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This Astounding Enterprise

Thursday, July 3, 2014

'The first self-constituted, self-declared, self-created people in the history of the world.'

Editor’s note: this article first appeared in THE AMERICAN on July 1, 2011.

Independence Day.

John Adams thought we should celebrate it on July 2.

That was the day in Philadelphia in 1776 that 12 of the 13 colonies voted to declare their independence from Great Britain, even as General Sir William Howe was landing 10,000 British troops on Staten Island in New York. (New York abstained from the vote.)

But it was two days later, July 4 — when the Continental Congress voted unanimously to adopt Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence — that would thenceforth be marked by Americans as their day of celebration.

Adams thought the day of independence should be commemorated by “Acts of Devotion to God Almighty,” and further “solemnized” (as he confided in a letter to his wife, Abigail) “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one end of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

We will share in that solemn though generally subliminal American sense that there is no day like this in the world. None in all history.

With the exception of the date, we Americans have more or less followed Adams’ wishes ever since. There was a canny prescience about the depth, the breadth, the quality of American freedom in the seeming incongruence of Adams’s assertion that the anniversary should be “solemnized” with such light-hearted events as sports and bonfires and fireworks. For the very nonchalance with which most of us celebrate “Independence Day” is the most eloquent measure of the solemnity, the gravity, the importance of the event.

In fact, most of us just call it July 4th, or the Fourth of July, or simply “the Fourth.” We are utterly free to celebrate this day as we like. We may canoe quietly on a lake somewhere or sprawl on our couch and catch up with "South Park" on Tivo. We may hold a child on our shoulder as the colors pass in a patriotic parade, or supinely hold a beer in our hand while contemplating nothing more profound than the way our neighbor’s fence shimmers in the heat rising from the burgers on the grill. We may treat it simply as a day off to swim or sleep or mow the lawn.

Despite all the encroachments on our freedoms, we remain more free than anyone, anywhere, and in an ineffable way that no one else but an American or would-be American can completely understand.

As for me, I’ll be up at our summer cottage in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, with my son’s and daughter’s families and my wife’s brother and sisters and assorted cousins and nephews and friends. There will be no pomp or parade. There will be games (softball and bocce and volleyball) and there will be the lakeside bonfire that has been a tradition for us and our neighbors for the last 40 years or so. And as for “illuminations,” we will cap the day by watching the fireworks that arc over the lake from the old amusement park across the way.

As I have written before, it is unlikely that we will be discussing the Founding Fathers or the finer points of the Declaration of Independence. But just before we all dig into the hot dogs and brats and potato salad and watermelon and cake we will join in a prayer of thanks for the feast and for the United States and for the privilege of being Americans.

And although we will not say anything specifically about it, we will share in that solemn though generally subliminal American sense that there is no day like this in the world. None in all history.

The very nonchalance with which most of us celebrate Independence Day is the most eloquent measure of the solemnity, the gravity, the importance of the event.

No other nation’s founding could be so happily, indifferently, noisily, diversely, inspiringly, mawkishly, carelessly, embarrassingly, or fervently celebrated, because no other nation — no other nation — can claim to be what we are. As Archibald MacLeish once put it, we Americans are “the first self-constituted, self-declared, self-created people in the history of the world.”

Somehow, despite slips here and there, we have managed to balance in the main that combination of “private rights and public happiness” so proudly extolled by James Madison. Despite all the encroachments on our freedoms, despite all the insidious growth of our government at every level, we remain more free than anyone, anywhere, and in an ineffable way that no one else but an American or would-be American can completely understand. We are the people of a fabulous country, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.”

July Fourth. Independence Day. It is the exceptional day of an exceptional country; whether celebrated or ignored, it is the bright and happy measure of our freedom within the security, the plenty, the enduring challenges of this astounding enterprise, the United States of America.

Ralph Kinney Bennett writes the Automobility column for THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Bennett has also written “Fallen Heroes, Never Forgotten,” “The Guardians,” “An American Thanksgiving,” and “The Automobile’s Forgotten Secret.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group.

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