July 4, 2019

It is an occasion worthy of a national celebration. The date at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence is July 4, 1776, 243 years ago. The date does not tell the entire story. It was actually July 2nd that the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence. The delegates from the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence two days later on July 4. The day has been celebrated ever since as the anniversary of American independence.

Our mode of celebration, with parades, fireworks, concerts and picnics is more the product of the 20th century than the 18th century. The official designation of July 4 as a federal holiday in the United States dates only to 1941. Prior to that the holiday was more informal and based in individual communities and families. Popular ways of acknowledging the holiday in the early days included bonfires, the firing of cannons and muskets and public readings of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington issued double rations of rum to his soldiers in 1778 and again in 1781.

John Adams, one of the five people appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence, believed that the correct date for the celebration of the birth of American independence was July 2. Throughout his life, he turned down invitations to appear at July 4 events in protest of what he saw as the wrong choice of dates.

Regardless of your opinion about the date for the celebration, a debate that seems moot in the light of present traditions and the existence of the official federal holiday, the document that was drafted is indeed remarkable and worthy of our attention.

The committee appointed to draft the document was made up of Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert Livingston of New York. Most historians agree that the actual document was largely written by Jefferson.

I’ve been thinking about appropriate ways to celebrate the holiday this year. Our family got together for a summer visit before the holiday, the dates chosen so that we could take our grandchildren to grand camp. So our house is empty today - just the two of us. As I age, I find that I am a bit less enthusiastic about crowds and am less inclined to attend parades and other gatherings. We’ll cook outdoors and have a good meal, but that is often the case in our household in the summer. We are taking a day off from the usual routines of work, but household chores will beckon and we’ve plenty to do.

I might tune in to the “A Capitol Fourth” concert on PBS that airs at 6 pm in our time zone. I’m not too impressed with what I have so far read about the Washington DC parade and military flyover. I know that President Trump has wanted a huge military parade, in part inspired by such events in other countries, but I associate such events with countries with less democratic governments. Images of Soviet-era May Day parades come to my mind. Furthermore, it has long been the case that the official government and military leaders fail to understand that the next war will be significantly different from the previous war. Displaying the weapons of former times have little bearing on present threats. Tanks, ships and airplanes are the weapons of former times. A cyber war, with attacks on the stock market, power grid, communications and banking will have a distinctly different set of tools. We’ve already seen an attack on the process of free and fair elections. The attackers didn’t use tanks or airplanes. Enemies are far more difficult to identify in the warfare of the 21st century than was the case a century ago.

It’s hard to make a parade out of the defensive weapons of the 21st century.

I’m not too impressed by the official parade and ceremonies this year.

I did begin my morning by re-reading the Declaration of Independence. It is good to remember the words that inspired a nation to rise up and form itself from under the oppressions of European colonization.

For whatever reason, I never memorized the beginning of the Declaration in the same way that I memorized the preamble to the Constitution. The declaration begins with a long run-on sentence that makes up an entire paragraph:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

That’s a mouthful!

The next line is the one we all memorized: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Of course the founders of our nation were human. They held lofty ideals, and they also failed to live up to those ideals. The writers of the declaration were themselves slaveholders. They failed personally to acknowledge the truth of their words, “that all men are created equal.” We continue to struggle with equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nonetheless the ideals set forth by our founding documents are worthy of our attention. The fact that we still struggle to make the words come true in our common life is a sign that there is still work to do.

Laying aside the long list of complaints against the King which makeup the substance of the declaration, I am once again struck by the ending of the document: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

You don’t see politicians risking their personal fortunes these days. Getting elected seems to be a pretty good way of increasing one’s fortunes. And political leaders have always been more willing to risk the lives of young soldiers than their own. As to sacred honor, I’ll leave it to Divine Providence to judge the genuineness of commitment.

Happy Birthday to our country! It is a day worthy of our recognition and contemplation of the ideals, some of which remain unachieved, with which we were founded.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!