July 4, then and now.

“…And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  – concluding words of the Declaration of Independence

Here’s a real-world thought: often our national celebrations of today commemorate events or moments that were not at the time occasions for joy. Instead they mark some historic shouldering of grave responsibility and commitment at great personal cost and corporate peril. Labor Day reminds us that work in whatever form has never been easy and should always be honored. Veterans Day and Memorial Day prompt us to remember, and be grateful for, lives of service – and acts of sacrifice – by men and women in the military. Martin Luther King Day memorializes not just the man but the broader struggle to overcome racism and prejudice of every form.  

The same is true of July 4th.

As we observe Independence Day tomorrow, we should certainly enjoy and take the fullest measure of its contemporary delights – the family and friends, the food, the ball game, the fireworks, and more. I’m looking forward to every minute of all that! Aren’t you? But perhaps for us the joy could begin with something deeper:

  • calling to mind that in 1776 the mood was somber in the colonies. It was no small step to revolt against the mightiest power of the world at that time.  
  • tempered by a sense of how much there remains to do, and marked by personal recommitment to making the United States and the world a better place.

It’s sobering to note (as Richardson Atkinson has done in the Washington Post) the that England of that period was basking in glory. Colonial successes not just in America but across the world. Military victories over the French and Spanish in the Seven Years’ War. Mastery of sea power and projection of strength to the farthest reaches of the Americas and the Philippines. There was economic prosperity to match; industrial and agrarian revolutions were underway. England felt comfortable dictating terms of trade to all and sundry, including the colonies, taxing as they saw fit. King George III had every reason to feel good; triumphalism reigned. A little grumbling in one of the colonies across the Atlantic? Nothing to worry about. As Atkinson points out, all that bears disturbing similarity to the America of today.

The cure for such hubris begins with an unflinching inventory of the problems we face. Public health. Jobs. Education. Cyber threats, including foreign interference in our elections and more. Some are more fundamental in nature, for example, climate change and immigration.

These latter two, and others, require that we act individually, but also institutionally; that we act domestically, but also internationally. They require attention that probes beneath the symptoms – in the case of climate change, the rise in global temperatures and sea levels, the die-off of plant and animal species; in the case of immigration, the massive rise in refugee populations, the squalor and hopelessness of their circumstances at national borders. Instead they demand we start with the root causes: complacency about the fate of others, reluctance to shoulder responsibility, timidity when it comes to embracing the idea that we’re all in it together, putting our lives, our prosperity, our integrity on the line. Given our addiction to our personal comfort and well-being, we might, like those in Alcoholics Anonymous, have to appeal to a Power greater than ourselves.

Sound familiar? That brings us to the truest, deepest spirit of July 4th, namely, reaffirming, declaring to each other, and to ourselves, our continuing commitment to meeting these 21st-century challenges, maybe in the following way “…And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  


ICYMI. Here are two LOTRW Independence-Day thoughts from prior years:

2011. In(ter)dependence Day

2014. Let freedom ring!

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