If you are like me, your Fourth of July rituals have changed through the years. When I was a mere tyke, I went to a parade on the main street. Representatives from a VFW post; floats decorated by kids from the day camps around town; a marching band or two. Lame and boring, I thought even then. (How often does a marching band actually play in tune?) Then a family reunion picnic at Aunt Maude’s where the boredom increased. In the evening, fireworks on the lakefront—the only good part of the day.
As a young married, the spouse and I did not have any firm Fourth of July rituals. Sometimes we went to New York City’s fireworks–always magnificent. Sometimes, however, we were traveling on Independence Day, at least once in Italy where I watched Wimbledon on a TV in a store window.
For decades now, I have been in a little summer community that has its own Fourth of July pageantry. A tiny parade followed by a program that almost never varies—a few songs; children reciting the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; a couple dressed as George and Martha; a short speech by a community member; the releasing of thirteen doves; and cookies and watermelon afterwards. We then marvel at how Americana-ish we are. (I have some problems with the early morning routine. A rider on horseback goes through the community before a civilized wakeup time intoning, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” While this might be appropriate for Patriots’ Day, it is wrong for the Fourth. I don’t know where Paul Revere was on July 4, 1776, but he was not signing the Declaration, and he was not looking for lanterns to see whether if it was by land or sea. I have read my Longfellow.)
For a long time before the present rituals, however, I had my personal Fourth of July routine. The New York Times printed the entire Declaration on the first section’s back page, and I would read it. Even after dozens of readings, I would note the archaisms, but still admire the rhythm and the phrasing of the Declaration’s first section—“a decent respect to [not for] the opinions of mankind. . .”; “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established. . . “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
If we even think of the Declaration today, we usually only contemplate these opening paragraphs, but I was also fascinated by the list of the elegantly-written grievances about the King and tried to remember, not always successfully, what specifics had occasioned the complaints. Some of my frustration at my lack of historical knowledge was relieved when, after many perusals of the Declaration, I read American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier, who wrote “Today most Americans, including professional historians, would be hard put to identify exactly what prompted many of the accusations Jefferson hurled against the King, which is not surprising since even some well-informed persons of the eighteenth century were perplexed.” (Even so, I find it ironic today that the indictments included the assertions that the Crown had impeded immigration to our shores and prevented free trade. The list includes some . . . shall we say . . . overstatements of fact. My own research mirrors Maier’s: “Even the most assiduous efforts have, however, identified no colonists of the revolutionaries’ generation who were actually transported ‘beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses.’”)
Even so, each reading led me to the conclusion that Jefferson was a genius. (The wife says that after finishing Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, she can no longer hold Jefferson in the highest regard.) This, too, has been tempered as I have learned that the Declaration was preceded by ninety or so state and local Declarations whose phrasings often were echoed in the Fourth of July Declaration and that Jefferson’s draft was frequently improved by the editing done by Congress. But still, Jefferson produced the draft that in its final form still lives. Or at least it lives, if we, not just a few academics, continue to read and appreciate it. Yes, decorate the coaster wagons and golf carts with crepe paper, play John Philips Sousa, listen to platitudes about our freedom, watch the jets fly over, have a family softball game, eat ice cream and watermelon, but at least once in awhile also read the document that is the cause for all the celebration.