Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Fourth of July

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I was growing up, the Fourth of July was not a holiday that my family felt passionate about celebrating. For one thing, in the Fifties, the American flag had been coopted as a symbol by—hmm, how can I say this without discussing politics?—folks whose definitions of patriotism, civil liberties, and civil rights differed from those of the people we knew.

On the other hand, thanks to an elementary school principal whose pet project was making sure every kid who passed through the doors of PS 164 in Queens studied what he called “documents”—the great works of oratory and law that expressed the American vision at its most noble—I had a working knowledge of what it was that actually changed the world on July 4, 1776. Not only did we memorize and declaim these documents, but we also studied their vocabulary and answered excellent discussion questions about their meaning.

To the best of my recollection, the documents we studied were, in chronological order:

Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech
The Declaration of Independence
The Preamble to the Constitution
The Bill of Rights
The Gettysburg Address
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

One of Roosevelt’s great speeches, perhaps his First Inaugural Address (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”), might have been included, but with hindsight, I’d guess the principal was not a fan of FDR, whose memory was still vivid among both those who loved and those who hated him. As for John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (“Ask not what your country can do for you”) and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, neither had yet been written, or they might have appeared on the list.

But the documents he chose are all remarkable words that expressed remarkable ideals, especially in the context of their times: the first four in a world that hadn’t seen a republic since ancient Rome took Julius Caesar as its emperor and the latter two in the midst of an indescribably bitter civil war. However far short the founding fathers (all white males and men of property) and those who followed them fell from the vision of a perfect America, they did have a dream.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

So let’s have parades and grill hot dogs and enjoy fireworks as we take a day to celebrate these great ideas. Let’s go pursue some happiness.


Julia Buckley said...

Great post! A happy fourth to you and the family.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Same to you, Julia!

B.K. Stevens said...

I enjoyed your post, Liz. Happy Fourth of July!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Back at you, Bonnie!

Ronald said...

I fear not many school personnel have this same understanding of how central these documents are to defining the concept of "American." Without the ideas, there is, in fact, no such thing except people who are "citizens" of this country. Not a stirring self-image, is it? Few of my community college students had studied these ideas and documents or, if they had, couldn't remember much. Very sad.

Cams said...

Insightful post, I may not agree with all points, but that does not dispute the validity of the rest. In terms of the upholding of these documents, which I also feel are essential I fel that as with many other things, if we do not give them th proper attention with out children, they will fade into the dusty corners of their minds.