It’s been a while since I have posted – amazing, since it seems I have more time than ever – but I have been pushing myself to take advantage of as much of the great free online PD as possible this summer – more on that later… However, the 4th of July is always a huge day for me, and as I reflect on what it means – actually, what I personally think it should mean to everyone – I feel this July 4th may be as important as any I can remember.
I’m that guy that noses into 4th of July conversations and asks people what happened on July 4, 1776 – and I rarely get the accurate response. I usually hear that independence was proposed (nope, that’s June 7, by Richard Henry Lee), or the Declaration of Independence was written (Jefferson did that between the 7th and June 30, with some help from Adams and Franklin), or that the vote for independence took place (July 2, actually, in a 12-0 vote that Adams felt would be celebrated by Americans for years to come), or the signing of the Declaration (The Secret Journals of the Second Continental Congress notes that on August 2, “The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.”
We don’t have celebrations on June 7, parades on July 2, or barbecues on August 2. So what’s with July 4?
July 4, 1776 is the date that the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence as the statement for WHY “these United colonies are and of right ought to be free and Independent states.” To me, it’s the document — and the concepts behind it — that needs to be examined every 4th of July. We definitely need to celebrate our independence, but in my mind, there’s much more to it. The ideas / ideals put forward in the document are, in my argument, the heart of our democracy, what it means to be an American, and what it means to be America.
The key to the document is the political philosophy that is set out in the well known (but overlooked, I feel) words of the second paragraph.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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 to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,
Those are the core concepts of the Declaration, the core concepts of the nation’s push for independence, and, I argue, the core concepts of what it means to be an American.
Our natural and inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That we create governments to protect our rights, and the government gets its power from the governed – from We, the People.
And, when a government doesn’t protect our rights, we have the right (if not the duty) to institute a new government, or at least to express our grievances.
Those core concepts make America … America. And honoring, supporting, defending, and living those concepts are acts of patriotism.
I use the Declaration of Independence to start my study of America’s story with my students. We read the document and I tell them the story (and a few more fun details) at the very start of the year. But I also include a quote about the Declaration of Independence that has come to really be the big idea as we progress through America’s story and a goal that we need to strive to today. In the 1990s a group of Hollywood actors did a reading of the Declaration of Independence in Independence Hall (in the real room where it happened). The reading was introduced by Morgan Freema, who provides what I have used as the real importance of the Declaration of Independence and, in my mind, July 4.
The “true glory of the Declaration of Independence is our nation’s epic struggle to close the gap between the ideals of this beautiful document and the sometimes painful realities of our existence.” This closing the gap is the theme for my entire study of America story. I see it as America’s growth mindset. It’s a mindset that is as important, or more, now than any time in our history. And I feel that is what we should discuss at are 4th of July gatherings. What can WE do, at home, in class, in our community, as a society, you name it – to close the many gaps still existing.
The United States is always moving forward, not fixed in its ways. Our country hasn’t always been trying to close the gap, to make the ideals or equality and democracy a reality, but we can point to patriots who have endeavored to do so. In my mind, using the right to rebel was the core of the American Revolution as George Washington and all the signers of the Declaration felt the British government was not living up to the social contract, and the framers of the Constitution wanted to institute a new government because the original one under the Articles of Confederation wasn’t closing the gap. The Bill of Rights helped to secure our rights from government interference – and that’s all in the first two decades of the United States.
We have always had individuals and groups that pushed to make sure that ideal of equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was (and is) a reality. In 1776, Abigail Adams asked her husband John to remember the ladies and start closing the gap. Horace Mann and Dorthea Dix led reform movements to try to close the gap in education and support for mental health in the early 1800s. Frederick Douglass wrote that he could not celebrate the Fourth of July because for African Americans, the gap wasn’t even close to being closed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Seneca Falls Convention, Susan B Anthony voted illegally and Alice Paul picketed the White House in order to close the gap. Members of the progressive movement, such as WEB Du Bois, Ida Wells Barnett, Teddy Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, all pushed to make the ideals of the Declaration or reality, even if that was not their expressed intention. In my state of Wisconsin, Carrie Chapman Catt, Robert LaFollette, Gaylord Nelson, Vel Phillips, and many others pushed to close the gap at home and beyond. The entire civil rights movement was about freedom, but that freedom was really about having an equal opportunity – an ideal in the Declaration.
In my mind are men and women in uniform serve our country and, at times, pay the ultimate price, all to close the gap. Those that slugged through the trenches in France in World War I, those that stormed the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima in World War II, those that have fought in global conflicts since and those that still serve today are all pushing to help the United States grow towards making the ideals of the Declaration of Independence of reality.
Now we come to today – a time in which the Black Lives Matter movement is using the right to rebel to express the grievances of centuries of systemic racism, the #MeToo movement is still working to eliminate gender discrimination and inequality, the Supreme Court decision to extend civil rights protection to the LGBT community offers some hope but still faces a long road, and income, education, and technological inequity are hurting many of our younger population – the ideals of the Declaration of Independence are more important than ever before. We need to learn as much as we can as a society in order to grow together to make those ideals a reality, to close the many gaps we still have, and to truly make America great. That should be what we think of and talk about when we celebrate the 4th of July … and push for it every other day of the year.