The 6th of July. A humble date; no need to capitalize it. Everybody who has a job is back at it. The glorious Fourth is over, and to borrow a bit of Kipling, “The tumult and the shouting dies.” The cool front that’s been hovering over us is moving out, and we’re about to get July in earnest. The cannonade that normally succeeds Independence Day, as revelers detonate leftover ordnance has for some reason not occurred this year, at least within my hearing, a circumstance that Kiki, were she capable of abstract thought about things that haven’t happened, would applaud. She spent most of the evening of the Fourth either under the desk between my feet or on my knees in my chair. No obvious terror or trembling — just a need for a cuddle and reassurance that whatever was happening would go away soon.
Used to be, if some neighbor, in an excess of alcoholic or patriotic exuberance, fired off salutes into the wee hours of the next day, I set my alarm, and promptly at 5 that morning stepped onto my porch and let fly with a “bear-banger,” a device we used to carry in bear country to discourage inquisitive or hungry bruins. Its clap of thunder puts even a 12-gauge shotgun into the shade. Dogs barked for half a mile. Then, having done my duty, I dressed and made coffee with, like Scrooge, a much-improved opinion of myself.
In the United States, bigger is generally considered better. Folks spend, in some cases, thousands in search of the ultimate excitement of the biggest bang. My favorite story on the subject is the late humorist Jean Shepherd’s “Ludlow Kissell and the Dago Bomb that Struck Back.” I’m delighted I can still bring it up on the internet each Independence Day.
Independence is what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it? Parades (in non-plague years), patriotic music, speeches, beer and brats, and at dusk, fireworks — what Huck Finn calls “blim-blammin’.” They all derive from a lengthy laundry list, written jointly by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, John Adams and Robert Livingston, of offenses against the American colonies by His Majesty, George III. Its introduction suggests there was more to it than just official kvetching. Other European nations — France comes immediately to mind — were quite interested in revolutions, and we needed to explain ourselves.
Among the most high-sounding sentences is this one, a direct descendant of the Magna Carta: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The most famous, of course, is “All Men are created equal,” which clearly was not true in 1776; about three-quarters of the signers owned slaves. That legacy haunts our culture to this day.
The founders, as we call them, were educated in the classics and the governments of ancient states, Greece and Rome being most prominent. Like John Adams, many were idealistic lawyers and wrote quite forcefully about the outrages of the monarchy upon the colonies. Their first complaint: “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” And so on, for 26 more.
But the founders were at least as limited in their outlook as are many of us today. The last item in the Declaration spells the doom of the native people whose land the growing colonies and nation-to-be were rapidly appropriating: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us ... and the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is ... destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
It’s common to conflate independence and freedom. Fair enough. But because we live in well-organized societies, we are actually interdependent; and our freedom ideally extends only as far as its impingement upon that of others. In the current matter of an elusive and pervasive airborne virus, our scientists’ recommendations — even pleas — fall upon many deaf ears. Ironically, it’s our own chest-beating refusal to “take orders” from folks demonstrably smarter than ourselves that is so far proving to be our undoing. We often hear the motto, “Freedom is not free.” Yet many thousands of us, if the news videos are to be believed, clearly disagree. The lack of responsible leadership at the top is probably the primary stimulus.
Years ago, in Outward Bound, I led several groups of “adjudicated youth” through 26 days of slowly increasing stress off the coast of Maine. They were tough kids from around Boston, utterly out of their element among those rocky, spruce-covered islands. The trick for me was to keep the stress understandable, and add the dissonance no faster than they could handle it. Each knew that if he washed out, it was back to the courts, whereas success led to opportunities. I often mentioned two mottoes that seem appropriate for our nation just now: First — Every decision you make leads either to more options in your future, or fewer. Second (especially appropriate in their situations) — Freedom is the chance to discipline yourself in order to avoid being disciplined by others. I often wonder how many of them got it.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.