John Adams was prophetic. In a July 3, 1776, letter written to his wife Abigail, during the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the letter prescribed eternal celebration of the occasion "from one End of this Continent to the other" with a list of activities familiar to us still: "Pomp and Parade ... Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations."
Adams' festive enumeration puts in relief the Declaration's list of justifications for separation from England. Both have given continuity to a sense of nationhood that has been battered by political and military strife since that first Independence Day, when a band of well-heeled rebels set in motion a unique striving toward a nation of freedom and equality.
Amid the parades and illuminations, the games and "pomp" that form unique celebrations of the Fourth, founding principles of liberty, freedom, and equality continue to be re-fashioned. The founders recognized how fragile their creation was, how susceptible to threats from within and without, including Colonials equivocating over whether to cast their lots with the known and familiar or with this new entity.
Crazy as it seemed, the American experiment has endured to our comfortable vantage point of fireworks and barbecues.
But a look back underscores the divide between ideals of freedom and equality and lived experience. Despite Abigail Adams' spousal plea to include the ladies as equal partners in this fledgling enterprise, her husband and his peers manifested their vision of a nation built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - for white men who owned property.
A lot of people were left out of that Revolutionary vision. For a long time. Frederick Douglass explored the cruel irony of commemorating an event that signaled liberty for some and bondage for others in his July 5, 1852, speech in Rochester. The Fourth of July was everything but a celebration of freedom for blacks in America, he said. Hindsight reveals a plodding, forward-moving journey toward racial equality. It reveals a Revolution that simultaneously failed to empower all its stakeholders while leaving room for growth toward that ideal.
The 20th-century French writer Albert Camus expressed a simple idea that Americans should always keep in sight: "Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better." Isn't that what Americans have striven to achieve, a progression toward expanded equality based on the idea that freedom is a universal longing? There is ample good will in America; at our national best, we find ways to live with diverse opinions about the details. In the best of times, our representatives carry the country forward with grace and civility. If only that were always true.
Unrolling an imaginary time line backward reveals some facts. I was born with the right to vote; my grandmothers were not. Abigail Adams was right, but manifesting her right idea took too long.
Slavery created prosperity for some and cruel misery for others. Every legislative compromise set the cause of emancipation back, but freedom did happen, at great cost, as every student of the nineteenth century knows.
The story of freedom and equality in America is a tale of steps forward and backward. The Constitution allows us to vote, create laws, argue and debate. It provides opportunities to throw the bums out and elect new people and to try contentious laws in court. Americans gain and lose equality over issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but we do so in a tripartite framework. It is our choice to make our government a workhorse for progress or for its undoing.
Steps forward, steps back.
Yet again we reach the juncture of a long weekend of grilling and horseshoes, festivals and beaches. And of course, this century's version of John Adams' "illuminations."
The "Pomp and Parades" will once again reinvigorate a national sense of the sanctity of freedom and liberty. After the celebration, the forces of forward and backward will continue to tug away. We can disagree about how to handle the challenges of the day while moving forward through debate, election, petitions to our representatives, and a shared goal of liberty and justice for all.
Or we can choose the backward path by throwing monkey wrenches into the beautiful tripartite experiment that some thought would never last. Words like "impeachment" and "filibuster" come to mind.
There's a bumper sticker that conveys all the wisdom we need: Bless the whole world; no exceptions.
Despite our differences, the act of blessing our countrymen should linger past the grand finale over the lake.
It is quite possibly the best way forward.
Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org