I've always wondered how we might have celebrated Independence Day if it had fallen on the Fourth of February. But summer it is, and good, because summer liberates the spirit like no other season. We ride waves from sea to shining sea, light barbecue grills across the land where the deer and the antelope play, and luxuriate in the balmy nights of midsummer, fireworks lighting the starry skies of America the beautiful.
Since I was born and raised in the nation's capital, the Fourth of July always seemed like our own holiday, a celebration for our hometown. My mother told of her parents taking everyone down to the National Mall, lifting the backseats out of the car to make a soft place to lie to watch the sky brighten with the rockets' red glare. One year, I joined friends on a sail down the Potomac beneath strikes of vivid light playing colors across the memorials to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
The Fourth of July appeals to a different kind of America than Thanksgiving, that chilly November celebration that evolved from those first desperate days when our forefathers stepped onto Plymouth Rock seeking freedom in the New World. What the early Pilgrims cherished, our Founding Fathers fought to maintain. Both holidays have prospered over the uneven course of human events, sustained by the faith of our fathers in the ideal that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. Both holidays show how the spiritual and political freedoms are intertwined, inseparable and inviolate.
The first settlers were determined to worship as they wished and celebrated with gratitude with that first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Only a 155 years later, prosperous lawyers, planters, farmers, merchants and politicians, driven by the yearning to make a new kind of government on an untamed continent, declared their independence from the old, the tired and the fearful.
Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence embodied the power and the paradox of the new nation, as both patriot and slave owner, idealist and pragmatist, a greater master of prose than master of himself. He was, as Gary Wills describes him, "elitist in his practice, egalitarian by principle."
Jefferson preferred the tranquil life of science and farming at Monticello, but "the enormity of the times in which I have lived have forced me to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions." The passionate life and torrid times of the sensual redheaded president would beggar the work of a dozen novelists. But the failings in his personal life cannot dampen the soulfire of his words, the framework of freedom bequeathed to us. The Internet will proliferate this week with readings of the Declaration of Independence. One historian suggests that Jefferson intended his work to be performed, not merely read. The words set the souls of dullards aflame.
One of the most famous American paintings is "The Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull in the rotunda of the Capitol. It's historically incorrect in its detail, depicting several of the original signers and omitting others, but as historian David McCullough observed, accuracy is less important than its symbolic power. The Declaration of Independence is about living men, not gods.
Our Founding Fathers, like the Trumbull mural, were far from perfect. The word to emphasize in the opening line of Jefferson's document, "When in the course of human events," is human. Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, who was one of its signers, suffered from palsy, but when he wrote his signature, he said to colleagues standing at his side, "My hand trembles, but my heart does not."
The "pursuit of happiness" was not about a day at the beach. Jefferson described its purpose as guaranteeing "tranquility and occupation," to enjoy the freedom to read, to study, to learn and to think for oneself. It's about Americans declaring faith in a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
"Those brave, high-minded people of earlier times gave us stars to steer by," David McCullough says of Thomas Jefferson's work, "a government of laws not of men, equal justice before the law, the importance of the individual, the ideal of equality, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and expression, and the love of learning."
They gave us the light to mark the way in a dark and dangerous world. So light a sparkler for them, and then another for the rest of us. And put a little extra mustard on that hot dog, if you will.
Happy Fourth of July.
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