Although yesterday (Sunday) was officially Independence Day in the United States, it is being observed today so that people can enjoy a day off from work. Most countries around the world celebrate a day that recognizes the moment in history that they became a nation. Although the U.S. recognizes the Fourth of July as its Independence Day, the 4th was not the day that the colonies became a nation. Rather it was the day, in 1776, when the thirteen colonies declared their independence from England. There was still a revolution to fight, a period of confederation to stumble through, and an acceptable Constitution to draft. On 17 September 1787, the Constitution of the United States of America was finally signed by 39 delegates. Even then, the Constitution needed to be adopted and elections held. The final piece of the puzzle was put in place on 30 April 1789 when George Washington was sworn in as America’s first president. The Fourth of July, however, was the first step in the long road that culminated in Washington’s assumption of the presidency.
The document that was read that on that historic day, the Declaration of Independence, provided a tangible statement of ideas that helped propel the cause of independence forward. Foremost among those ideas were those contained in this statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It would take a Civil War and decades of struggle for civil rights before the “self-evident” truth of equality was actually enthroned as guiding principle in America.
Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s principal author, lamented the fact that Americans and Britons were being divided by politics. Peggy Noonan points out that Jefferson was stung by some of the changes that delegates made to his words [“A Cold Man’s Warm Words,” Wall Street Journal, 2 July 2010]. She writes:
“Members of the Congress read and reread, and the cutting commenced. … Jefferson looked on in silence. [Historian David] McCullough notes that there is no record that he uttered a word in protest or in defense of what he’d written. … But one cut near the end was substantial, and its removal wounded Jefferson, who was right to be wounded, for some of those words should have stayed … for they are the tenderest words. Poignantly, with a plaintive sound, Jefferson addresses and gives voice to the human pain of parting: ‘We might have been a free and great people together.’ What loss there is in those words, what humanity, and what realism, too.”
Noonan goes on to write: “America and Britain did become great and free peoples together, and apart, bound by a special relationship our political leaders don’t often speak of and should never let fade. You can’t have enough old friends.” Sometimes we forget that friendships can be maintained, even if differences exist. Politics remain divisive in these “United” States; with states are often characterized as being blue, red, or purple depending on their political leanings. On this day, however, we celebrate what it means to be united and express gratitude for those who came before us — those “old friends” who laid the foundation of the freedoms we now enjoy.
Just as on St. Patrick’s Day, when everyone gets to claim a bit of the Irish, on this day people around the world can claim a bit of Americana and celebrate the fact that men and women of good will can live together in peace and freedom. That we don’t is truly a tragedy. One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Paine, wrote, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” Today, however, fatigue gives way to celebration.
Although the country was founded in revolution and kept together through a bloody civil war, I like what the late humorist Erma Bombeck wrote about Independence Day:
“You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.”
On this Independence Day, I hope that you and your family get to pursue some of the happiness which Thomas Jefferson wrote about in 1776.