Beyond the Fourth

This year for Independence Day, I want to think a little less about July 4.

Heresy, I know. But let me explain.

The imagery, of course, has become iconic. The Continental Congress pledging “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to the fight for independence. John Hancock flourishing his gaudy signature, with most of the others adding their own a month later. Public readings, bells ringing out, fireworks, dogs howling … OK, maybe that last one was added from my own experience.

It’s all very celebratory. Triumphal. Familiar.

And in times of struggle or questioning, or among those who feel left out of independence’s promise, it can also sometimes feel a little hollow.

“The Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” wrote former slave Frederick Douglass in the 1850s. Others have taken up that call at different times, seeing freedom pledged to all but denied to them, or a government in which their trust is shaky or absent.

But celebration is only a small part of the Revolution’s heritage. Maybe not even the most important one (with apologies to John Adams).

So for a moment, I want to step back. Widen the lens. And look at the months after the Declaration.

The British kept coming. And coming. And coming, in overwhelming numbers. In September of 1776, one American solider said the massive fleet off Kip’s Bay looked like all London was afloat.  

And the Americans? Mostly a familiar pattern. Fight. Lose. Retreat. Repeat. Over and over, Washington had to pull back, just to keep his army alive. By mid-December, Congress had fled Philadelphia, fearing that capture of the city was imminent.

In short, the fight looked hopeless.

But the fight went on. Because the alternative was unthinkable.

“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” Thomas Paine wrote, “yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. … Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”

Hope in hopeless times. Resolution in the face of seeming defeat. Standing up when it’s called for, whatever the cost.

That’s the Independence Day message I want to remember.

And it’s one that we can all inherit and pass on.

Even in the times when the nation is divided. Even by those who feel little reason to celebrate. And even in days when an array of crisis upon crisis seems to grind the soul with teeth of stone.

We’ve seen these times. We were born in these times. And we know how to face them.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now: the Revolution never truly ended. There is always more to do, always more to build to achieve an America that can match its ideals. Sometimes we stall. Sometimes we go backward. But the fight goes on.

That’s a promise that rings louder than any bell and shines brighter than any firework. A declaration that lives not in ink and parchment, but in each of us.

Happy Fourth, everyone. Make it what you will.

And then do the same with the nation.

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