Walter Borneman: July 4th binds Americans together with precious memories

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There is no date that ties Americans together more than the Fourth of July.

Dec. 7, 1941 resonates, as does Sept. 11, 2001. But for 243 years, July 4, 1776 has evoked a commonality of national celebration and reflection. In times of divisiveness or uncertainty, the Fourth of July has always been a touchstone of what it means to be an American.

Representatives of the 13 colonies took a preliminary vote for independence on July 2, 1776. The next day Massachusetts delegate John Adams predicted to his wife, Abigail, that the date would mark “the most memorable epoch in the history of America.” Adams was right about the event, but it was July 4 before the Declaration of Independence was formally ratified. July 4 would be the date remembered.

The following year, with the war to make good the resolution of independence far from won, Philadelphia celebrated July 4 with bells, bonfires and what would become requisite fireworks. Similar observances throughout the 13 colonies enshrined the tradition. The Fourth of July, also called Independence Day, became America’s birthday. Wherever one was, it was special.

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On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of that moment in Independence Hall, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of one another. They were the only two American presidents to have signed the Declaration of Independence. During their presidencies they were hardened political opponents, but they came to respect each other’s profound affection for the country they both served.

Years rolled by and the Fourth of July became a window into America. There was a nation’s anguish in the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg in 1863; the opening of the 38-story Smith Tower in Seattle, long the tallest building on the West Coast, in 1914; and baseball great Lou Gehrig, fighting terminal illness, standing before a crowd at Yankee Stadium in 1939 and calling himself “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

We all have our own Fourth of July memories, too. In 1960, the 8-year-old historian in me convinced my grandfather to step atop an improvised podium in the backyard and deliver the Gettysburg Address.

We all have our own Fourth of July memories, too. In 1960, the 8-year-old historian in me convinced my grandfather to step atop an improvised podium in the backyard and deliver the Gettysburg Address. My best friend and I spent the Fourth of July in 1974 climbing Mount Shasta. Years later, it was a river trip in the depths of the Grand Canyon.

Last year, well into a two-week backpacking jaunt in Alaska’s Brooks Range, we bashed our way through an endless willow thicket. Making noise to alert any nearby bear, it suddenly dawned on us, “Hey, it’s the Fourth of July!” Starting with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — all verses, of course — we sang our hearts out. Any bear within earshot would have scampered away or perhaps stood up and saluted.

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Yes, no matter where you are, it is the Fourth of July. It is a day that binds us together as Americans. Amid countless hot dogs, hamburgers and fireworks, let us remember our special Fourth of July memories as well as America’s legacy of 243 years. Let us remember the blessings we enjoy as Americans.

Our union has not been perfect. The rights and privileges championed by the founders have not always extended to all unequivocally, but the American Dream of personal freedom and liberty under a government that champions those values remains the beacon that fires hope for millions around the world. Let this be an Independence Day where we focus less on what divides us and more on what unites us.

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