Happy birthday, America! The Fourth of July means more than you may realize.
Most dates on the calendar carry random associations, but some are loaded with import: Jan. 1, April 15, Sept. 11, Dec. 7. July 4th we use as shorthand to celebrate the idea of the country we live in, and because it’s a big idea — “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — it’s a big celebration.
But it’s also an idealistic idea, one we’re still hammering out on a daily basis. What defines “all men”? What about women? When you open the door to inclusion, how do you back it up in practice? How do 13 colonies in which slavery is legal even start a country based on the concept of freedom? (And, by the way, the actual vote on independence occurred two days earlier, prompting John Adams to write to his wife, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” Funny how things turn out.)
Intriguingly, July 4th has become a telling historical core sample to the entire American experiment. A look at all the stuff that has happened on this date since the Founding Fathers penned their Declaration reveals the best of this country and, occasionally, the worst. Sometimes the events of 7/4 happen because of the day’s meaning in our history. Sometimes they’re just resonant with chance. But, overall, you won’t find a better prism to where we’ve been and where we may yet be going.
For instance, on July 4, 1816, construction began in Rome, N.Y., on the Erie Canal, an eight-year project that announced that where America was going was westward, into a century of unparalleled expansionism. Suddenly the country was more than the Eastern seaboard — it was the Great Lakes and beyond, and all its goods (and all the people who already lived there, too).
Stephen Foster was born on July 4, 1826. “The Father of American Music” wrote “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races, “Old Folks at Home (Swanee River),” and others, many of which were used in the popular new genre of minstrel shows, with white performers singing the sentimental lyrics in blackface. Black people singing their own songs on stage? Unthinkable.
Also in 1826: Former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 50th anniversary of the document they signed. How does that happen? Were the two former rivals, both ailing, hanging on to mark the occasion? The mind-body connection is a strange one. (As a capper, James Monroe died on July 4 five years later.)
In 1827, slavery was finally abolished in New York State after decades of gradual measures. Judge William Jay wrote that “more than ten thousand of our fellow-citizens have been restored to those rights which our fathers in the Declaration of Independence pronounced to be inalienable.” The African-American community of Manhattan held a parade in the streets.
On July 4, 1831, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” was first performed at Boston’s Park Street Church. On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into a small cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in Concord “because I wished to live deliberately,” thus choosing the wilderness that America had once been over the muscular nation it was becoming. He wouldn’t be the last.
Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was first published on July 4, 1855, a song of the self that remains a bible of American individualism, one that continues to echo across the digital universe in countless ways. That’s another side effect of democracy: All barbaric yawps deserve to be heard, for poetic better and self-absorbed worse.
On that date in 1863, the Confederate army began its retreat from Gettysburg, marking the turning of the Civil War. On the same day in 1881, Booker T. Washington established the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers, now Tuskegee University. Buffalo Bill Cody held the first of his Wild West Shows on July 4, 1882 in North Plate, Neb., marking the replacement of the western frontier with its more popular mythical version.
But we like our myths of conquering the wilderness, and the date also marks many of our imperialist adventures abroad. The Republic of Hawaii, an interim government formed after American interests overthrew the islands’ queen, was established on July 4, 1894. The same date in 1898 saw the US seize Wake Island during the Spanish-American War and, in 1901, install future president William Taft as governor general of the Philippines.
July 4, 1910: African-American boxer Jack Johnson knocks out his white opponent Jim Jeffries, leading to outraged whites rioting in 50 cities. July 4, 1942: The first American bombing missions are flown over enemy territory in Europe. July 4, 1959: A new 49-star US flag is unfurled to acknowledge Alaska’s statehood (followed a year later by a 50-star flag for Hawaii).
This one’s big: Lyndon Johnson (reluctantly) signs the Freedom of Information Act on July 4, 1966, inaugurating a new era of transparency and accountability in the federal government. (Massachusetts, which exempts all three branches of government from the state’s Public Records Law, has yet to learn the lesson.)
The date marks the absolutely ephemeral (1970, Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” show debuts). It marks the utterly profound (1997, the Pathfinder spacecraft lands on Mars; 2004, the Freedom Tower cornerstone is laid in lower Manhattan at the site of the fallen World Trade Centers).
You have to take it all in — the celebration of the achievements and the recognition of the failures. What we’ve accomplished and the miles we still have to go. This is not just a day to gorge ourselves on hot dogs and blow off fireworks (or fingers); it’s a day to ask ourselves how we can do better as a people. To quote James Baldwin, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
That, in part, is what’s involved in participating in a nation of equals. You could even say it’s self-evident.