Commentary: Liberty, fearlessness, and the 4th

While most nations came together because of a common language, soil, religion or ethnicity, the United States was born because our founders believed in a bevy of principles.

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Like any important holiday, it’s easy to lose sight of what and why we’re celebrating this weekend.

As a former historian and schoolteacher, I’d remind people that America’s independence is significant because it’s the defining characteristic of our country and its citizenry.

While most nations came together because of a common language, soil, religion or ethnicity, the United States was born because our founders believed in a bevy of principles. Having escaped European religious persecution, they were, first and foremost, defenders of freedom and opportunity.

These concepts form the bedrock of our rich history and have guided us during the 245 years since we declared our independence from Great Britain. The Revolution represented a movement of people seeking sovereignty through consent of the governed.

The signers of that now-famous document knew declaring freedom from the dictatorship of King George could be their death sentence. Their scattered states didn’t have the numbers or training to defeat the British, who would soon sail across the Atlantic to descend on the colonies. Yet these God-fearing men put their signatures, their lives, and their destiny on that July 4 parchment, because they sought liberty and autonomy.

The first celebration of American independence took place four days later in Philadelphia — where the Continental Congress was meeting — when the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time.

The Liberty Bell then rang out from Independence Hall; King George’s coat of arms was taken down, followed by booming cannons signifying the birth of a new nation.

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by A.J. Kaufman)

Philadelphia celebrated the first anniversary with an official dinner for the Continental Congress. This included gun salutes, speeches, prayers, music, and parades, with shops decked in red, white, and blue.

John Adams believed Americans should celebrate a “great anniversary festival.” In a letter to his wife, Abigail, he wrote, “It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”

In 1778, General George Washington marked Independence Day with a double ration of rum for his soldiers and an artillery salute. Across the ocean, Adams and Benjamin Franklin held a dinner with their fellow Americans in Paris.

In 1783, religious North Carolinians marked the first recorded celebration of July 4 with a music program titled “The Psalm of Joy.”

In 1791, the first recorded use of the name “Independence Day” occurred.

In 1870, Congress made Independence Day a federal holiday.

In 1926, on the Declaration of Independence’s sesquicentennial, President Calvin Coolidge gave a stirring speech in Philadelphia, which included a portion noting, “Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence.”

In our lifetimes, July 4 is commonly associated with patriotic displays, cookouts, baseball games, weekends at the lake, family reunions, and assorted ceremonies celebrating America’s traditions. Parades often occur in the morning, while fireworks displays ring out in the evening at neighborhood parks, fairgrounds and town squares.

Let’s also not forget the reasons we are free to do so.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by A.J. Kaufman)