Independence Day begins early every year with the whistles of errant bottle rockets and the sharp cracks of firecrackers. Perhaps it’s the sunny summer weather that follows the soggy spring, but July Fourth is a happy holiday.
Instead of the sonorous tones of “Taps,” or the even more moving moments of silence that resonate on Memorial Day, Independence Day explodes with sharp, celebratory sounds — blares from bugles and trills from fifes, peals from bells and blasts, the snap, crackle, boom of fireworks, accompanied by breathless ooohs and ahhs.
Yet, we must not forget that the freedom we celebrate today with barbecues and fireworks was paid for — and is still being bought — with the blood of our finest. The rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in the air, which have become integral parts of the celebration, were essential to its foundation. In fact, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write our national anthem after watching a British attack on Fort McHenry, not far from Baltimore. “The Star-Spangled Banner” resonates, not simply because of its poetry, but because of the proud parable of the American spirit that it tells.
The story within the first stanza, which most of us mumble or at least sing poorly through, is worth repeating. The flag of a newly formed nation then at war with the greatest military power of the time flew proudly and defiantly at the twilight’s last gleaming. But then came the night and the battle. The cannoning and the confusion, the smoke and the screams. The long, perilous hours of uncertainty in which the broad stripes and bright stars of the flag showed up only intermittently between the bursting rockets and bombs. Key probably feared more than once that all was lost. But then, by the dawn’s early light, he saw that the banner was still there, waving proudly over the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Fort McHenry’s defenders were under fire for more than 24 hours, but they were far from the only ones who have bled and died while defending the freedom that “The Star-Spangled Banner” represents. Poet Henry H. Bennett caught the proper spirit of Independence Day in his poem “The Flag Goes By.” He wrote: “Blue and crimson and white it shines, Over the steel-tipped, ordered lines. Hats off! The colors that before us fly; But more than the flag is passing by. Sea-fights and land-fights, grim and great, Fought to make and to save the State:Weary marches and sinking ships; Cheers of victory on dying lips; Days of plenty and years of peace; March of a strong land’s swift increase; Equal justice, right and law, Stately honor and reverend awe; Sign of a nation, great and strong, Toward her people from foreign wrong: Pride and glory and honor all, Live in the colors to stand and fall.”
In many ways, the first Independence Day, on July 4, 1776, was the first occasion that tyrants had anything to fear, although it was far from apparent at the time. America, a land based on the self-evident truths that all men are created equal and endowed by God with certain inalienable rights, was a unique creation in history. Few expected it to survive long.
Moreover, with their emphatic Declaration of Independence the sudden citizens of the newly born nation knew that they might not long enjoy either liberty or life. Many did not. Yet, a public celebration, including the ringing of the Liberty Bell, accompanied the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776. It was a jubilant day, announced even by the inscription on the Liberty Bell. “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto the inhabitantsthereof,” comes from a Bible verse(Leviticus 25:10) announcing the official establishment of a year of commemoration.
The day the Declaration of Independence was voted on “will be the most memorable Epocha, in the history of America,” John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail in 1776. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forevermore.”
That’s what Independence Day remains — a day to celebrate our liberty and the blessings that have come from it. That lesson — and that gift — was passed on by our forefathers long ago. It’s a spirit that we must tend; a trust we must keep. Still, the real proof of liberty lies not in the printed word, no matter how eloquent, but rather in the enjoyment of liberties, no matter how mundane. To that end, we encourage our readers to celebrate our freedom with friends, family and, of course, fireworks.
Yet, as we celebrate, let us not forget those who are far from home preserving our independence through the RPGs of regime loyalists and insurgents in Iraq and the bullets of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We must remember our soldiers who are fighting — and dying — to pass on that spirit of independence, a faint echo from the Liberty Bell, to former prisoners and slaves.
During his recent surprise visit to Iraq, President Bush told U.S. soldiers, “I truly believe the work that you are doing is laying the foundations of peace for generations to come.” At a joint press conference, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said: “Today, with the grace of God, after getting rid of the dictatorship, violence, terrorism, oppression, absolute power and the ruling party, our country became one where all Iraqis can live in equality and freedom. This is the first time that we in Iraq have such freedom, the freedom of press, political freedom and a diverse government.”
As democracy in Iraq grows, slowly, and at times painfully, the promise of freedom will continue to lead the country. There is, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1774, “a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself in acts of bravery and heroism.” And with that courage, buttressed so by liberty and the promise of freedom, the world’s newest democracy will forge its own path, through hardship and toil, to peace and stability. And the valor and the sacrifices made by American soldiers and ordinary Iraqis alike will be rightly honored.