After my traditional yearly reading of the Declaration of Independence, whose birthday we observed Monday evening, I moved on to a collection of correspondence between John Adams and his wife Abigail.
Reading of Mr. Adams’ thoughts the very day before he signed his name to the document that represented the final straw in the colonies ongoing dispute with “Mother England” one paragraph in particular leaped out from the page:
“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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
Well, I can’t say there was much in the way of “solemn acts of devotion” but there was plenty of pomp, parade, games and illuminations. We held off on the guns and bonfires though with the burn ban and all. No need to go overboard. Freedom without responsibility is chaos.
But as I watched the explosions in the sky and listened to Jimi Hendrix’s soul-stirring rendition of the national anthem, I thought about how far we’ve come as a nation over these last 235 years. I imagine the collection of men who crowded into “Independence Hall” during the summer of 1776, of what their vision for this country might be and how much it matches our present nation.
Our founding fathers were a band of pompous land-owning aristocrats, most of them either gentlemen farmers or lawyers, intoxicated by the liberalism of John Locke and the republicanism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The document they crafted is both an assertion of the values for which the American Revolution was being fought, as well as a formal indictment against the abuses of King George III. It is a work of unqualified genius, owing much to its English predecessor (which ended the tyranny of King James II) and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, of which Thomas Jefferson was the primary author.
Despite the iconography of our nation’s collective unconscious, the adoption and signing of the Declaration was hardly gilded occasion. There was no great fanfare or ceremony. In fact, many of the signers were not even present but added their names later, some even a month after the fact. After being completed and sent across the sea, it was quickly pushed aside.
The only fireworks observed on our nation’s first “Fourth of July” was the artillery fire of the ongoing Revolutionary War.
235 years is a long time, maybe not so compared to other countries, but our little experiment in democracy is certainly showing some signs of wear and tear. Our ancestors in Europe and the Mediterranean might be quick to “tsk tsk” the issues this country faces, were it not for their own set of troubling foreign and domestic entanglements.
I am an amateur student of genealogy, especially that or my own family line, and I’ve done some considerable research into the exploits and tragedies that befell my forebears. One truth that has emerged in tracing backward in time is that age needn’t celebrate nor condemn a people.
The framers of our nation require no special veneration for what they accomplished, except that we take it as an encouragement for what we too must aspire. As we have received a great inheritance, still must we press on and achieve our own legacy to bequeath to our posterity. To whom much is given, much is expected.
We cannot rest upon the laurels of our bygone days, for this land can still have a brighter future. The great burden of our birth in this “land of the free and home of the brave” is that our blessings were meant to be cultivated further, developed, and carried into the future.
Let us ever strive to fulfill the promise of what began on that very first Fourth of July, in the year of our Lord 1776.