Independence Day – the 4th of July – is celebrated with fireworks. Kids often think the whole day is about the fireworks, after the BBQ, cousins mingling, flags flying, things on sale, time on water, summer at mid-stride. Now and then, it is worth discussing those fireworks – what they mean.
Fireworks have been around since BC, were known in Europe before America, but our Founders – and American pioneers a century before Independence – thought of fireworks as special, lighting the sky.
Early Americans used them for religious events, but when they risked everything for freedom, threw away the notion that they would bow to ANY ideology, ruler, or group, they got more special.
On a hot summer in 1776, Americans – our predecessors, those to whom we owe everything, who still represent defying tyranny and fear, living with courage and commitment, signed the Declaration of Independence.
You cannot imagine what this meant, what signing that document meant, what saying they would defy the King of England – ruler of most of the world – meant. It meant more than what all the heroes in all your favorite movies do, from those Star Wars rebels to the Top Gun pilots, from Superman and Rocky to Katniss, Wonder Woman, and Captain America.
It meant more than loss of your job, house, savings, and peace of mind. It meant that they – all who supported them – were pledging their very “lives and sacred honors” to that one mission, risking parents and children, siblings, and friends, for the idea that they would fight to the death for freedom.
Think on this for a moment. Today, with cause but in perspective, we grouse about life, not enough money, too much inflation, COVID, cranky neighbors, misguided media, lots of stress and inconvenience.
Now, imagine that the stress and inconvenience for which you are signing up – you are choosing these things – involves opening yourself to being killed, hunted, your house taken, years on the run, loss of all stability, security, potential loss of the lives you most love, and lifetime alienation.
Come with me on a walk. Benjamin Franklin, elder of freedom’s cause, lost the relationship he treasured most, the one he had and held dear with his only son, who went Tory. The homes and lives of family tied to all the Founders, even those of whom we seldom hear, were all at risk, many of these men and their families killed in battles that lasted – because the war lasted – seven years.
So, when those fireworks go off, remember – they go off for you, because those men and women, and all those who have died defending what had been handed them, as if by chalice and who lie at Arlington, count on you. You are special, and they count on you to celebrate, but then stand and be counted.
So, about those fireworks … celebrating what the 2nd Continental Congress did with the Declaration, maybe the words of John Adams should be recalled. Thinking about the Declaration of Independence, made real in that epic year 1776, he hoped “with pomp, parade…bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other,” Americans would celebrate their own courage.
The idea was swiftly accepted, fireworks used at every Independence Day since 1777, the first Independence Day celebration in Philadelphia. And on that occasion, ships’ cannon fired a 13-gun salute, for the resolve and courage of the 13 colonies.
Even in 1777, the Pennsylvania Evening Post described the role of fireworks in elevating all hearts. “At night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.” And the Sons of Liberty set off fireworks in Boston.
In the War of 1812, the so-called “second war of independence,” fireworks took on new significance, sky alight not just with resolve to hold onto our independence, confront the British again, but affirming we will never back down. Americans stand for something, and what we stand for is not negotiable.
In 1814, Francis Scott Key reflected on that war, the fiery sky. He wrote a poem that, in 1931, was set to music, now known as the “Star Spangled Banner.”
His interest was not in promoting war, but in celebrating courage. The line that sticks is one we all know: “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”
So, here is the thing: When fireworks boom on Independence Day, when frivolity and gratitude mix, when family and friends raise a glass, linger, and laugh, join in the fun, know that we are people of memory and celebration, who do not forget our roots – and then, for a moment, remember the risk and loss, the power and prayer, the strength and never-say-die commitment that got us here, and started there. Happy 4th of July!
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