Two reflections on the meaning of Independence Day:
Our first reflection comes from the very author of our founding, or as William F. Buckley sometimes referred to it as, enabling document. To Thomas Jefferson the Declaration was an annual reminder of what made the United States unique in a world still dominated by monarchy, a theme that Abraham Lincoln most eloquently expounded on in the Gettysburg Address. "For ourselves," Jefferson wrote in 1826, "let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them." This commemoration of what the document says is so much more an important part of the day than fireworks and hot dog eating contests. Our third president wrote these lines in a letter regretfully declining an invitation to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As we all know, Jefferson died that day, as did John Adams.
The second reflection comes from the Civil War, the fight to preserve the principles enshrined in the Declaration. On July 4, 1863 a young Rhode Island soldier at Gettysburg named Elisha Hunt Rhodes proudly exclaimed in his diary, "Was ever the Nation's Birthday celebrated in such a way before." There was rejoicing in the nation's capital as news of the great victory enhanced the normal celebration of the holiday. Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse, got some bottles of cherry and blackberry syrup, which he described as "good and strong, but innocent," and served celebratory drinks to recovering solders. Outside the hospital the celebration continued. "Meanwhile the Washington bells are ringing their sundown peals for the Fourth of July," he wrote, "and the usual fusilades of boys' pistols, crackers, and guns." It seems that neither men knew the other half of the story, that in faraway Mississippi rebel general John Pemberton surrendered his force at Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant, making it perhaps the greatest of Independence days. It is a reminder that millions before us have fought and died to preserve, protect, and expand the rights that Jefferson wrote of. We should also always remember that there have been times when we seemed so close to losing them.
Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1517.
Robert Hunt Rhodes, ed., All for the Union: The Civil War Diary of Elisha Hunt Rhodes (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 109.
Walt Whitman, "Specimen Days" in Writings, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 729.