On Independence Day, Fourth of July, Fireworks Day, Whatever We Call It


In general, I avoid observing holidays, especially those which have been marketed from an original intent of respect or adoration into a Bacchanalia of barbecue, escape from one's workplace, and the purchase of stuff we don't need, stuff that will quickly be found at the local landfill. Most of these "holidays" are far from the idea of "holy days" once on the calendar, and have been mutated into something of a masquerade. When children have little idea of the original intention of a holiday, or when adults have no idea of the same, then we might have a problem. I've spoken with adults who have no idea what Memorial Day is about, never have heard of Armistice Day, never think of veterans on Veterans Day, go into significant debt for the Feast of Saturnalia (or Festivus, if you prefer), who conflate chocolate bunnies for Easter (even for Passover), and ultimately see the Fourth of July as an opportunity to leave work, eat, complain that the Postal Service isn't open, and wait for sparklers and fireworks.


It's easier to call this holiday the Fourth of July than call it by its congressional-designated name of Independence Day. The rhetorical choice is important. By ignoring the intention of independence, we can ignore all historical and cognitive associations with the Revolutionary War, the Declaration, and the rhetoric of that document. We can certainly ignore the War of 1812, because that's far too easy to do (except in Ogdensburg NY, which is the only town I've seen actually observe that conflict -- beautiful town, but not as beautiful as Brockville on the other side of the St Lawrence; the latter, not surprisingly, has maintained its historical memory more than her southern neighbors have. For that matter Thousand Islands deserves a plug here -- just one of the most lovely places in North America and anyone who gets even close to Boldt Castle without spending an afternoon deserves to be horsewhipped).


But back to this holiday. Frederick Douglas in 1852 already saw the problem of celebrating a day called "Independence Day" when in fact many persons in the US were in fact not independent -- they were still slaves, and only 3/5 humans, according to the Constitution. Worse, they were considered less than human by much of society in the North and the South. England had already abolished slavery in 1833 -- through years of heated rhetorical discourse and not through violence -- yet the United States had millions of human beings enslaved in its economic system that still affects us today. Douglas was a master orator and knew when and how to build common ground, showing his audience that of course 1776 was an important year of decision, and of course, "we" were on the side of justice:

It would, certainly, prove nothing, as to what part I might have taken, had I lived during the great controversy of 1776. To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. (Douglas, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”)
But then he foreshadows his true intent, claiming that 1776 was the "ring-bolt" in "your" heavenly destiny to become a great nation. That simple tool can be used make machinery work more efficiently, of course. But the ring-bolt can also be used to keep captive animals, or humans.



When Douglas reminds his audience that

Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own.
we know that his purpose is turning and as he turns a celebration into a funereal oration, careful listeners understand that this was not a day of freedom then, nor is it now:
 I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.  
I would like to have been there in that hall that day, look around at the comfortable white citizens in Rochester's Corinthian Hall, perhaps the ladies waving their fans, the men with their hats comfortably on their laps, their blood rushing just a bit more than it had a few minutes ago, looking askance at their neighbors, wondering how far he would push this tone and message. I would have liked to be there, standing against a wall, watching the blank and tired faces begin to frown, as I imagine it. Yes, this was Rochester, a free city in a free state, but not all Northerners were abolitionists, and not abolitionists were committed. It's easy to congregate for a cause we believe in, but it's more challenging to stand up for what we believe in. The spirit is willing; the flesh is just downright distracted. 

I won't continue. We know how Douglas continues -- it's a mastery of oratory and rhetoric and knowledge of his rhetorical situation and audience. Any American who doesn't read Douglas every Fourth of July is robbing himself of not only a stunning rebuke to the myth of American equality and liberty, but robbing himself from one of the great intellectual experiences, feeling this black man's love and wrath from another age, speaking of slavery, but now his words echo across time and place with something of its still familiar prick to make us uneasy about how we observe this Independence Day, or if we should be celebrating anything called independence when so many around us are not, in fact, free.

Is this the land your Fathers loved,  
The freedom which they toiled to win?  
Is this the earth whereon they moved?  
Are these the graves they slumber in?
It is, after all, one of those patriotic days, and we live in a time when patriotism cannot be questioned. It is now the most valuable of all civic virtues -- much more valued than honesty, selflessness, cooperation, collaboration, neighborliness, and anything else that might have been mentioned or implied in the Mayflower Compact (or the final paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, for that matter). Now patriotism is the only virtue we use to label each other -- who is more an American than the other, or are you American at all? Just because you're born here, say some, doesn't mean you're an American. You have to "act" American, in their definition of Americanism, just as some pseudo-christians define for themselves what Christianity is (regardless of a text) and classify their neighbors as Christian or not Christian enough. But like other shows of patriotism, we must act the part. At baseball games when new Army or Marine recruits take the oath of enlistment, we are expected to stand and applaud these 17 and 18 year olds reciting words they don't understand, committing to wars they don't understand, going to places they can't identify on a map. In Texas, we're so patriotic, we don't have just one pledge of allegiance to a flag, we have two. In addition to Bellamy's pledge, we're so patriotic, we swear loyalty to our state flag as well: 
"Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible."
The 1836 Burnet Flag of Texas, to which the original 1933 Pledge refers
 As a teacher, I was required to stand with my students every morning and encourage them to recite both pledges. I quickly became uninspired. I've stood in the House chamber of the Texas Capitol while everyone around me recites both pledges, but I remain silent, no hand over my heart. I'm always a little surprised the Capitol Police don't escort me out when I don't conform. But it's this environment of patriotism that surrounds us now, flags over every car dealership, flag pins on every candidate's lapel, and somehow the explosion (and subsequent littering) of dozens, hundreds of dollars of Chinese-made fireworks confirms our patriotism. We're required to be more patriotic in times of war, and amid the invasion of Iraq (2003, not 1990), our leaders reminded us that those who oppose the invasion were not real Americans. War is patriotic. That's what those fireworks recall, don't they? Francis Scott Key elevates the threat of injury and death to a poetic art
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
 
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
"Bombardment of Ft McHenry, Near Baltimore, 1814"
War is glorious. This is why we added an English bawdy tune celebrating the joys of wine ("To Anacreon in Heaven") to Key's poem to become the American anthem so that children can sing the glories of war at hockey games. The Revolutionary War was glorious. My ancestors fought on both sides -- the Colonists, and the Loyalists. My ancestors fought on both sides of the War Between the States as well. These stories of glory, turned into poetry and romanticized in painting and myth and film occlude, of course, the realities of what war means, as Twain reminded us in 1904 in his "The War Prayer":
"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen. 
(After a pause) 
"Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits." 
It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.
And so we buy fireworks, grill cow flesh, celebrate with Bud Lite, and remember independence. But let us not actually read the Declaration of Independence, because that becomes really awkward:
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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
We forget the poor around us and don't invite them to celebrate with us. We forget the new immigrant who came seeking sanctuary from crime and oppression. We turn away tens of thousands of children from our southern border who have become too aware of the harshness of American jurisprudence while they were hoping for respite. Independence is a selective thing, variously defined, variously shared, variously guarded. But as Frederick Douglas reminds us, we should always be vanguards of where we've come from and precisely where we are when we celebrate our Americanness and any claims to the heritage of the forefathers.
God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,
 
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign,
To man his plundered fights again
Restore. 
(Douglas, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”)

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