This past Monday evening, I mused silently for a moment about the “reason for the season,” so to speak. The meat sizzled on the grill, the beer chilled on ice, and the salad wilted in a bowl. (Allow me a tangential thought: What the hell is it with people bringing salads to Fourth of July cookouts? We’ve got an abattoir’s worth of dead animal, potato salad made with enough mayonnaise to give Lance Armstrong a coronary, enough beer to keep Milwaukee in the black for the next century — and someone brought a bowl of yard clippings. Next time, bring some deviled eggs. Save the greens for Bastille Day; it’s next week.) A battery of recreational artillery turned the sky over the river into a palette of appropriately patriotic colors as flags fluttered in the light summer breeze. Thousands of spectators, crowded shoulder-to-shoulder into about four square blocks, oohed and aahed at the right moments. The meter maids skulked amid illegally parked cars, stuffing envelopes full of expensive souvenirs under windshield-wiper blades. Over-served tourists hollered at each other from 3 feet away. Everyone was having a grand old time. Taking in the patriotic panorama around me, I couldn’t help but wonder: How many of these people have spent a single moment wondering why we’re not at work today?
I heard a popular refrain in the months leading up to Monday’s festivities. “The Fourth of July is on a Monday this year! How awesome is that?” Um, the Fourth of July is awesome every year. Granted, the long weekend produced by a Monday Fourth does make for a nice, long holiday weekend. But that’s a happy coincidence, not the sole function of the day itself.
Two hundred and thirty-five years ago, the Founding Fathers thumbed King George III in the eye. It was the rhetorical raspberry that shocked the world as no other has before or since. And then, the most technologically, economically and geographically powerful empire in the history of the world took one right in the kisser from their lower-class cousins, the ones with the smoking habit and the funny accents.
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, the English were enjoying a nearly three century-long geopolitical winning streak. By July 4, 1776, the English were coming off triumph in the Seven Years’ War, the Treaty of Paris (1763) forcing the other European colonial heavyweights to issue the mea culpa of all mea culpas. On the other side of the world, victory in the Battle of Plassey (1757) put the Brits in the driver’s seat in south Asia.
Their opponents in the nasty business in the American colonies were pure rabble. George Washington had wooden teeth and grew a lot more than just tobacco on his farm. Thomas Jefferson had a thing for miscegenation. And Benjamin Franklin would go on to bed half the women in France. Their “army” was undermanned, underfed and under-equipped. Their soldiers were flea-bitten and disease-ridden, and they had a serious problem with desertion. And yet, they thumped George III and his redcoated storm troopers like they were Appalachian State and the Brits were Michigan.
They faced longer odds than a rigged craps table, but they fought for something much bigger than a day off from work. The American Revolution (or the Yorktown Beat Down, if you’re a Tory) was the miraculous birth-cry of the Rights of Man, guided by Divine Provenance (in my humble estimation — more important, in His Flawless Estimation).
And it all started on the Fourth of July, a day to commemorate the unveiling of the Declaration of Independence. Not play-hooky-from-work,-get-sauced-and-blow-stuff-up Day, nor Bust-out-the-god-awful-stars-and-stripes-airbrushed-t-shirt-from-that-trip-to-Fort-Walton-Beach Day, nor even Get 0.9%-financing-on-some-nondescript-minivan-at-your-participating-GM-dealer Day.
I know no one really likes preachy patriotic punditry. But some things are worth mentioning with all the zeal of Jefferson’s magnificent document, worth declaring with all the fury of the Delaware River on a cold winter’s day, worth stamping into our national narrative with all the force of that first shot at the Old North Bridge in Concord (which actually happened in 1775).
Of course, if Ben Franklin were here, he would say: “Enough with the chitchat. Toss me another beer.”