July 4th: A Day To Celebrate the American Ideal

The July 4 Independence Day celebration is upon us once again and as I often do, I wonder how many Americans will simply celebrate the day with fireworks and cookouts; or take time to find meaning in the day, to learn what it really means.

I wonder, if you asked 100 random, average citizens of all races, creeds, religious backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds exactly what happened on July 4, how many could tell you?  I wonder how many could say the day represents the 239th year since the Declaration of Independence was signed.

I suppose most would know that it has something to do with America and freedom, but how many could tell you what document was signed on that day; or that actually, the Declaration wasn’t signed on that day; it was the day that Congress agreed on a final draft they’d been hashing out for two days. The final, handwritten copy was actually signed on August 2, 1776.

But all that is administrative processing that shouldn’t be confused with the ultimate intent, the ideal, of the document.

America is far from perfect and it started out far from perfect. There was disagreement about how to proceed, how to--or even whether to--declare independence from the sovereign nation of Britain. 

However, in the words and intent of the Declaration, there was a simple message: colonists 239 years ago issued a unanimous Declaration of Independence. In the opening passage it read: “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.”

In the next sentence they declared the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   

With this, the American dream was launched--though it wasn’t known by that title at the time.  The document went on to list the wrongs the British King had imposed on the colonists, from their point of view. 

They preluded that list with this: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

War, which had already ensued since 1775, intensified into the American Revolution that would last until 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed and British troops left American soil.

But the freedom that was born of blood was not to be an easy birth. It is said that with great power comes great responsibility and the early Americans lived that axiom. In 1812, there was another war when the British began to interfere with American shipping trade and other harassments. Though it wasn’t popular, President James Madison became the first American president to convince Congress to declare war. The United States again prevailed.

The American ideal of having a national identity while retaining states’ rights to govern themselves was a rocky road as well. As national government became stronger, states began to feel like they’d traded one tyrant for another. Slavery was a divisive issue. These and other impediments to unity eventually led to a civil war from 1861-1865, ending with a shaky national government winning the day.

Our nation, America, has been through trials and tribulations that might have completely torn others apart. War, civil rights, immigration, taxes, the economy, education and many other issues have been--and continue to be--dealt with as best as human abilities allow.

It isn’t perfect, but it is definitely something to be proud of. 

The Fourthof July has been declared as a day to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but really, it is way more than that. It is a day to celebrate every day since July 4, 1776. It should be a call to duty for all Americans to learn what has happened in America since that day, up to and including what is happening today.  It should recall all of our history--the good, the bad, the ugly--and celebrate the fact that we have survived another year intact. The flag may be battered, but it is still flying.

Our history is complex, confusing, frustrating, at times infuriating; but it is our history and a people who do not know their history and learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat it. That is an old, often-used axiom, but for good reason; it is true.

There are those today who feel that celebrating national unity is old fashioned, out of sync with reality.  Some believe America has lost its way, that it doesn’t have what it once had as a nation.

I truly believe those people represent a minority of Americans; it may be a naïve view but I believe that the vast majority of average Americans believe in the principles, the ideal, the dream that the founding fathers had.  They still believe that the America our founders conceived is worth fighting for against all foes, foreign and domestic.

America is still a place that people seek to come to, legally or illegally, to escape persecution, poverty or abuse in their own home country. They expect a better life here because, by and large, it is better here.

July 4th celebrates the idea of America, the spirit of the grand and evolving experiment.

Do we have problems with our system? Absolutely. Are we divided on some issues? Without doubt. Have we taken wrong turns on policies? Yep, on both sides of the isle.

But have we faced similar or worse circumstances and come out of it? Amazingly, yes!

The Fourth of July is a time not to just shoot off fireworks, grill out and celebrate with friends, although those are all acceptable events for the holiday. But in each of them I believe we should always keep in mind the amazing history that has preceded them and of the freedom we have to do them.

Here’s wishing all Week-Enders a safe, fun, happy--and free--Fourth of July weekend.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.