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Reflections on the meaning of the 4th of July


Kelly Conroy
MSM Class of 2013

(7/2011) John Adams made a prediction. He analyzed the past and – as we call it when taking the SAT Reasoning Test– made an educated guess. Over the past 235 years, John Adams’ prediction has almost proven true every year.

A small boy named John climbs on his father’s lap after an exhausting day. He still has a faint smile on his face as he collapses deeper into his father’s arms. "Was that someone’s birthday party?" John asks and his father just chuckles in reply. "Or was it a New Year celebration?" the boy persists. "There’s actually a lot more to it than the festivities that you remember," the father finally explains.

Indeed, John remembers the smell of grilled hamburgers and corn giving off fresh aromas. He loved whizzing water balloons through the air. The bean-toss game that he won was definitely a favorite. John also spit watermelon seeds, ran through the yard with friends, and watched his parents and neighbors chat on the back patio. The most exciting part, however, was at the end of the night as he gazed in amazement as vibrant red, white, and blue colors exploded in the sky!

But John also remembers a couple other memories from the day. He read the words "God bless America" written on the large vanilla cake. John knew that he had visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia with his parents earlier in the day. He also had worn a special new American flag t-shirt. "You were pretty attentive, weren’t you?" his father gladly relates, "These things and your other memories point us to the real meaning of the day – the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776."

John Adams predicted that July 2nd would be remembered as a "great anniversary festival… commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty… solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more."

Adams knew that Americans, including boys with the same name as his own, would celebrate a day every year in honor of the Declaration of Independence. He thought that day would be the 2nd – the day the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence. He was just two days off from making a perfect prediction of July 4th, the Fourth of July, or as it is sometimes called, the Glorious Fourth, as the anniversary date of the United States.

The boy John wanted to know why he had just experienced one of the best days of his young life. Take this child back in time 235 years and he would not only witness John Adams’ prediction about the 2nd of July, but also George Washington on the battlefield. On July 3rd, 1776, over 30,000 men in the British army landed on Staten Island. Ten thousand men were all that Washington could muster to combat the British at this time. Britain was known as the strongest empire since the fall of Rome, and so the Revolutionary War was an uphill, eight year battle for the thirteen colonies and other countries that helped, namely France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic.

We’re often too concerned with the practical questions in our present lives – Where are we going to get a job? What neighborhood should we live in? What are we going to make for dinner? How should we plan our 4th of July party? – To spend any time looking at the past. However, what was the present time for Adams and Washington has now become our past. Washington was not thinking about when he was going to get an afternoon nap as he was leading the Continental Army into battle! Adams’ main goal was not to eat at a nice restaurant as he was helping draw up plans for the future of the United States of America!

A visit to Langhorne, PA, gives a glimpse into the reality of the Revolutionary War. After the British had secured New York, Washington and his troops quickly retreated as more men continued to die and provisions were left behind. Washington planned a surprise attack on the Hessian forces, aligned with the British, in Trenton, NJ. Washington and his army crossed the icy Delaware River on Christmas Day in 1776. Their dangerous plan resulted in a victory for the colonies.

Washington and his troops then traversed back to their camp site in Langhorne, PA. It was in this town that over 160 soldiers were buried, often 3 or 4 men in the same grave. Sadly, their deaths resulted more from disease and starvation than from actual battles. An eleven year old girl recorded the burial site as she watched history in the making from her window. Langhorne offers just a glimpse into the beginnings of the war because by the year 1783, over 25,000 Americans had died and 25,000 more had been wounded.

The total number of American troops that have died in the war in Iraq is 4,459 and 32,074 American forces have been wounded. Today, our Armed Forces consist of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Having our advanced Navy of today would probably have been helpful to Washington as he crossed the Delaware in 1776. Did you know that 13, 450 young men applied to be a part of the 2014 Naval Academy Class and only 1,150 were accepted? 50% of the accepted students were in the top 10% of their high school class and 90% of them were varsity athletes. The candidates are also expected to excel in leadership and service. To say the least, our armed forces are a little different than the Continental Army and Militia of the 1700s. Yet, they are still fighting for and defending the same land, strive for many of the same values, and are willing to sacrifice for the loved ones at home – we are forever grateful.

Adams predicted that July 2nd would be a day of festivities – an interesting prediction when the battle was far from won in 1776. Regardless, he and our other founding fathers knew that the Declaration was worth celebrating because of the values that it promoted – and they would keep their attention fixed on these ideals in the midst of the American Revolutionary War. Just as the blood of the first Christian martyrs paved the way for others to have faith, the vision and sacrifices of our founding fathers enables us to experience America today.

The Declaration lists, then and now, grievances against the King and affirms the colonies’ right to revolt and declare independence. Such lines as, "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," helped to create the true American spirit. In later years, the language in American songs has carried on the tradition of pride and love for our country (You can’t help but sing along!): "Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave" (National Anthem). "America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown they good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea" (America the Beautiful).

The Battle Hymn of the Republic has also become a source of patriotism: "He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah!" This song became especially popular during the American Civil War, of which we commemorate the 150th anniversary this year. America did not become an independent land without difficulties, and she has since struggled through wars, economic depressions, natural disasters, and other problems.

It’s our perseverance that keeps America as being known as the land of the free, overflowing with opportunity, strength, vigor, and youth. How accurate is this image in our lives today? Are our rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness upheld?

"Rights" is not an everyday term in China – in fact, it’s completely ignored. China is a country in pursuit of maintaining a completely socialist, government-controlled land. The media is censored, even the internet, to uphold the goals of the party in power. Family life is disrupted by limiting the number of children. Even spiritual lives are restricted by prohibiting certain religions. Democracies are much better suited to allow life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the United States is far from perfect.

Are we willing to sacrifice to keep our rights and freedoms, to promote the dignity of life and of the family? We’re not just falling away from tradition in our modern country; we are detaching ourselves from what is good. Take the example of the watermelon as an analogy. The watermelon as we know it is fading from existence. They are now being produced seedless. What are we going to do without watermelon seed spitting fights? Are we going to be comfortable eating less-juicy watermelons after years of feeling the fruit slide down our faces? Possibly even more disastrous, watermelons are being altered to create thinner rinds. We can say "goodbye" to watermelon pickles. There’s something to be said for the traditional watermelon; there’s something more serious to be said about traditional values in the United States.

We will always fall short of creating a country grounded in truth - Let’s look for the obvious solution to our country’s problems. What else did Adams say in his prediction besides the part about festivities? What is a common theme in our patriotic songs? Whom does the Declaration mention more than once? They all point us towards God! We thank and praise Him for bodily nourishment on Thanksgiving, but on the 4th we thank Him for something deeper – nourishment of our spirits. Our yearning for freedom and truth is implanted by God, and ultimately fulfilled by Him.

The young boy John in this story might not understand all of the historical details of the American Revolution. He might not know the meaning of the Declaration of Independence or the importance of rights and freedom. He might not yet recognize the words or tunes of classic American songs. Yet, he is beginning to realize that the fourth day of the seventh month of the year is set aside for something special. As John grows up, let us pray that our country reflects even more closely the words of the Declaration and that no more blood will need to be shed in this pursuit.

Read other articles by Kelly Conroy