“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. 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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
John Adams, July 3, 1776
This post is not late. It’s timed to hit when the latest Fourth of July is already fading from memory. There were brats and beers and fireworks as usual. The family and friends get-togethers happened as they always do. Everything was as it always is. And that may be the problem. The form has replaced the substance behind it. We celebrate because we’re supposed to celebrate. Children aren’t being taught what this is all about anymore. Adults aren’t generally reflecting on “the blessings of liberty.” The main focus is on food and festivity for its own sake. We’re going through the motions like automatons, without questioning why. So it is that a holiday designed to be rich in meaning has turned out to be relatively meaningless.
The Fourth of July is supposed to be a celebration of freedom and independence on two levels. Our nation is free and independent, and our citizens possess personal freedom and independence as well. I have witnessed what happens in many modern classrooms when students are given the option not to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Sitting it out becomes culturally cool. America doesn’t deserve that much of their attention. Many athletes and celebrities also choose to sit it out.
But isn’t the freedom not to say the Pledge what should get everybody on his or her feet to say it? In totalitarian countries, that choice isn’t available. You salute or you suffer. Nazis made people “Heil Hitler” whether they wanted to or not. Nobody was allowed to sit that out. Communist Russia was another regime that did not allow criticism or non-participation. Neither did Communist China under Chairman Mao. In fact, modern China does not permit dissent either. Show up in public with a protest poster, and you disappear. Maybe the sit-outs would benefit from a vacation to North Korea where a single comment against the Leader could win them a twenty year stretch of regular beatings and hard labor.
America does have problems, and it always has had problems. There has been discrimination. There has been inequality. People have suffered needlessly. But the difference between America and Iran is that this country was founded with a built-in mechanism for change. Most nations in world history haven’t had that mechanism. Their constitutions haven’t been amendable the way ours is. Their people haven’t had the power to elect their leaders the way Americans can. Their social systems have not allowed individuals to rise from nothing to high positions. America has been unique in the power it gives average people to change the way things are. And the course of American history has been the story of people making those changes, often through heroic self-sacrifice.
So in the wake of the latest grill-and-go Fourth, perhaps we should start preparing ourselves for next year. Maybe we can connect again with the best of what America was founded to be. John Adams was one of the founders. He sacrificed years and years away from his home and family to do the work of building a nation. During the Revolution, the British government wanted him dead. In his later years, Adams wrote a message to us, to the future. He said, “You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.” Let’s do that. Let’s put some substance back into the celebration.