Celebrating the Meaning of July 4th

Celebrating the Meaning of July 4th
July 4, 2021 Maggie Lynch
In musings

It seems that everyone in America loves the 4th of July. It is, after all, when we started down the path of becoming our own country. It is when our forefathers declared Independence from  England. It is when many fought and lost their lives to form this country and move us forward. As a child I remember going to Disneyland and seeing a presentation of human-like robots reading the Declaration of Independence. I have not seen the musical 1776, so I don’t know what it depicts though I am familiar with some of the music. Most July 4th celebrations for me include barbeque and potluck with family, sometimes I’ve gone to listen to music with my husband, and on occasion we’ve attended a fireworks show.  When I lived in the Washington D.C. area in the 1980s I was fortunate to attend a celebration on the Washington Mall, listen to the Marine Corp band and later the symphony, and then enjoy the largest fireworks I’ve ever seen.

This year, because we are just coming out of the pandemic with Oregon finally opening up, none of these things are happening. Family who live in the area are still slow to plan get togethers. Because of the unseasonable dryness, fireworks have been banned everywhere. So, no going to a stadium to watch them. But I do still think about the history of today. In fact, I took time to do some additional research. I vaguely remember my U.S. history classes from high school where they talked about all the injustices cited by the colonists for declaring independence. I also remember having my teacher, who was originally from the U.K., present the side of the British at that time and those “bothersome colonists who were just troublemakers.”

I have to admit, I don’t remember history timeline really well either. Yes, I know July 4, 1776 was the Declaration of Independence. What I didn’t remember was that there were already many battles and protests with the British before that. The ride of Paul Revere was a year earlier when the intelligence of the day thought the British were going to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock in Lexington and also take away a cache of colonist’s military munitions in Concord . Two years before Paul Revere’s ride in 1773 was when the colonists in Boston dumped tea in the harbor to protest taxation without representation. Though the Boston Tea Party was a turning point in the colonies march to independence and began to “radicalize” more of the colonists to seek independence, like most protests it is not as clear and clean as many might believe. For example, major players like John Hancock and Sam Adams were tea smugglers at the time. It was a part of their business and income interests that played into their organization and participation in the protest. Yes, they disagreed with the taxation without representation which led to their justification of the tea smuggling they did. But they were also protecting their “illegal” business interests.

Source: W.D. Cooper. Boston Tea Party in The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789. Engraving. Plate opposite p. 58. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Many other skirmishes with theBritish happened before Boston and Paul Revere’s ride. It took decades of problems and continuous ignoring of the colonies needs that drove the colonists to decide to band together and declare independence. The 27 separate articles of complaint listed in the Declaration of Independence articulate all the things that had happened over time. We didn’t go to war because of one event, but because of an ongoing practice of oppression and neglect. Most specifically, England did not allow the colonies any kind of representation in parliament. They were not allowed to have their own meetings or government. If a person or colonist was found guilty by government leaders they were not given their own trials by jury in the colonies. Instead, they were forced to sail to England for trial. They also believed that King George III controlled the judges, as he appointed them all, and influenced their decision-making.

These 27 specifically articulated articles are important to me, because it showed the colonists kept trying to make it right and, when they realized there was no sign of movement, they took a stand. This wasn’t an overnight decision or even a one year decision. In fact, months before the Declaration of Independence was finally worked out and read, they had sent King George their intention to declare independence. So it wasn’t a surprise to him. He just didn’t believe it would happen. Even when he received the final Declaration, he didn’t think it would hold once his troops pressed the war against them.

Today, we are fortunate in that we do not live under a dictatorship. No King or Queen has ultimate power over us. Even in England the Royal Family no longer wields the political power to make laws as they did in the 18th century. Because of the way the Continental Congress was set up and the years prior to and including the Constitutions acceptance, we’ve always ahd elections. We have always had representation from every state. Today, we have representation at every level of government, from the city to the county to the state and ultimately to the federal government. We don’t always agree (actually we rarely all agree) with current elected officials. However, part of living in a civil society is the agreement that the majority of the governed choose the leaders. That is Democracy. If my choice of leader isn’t the one the majority picked, I and those like me have the ability to gather people and work toward getting someone else in the next round of votes..

That leads me to the part of the Declaration that often gets misread in my opinion. When I ask people what is the most memorable part of the Declaration of Independence, they recite the “Life, Liberty, and pursuit of happiness phrase. Here is the actual phrase from the Declaration: “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.”  Some people see that phrase as indicating the government owes them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I don’t think that is what it is saying at all.

The language is both inspirational and aspirational. By stating the truths are self-evident it creates an assumption of what follows. First is the assumption that all men are created equal–notice it doesn’t mention women because men were in charge and women were not equal. They couldn’t vote, they couldn’t own land, and many other things. I believe one would be correct that slaves, Native Americans, and other groups were probably not considered equal by some of the colonists either. Though there were definitely strong abolitionists among the colonists. Even today some Americans still don’t believe that everyone is created equal. I believe this is the aspirational part of the Declaration, just as in the Constitution, the Preamble also states some aspirational things “in order to form a perfect union.” I believe it is up to us to continue to make that statement true.

