It is the day the English colonies declared their independence from King George and their fellow Englishmen. What does this mean in 2022 when you live in an American colony? What is the meaning of the Fourth of July to unincorporated territories today?

There are examples from history to choose from on examining the meaning of this national holiday. The most stirring was given by Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the conscience of America in the 19th century. In 1852, Douglass’ searing oration on the topic “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” still stirs the soul.

He refused to speak on July 4. The following day, he boldly answered his own question this way: “I answer a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license, your national greatness, swelling vanity …”

While slavery is no longer with us and it took a great war and a subsequent struggle of 100 years in length to deal with segregation, we are closer to ending racial injustice than in Douglass’ time. But it has not ended. At this point, the slaves and their descendants are trying to perfect the American promise made in 1776 even though it obviously did not include them. To the Founding Fathers, slavery was a matter to compromise over and did not elicit great moral outrage or courage.

A few years earlier, the other gaping hole in the original American fabric was dealt with by Elizabeth Stanton and her supporters at the first women’s rights convention. In Seneca Falls, NY, attendees signed a document titled the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which corrected the 1776 document by holding these truths that “all men and women” are created equal.

It further asserted that women had a right to be as free as men. Women should be represented in the government which they are taxed to support. Furthermore, disgraceful laws which “give men the right to chastise and imprison his wife, take the wages that she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in the case of separation, the children of her love” have to be eliminated.

Stanton characterized all of this as a form of government “without the consent of the governed.”

Subsequent activists and feminists have attempted to perfect the American democracy through struggle and protest, changing the very nature of American culture. Like slaves, there were no women at the Continental Congress. There were no Founding Mothers in 1776, but they did come later.

They didn’t just perfect the national project, they rescued it.

The other group not included in the Declaration of Independence was the native Americans. Although they were not part of the body politic as constructed by the Founding Fathers, they couldn’t be entirely ignored. They are included in the list of grievances that accompany the Declaration. The last of 27 grievances against King George III states “he has excited domestic insurrections against us, and has 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.”

The domestic insurrections refer to slave revolts and the merciless savages refer to the resistance of the natives to the constant incursions of white settlers along the Appalachian “frontier” of the time. These merciless Indians didn’t become citizens of the United States until 1924. If perfecting the union meant including the original inhabitants, it took a record of genocide, forced marches to Oklahoma, the institution of reservations and open warfare to consider them part of the body politic.

Examining the exact historical record does not tarnish the enduring, self-evident truths as we understand them today. Of course, the understanding of the Founding Fathers was far different. They fully understood the majestic nature of the principles they were advancing. They just didn’t believe that they applied to everyone. Succeeding generations have been trying to ensure their broader application.


While there are good-faith efforts to redress that matter with respect to the above groups, the unincorporated territories just sit outside the margins of the application of self-evident truths. The Declaration holds out the promise of “self-evident” equality along with “unalienable rights” granted by the creator. Among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights come by virtue of being born. They don’t have to be earned and they cannot be taken away. At least that is the theory.

Furthermore, the Declaration asserts that the protection and enjoyment of these rights are made possible through governments. What kind of governments? Democracies, where elected representatives make laws and elected executives, enforce them. These governments derive their power not from above, but from below. They provide the “consent of the governed” which legitimizes their actions.

This is the core American creed. Anything less is not just undemocratic, it is tyrannical. A right that is unalienable is a right you don’t have to earn. You don’t have to pass a test; you don’t have to measure up or grow up. You get it by being born under the flag. The government that is instituted to ensure these rights must be based on a system of democracy.

We do not live in a system in which we provide the consent of the governed. It is not enough to say that the Founding Fathers did not know about us and that the Supreme Court which gave us the Insular Cases were racists. We will just have to continue to be colonies until it self-corrects in some fashion. Congress holds plenary power over nearly every dimension of our existence. We cannot give consent to their decisions because we do not participate. In the meantime, we will just have to be satisfied with kind words and federal funds.

In the strategic competition between the United States and China, the U.S. has rediscovered the island Pacific and its own democratic core principles. Through various high-level representatives, the U.S. has gone around the Pacific neighborhood preaching self-determination and democracy. We are in that neighborhood.


Guahan has a major role in the exercise of that influence. We are the conduit for the exercise of American potential in military strength. At the same time, we sit on the sideline in discussions of sovereignty, self-determination and the full implementation of the democratic creed.

The Fourth of July reminds us of what should be, but also what isn’t. It is an ambivalent holiday for anyone who thinks deeply about the future of Guahan. Anyone who says otherwise chooses to ignore the reality of Guahan in the American nation. We are not part of the stars and stripes of the flag that governs us. We are not asked for permission to use our land. We are not granting our consent to the laws which govern us.

We are a colony by almost any definition. What to the unincorporated territory is the Fourth of July? It is the self-evident truth that American core values should be applied to the 50 states and some would argue, even around the world. That is the boast of those who argue that America is an “exceptional nation.” They contend that the Founding Fathers, divinely inspired, laid forth a vision of humanity that should apply universally.

The only exception to this exceptional vision is the collection of American conquests and purchases known as the unincorporated territories. Stop making us the exception to the rule. Most people from the unincorporated territories will pick the United States over any other nation as the better colonizer. But that doesn’t change the fact that we live in a colony. Have a thoughtful and happy Fourth of July.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to

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