April 25, 2018

Guest column

What didst thou celebrate July 4?

By Edwin Cooney

No, no! You can’t fool me. I saw you crunching potato chips — periodically soaking them in chip dip — munching on hot dogs, hamburgers and barbecued chicken. Like “The Shadow” from old time radio, I was an unseen witness as you swallowed potato and pasta salads and gnawed corn from the cob while swilling down punch, soda and beer. I never saw your hand over your heart, but you stood up during the seventh inning stretch of that baseball game you were enjoying and belted out both “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “God Bless America.” What’s more, you didn’t even seem to care whether or not you were singing in tune. As I said, don’t kid me, you were definitely celebrating something quite special!

What? You were celebrating the Fourth of July, America’s birthday, you say? Wow! America’s 234th birthday, you insist! Yes, indeed, I know, that’s a mess of birthdays. Tell me, though, and be more precise, please: why were you celebrating America’s 234th birthday?

One of the most traditional American institutions is the Fourth of July speech or written commentary declaring what this hallowed day ought to mean to you. Hence, as something of a switch, I offer a set of questions that may enable you to decide for yourself (for a change) the Fourth of July’s real significance.

Which of the following do you most associate with the Fourth of July: fireworks, parades, toasted marshmallows, watermelon, soda and beer — or the assertion that “all men are created equal?”

Which of the following phrases fits the way you regard the Fourth of July: is it Independence Day or America’s birthday?

When was America conceived and what portion of the population was most responsible for nurturing America’s conception? Was it the rich, the poor, the average citizen, the religious, the good, the bad, the educated, the respectful, the opportunistic, the elite or a combination of these? Be specific if you say “a combination” of all of the above.

If the American colonies were to be “free and independent states from Great Britain,” did that automatically mean a “republican form of government” for you and me?

Do the words “freedom” and “independence” mean the same thing? If not, how do they differ?

Did you celebrate what you’ve been told about America or what you’ve figured out for yourself?

If America’s independence is a gift from God is the independence of every other nation in the world also a gift from God?

Should God bless America exclusively? Should we care whether or not God blesses other nations as well?

If independence stands for freedom, what kind of freedom? Are we free to do what we want to, what we can or what we ought?

If Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton were to return today, would they recognize 21st Century America as their legacy? What aspects of American life would they endorse and which would they disown?

Did the Declaration of Independence guarantee personal freedom?

Has the celebration of the “Fourth of July” always been a nonpartisan event? Might Federalist New England have favored a different date for celebration than Democratic-Republican Virginia?

Finally, should we make room on the calendar (though admittedly there’s little room remaining) to celebrate “Freedom Day?”

Whoops! This was to be a questionnaire, not a commentary — except that the idea behind the last question is for me so compelling!

Edwin Cooney is a national political and historical columnist.

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