What the Fourth of July Really Means
But the true meaning of the Fourth too often forgotten is what we are really celebrating: the freedom to do all this.
After some of the worst June weather in memory in my part of the country (rain, rain, and more rain plus a three-day Nor’easter) another July 4th is upon us. For the cities and towns that can still afford it there will be fireworks, and other celebrations that Americans traditionally engage in at this time of year: picnics, family gatherings, parades, band concerts, bicycles, children, real family time, cookouts, boating, and the freedom to just lie back and enjoy a good summer holiday. It’s a grand time of year.
In the Cape Cod town of Falmouth, Massachusetts our annual celebration of the Fourth takes place from a barge off a crowded beach with a great fireworks show set to patriotic music that blares over loudspeakers. Falmouth could easily be a microcosm of the rest of the nation.
But the true meaning of the Fourth too often forgotten is what we are really celebrating: the freedom to do all this. It was the persecution of Mother England and taxation without representation that brought us this day. The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, Concord and Lexington are all living symbols of the shots heard around the world, as is the great poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 that became the lyrics for our national anthem. New Englanders still celebrate the recreation of Lexington and Concord, the marching of the Red Coats against the American militia in what is one of the great traditions of this nation.
Our fledging country was started with one idea: that all men are created equal. This concept was novel to the English who had class distinctions, indentured servants, and slavery, conditions we no longer experience but all too often take their absence for granted. These are the fabric that formed the tapestry of the American people and are essential parts of our national DNA. I believe it is essential that we remember and honor the sacrifice of those first courageous pioneers who came to this country seeking a better life. There were no guarantees they would survive, create families, towns and colonies which banded together to form communities who helped each other with barn raisings, crop harvests, fishing and hunting endeavors and created centers of learning and arts.
Nevertheless, these hardy pioneers enjoyed life even though their lives were harsh. They had family get-togethers, community concerts, book clubs, church activities, dinners and dances. Above all there was a great feeling of community. We would do well to learn their lessons and emulate this feeling of family and community. In this modern age our lives are so ordered and structured with technology and timetables that we too often lose sight of the real meaning of Independence Day.
As I was writing this piece, across my desk came a reminder that our sense of community is not dead. From the small town of Hyde Park, Vermont comes a story that serves as an example of what community spirit is all about.
On June 20 a young soldier, U.S. Army PFC Andrew Parker, was given a hero’s welcome. Badly wounded and paralyzed from the waist down by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, he had just returned from more than six months of hospitalization. The citizens of Hyde Park held a parade for him that spanned two towns. The roadside was festooned with posters, flags, cheering crowds and saluting policemen. Some wept as the flatbed trailer carrying him in a wheelchair passed by. But what made this day even more remarkable was what the townspeople did for Parker. In a state hard-hit by the down economy, whose citizens live by modest means, volunteers not only banded together to remodel his parent’s home to accommodate his wheelchair but also presented the family with a check for $100,000 to pay for it. Yet, the generosity did not stop there. Both nearby Norwich University and Johnson State College have offered Parker free tuition to enable him to attain his goal of becoming a history teacher. This is a wonderful example of the sort of community spirit practiced by our forefathers. You can view of video of Andrew Parker’s homecoming by clicking here.
Our forefathers worked long and hard on our constitution, modeling parts of it after Native American confederations. In the early days of America women were not allowed to handle money and were solely dependent on men for everything. Yet it was a feisty New England patriot named Mercy Otis Warren who played a key role in the shaping of our Bill of Rights. She wrote a series of anti-British plays that helped ignite the events that took place in 1775 at Concord and Lexington.
As her biographer, Nancy Rubin Stuart, notes: “during the early years of young America, Mercy became so alarmed about those who forgot the original purpose of the revolution – thrift, honesty and fair treatment for all – that she penned an influential treatise, “Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions,” which pleaded for a Bill of Rights attached to the U.S. Constitution. While George Mason and James Madison are frequently credited with creation of the Bill of Rights, many of Mercy’s suggestions – including freedom of speech and of the press, civil trials by jury, respect for states’ rights and the voice of the people – had appeared in her treatise . . .” (Nancy Rubin Stuart, “Mercy Otis Warren,” The Barnstable Patriot)
Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Iran in 2009 are powerful examples of the absence of human rights. In Iran men and women are dying for these rights, rights that are brutally suppressed by a theocratic dictatorship that rigs elections in order to maintain a crushing hold over its populace.
So, this Fourth of July I hope everyone will stop – even if for only a moment – to reflect on the freedom we enjoy, a freedom that others who came before us earned the hard way for a cause they believed was worth the heavy price it cost.
The Union created by our forefathers is far from perfect and has had to grow and evolve, yet despite its flaws we have more than two hundred years of reasons to be thankful for what we have. One only has to look at Myanmar, Iran or North Korea for why we should count our blessings.
Carlo D’Este is a member of the ACG Advisory Board. His latest book is WARLORD, an acclaimed military biography of Winston Churchill.