It was one of those American family traditions. Get into the family station wagon or some other version of that 60’s pride of America – big Detroit steel – to head for the fireworks stand. It was one of those warm up acts to the main performer – the big holiday; like getting the turkey before Thanksgiving or going to the tree lot to get a Christmas tree. The fireworks stands popped up around mid-June, looking a little mysterious with the wire mesh over the front and a small slot where you conducted your business. There were all sorts of explosive options to be had. Starting at the top were the big giant block party boxes with enough gunpowder to take down a small bridge. The assortments scaled down from there. As a kid your standing in the neighborhood was in direct proportion to the size of your family’s fireworks assortment.

I guess it was around the late 70’s – early 80’s when the local cities started banning the “safe and sane” fireworks. For my part what that did was to take safe fireworks out of the hands of reasonable people and leave the private celebrations in the hands of the knot heads who go out and buy rockets and mortars and shit that can blow the very ass off you or start a ten thousand acre fire. These are the half wits who would be trotting out the heavy artillery regardless of the availability of “safe and sane” fireworks. .

I remember driving along the Great Highway that fronts San Francisco’s Pacific shoreline one Fourth of July and the sky over the beach was alight with rockets and starbursts. “Oh look, they’re doing a reenactment of the Normandy Invasion. Isn’t that Tom Hanks crouching in the sand out there?”

We arrived home with the box of fireworks and I’d peek through the cellophane window in the front of the box to get a better look at the cones and fountains with names like Piccolo Pete, California Candle, Yankee Doodle Salute, and Apollo Mystery Cone. My friends and I would get together and compare notes on which house had the bigger assortment. Sort of like politicians comparing “hand size” except on a more innocent and less testosterone fueled note.

Americans tend to view Independence Day just like other holidays. That is they like the holiday a hell of a lot, they just don’t know why the fuck they have it. You know, Christmas is supposed to be about Jesus but that whole thing’s been picked through so that what we have left is spending the night before Thanksgiving in line at WalMart; Memorial Day is to pay homage to the war dead but it’s more or less celebrated as the first camping weekend of the year.

And then there’s the Fourth of July which commemorates some guy name Kingsford inventing the charcoal briquette. Okay that’s not true, but too many Americans don’t know what Independence Day is all about.  I checked out a Marist Poll from 2011 and the results are as I might have expected.

A mere 58% of residents know that the United States declared its independence in 1776.  26% waffled on the question, and 16% mentioned another date.

As to who the United States declared independence from, only 76% answered Great Britain.

After reading the poll I could only repeat my dear departed mother’s frustrated words, “Well isn’t that a fine kettle of fish.”

On the actual Fourth of July, our parents let us break open the box of fireworks early in the day so that we could light the Snakes which were little black tabs that looked like licorice candy that when lit cork screwed out into a charcoal “snake.” We usually lit the Piccolo Pete during the day because as a display of sparks it was pretty weak. So the afternoon quiet was broken by shrieks from around the neighborhood.

I’m not surprised that Americans get Abe Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson confused with say, Babe Ruth. That Americans’ ignorance about American history doesn’t shock me doesn’t make it less concerning. One of America’s most cherished rights is the vote. The citizens pick their leaders from city council to president. Voting is a weighty responsibility. We the people have the responsibility of evaluating our leaders with regard to their adherence to and protection of the ideals that our nation was founded upon. Not to mention other minor shit like keeping us out of World War III. How are you supposed to know if our prospective leaders are going to keep the country moving in the right direction if you don’t know the direction it took originally and whether or not it’s stayed the course since inception?

If you don’t even know who that Jefferson guy was then you’re way the hell behind the curve. 

As my my own public service, let me reveal that the Jefferson guy was Thomas Jefferson. He was America’s 3rd President but before that he was tasked to draft the Declaration of Independence which was formally adopted on July 4th 1776. The vote for independence was actually taken on July 2nd and passed by a vote of 12 of the 13 colonies. He was also a slaver and as such a hypocrite of major proportions. But he did come up with some pretty heady stuff in that Declaration. 

So while I know that this is going to come as a real eye opener to many, the Fourth of July is not about the Coney Island hot dog eating contest or getting sick on too much strawberry shortcake or having too many shots of Jim Beam and then playing with explosives and forevermore being known as ol’ nine finger; it’s all about The Declaration of Independence (No, not The Constitution which came 13 years later).

And then there were the firecrackers – a horse of a different color. When we got older and parents were relatively certain that we wouldn’t blow ourselves or one of the neighborhood cats up we were allowed to light firecrackers. How firecrackers made it into our quiet, whitebread suburban neighborhood was a bit of a dark mystery. It sort of went like this; somebody’s cousin had a friend who had a brother whose friend knew a guy in San Francisco who knew a shopkeeper in Chinatown who had a connection with a merchant seaman who got them in the black market in Macau and then sold them under the table. It was all very sinister. We handled the firecracker packet with the proper reverence due a stolen foreign secret weapon.

