It was written by Thomas Jefferson and amended by the Continental Congress until, as John Adams said, “would you break its spirit?”. It wasn’t signed by all the members of the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776. In fact, the last signature wasn’t appended until the next January. It wasn’t printed and distributed until, I believe, August of that very hot summer. It was approved on July 2nd, and John Adams, for one, believed that it would be on July 2nd every year that the country would celebrate the declaration with fireworks and galas. So he was off by two days. We were at war, with England, which believed it owned us. We disagreed. We disagreed with firearms and battles and vituperation, but we also disagreed by writing the glorious words of our Declaration of Independence. And, in the end, it was these words that prevailed, even more than our tough little armies.
Today is Independence Day for the United States of America. We’re having our problems (we always had our problems), we seem to lurch from one extreme position to the opposite (we always did and probably always will), but we’re still here, and that’s fairly remarkable. You see, our system of government had been tried once or twice in history, but it never seemed to really catch on. Most governments found the concept of the people being governed also doing the governing to be at the least laughable and at the most much more than alarming.
The very idea, government being instituted and continued for the benefit of the governed! The whole point of government was to benefit the guy (or much more rarely the gal) at the top. We laugh about the term today because it feels to us like our elected representatives belly up to the public trough more than serve us, but before the United States, the idea of a “public servant” did not really (except for lip service) exist. Oh, kings always bowed to God and they knew better than to get too frisky in their kingship or the peasants would make their lives highly inconvenient, but the king was not the servant, everybody else was.
But we in what was then the thirteen colonies of North America didn’t like that and we got real vocal about it. Maybe we didn’t start it. That was Greece. And the subjects of the all-powerful king in England started upsetting the apple cart a long, long time ago. And we’re not the only republic or democracy in the world today. After 1776, quite a few places on the planet created their own styles of government by the people, of the people and for the people — countries such as France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, India, a whole bunch of South America, Africa and Asia, and it still goes on, more or less successfully, throughout the world. Sadly, whether the people succeed or whether they fail, there’s a huge human price to be paid. There always was. There always will be. “Give me Liberty or give me death” isn’t just a pretty catchphrase.
And sometimes that “public servant” business does feel kind of nominal, doesn’t it? But we not just in the US but all over the world who think all the people have rights believe all of us by right have a say in how we’re governed. We keep trying and failing and lurching around and enjoying a few sometimes all too brief successes, and we’re still here. And in the US we’re still tinkering with the concept (and with the Constitution we wrote later, which starts, heart-wrenchingly, “we the people”), trying to make it better.
Today is Independence Day. Being Americans (nothing else seemed to stick to call us, even though it still annoys the heck out of everybody else in our hemisphere, as it should since all the land in the western hemisphere is called America), we celebrate with fireworks and brass bands and barbecue. But there’s also a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye because — well, we’re still here and we’re still trying, for us and for all the people of the world (meddlers that we are), to show that governments serve us, not the other way around.
People love their countries (when they’re not actively hating them). We, as citizens of the United States of America, are by no means unique in that. But this Independence Day is our very own day to celebrate not just a piece of land or a government, but the rebirth of a concept. That concept is simple. Not easy, but simple. Each individual human being has “certain inalienable rights” because he or she is human. These rights cannot be granted by a government and they cannot be taken away.
So to enhance that lump in the throat and that tear in the eye, I found this song on YouTube. Katherine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” while vacationing in Colorado so it has a special meaning for me, and nobody ever sang it like Ray Charles, whom we lost in 2004. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xk1P1913y0 And I would also suggest, in honor of the day, watching the film “1776”, from the Broadway musical of the same name, about the hot summer in Philadelphia when the irascible and quarreling representatives of the thirteen colonies (colonies which agreed on very little except that King George was not the boss of them) created the United States of America. And there’s always fireworks and barbecue and a brass band.
With my lover’s quarrel with my country because it’s not perfect in abeyance for this Independence Day, here’s to the United States of America, from sea to shining sea.