I love the Fourth of July. After beginning the day in the company of Charles Ives and Emily Dickinson, I will run a 5K, watch the ragtag town parade, take in some local baseball, gather with friends for croquet, barbecue and American folk tunes sung around an outdoor fire, and join the annual procession of neighbors to the end of our street for fireworks over the harbor. This in itself is enough to honor the day – life and community affirmed with our fellow citizens as we sound the resonant notes of tradition.
But the liturgist in me wonders if we might do something more consciously formative with our American holiday, as our forebears did. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Fourth of July was an occasion not only to celebrate our ideals, but also to educate the public in the habitual virtues of public life by which those ideals might continue to be realized. A central part of this educative function was the Fourth of July oration, a long-winded address that recalled the great deeds of the past, tabulated the growth and progress achieved over the years, and exhorted the listener toward the same zeal for liberty and the common good that had inspired our founders.
The speakers all tried to tune their themes to the situation of their time. An oration given in 1838 before an abolitionist society noted the ironies of church bells and cannons sounding in celebration of liberty while in the same land could be heard the clanking of chains on the limbs of a million slaves. Another, given on the eve of World War I, called upon America to lead the way in the overthrow of war as an instrument of policy.
As a longtime lover of California’s mountains, I am especially fond of Thomas Starr King’s oration of 1860, delivered to the Episcopal Sunday School Mission Celebration in San Francisco, celebrating the fact that California had not seceded from the Union. “Thank heaven,” he declared, “there is no doubt of our geography. The Sacramento is an American river. The San Joaquin is not held by traitors. San Diego is an American port…” King then described the red alpenglow and azure shadows on the white glacier of Mt. Shasta as Nature’s emphatic salute to the Red, White and Blue!
The one thing these orations have in common is their assumption of a people, a public, who are committed to working together to implement the ideals that gave us birth. “We swear,” cried a young John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1793, “we swear by the precious memory of the sages who toiled and of the heroes who bled in her defense, that we will prove ourselves not unworthy of the prize which they so dearly purchased; that we will act as the faithful disciples of those who so magnanimously taught us the instructive lesson of republican virtue.”
In other words, keep your eyes on the prize. The watchwords of the Revolution – liberty and the common good – are powerful ideas. Even the most corrupt and cynical among us must still give them lip service if they aspire to political power. As Daniel Ellsberg once said, the best thing that you can say about the American people is that you have to lie to us.
The American experiment is not over. We no longer conduct it with the illusion that we are innocent of the old corruptions, that humanity’s darker impulses are somehow absent from the American heart. Holden Caulfield and Daisy Miller have grown older and wiser. And yet there are many among us who refuse to give up, who refuse to retreat from public life and the common good. There are many among us who continue to dream, continue to strive, continue to believe that we shall overcome, that “America the beautiful” is still a possibility.
I do not imagine that Americans will ever again submit to the custom of lengthy orations under a hot sun, but might there be other ways to mark the day with experiences, images and rituals which reconnect us with our ideals and with each other? I wouldn’t put any politicians on that planning committee, or preachers either. Instead, I would entrust the task to artists, musicians, poets and activists. My vote to head the enterprise would be the 8-year-old Hopi girl whose recurring daydream of a redeemed public life is recorded in Robert Coles’ The Spiritual Life of Children:
All the people are sitting in a circle, and they are brothers and sisters, everyone! That’s when all the spirits will dance and dance, and the stars will dance, and the sun and moon will dance and the birds will swoop down and they’ll dance, and all the people, everywhere, will stand up and dance, and then they’ll sit down again in a big circle, so huge you can’t see where it goes, or how far, if you’re standing on the mesa and looking into the horizon, and everyone is happy. No more fights. Fights are a sign that we have gotten lost, and forgotten our ancestors, and are in the worst trouble. When the day comes that we’re all holding hands in the big circle – no, not just us Hopis, everyone – then that’s what the word ‘good’ means…and the whole world will be good when we’re all in our big, big circle. We’re going around and around until we all get to be there!