The other part is the unalienable rights “endowed by their Creator.” Notice it does not say endowed by the government. Again, there is an assumption of a group consensus that there is a Creator and that these unalienable Rights are understood and accepted by all.  But nowhere in the Declaration does it define what the words Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness means. Again, it appears the writers believed they didn’t need to define this because the majority understood the meaning. They didn’t state if there were any laws that would abridge those Rights, though we know there were. If you murdered someone you were likely put to death for the crime. If you pursued your liberty or happiness to the detriment of someone else–stealing, assaulting, cheating–your own liberty and happiness were likely curtailed in jail or something more severe.

This is important to me because it tells me that the onus is on me to treat people equally. The onus is on each of us to realize we live in community, not singularly. I suppose if you are a hermit living on 100 acres and never leaving or allowing anyone on to the property, you don’t have to worry about anyone else. But for most of us that is not the case.

Finally, there is one more part of the Declaration which actually articulates what our role is in assuring these rights for us and our fellow citizens. We do not simply lay the expectation at the doorstep of our leaders for assuring these rights. Specifically, right after that word “happiness” there is an emdash. The Declaration goes on to say:

“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.”

The video below does a great job of explaining that part of the Declaration. This was shared with me by someone in my church as part of thinking and contemplating the 4th of July and what it means to us today.


Here is where it gets tricky and I think many people misinterpret what it says. Consent of the governed does not mean one person or one group of people gets to make the rules for all. It means all those who are governed by their local, state, or federal government have a say. But how does one get “consent” from everyone? That is impossible, right? I don’t know about you, but in my extended family–which is probably around 100 members–we could never get consent of every person to agree to any one thing. This is especially true when it comes to rules and being governed. But we do agree to go with the majority decision. If those who disagree with the majority are still unhappy, they don’t leave the family. They don’t decide to hate those in the majority. Instead they continue to argue for those things that really matter. They continue to discuss and listen and to find common ground for agreement.

When common ground cannot be established for that particular argument, we have to make a decision if that is worth leaving the family and never speaking to them again. In other words, we pick and choose the battles that are most important and let go of the ones that are not achievable today to be fought at another time. I’m fortunate in my family that even though we have a diversity of beliefs and experiences and often disagree–especially on politics and religion–no one has chosen to walk away forever. No one has said: “because you believe X, which is opposite of me, I won’t speak to you or see you again.” I know that some families are not as fortunate and that saddens me.

This listening, debating, looking for common ground is how a democratic government works as well. When agreement cannot be reached, the majority wins the fight for that day, that year, that term. Whether it is the majority of members on a school board or the majority of members in the state legislature, or the majority of members in the federal House of Representatives or in the Senate. That is how it has been since our founding as a country and it is how it is today.

How do I as one person impact this? In the same way the colonists did both before they declared independence and after a new government was formed. I write to my representatives. I visit their office. I call them on the phone. I gather together with people who agree with my point-of-view and show that support for my position is not just me but many people. Together we use the levers of power to move leaders to a viewpoint I can support.

Sometimes it doesn’t happen when I want it to happen. Sometimes a bill I support is not passed; or it is watered down so much that important things I want are not included. Sometimes a bill I don’t support at all is passed. But I keep trying. This is how the Declaration of Independence, and later the Constitution intended. It did not intend for us to burn down businesses or to assault others or kill them to get our point-of-view across. Even in the 18th century that was not the way to solve problems within the fledgling government. During the Boston Tea Party not one person died or was injured. They didn’t remove anything else from the ships except the tea. They didn’t break anything on the ships or disable them. They didn’t take the crew and harm them. Before the Declaration, leaders wrote many petitions to England over many years to get laws changed. Even when things had become so unbearable and they saw no other option but separation from England, they wrote the Declaration of Independence and they sent it to England. It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. I think we can all learn from this example in the way we deal with government entities as well.

Some people believe that this independence was a unanimous decision among the colonists. It was not. In fact, many colonists returned to England rather than live without the power and protection of King George. Just as today, the colonies had representatives. Just like today, not every representative in every colony signed the Declaration of Independence.  Representatives argued about language. The wording put forward by Thomas Jefferson and the four others who drafted the Declaration was changed 46 times, over many arguments before a final version was agreed by the majority. Even then many questioned whether this was the right thing to do. Some believed wholeheartedly in the cause. Others were afraid of repercussions from England. Some were unsure a ragtag group of colonists could win a war against England and they worried about punishment or losing everything they had. Yet others simply didn’t want to be on the “wrong side” of history, continuously abstaining until the last minute when forced to be the deciding factor for all. Politics is messy. Compromise is difficult. It was back then and continues to be so now.

Children and adults together holding a Happy Independence Day 2021 signAs I celebrate the 4th of July today. I am thankful for the liberty I have in this country. I am thankful to live under a system of laws and practices–mediation and compromise–that help us to work toward moving forward. I am thankful to live in a country where we do have representation. I am thankful to have lived in times when the representatives I chose were elected. And in those times when I was unhappy with who was elected, I worked to make sure they were not there the next term.

America is not perfect and never will be. It can only be as perfect as its people. Finally, I am reminded that as an American, the onus is on me to treat people equally. The onus is on me to be an example for my grandchildren, my nieces and nephews and cousins, so they may continue to strive for those aspirations of equality for all when I am no longer alive. I want to show them to have a long-term view instead of short-term gain. I hope they will continue to strive for equal opportunity for all to pursue life, liberty and happiness. That is a difficult tightrope to walk sometimes, but it is a challenge I’m willing to accept. How about you?

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