The Fourth of July is a hard holiday to place. Fit between summer bookend holidays of Memorial Day and Labor Day, our national birthday party is a little bit red, white and blue, a little bit family outing, and a little bit John Philip Sousa brass and fireworks. What most celebrations miss, though, is the birthday boy.
Like almost everyone, I enjoyed the day off (of course since I am retired, I do have most days “off” but that’s another post). I walked downtown treating myself to a Firecracker Mocha from the Liberty Café, a favorite coffee shop and theme-appropriate choice for the Fourth. I saw workers joking with each other as they set up booths and tents for the afternoon and evening AmericaFest celebration. I saw young families eating brunch at sidewalk cafes. I saw friends and family out for a morning run on the river trail. I saw friends lounging in pontoon boats, outboards and yachts already moored at the best spots to see the night’s fireworks show.
The theme of the fine morning seemed to be getting together with friends and family, not a bad way to begin a birthday party and a good idea in general. Right now I think all of us are all looking for a reason to relax and celebrate. It's been a tough six months.
The Fourth of July memorializes a dark uncertain time 241 years ago when our country was not yet a country. General George Washington had been in the field against the British regulars for more than a year, but Congress had not yet formally declared independence. Seems out of order but that’s politics for you. A political argument for independence needed to the made and the task fell to one of the youngest members of Congress, Thomas Jefferson. He accepted the assignment and wrote the declaration was needed because “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they (Congress/the Colonies) should declare the causes which impel them to the separation (from Great Britain).”
I have a friend who says that she reads the Declaration of Independence every Fourth to remind herself of the inspiration for our nation. I think that’s a great idea but I would rather see Jefferson’s words boldly proclaimed rather than reverently read in private. Jefferson wrote the 10-minute declaration to be read in the public square. It’s meant to be part of our celebration, an argument for our country, not lie dusty and unused as a museum exhibit.
Which brings me to one of the odd but telling stories from the 2017 celebration that demonstrates both the division and mistrust we have in America as well as an alarming lack of knowledge about American foundational documents.
In an effort to publicly proclaim the Declaration of Independence using popular technology, NPR (National Public Radio) decided to break up the Declaration into bits of 144 characters and tweet the entire message. Jefferson writes with a lot of clauses, so I can see how that can be done without losing word sense. NPR’s tweet stream wasn’t the odd part of the story. The odd part was the vicious, uninformed, negative reaction against words of the declaration and against public media.
A day later USA Today reported on the incident, “Twitter users thought the words of our founding fathers (in the NPR tweets) were overtly political statements. As a result, they pulled the Declaration into the abrasive political rhetoric of 2017.” For example, just as the NPR tweet series worked through the part about the colonist’s frustration with British rule, someone tweeted, “Are you drunk? Your silly tweets make your state of mind questionable.” Others used the tweets as a reason for defunding of public broadcasting
After tweeting Jefferson’s statement, “It is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it (the old government), and to institute new Government,” someone countered, “So NPR is calling for revolution. Interesting way to condone the violence while trying to sound patriotic.” To this person’s credit, however, they soon caught on to what NPR was doing (unlike too many others) and wrote, “Okay, okay… I screwed up with @npr. I jumped the gun and tweeted when I should have waited for them to finish. I offer my apologies.”
Jefferson’s Declaration needs to be taken out of the National Archive vault and used in all Fourth of July celebrations. Without this proclamation of the American mind and spirit the rest of the summer celebration makes little sense. Focusing on why we are who we are as Americans, can I think, bring us together. At least it’s a starting point. We may disagree on a lot of things, but not, I hope, “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’s 174 characters all Americans should be able to agree on.