Sparklers are typically the “gateway drug” to children’s fascination with fireworks. Diamond Sparklers in Ohio is the sole manufacturer of sparklers remaining in the United States. Every year we celebrate our nation’s birthday with both public and private fireworks celebrations that feature displays that primarily are manufactured in China.
When I was in elementary school I recall that often our lessen plans followed the calendar, which meant that we annually learned about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln around their birthdays, near Valentine’s day. The classroom bulletin boards would reflect this trifecta with profiles of the presidents stapled to white doilies onto the corrugated paper and surrounded by hearts. To an inattentive student like me this left me with the idea that George Washington (despite chopping down the cherry tree) maybe had a big heart and maybe Abe Lincoln (though honest) appearing pretty dour was a great lover?
My point being, we were not in school over July 4th and therefore Independence Day was never part of the school curriculum. Sure, I grew up knowing it was our nation’s birthday and fondly recall the Bicentennial in 1976. The Bicentennial coincided with a presidential election and the summer Olympiad. Everything from pancake mix to ketchup bottles were emblazoned with some sort of Red White and Blue label or commemorative design. Commercialism being as patriotic as a John Philip Sousa march!
The thing about being a kid is that time is a difficult concept. By the time I got out of elementary school, if you had asked me for a history of the United States, I may have told you that the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock, George Washington got off and after planting a plantation at Mount Vernon invited some Indians (yep, didn’t start using the term Native American until I was in high school) over for some corn on the cob and turkey with mashed potatoes after the harvest. Everyone loved him, so he became our first president. This is likely no reflection on my teachers, more of my own mind that tended to wander and as noted earlier a lack of concept of time.
If any others have this warped sense of history, let me share with you that the Mayflower set sail in September of 1620, it was the autumn of 1621 that is denoted as the origin of Thanksgiving to celebrate the first harvest. George Washington’s great grandfather was not born until ten years later and it was 1656 before he crossed the ocean and settled in Colonial Virginia, he had a son Lawrence, who had a son Augustine who sired George. This makes George third generation living in what would be known as the United States of America, on my mother’s side I myself am just second generation, my grandfather having arrived from Ireland ninety years ago this year. My daughter is currently deciphering a small leather bound calendar he carried as a journal that year. He has noted dancing as a popular activity and when he wrote letters to a particular young lady (not my grandmother) a family he dined with regularly and then hopeful thoughts that another young lady would be at dancing (my eventual grandmother). Not much of his crossing is documented and one gap is explained with his good fortune at having found his diary along the roadside. Police raids and other notations remind us that teenagers around the world aren’t always doing what they are supposed to be up to. So my own maternal side of the family arrived over 300 years after the Mayflower and more than 250 years after Washington’s descendants. To a child, that seems like around perhaps dinosaurs and Moses era which were close, right?
So July Fourth, a time for social gatherings, boating, picnics, parades and mattress sales commemorates what? Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in June of 1776. July 2nd of that year Congress voted to declare our independence. It was not signed until August 2nd of that year. It was delivered to Great Britain in November of 1776. You may have noticed that none of these events occurred on the fourth day of the seventh month. Well politicians then, much like now, did not always agree on everything. As the result, it took a couple of days for the Continental Congress to approve the final wording. July 4th commemorates the day that the changes and edits were finally approved.
You may be imagining that this led immediately to annual celebrations, backyard badminton and pool parties. It wasn’t until 1870 that July 4th was commemorated as a National Holiday. You also might be thinking that George Washington was president when all of this occurred. George Washington was not elected president until February 4th of 1789. He was twice unanimously elected by the electoral college to serve four years. If you wonder what his wife Martha wore to the inauguration that took place in New York, you might be surprised to know she did not attend but stayed home to manage Mount Vernon. George was reluctant to accept this newly created position because of how the young nation was divided among partisan lines. A lot has changed, yet much remains the same.
Whether you fly the flag, light fireworks or simply take the day to relax, it’s important to remember that since its inception this country has been a nation of people that come from different places, different belief systems and differing opinions. Yet we all can contribute and it’s a relatively safe place to share ones opinion, even when you don’t agree with your neighbor or perhaps the actions of your government. When hosting an immigrant family for Thanksgiving a number of years ago, the father commented how much he enjoyed our table conversation, as even in a private home gathering with family in his homeland, one could not speak freely for fear of government retribution. He makes his home here now with his wife and son and when his parents come to visit their government holds all of their assets as an assurance they will return. A former employee who went through the naturalization process after graduating from college and whose parents remain as college professors in his native land told me “Despite other countries criticism of the United States, most parents around the world wish that their children could live here.”.
I heard a young man the other day comment “I’m an American but I’m not proud of it.” and I thought about all of the people who had made sacrifices, simply so he could say that. I thought about what might result if he were to publicly utter such a thought in another country. While no place on earth will ever be perfect, the vision of those who took a risk and came and the others who shouldered the work of trying to lay out a plan for how to incorporate and tolerate the desires of such a wide array of opinions is something worth celebrating.
So raise a Coke or grab a beer and celebrate our nations birthday! Make a new tradition with family and friends. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the United States remains in the growing pains of a young country. A tradition for many is a pound cake and Cool Whip cake decorated with blueberries and strawberries to look like an American Flag. To the young, that’s ALWAYS been a part of July 4th. You can wait until July 5th to let them know that Cool Whip was not invented until 1966. Why spoil a good party?