Daily Visual 02.07.15: A U.S. Political History Roundup


2 July marks one of the most pivotal days in American and world history: a day of crucial occurrences with regard to the independence of the United States, the onset of the Cold War, and the establishment of civil rights.

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The Second Continental Congress – following on from the first, which had met between 5 September and 26 October 1774 – was a convention of delegates from the Thirteen Colonies. It began meeting from 10 May 1775, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Georgia, the only colony which had not participated in the First Continental Congress, began sending delegates in July. With the American War of Independence having begun the previous month, the Congress organised the colonies’ war effort, and quickly established the Continental Army under the command of George Washington. The Congress was also responsible for the colonies’ collective international relations, as they sought to free themselves from British rule.

Across May and June of 1776, the Congress increasingly moved towards a declaration of independence. This was stalled as delegates sought the support of their home states. Meanwhile Congress formed a committee with the intention of drafting a formal declaration: John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut were made responsible, with Jefferson elected to be the document’s primary author.

Congress finally approved a resolution of independence, which had been tabled almost a month earlier by Richard Henry Lee, on 2 July 1776. John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on 3 July regarding the resolution:

‘The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.’

However 2 July would be superseded by 4 July, the date upon which Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was approved and issued. From as early as the following year, Americans began commemorating and celebrating their independence on 4 July.

Resolution of Independence
The resolution of independence approved on 2 July 1776. The date is in the middle of the lower half of the page; the marks to one side indicate the twelve colonies that voted for independence. The thirteenth, New York, provisionally abstained.

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The Marshall Plan was an American initiative, devised to offer financial aid to the damaged economies of Europe in the aftermath of World War II.  The broad outline of the plan was proposed by United States Secretary of State George Marshall on 5 June 1947, in an address to the graduating class of Harvard University. Marshall stated:

‘It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is not directed against any country, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Any government that is willing to assist in recovery will find full co-operation on the part of the USA. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.’

Commencing from the beginning of April 1948 and lasting for a duration of four years, the Marshall Plan would see the United States provide $13 billion in economic support to a total of eighteen European countries, with the United Kingdom (26%), France (18%), and West Germany (11%) the leading beneficiaries.

The United States had been involved in talks regarding European regeneration with Britain, France, and the Soviet Union across the early months of 1947; and Marshall’s speech gestured towards the inclusion of the Soviet Union, even though it was doubtful that Joseph Stalin would accept aid, or that the United States Congress would agree to send aid to the Soviets. On the other hand this was just months after the birth of the Truman Doctrine, the foundational American foreign policy which – depicted as an endeavour to support ‘free people’ against ‘totalitarian regimes’ – effectively meant to halt the spread of communism. The Truman Doctrine had been announced to Congress by President Harry S. Truman on 12 March 1947.

Following Marshall’s speech, the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault planned for talks in Paris. They invited the Soviets, and Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov attended the ‘Three-Power Conference’ from 27 June.

On 2 July 1947, Molotov reportedly walked out on the meeting with British and French representatives. He released a statement the same day rejecting the Marshall Plan. In Molotov’s words:

‘The Soviet Government, considering that the Anglo-French plan to set up a special organization for the coordination of the economies of European states would lead to interference in the internal affairs of European countries, particularly those which have the greatest need for outside aid, and believing that this can only complicate relations between the countries of Europe and hamper their cooperation, rejects this plan as being altogether unsatisfactory and incapable of yielding any positive results.’

Molotov was especially critical of the ‘Steering Committee’ envisioned by the Americans, British, and French as necessary to guide the allocation and utilisation of funds. He and the Soviet leadership saw the Marshall Plan as an attempt to control Europe rather than aid its recovery, casting the plan as a barrier to peace and unity. The Soviet Union ensured that the countries of Eastern Europe – including Poland and East Germany, in what would become known as the Eastern Bloc – rejected any engagement with the Marshall Plan.

Marshall Plan
Three cartoons depicting perspectives and propaganda on the Marshall Plan.

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Significantly in response to the African-American Civil Rights Movement, on 11 June 1963, President John F. Kennedy had taken to the radio for an address to the American people on the subject of civil rights. Kennedy said:

‘Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops.

It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.

It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case.’

Kennedy promised legislation to right these wrongs; and in fact earlier that day, he had met with Republican leaders to discuss precisely such legislation. When several Republicans objected to any guarantee on equal access to public places, Kennedy ignored their proposed revisions and sent to Congress his original bill. It passed through the House Judiciary Committee, which in fact strengthened the bill; but in October 1963, it was halted by the powerful Rules Committee, chaired by Howard W. Smith, a Democrat and segregationist from Virginia.

Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963. His successor, President Lyndon Johnson, at once made his civil rights bill a priority. He managed to drag it from the grasp of the Rules Committee, and it came before the Senate on 30 March 1964. But a bloc of nineteen southern senators – eighteen Democrats and one Republican, with the figurehead the South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond – immediately launched a filibuster which lasted for fifty-four days. In an attempt to end the filibuster, a modified – but not grossly weakened – substitute bill was introduced, and by 19 June it had gained sufficient support to pass in the Senate by a vote of 73-27. 

The bill soon passed through a House-Senate conference committee; and it was signed into law by President Johnson on 2 July 1964, in a ceremony televised nationwide from the White House. Hundreds of guests were invited to attend, with Martin Luther King, Jr. prominent among those present.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or nationality in employment and education; demanded that voting regulations be applied equally across races; and outlawed segregation in schools, workplaces, and ‘public accommodations’ from buses and parks to swimming pools. However, at first, there were few powers in place to ensure that the act was enforced. It was resisted throughout the next decade by business owners and school boards in the south.

The act had lasting repercussions for the shape of American politics, not least because – despite the protestations of the Democratic senators – the bill’s passage under a Democratic President impelled the south’s shift away from the Democrats and towards the Republican Party. The act would pave the way for other legislation on equal rights, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and further the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Lyndon King
President Lyndon Johnson shaking the hand of Martin Luther King, Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.