Tomorrow is the day we celebrate American independence with fireworks, picnics, and, for most of us, a day off from work. We’ll have picnics, flirt dangerously with firecrackers, see spectacular fireworks displays, and maybe, just maybe, think about the meaning of it all.
Ask the average person why this day matters, and they’ll tell you it was when our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. Well, while the document is indeed dated July 4, 1776, they had voted to sign it two days before.
And, in fact, the signatures were probably added in August. When he signed it, Benjamin Franklin supposedly said something to the effect of, “we must all hang together, or we most assuredly will all hang separately.” As we know they did hang together.
For a long time, hanging together was the American ideal. E pluribus unum meant more than some mystical Latin words, and that’s something we celebrated on the glorious Fourth.
I’m going to let you in on a secret if you are fairly young. The one thing nobody ever tells you is how quickly time passes, especially if you have a good life. Probably the biggest Fourth of July of all time was the one to celebrate the bicentennial of American independence.
There were tall ships and commemorative coins and the first-ever Space Shuttle, all of which I remember so clearly that it seems impossible to believe that was … 41 years ago.
The nation planned it for 10 years. I remember the TV anchors mentioning the countries their ancestors came from, and Barbara Walters crying triumphantly “and I’m glad they did!”
We celebrated immigrants then, instead of fearing and hating them. That Fourth of July came when this nation was recovering from the twin traumas of Vietnam and Watergate, both of which had ended less than two years before.
Americans still believed we were the last best hope of mankind, despite a losing war and a dishonest president. We saw ourselves as in a contest to persuade the world that our system was the best path to the future, not the one offered by the Soviet Union.
We still, during our nation’s bicentennial, could be inspired by the words spoken by another president when he’d taken office 15 years before that.
“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution,” John F. Kennedy told the world in his inaugural address.
“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required… not because we seek their votes but because it is right.”
That was the world the Founding Fathers wanted when they started this country, which is why they guaranteed the right of asylum to anyone persecuted for their political beliefs. They didn’t talk about “winners” and “losers.”
They thought of government by the people and for the people, and of a nation that believed in the words on the Statue of Liberty. We’ve slipped a bit from our ideals in recent years, as we have in the past. But I will think about the nation we are supposed to be.
Perhaps before long, we’ll be that country again.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.