On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson rose before dawn, recorded the temperature at 6 a.m. (68 degrees), had some tea and biscuits, and made his way to Independence Hall. Sixty-nine years later, Henry David Thoreau chose the day to begin his sojourn at Walden Pond. On July 4, 1863, Lee’s Confederate army began its decisive retreat from Gettysburg, and on the same date in 1895 Katherine Lee Bates published “America the Beautiful”. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Foster, Louis B. Mayer and Obama’s oldest daughter were all born on July 4, and both Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50thth anniversary of the Founders’ Declaration. So what do the rest of us have planned for Independence Day?
It was Adams who predicted that the Fourth would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] We have more or less fulfilled the externals of Adams’ vision, but the mindfulness with which we keep the feast is subject to question. In 1975, just before the American Bicentennial, a Gallup poll revealed that 28% of Americans were unable to identify what significant event happened in 1776.
What should we remember as a people? Do we create simplifying myths that unite us with some intoxicating blend of nostalgia and amnesia? Sanitizing and depoliticizing the past is a way to reduce conflict, as in the efforts to heal sectional division after the Civil war. But that can leave grievous social ills unaddressed and unhealed. The current debate about the Confederate battle flag shows how deeply embedded such sanitizing mythology can be. Preserving “heritage,” we discover, is a massive process of forgetting where, in Joan Didion’s memorable phrase, “no one is bloodied by history.”[ii]
Some governments try to supervise the formation of collective memory. The late Soviet Union is a notorious example, but there are also more benign forms of cultivating shared cultural identity (mais oui!). But in America, as Michael Kammen has noted, “people forget and remember largely on their own.”[iii] We have no ministry of culture, and national memory is contested without official referees.
But few of us will give much thought to either politics or culture tomorrow. As a radio talk show guy put it in his summary of America’s military mission: “Those guys are fighting so we can have barbecues and drink beer.”[iv] Pursuit of happiness indeed. But as Daniel Webster noted, it has always been so. “The tavern,” he said, “was the headquarters of the Revolution”[v] – a gathering place where ideas were exchanged and debated. In these latter days we have retained the conviviality of the tavern while dispensing with the ideas. The long-winded orations of old-time Fourths are long gone. There will be little thoughtful discussion of liberty and the common good around the barbecue. No radical challenges to tyranny and oppression will be issued. We’ll just enjoy a day off with our families, friends and neighbors as we pursue happiness together. And in a society fraught with so much division and disconnection, being together in peace and play and joy may be as good a way as any to keep the American feast.
One of the moments when I feel community most vividly is after the last fireworks fade to black above our local harbor. All of us who have watched from the beach begin to make our way along a forest path back to the road. It is too dark to see faces, or anything else that distinguishes one from another. We are an egalitarian procession of shadows, walking together. No longer pursuing happiness, we seem to have found it. Being there together in the night, for a few lovely minutes, is the most important fact about us.
The wonder I feel in the holiday’s concluding moment is beautifully expressed in Samuel Hynes’ memoir of his childhood in the 1930s. Although he grew up in a very different America, his description touches on something timeless:
The last rocket is always the best of all – burst after burst, the echoes rebounding, and then another burst just when you think it is all over. And then it is. The families rise slowly in the sudden silence and fold their blankets, and walk home through the dark, still streets, not talking much, purged by the high splendors they have seen, satisfied that another Fourth is over, another summer has been celebrated with a proper hullabaloo.[vi]
[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203
[ii] Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 667
[iii] ibid., 700
[iv] Overheard on a Montana roadtrip a few years ago.
[v] Angel in the Whirlwind, 494
[vi] Samuel Hynes, The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 111