Maybe a valuable family activity on this Fourth of July is before you crack open your third bottle of Bud you crack open The Declaration and read it. It’s not a long read but it is a valuable read.

But don’t just read it. Try to take yourself back. 242 years ago these guys in their goofy looking waistcoats and those silly powdered wigs got together, took a deep breath a big swig of mead or whatever the hell they drank back then and essentially said, ‘If we’re going to do this shit, then let’s just get it done.’ And so they signed it and published it. It was an unimaginable sort of thing; the 18th century version of Bob fucking Dylan going electric. These men, these signers of the Declaration were standing up to the most powerful empire in the world. It took some real testicular fortitude to stand up for some ideals that they believed in.

And what do we have now? Certainly no fortitude, testicular or otherwise. What we’ve been left with is too many feckless, cowardly politicians who are too concerned with feathering their own nests and retaining the jobs that they don’t do, than in doing the right thing by the revolutionaries of more than two centuries ago. We have an electorate that is only a fraction of the whole of our population and much of that fraction is uninformed and lazy.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

These are the most recognizable words in The Declaration of Independence. They are some of the building blocks of America. Are we as a nation and as individuals true to these words today?

Endowed by their Creator ostensibly means everyone, because didn’t the Creator create us all? We need to ask ourselves as individuals if those unalienable rights apply to all or just a privileged few. And if they do apply to all then we must hold our leaders’ collective feet to the fire and make sure that they work towards the fulfillment of “these truths,” or get the fuck out of the way.

Much of the Declaration of Independence is a list of grievances that the Colonies had against King George. Read those grievances and ask yourself if some of those grievances are relevant today. This shouldn’t be a partisan activity. This was all pre-political party stuff. Hell there wasn’t even a United States yet. Don’t even think about Trump and Obama and Hillary. The unalienable rights existed long before those three and will be recognized long after they are gone. Today’s politicians are transient particles of history compared to the the rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — 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.

 

One thought on “Independence Day

  1. Scott Blake says:

    Ah, the Piccolo Pete. That’s one of those things like PEZ dispensers, Kit Kats, and Juicy Fruit gum that seem to have been around forever and should always be around. One of the founding fathers, John Adams, predicted with stunning clarity how July 4 would be celebrated in years to come. He included the following in a July 3, 1776 letter to his wife Abigail: “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

    During my childhood, my family didn’t go for the driveway/back yard fireworks, instead preferring the local towns’ displays. For us that frequently happened in California, San Bruno specifically. The odd thing was that often there was significant fog which takes away the visual spectacle, like Raquel Welch wearing a diving suit. Another fog oddity is that the Fog Festival in coastside Pacifica (just south of San Francisco) is held in September when the weather coastside is typically fog-free. As for firecrackers, seems like everyone knew someone who knew someone in Chinatown. I wonder if that was also the case for people in Marin or Contra Costa counties.

    It’s no surprise that so many Americans are ignorant of their country’s basic history. I wonder how many Trump supporters fit into that category. Do they know who was president during World War I? If they don’t know, then they also don’t know that Woodrow Wilson was a contradiction bordering on hypocrite, just as Jefferson was and so many others.

    Wilson was so fixated on a world without war, which he thought could be accomplished through the League of Nations, that the strain of traveling to make speeches supporting the League ran his health down and contributed to a serious stroke. In one of the greatest conspiracies of all time, his wife Edith and advisors hid Wilson’s condition from the public. For the last year and a half of his presidency, the administrative branch of government was run by Edith, essentially making her the first American woman president.

    That’s not what made him a hypocrite. He was a virulent racist who said and did nothing when, following WWI, there was an outbreak of race riots across the country which included lynchings and groups of veterans stopping streetcars and buses to pull off black Americans for beatings. To some extent, he was also a hypocrite about the League of Nations. His massive ego wouldn’t allow him to accept the Senate Republicans’ stance that only Congress could take the country into war. Wilson refused to allow that compromise and got other Democrats to vote against joining the league.

    As you stated (using different words), the members of the Continental Congress collectively had the balls of a burglar. They knew that to declare independence against Great Britain was like a Chihuahua taking on a lion. We had virtually no army or navy and the Brits had the most formidable in the world of both. Jefferson among others believed that rebellion was sometimes necessary, this from a letter he wrote in 1787: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is it’s natural manure.” It could be argued that much of what politicians say and do is natural manure, especially true in the past year and a half. You wrote “Today’s politicians are transient particles of history.” In some cases, they’re particles of something that should have been flushed.

    It’s great that you included the text of the Declaration. Jefferson claimed to have written the first draft of it in one afternoon’s sitting. He was a relatively minor part of the proceedings. Adams and Benjamin Franklin urged that he write the Declaration, knowing of his prowess with words. It was a good choice.

    Today I read an article on the Washington Post web site that is very interesting. In 1957, freshman senator from Massachusetts John F. Kennedy went on the air at New York radio station WQXR as part of their annual Fourth of July observation. Kennedy read the Declaration in its entirety. It can also be found on YouTube and is a stirring thing to hear.

    Like

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