July 1. In America, there’s already a lot of celebrating going on. It’s tradition. Buy up all the fireworks you can afford. Fire up the grill. Gather with friends. Have a parade. Wave flags. By the time July 4 rolls around, most of us have been celebrating for days.
My question is this: What, exactly, are we celebrating?
July 4 is officially Independence Day in the USA. We celebrate the occasion of our independence, that historical declaration that we wished to be recognized as a responsible, self-governing people. There were no public fireworks displays on that July 4 in 1776; those came later. Still, the Declaration was essentially a declaration of war. Most of the text was a list of grievances, and a clear statement that we were ready and willing to take care of ourselves. When I read between the lines, it seems to me that the signers of that document practically invited Great Britain’s king and his minions to come on over and try to stop us. They did not wish for war, but they knew their words were incendiary; should conflict come, they would not retreat from it.
I don’t remember that my public education ever had the luxury of time for extensive study of the text, except for a few excerpts. We did memorize that second sentence, “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.”
The complete text is beautiful. I am particularly fond of reading it in its original, handwritten version. Doing so allows me to glean some of the emotion attached to certain words or phrases. Even though I’m reading a copy of a document that was hand-copied many times, that emotion still seems to sing, to shout, to jump off the page and flash a million stubborn, defiant eyes into my soul.
My real love for the text came with a family vacation to Washington D.C. when I was ten years old. We visited the National Archives, and came home with a crinkly souvenir packet of parchment, containing nice copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I read them for hours on end. I studied the handwriting. I pondered each name. I held in my hands a legacy, an inherited trust, and I knew it. We were a family of 5, but somehow that packet of words became mine. I still have it, and I still treasure it.
I invite you this weekend to re-discover this treasure with me. Find the text. Google it, go straight to www.archives.gov , or visit your local library, but find it and read the whole thing. Spend a few moments with those brave souls who saw a better future for their children and grandchildren, and stepped up to make it happen.
Now that’s something to celebrate.