The Fourth of July.
My mind drifts back to my childhood where my family and I sat in thatched folding chairs, eating barbeque, and spitting watermelon seeds while the blistering Oklahoma sun beat down on us unmercifully. My brother and I would take our green army men and blow them up with fireworks before watching the local fireworks show in awe.
There have actually been several momentous occasions happen for me personally on this national holiday. When I was 11, my mom and dad split up on the Fourth. In 2009, my wife and I returned to the U.S. from our honeymoon in Jamaica. The airport staff jokingly harassed a British Airlines flight that was just arriving. In 2011, I celebrated the Fourth by playing volleyball and eating barbequed goat on the shore of Lake Victoria in Uganda.
Every year I stop and ponder the purpose of Independence Day. Why do we take a day to remember a bold declaration written and approved by a group of rebellious colonials residing in North America over two hundred years ago? Is it to celebrate the founding of our country? I think this is part of the reason, but there is much more to it.
I celebrate the Fourth of July because of the ideals espoused in that declaration. In 1776, American intellectuals, merchants, tradesmen, and farmers declared independence for all men from all forms of tyranny and despotism. They argued that all men are entitled to certain rights that no one can take away, including the government. The purpose of government, in their opinion, was to protect these rights, and if the government failed to fulfill their duty, it was justifiable to form a new one.
Now of course this was not a perfect statement of egalitarianism and freedom. When the Founders said “All men [were} created equal”, they disagreed about what that meant. Over the years it became clear that Native Americans, African Americans, women, homosexuals, and many other minority groups were not covered under this statement. Since 1776, there has been slow, but marked progress in this area. Each increase in political equality has served as a foundation for the next. We have discovered that sometimes equality and liberty conflict with each other, and we are still trying to figure out a compromise between the two moving forward.
Some have argued that change is happening too fast. To them I would suggest studying the causes of all the great revolutions in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. In almost every case, requests for change were being ignored or slowed down too much. This leads to rioting and radical revolution. Others argue that change is not happening fast enough. To them I would suggest studying the French Revolution or the Cultural Revolution in China. It is all too easy for the masses to get worked up into an emotional frenzy, leading to wanton killing and destruction of property only to later change their minds. James Madison understood this, and he included mechanisms in the Constitution to both allow change and deliberately slow it down.
While our country is not perfect, it is designed in a way to allow experimentation on progressive ideas while staying true to a core set of values. The rights of those who want to burn flags, speak out against the president, own firearms, or protest war are all protected by the Constitution and its amendments. Whether you want to smoke weed in Colorado, march on D.C. for women’s rights, or praise Jesus in Alabama, it is your choice to do so. We are allowed to come up with new ideas, proposals, and solutions, and we are also able to voice our opposition to these ideas as well. This seems like a given today, but for thousands of years most political institutions prohibited anything even slightly resembling our free society.
So, am I proud to be an American? Without a doubt. Am I ashamed of many actions in our tumultuous history? You better believe it. Would I change our current form of government to be more like those in Western Europe, East Asia, or elsewhere? No way. Do I still think we have room to grow and improve? Most definitely.
The United States is simply an amalgam of all of its citizens. If my fellow Americans are anything like me, they are also deeply conflicted over their own proud moments and those personal memories that bring them shame. We strive to do our best, and we often fall short, learning from our failures and trying anew the next day. Why would our country be any different since it is merely the sum of its parts, we the people? We do not have to choose between blind and ignorant patriotism on one hand or cynical anti-Americanism on the other. We can just be honest, love our country, appreciate our blessings, protect fiercely our rights, and fight for the rights and respect of all, whether citizen or immigrant.
We celebrate the Fourth of July because it commemorates the founding of the most forward thinking political system in history. When the Founders brainstormed our government, they could have set up any number of styles that would have served them better (even though Charles Beard and Howard Zinn disagree). Instead they chose to experiment a little, take a huge gamble, and establish a system with the best parts of all others known plus many new principles. The result is that my family and I enjoy a level of individual and collective freedom unprecedented in history. So do you.
That is why I take a day off to celebrate the birth of the United States of America.
Happy Fourth of July! Happy Independence Day!