Americans are good at a lot of things: Freedom, starting businesses, inventing things. We’re not so good at remembering why we celebrate holidays.
We tend to focus on the manner of celebration rather than the reason we’re celebrating. Rather than a day to really give thanks, Thanksgiving sometimes becomes "Turkey Day" or "Eat Too Much and Then Watch Football Day." Most of the people at the Veterans Day events that are meant to honor veterans are veterans themselves. We all know what’s happened to Christmas. Likewise, Independence Day has become "Fireworks Day."
There’s nothing wrong with fireworks, of course. They’re fun; they’re beautiful; they celebrate our freedoms. Nothing brings a neighborhood together like the Fourth of July.
Amidst all of that, however, it can be easy to forget the holiday’s purpose is to mark what happened 237 years ago. That’s when the colonists decided to separate from Great Britain and form what Abraham Lincoln later called "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
It happened so long ago that we can forget what kind of sacrifices were made by the Continental Congress and by the men who fought in the Revolutionary War.
"We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately," Benjamin Franklin said July 4, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
That sounds like one of his typical witticisms, but it was literally true. By affixing their names to the Declaration, he and his fellow Founding Fathers had signed what could have been their own death warrants for rebelling against King George. The late historian Stephen Ambrose pointed out that, had the British won, George Washington would have been shipped to London, found guilty of treason, and drawn and quartered. That means his four limbs would have been tied to four horses that would have been whipped into galloping in four directions until he was torn apart.
We don’t talk much about the events of 1776 these days, and when we do, it’s with ambivalence. While the Founding Fathers did pretty well with "created equal," they failed with the part that starts with "All men." Slavery was a sin for which America, and Americans, are still paying, and it’s appropriate for Independence Day to be a reminder of that.
But reflecting on what the Founding Fathers got wrong should not blind us to the memory of where they succeeded. They created a system of government that has served us well for much of our history and has been an example for billions across the globe. Societal standards usually evolve over time. "All men are created equal" was a giant leap forward.
Certainly, we can chastise the Founding Fathers for failing to rid the country of slavery in 1776. Then again, wouldn’t they have plenty to chastise our oh-so-enlightened generation about in 2013? And how will future generations wag their fingers at us?
There are 364 days each year when it’s appropriate to wrestle with how to make this a more perfect union. For one day a year, it’s OK to appreciate the sacrifices made by imperfect men and women more than 200 years ago, and since.
Otherwise, this is just Fireworks Day.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.