This is for my grandson, Ira, who asked, with something of a sneer in his voice, “What is Fourth of July supposed to be for?”
There’s a strain of thought in our society that cynically dismisses the United States as the source all the evils in the world. These people, some of whom I’m sure Ira has heard talk, point rightfully to a host of things that this nation has gotten wrong in the past 241 years.
As a nation, we’ve been pretty awful in several respects: slavery, the displacement of Native Americans, a successful war of conquest in Mexico and an unsuccessful invasion (or two) of Canada. Then there are more recent things that aren’t exactly the stuff to put into the scrapbook.
But here’s the deal. When the fifty-six delegates signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, they weren’t claiming to be perfect. Read through the document and you won’t find anywhere where it says that we wouldn’t mess up. What Jefferson and company did claim was the right to determine their own destinies. In soaring language, they said that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.
Sure, we’ve been figuring out over those years exactly what all people being equal means, but let’s recognize that even the very limited idea–all white men (not women) were equal–was revolutionary in the nations of their day. Sure, the wags of the Enlightenment talked in those terms, but nobody actually tried to act on it.
Our forebears acted on it. We did it imperfectly, but we did it. On July 4, 1776, a teetering little nation reared its head against the greatest power on earth and said, “Enough! We’re in charge of our own destiny!”
July 4 commemorates a revolution that stuck. We didn’t, like France a few years later, start guillotining everyone in sight. We didn’t, like Russia in 1917 and beyond, begin murdering hundreds before moving on to thousands and then millions. We move through parties and philosophies and presidents and problems, usually without resorting to bloodshed. And when 620,000 lives were extinguished in an effort to maintain the union and end slavery, when at the very moment of triumph the president was murdered, our level of retribution was exceptionally measured. Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis died of natural causes, a free man in New Orleans.
So those who hate the country that gives them a constitutionally guaranteed right to put on Guy Fawkes masks and chant whatever they’re chanting today can have their say. I say they’re ignorant and childish, but I’ll stand to defend their right to be ignorant and childish. I’d ask them to return the favor.
The Fourth of July? It’s not about the United States of America being a perfect place. It’s about it being a place where people are allowed to make their best efforts to succeed or fail. It’s about us continuing to listen to and learn from one another. It’s about a place on earth where people can worship or not worship how they please. It’s about a nation that seems capable of surviving its own worst sins, coming out breathing on the other side.
That, Ira, is what Fourth of July is all about. Isn’t it appropriate that we celebrate it by blowing things up?