Sunday, July 4, 2021

Independence Day, 2021


There is a temptation on a day like this, a national holiday, to wander off into cheap sentimentality and write about marching in the Fourth of July parade in a hot and scratchy Cub Scout uniform, or racing to eat vanilla ice cream before it melts, or family picnics, iced lemonade, cold fried chicken, and seeing who could spit watermelon seeds the farthest. Or perhaps I could delve into my storehouse of Old Soldier stories and write something simplistically flag-waving and patriotic about some poor s.o.b. I once interviewed who'd come back from one of our foreign wars. Or maybe I could even write some sort of stirring paean to “freedom,” whatever that is; for the most part, I believe that freedom is largely a semi-illusory state of mind, and not an actual human condition. As the man once said, you gotta serve somebody.


But what is it, exactly, that we Americans celebrate today? The best liquor store sales of the year? To look at the ads published this past week it would seem so. Wisconsin's incredibly lax fireworks laws? Could be. In Wisconsin you can buy almost anything, provided you pay the appropriate sales taxes and sign a little piece of paper pledging not to use whatever you bought within the borders of the state of Wisconsin. If they applied the same principle to illegal drugs they could solve their state budget deficit problem overnight. Tonight a lot of people will be sedating their dogs, because otherwise the dog will be down in the basement, trying to dig through the concrete floor in an effort to escape the barrage of illegal fireworks their neighbors will be setting off.

Or perhaps you’re a bit more historically minded, and think of this as the day the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. Except that, no, that was July 2nd. Today is merely the 245th anniversary of the day Congress finally stopped wrangling over the exact wording of the resulting Declaration and published the results.

The wrangling over that little document continues to this day. For two centuries, Americans have argued over whether Thomas Jefferson actually conceived and wrote the declaration in a fit of pure genius, or whether he was merely the committee member with the best penmanship and cribbed large parts of it from earlier documents, or whether the story of his being the sole author of the declaration was pure political hagiography cooked up during the run-up to the 1800 presidential election. A few years ago scholars using the latest technology plumbed the very fibers of the document itself to announce that one ancient mystery had at last been solved: a certain blob of ink that had long puzzled historians was revealed to be a place where Jefferson had written “subjects,” but then scratched it out and replaced it with “citizens.” Hmm

Me, I’ve decided that I’m not interested in the outtakes, or the alternate drafts, or the scribbled bits and corrections or who exactly wrote which sentence. What matters most to me is the text of the declaration as finally agreed upon and published, and today, I recommend that you find a copy and read it, preferably out loud, and in your best William Shatner voice, if that helps.

The words are powerful; almost magical. There is great mana in these words, made all the stronger by the realization that these are the words of men, not claiming to be transcribing for any god. There are radical, earth-shaking, world-changing, kingdom-toppling ideas embedded in these few hundred words.

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

All men are created equal. Just governments derive their powers solely from the consent of the governed. Powerful stuff. Heady. 

And yet no matter how many times I’ve read these words, I always seem to find something new in them. For example, this morning, this paragraph, which I’ve glossed over a hundred times before, suddenly jumped out at me and came to life.

“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

I don’t know why I always read “population” as a noun before, and failed to realize that it is used here as a verb. The Founding Fathers of this nation wanted immigrants to come here, from all over the world. They wanted foreigners to join them in helping to create this new American nation.

In this one sentence, my entire family history becomes possible. Before this moment, the American colonies were reserved for Englishmen, and such of their Scottish, Irish, and Black servants and slaves as they chose to bring over, and those few remaining Frenchies the Crown had not yet successfully expunged. Without this profoundly radical idea, my English ancestors might yet have come here, yes, but my German and Polish ancestors would not have been welcome. Certainly not my father’s grandfather, who came to this country as a toddler in the arms of his young and unwed mother, a refugee from one stupid European war or another; he and his mother would have been turned away at the door.

We are a strange people, we Americans; a bastard nation. Unlike every other nation in the world we are united not by race or religion or tribal ancestry, or even by language. We are here because we—or our ancestors of just a few generations ago—chose to come here, to become a new people, united by nothing stronger than the radical idea that all people are created equal, with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

These rights come with no guarantees. They are merely assurances of equal opportunities, not equal outcomes. But these simple opportunities are still more than most of the nations of world provide for their people.

So today, I want you to eat your picnics, and drink your beer, and light your sparklers, and have a great time celebrating the Fourth of July, whatever you deem it to be an observance of. But while you’re doing so, also take a moment to remember that not that long ago there were people who risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to provide you with opportunities. So tomorrow…

Seize them. 

—Bruce Bethke