While contemplating the momentous event in human history that was the American colonies’ break from Great Britain, John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776 saying that: “the day will be the most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival . . . it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade . . . bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this day forward forevermore.”
The day Adams was referring to was actually July 2, 1776, when Richard Henry Lee’s resolution before congress was unanimously approved. “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” But the formal adoption, indeed the date ascribed on the document itself, was on July 4, and so this is the day we celebrate as the birthday of the most important country since the British Empire against which we rebelled. Indeed, we are one of the few great nations that can boast of a bona fide birthday, unlike many older states that seemed to have emerged out of the mist of centuries.
This is always such a festive day in part because it celebrates one of the bravest and most optimistic political acts in history. And so many generations of Americans have accumulated countless memories of this holiday and what it means to them. My Fourth of July memories growing up in Illinois are typical Norman Rockwell fare. Picnics by Honey Lake. Fireworks in the evening. Friends and family and the smoky aroma of bar-b-cue. (It was good to be a kid growing up in a Chicago suburb in the 1970s and 80s.)
But not all July 4ths were spent in such halcyon surroundings. I recall spending one such weekend at Gettysburg. For the men at that time, the anniversary took on a meaning more profound than I will ever know. The battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 1st to the 3rd in 1863. On the Fourth of July in that year the two great armies of the North and the South glared at one another across a devastated battlefield where roughly 50,000 of them were now casualties…Meade’s victorious men too exhausted to counter-attack, Lee’s defeated troops preparing for a painful retreat. As I trekked over that hallowed ground I tried to imagine what the Fourth meant to these men here who had just seen so much carnage, their ears still ringing from the roar of artillery and thousands of rifles in continuous fire.
For the Army of the Potomac it must have been a glorious day. An affirmation, decided here on this very battlefield, that their nation as they knew it would endure. The grand experiment in Republicanism began seventy-six years before in Philadelphia when a new Constitution was drafted, could survive. And that a stronger and better country would emerge from the ashes of this Pennsylvania crossroads.
And how did the Southern men feel? What did the Fourth mean to them now…if anything at all? Was it all a lie to them? Those battered and bloody and brave men who in their minds by taking up arms against the Lincolnites were enacting the true legacy of Jefferson et. al, in 1776 when a Declaration was signed proclaiming that all men have the right to decide for themselves under what form of government they would live. That they denied these rights to four million of their fellow Americans kept in the chains of slavery curiously did not enter this thought process. (In fairness to the Southerners, the abolition of slavery was probably not what compelled the Union army to fight like demons those three days, but the overarching issue of slavery cast its unavoidable shadow over the field that July 4th nonetheless).
So my wonderful memories of many a cheeseburger, backyard whiffle ball game and ear-splitting fireworks display seemed rather insignificant as I pondered the true meaning of it all whether from high atop Little Round Top, while leaning on a cannon on Cemetery Hill, contemplating the spot where the Union General Reynolds was shot down, or even as I read the monument erected by men from my home state marking the spot where a band of 8th Illinois cavalrymen fired the first shot at 7:30 am on that first day. I kept thinking what did the Fourth mean to the men here that day? My own recollections I realized were dwarfed by the momentousness of the struggle that took place here in 1863 so that nation I love so much would long endure.
What I did come away with from Gettysburg that day was a marveling that only a nation founded upon the bedrock of such universal truths that all men are endowed by God with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, could have survived the cataclysm that was the Civil War…and come out the other side a stronger and more united country. A country that, having settled the matter of union and slavery once and for all, was now ready to roll up its sleeves and literally change the world…I argue for the better. The United States is truly an exceptional land. Let us never forget that.
Happy Independence Day!