Monday, July 10, 2006

We Are Free To Be Dumb

Fourth of July, that summer holiday that brings to mind hamburgers and hot dogs burnt beyond recognition, humidity percentages reaching far into the triple digits, and amateur-launched fireworks that turn drought-charred brush piles into epic conflagrations. I find the Fourth to be a highly ironic celebration, since few Americans seem to even know why they have off work. A lot of Americans could very well think that the Fourth is when George Washington cut down the cherry tree and used it stave off the German U-Boats from attacking Gettysburg. We are a country of inveterate simpletons, as is firmly evidenced by our popular fascination with things that light up the night sky and go “boom.”

Even what little Americans do know about the Fourth is wrong. We didn’t declare our independence on July 4th; we did it on July 2nd. John Adams, writing to his wife Abigail, even wrote: “The Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival." If anyone ought to know when to celebrate our Independence Day, it would be John Adams, he happened to be there.

Like any good American folk story, the list of falsehoods relating to Independence Day goes on. The belief that the Decleration was signed on the Fourth is imprecise, to put it mildly. The formal signing, with all Delegates to the Continental Congress dressed in their gilded finery depicted in John Trumbull’s painting, never actually occurred, Trumbull just made it up for dramatic effect. In reality, the Decleration was signed on a walk-in basis, with the last signature being added somewhat later in the summer of 1776, and the names of the signers not being made public until January of 1777. As it turns out, contemporaries viewed the Decleration of Independence for what it was: namely, a document that dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s, of liberty. The newly minted Americans rightly knew that the act itself was worth celebrating, not some ink-laden piece of parchment.

Because of these momentous events, whenever they may have happened, it seems we are free to know next to nothing about our history. I don’t think that’s what the Founders had in mind.

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