As I write this, we’re heading into the July 4 weekend, 2010. And I don’t intend to refer to it that way again.
We’re heading toward Independence Day, and that’s what we’re supposed to be celebrating. July 4 is just another day, like July 5 or Oct. 17. What gives the Fourth of July its significance is that our Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776.
It was in Philadelphia, and the signers of that document, composed by Thomas Jefferson, knew that this declaration of independence from the dictatorial rule of Great Britain might also be – literally – their death sentence.
They knew full well that the wrath and might of the British army would be sailing across the Atlantic to descend on the relatively defenseless colonies. They knew their scattered “states” didn’t have the numbers or arms or training to stand against the British, much less defeat them militarily. Yet they put their signatures – and their lives, their families, their destiny – on that parchment.
And so, against all odds, and even against reason, that Declaration told the world that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” The only importance of the fourth day of July, then, is that it marks the birth of the United States of America.
Say it again. The United States of America. The very words should send awe-filled shivers up your spine, as they do mine. Until that day, that hour, there was no United States, no nation called America. And had it not been for the incredible bravery and vision of those ordinary-seeming men, there likely never would have been.
There had never been anything like it, and the very idea seemed impossible. But most of the people living in those colonies had simply had enough of British domination, of working and virtually existing at the pleasure of a king they didn’t know and who obviously considered them his indentured servants. They wanted to be free, to make their own decisions, to govern themselves and breathe the sweet air of liberty.
So they staked their very lives, on that fourth day of July 1776, on an outrageous gamble, an impossible dream of freedom. And in the next few days, they began to taste what being free might be like.
The first celebration of American independence took place four days later in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was still meeting. The ceremony began with a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. Then, from the tower of the State House, now called Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell rang out.
The coat of arms of the king of England was taken down. And there was a parade. And cannons boomed. The people, though aware of what lay ahead, cheered! A new nation sprang to life.
That’s what this day is meant to be about.
Not just another day off work. Not just a day to have a barbecue, or a steak grilled in the back yard or a family picnic in the park. Not just an excuse to set off loads of fireworks, though all those things are fine in themselves.
John Adams, himself a signer of the Declaration, thought that Americans should henceforth celebrate a “great anniversary festival.” In a letter to his wife, Abigail, he wrote, “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 forevermore.”
So it began. The first anniversary was celebrated in Philadelphia the following year. It included the pomp and parade, the guns, bells, bonfires … and plenty of speeches emphasizing the miracle that was under way. A more elaborate celebration was held there in 1788, after the new Constitution had been ratified. Then there was a much larger parade, speeches and a dinner. During the dinner many toasts were proposed, accompanied by fanfares of trumpets and cannons. Some of the toasts were to “the People of the United States,” “General Washington” and “The Whole Family of Mankind.”
But between those two celebrations, in 1776 and 1788, there was much horrible fighting, rivers of bloodshed, the deaths and bankruptcies of many of the signers of the Declaration, families torn apart and businesses and farms destroyed. The freedoms declared by the Declaration – and ushered into fact by the Constitution – were secured at a terrible cost.
Soon, across the growing nation, at sunrise on July 4, salutes were fired and bells were rung. Flags were flown from buildings, from homes and along the streets. Shop windows were decorated with red, white and blue. Churches held special services. There were parades followed by public readings of the Declaration of Independence. National songs were sung, marches were played, speeches were made … and fervent, grateful prayers were offered to God.
What’s Independence Day like today? Do most people you know actually make time to purposely celebrate our independence in meaningful ways? Do you? Even while we’re again locked in a deadly combat on foreign soil – still involving hundreds of thousands of our finest young men and women?
What are they fighting for now? Is it anything like what motivated our Revolutionary Army? Is it “freedom from religion,” the necessity to take “under God” out of our pledge, or even to do away with it altogether? Is it the “right” to end the lives of unwanted babies, or the “right” for two men or two women to “marry”?
Or is it still the impossible dream of a nation under God, with unalienable rights endowed equally to all – among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Surely this weekend is a time for all of us who really cherish that original dream, the one for which so many have died, to individually and collectively redeclare our independence from tyranny, despotism, taxation without representation and debts that no free society should ever bear. And allegiance to the blood-bought foundation of government of, by and for the people … people who are determined to live free.