What do you remember about Fourth of July celebrations when you were a kid? I am old enough to remember when we celebrated the bicentennial of our founding in 1976. It was a big deal; lots of speeches, the parade of tall ships going through the harbor in New York, and the fireworks shows on TV. Living in a very rural area of Northern California, we had no fireworks displays in my hometown of Oak Run, but we did have a parade. If you wanted to see real fireworks, you had to drive up the road a few miles and watch the fireworks displays of Redding and Anderson from Bullskin Ridge.
July was always a busy month at home. Truckloads of hay from our ranch in Oregon would have to be unloaded in the barns, and there were always cattle to feed in the feedlot. I'm not sure if we did anything special for the 4th, we would have a BBQ and maybe go swimming. As a kid, the Fourth of July was a blur of red, white and blue, firecrackers (if we could get them) and maybe a drive down to Redding to watch a fireworks show from a distance closer than 40 miles away.
This was my understanding of July fourth for most of early life. I had a thumbnail sketch of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and the Liberty Bell, but that was about it. I didn't know the story behind the events, I didn't know the why behind the what. In that, I don't think I was alone.
As with most things historical, we are doing a terrible job teaching our children about the American Revolution. I believe the root cause lies in the fact we were not taught ourselves. In a recent Marist poll, only 31percent of adults under the age of 30 knew the year in which we declared independence. Only 67 percent knew we declared independence from Great Brittan. Like so much in life, you cannot teach what you do not know. As Americans, we know very little about where we came from. Nevertheless, back to the Fourth of July.
We may look back with hindsight on the Continental Congress' Declaration of Independence and say, well of course they declared independence, America should be its own nation. Oh, if only it were so easy. The struggle for our independence, as well as the very survival of our fledgling government and revolutionary army, was hanging on by a thread as the delegates in Philadelphia met to address the question of independence.
Only by understanding the situation as is stood in early summer 1776 will we be able to appreciate the boldness and courage of what happened on July 4. Commander of the Continental Army, General George Washington was trying to hold off an invasion of New York, as every day more British ships arrived in the harbor. He was low on munitions, flints for rifles, while the British had full command of the sea. On July 2, British General Howe landed 10,000 men on Staten Island, and was expecting 15,000 more. With these long odds, those gathered at Philadelphia knew that the war, their independence, their fortunes, and even their very lives were on the line. It is not a small miracle the Declaration of Independence was signed at all. This was after all, high treason, punishable by death.
By winter’s onset, New York would be lost, Washington would be down to 5,000 soldiers, and the British would be within striking distance of the rebel capital in Philadelphia. One must wonder if the delegates would have signed such a declaration at that time. If you don’t know the story of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River in the dead of winter with a half –starved, half-barefoot army to stave off certain defeat in the spring, you should learn what they did there. It truly is the stuff of legend.
This July Fourth is almost over and in a few days, the fireworks stands will be taken down, the spent tubes and sparkler sticks will have been cleaned up, and most Americans will start planning a Labor Day party. I wish more people knew what we celebrate on these holidays, but I’m not sure how to get people interested in their history. I’ll bet more people know the name Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, or Casey Anthony, the woman accused of killing her child in Florida than know who Nathanael Greene, or John Adams was.
We must do better at educating our children; we must do a better job of making our history come alive to them. I am open to suggestions, but if our schools fail in this, we must teach them at home. As I stated earlier, you cannot teach what you don’t know, so pick up a few books at the library and start learning about America.
In this, you may come across books written by people who don’t like America very much, Howard Zinn comes to mind, but then again, he was a member of the Communist Party USA , don’t take my word, his FBI file was just released. It’s your choice, you could read Zinn, but I would suggest David McCullough’s 1776 and John Adams for starters. If you want a more complete history, warts and all, read Bill Bennett’s’ wonderful books, America: The Last Best Hope Volumes I & II.
There are countless other great books on every part of our history, but to get a sense of how we became who we are is a life-long journey of discovery; one worth taking.
Happy Independence Day.