“This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing: Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have A Dream” speech, August 1963
Everyone in America enjoys the 4th of July. Much like all holidays of significance, the true meaning of the 4th of July has mutated into another annual tradition. It has become a day of frolicking in the first days of fair weather and plentiful sun. It’s marked with outdoor activities such as BBQs, pick-up sports games and picnicking. Copious amounts of food, beer, soda and snacks are consumed until the sun begins to fade into the welcome twilight of the evening shadows of night. That is when many Americans begin celebrating the close of a blissful day of visiting with cousins they’ve never met and playing lawn games with friends and relatives. Before the first twinkling star has a chance to breach the horizon, the sky is populated with an assortment of Chinese sky rockets, horsetails, and Roman candles. The sounds of merriment echo from sea to shining sea.
“We play our favorite American guessing game every 4th of July. Are we hearing gunshots or fireworks?”
– Arthur Oman
For as long as Americans can remember, the nation has celebrated the 4th of July with fireworks shows in public squares and lighting displays at home. But the reality is that no fireworks went off on that day, nor was there any signing ceremony. That was a month later. But the events of the 4th of that very day changed the course of history. During the sweltering heat of a tortuous summer in Pennsylvania, at the second Continental Congress, delegates from 13 colonies debated whether to adopt the Declaration or not. As the heat continued to rise, the temperatures in the room became so sweltering, it’s been said they broke every thermometer in the hall. Jefferson noted that by the evening the Declaration of Independence was approved, it concluded a battle more fiercely fought than the Revolution itself.
“The United States is the only country with a known birthday.”
– James G. Blaine
Most Americans are clueless why we shoot off fireworks on the 4th of July, and fewer remember its true significance. The answer is considered folklore. But weeks before the Declaration was signed, John Adams envisioned fireworks as a part of the festivities. In a letter he wrote to Abigail on July 3, 1776, he postulated this occasion should be celebrated “with Pomp and Parade, Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one end of this Continent to the other.”
The first recorded Independence Day fireworks were ignited in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777. That night, the skies were cloaked with ringing of bells and a grand exhibition of fireworks that included 13 sky rockets cascading across the skies above the Commons. Today,
“The 4th is when children running around with fire sticks burning at 400 degrees are supervised by intoxicated adults.”
– Milo Vance
Although founder John Adams is responsible for this monumental day being morphed into a display of fireworks, clannish carousing, mischief and merriment, much of what he wrote wife Abigail was never retold. After declaring independence, he wrote, “This marked the most memorable epoch in the history of America.” He had hoped the day would be “Celebrated by succeeding Generations, as the greatest anniversary Festival.” It should be commemorated, “as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.” Although it was two days later Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, Adams was right about the celebrations through much of our history. For us July Fourth remains a salient holiday, it no longer has the solemnity and the significance that Adams hoped it would maintain. Much of the meaning of these festivities has been shadowed by commercial enterprise and self indulgence with little thought for our true patriotism.
“Capitalists must never forget what made them Capitalists; that was American patriotism.”
– Chadwick Black
July Fourth is not only the most important day in American history, but in the world’s history also. It created the most powerful nation the world has ever known. This one Declaration legally formed a more perfect union. It announced to an “insolent world” we were assuming the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle to us as free men. Additionally it cautioned governments everywhere, they derived “their just powers solely from the consent of the people.” And when any governments became destructive of the people’s rights and liberties, the people had the authority to alter or abolish a government and institute a new one.
“Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
– Abraham Lincoln
The words our founders so carefully chose to scribe on that parchment in Philadelphia we now call our Declaration have served as an inspiration for the people of the world for centuries. They’ve been the battle cry of Colonial rebellions against imperial regimes around the globe as justification for chasing the flag of liberty to hang in their capitals and parliaments. Vietnam used these words in declaring independence from France in 1945. Ho Chi Minh cited our Declaration word for word. In Poland, Members of Solidarity and dissidents in Czechoslovakia invoked these words in opposition to Soviet subserviency in the 1980s. In Tiananmen Square in 1989, Chinese students quoted our founders to stand against government abuse. And some say activists in the Arab Spring chanted phrases from our Declaration of Independence in their rebellion for democratic liberty.
“It’s the love of country that has lighted and that keeps glowing the holy fire of patriotism.”
– Horace McFarland
For us Americans, the Declaration is the central ingredient of the combining of thirteen individual colonies in a unified body of free men emboldened with a sense of unity and of nationhood that has never been seen before. Because America is composed of many immigrants, races and ethnicities, we’ve cast aside the boundaries of separatism in favor of a brotherhood under the cloistered cloak of liberty for all. America became a nation of one identity comprised of many the day our colonies signed the Declaration. We agreed to agree on the most important ingredients that were necessary to comprise a free government of free people. We empowered the people to remain as free men in free states to control the central government and to never let it control us. July 4th is what birthed Americanism.
“The American Revolution was a beginning, not a consummation.”
– Woodrow Wilson
Even former President Barack Obama said, “We still believe in an America where anything’s possible.” Our founders christened us the first states to form a nation while others conquered states to form theirs. And our history has been an effort to continually define that nationality. We remain not a nation in traditional meaning but one reliant on collective individualism to sustain our republic. We take no orders from a central oligarchy to hold us in unison. The Declaration has embodied these ideals in its sacred creed. And this is the true significance of July 4, 1776. Each year after we hang our flags, fill our cars with camping gear and head for the highways; keep in mind what this day means to all of us. It is our patriotic duty to light our first firecracker in the name of liberty remembering what John Adams wrote,
“This is the Day to celebrate our Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.”
– John Adams
The members of the Continental Congress could only “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred Honor. There was no nation, no fatherland, nor a union; nothing but the pledge itself to honor and uphold. A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.”
– George W. Curtis