Many countries have a day for national celebration. Might be when the country became independent or another major event in its history.
The French celebrate July 14. Because on that day in 1789, in the midst of the French Revolution, the people stormed the most hated prison of them all, the Bastille in Paris.
In Sweden, the National Day is June 6. On this day in 1523, Gustav Vasa was elected king of Sweden. That ended the Kalmar Union that had bound Denmark, Norway and Sweden together under one Queen or King for over 100 years. Sweden was independent again.
Also on June 6, in 1809, a new constitution was enacted in Sweden, dividing power, thereby ending the King’s absolute power.
The 4th of July, Independence Day in the U.S., is well-known far beyond American shores. Even if it’s not celebrated in other countries (much to the surprise of some U.S. tourists abroad). Seems everyone has heard of the American Revolution though.
July 4, 1776, the original Independence Day
On July 4, 1776, 13 American colonies made themselves an independent country, proudly declaring:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It of course didn’t start there and it didn’t end there. There was a war going on. Many inhabitants of the colonies hadn’t seen eye to eye with the very remote government back in London for a long time. A Continental Congress was convened and eventually full-blown war broke out that didn’t end until 1783, after France and Spain stepped in on the side of the fledgling country.
Yet even then it was not a sure thing that this new American experiment would succeed. 13 states had come together, but faced a number of issues that threatened to pull them apart. Like slavery. And so the framers of the Constitution determined that concessions on slavery were required to ensure the support of southern colonies, notably South Carolina and Georgia. Yet, in sidestepping the issue, the seeds were sown for another war.
Clearly some things were not so self-evident after all.
My first Independence Day celebration
It was the summer of 1972 and I spent a couple of weeks with a family in Berlin, Germany.
One day, the mom suggested I go to this 4th of July observation in the American Sector. I’d seen American soldiers around Berlin, but never thought that much about it. Hadn’t realized just how important their presence was for the continued freedom of Berlin.
I found myself on a wide street in front of the American military headquarters, watching a splendid military parade. Lots of onlookers too. U.S. soldiers and their families of course. But also many Germans.
After all, Berlin was a divided city, thanks to the Cold War. The city sat far inside communist East Germany. Only the presence of American, British and French troops in the city kept the Russian tanks from rolling in.
In the parade, rows of American tanks, armored vehicles and artillery rolled by. Certainly seemed like it went on forever. Over a PA system, the name of each state and the date it was admitted to the union was red off, punctuated by artillery salutes. Very official. Very impressive.
After the parade was over, I went back home to the my host family and the regular German day went on. But somehow I had a sense that things went on so perfectly normally exactly because the Americans were there. Guarantors of freedom.
After all, President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin 2 years after the Wall was built, famously declaring: “Ich bin in Berliner”. (I am a Berliner.) Expressing solidarity with the people of a divided city and letting them know that he had their backs.
Freedom must not be taken for granted
Since then I’ve participated in many more celebrations of Independence Day. And lots of things have changed since then. The Cold War ended, Berlin is once again one city in a reunified Germany. No need for U.S. soldiers in Berlin now.
That’s not to say that we can take freedom for granted. When the Continental Congress declared the independence of this new country, there was no guarantee the country (or idea) would persevere. Still no guarantee in 2020. We’re facing our very own set of unique challenges.
The world is not safe. Freedom and democracy are under attack in many places. Including right here at home.
Danger is within
Remember Abraham Lincoln’s words:
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! … I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address, 1838
How perceptive he was. Note that he said these words in 1838. 23 years before the Civil War almost tore the nation asunder. But he was clearly aware of the many issues in the still new country that were potential powder kegs.
2 World Wars and many regional conflicts later, it’s still quite clear that the biggest threat to these United States is from within. If we as a nation allow issues to divide us, pursue extremism and polarization, then we will ultimately lose our freedoms.
Words of wisdom
Here are some other thoughts for Independence Day. Words that we do exceedingly well to really listen to and then heed.
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Each of us has a vital part in preserving liberty and freedom for each other.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
In 1987, Ronald Reagan visited Berlin and made a speech in front of the Wall in Berlin where he laid down a challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Might have to think about this one for a bit. Because it’s a challenger…
“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
In the midst of the Great Depression, FDR rolled out the New Deal that put in place a security net that has become foundational to our modern society and helps our pursuit of life, liberty and justice.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Humanly speaking, if you were imprisoned for 27 years, you might be forgiven for not caring for the freedom of those who imprisoned you, but to look for revenge. Nelson instead choose dialog and working towards a better future.
“The United States was born in revolution and nurtured by struggle. Throughout our history, the American people have befriended and supported all those who seek independence and a better way of life.”
The future of the American Experiment
“I should like to know if, taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle, you begin making exceptions to it, where will you stop? If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?”
Either we’re all humans or none of us are. Because any line we draw, defining one group as superior to others, will inevitably be arbitrary. Subject to change on a whim.
“When plunder has become a way of life for a group of people living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it, and a moral code that glorifies it.”
‘Greed is good’ was the motto of the 1980s Wall Street. Ebenezer Scrooge would have agreed. And yet, in the end, Ebenezer did realize his error and saw that life and happiness lies in providing a better future for all.
“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.”
Given that Thomas Paine was attacked by both conservatives and revolutionaries, one might have expected him to be less charitable to those whose opinions differed from his. But the lifelong revolutionary understood that true liberty only comes when everyone’s liberty is protected.
We celebrate July 4 as Independence Day, because on that day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed and made public. The greatest experiment in history started. And is still going on. All of us who live in this country are part of shaping it. We each have a part in how it succeeds. Or doesn’t.
Let’s make sure it’s still around and free for the 250th anniversary, which isn’t that far away any more.
This land is your land, and this land is my land
From the California, to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
— Woody Guthrie
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