It’s that time of year again when people all over America celebrate the Fourth of July and, for the most part, have no idea why. It’s official name is Independence Day, and that should be a clue, but the significance of that name seems largely to have been forgotten by those bent over charcoal grills searing hamburgers and hot dogs and waiting for the fireworks to begin.
Here on the island in Puget Sound where I live there is a fireworks display so spectacular that it rivals the Macy’s show in New York City. Unofficially here we call it “Scare the Bejesus Out of Animals Day.” This is a largely rural island full of animals and they are not avid celebrants of our nation’s Declaration of Independence: Dogs (universally terrified); cats (pay no attention at all); horses (who assume there’s a war going on nearby and fear being pressed into service as of old); sheep (too dumb to notice), goats (too smart to care), cows (who just keep on placidly chewing, though their milk curdles); llamas (who wish they were back in the remote and quiet Andes); chickens (who run around idiotically even when there are no fireworks)…and so on.
The connection between declaring our independence back in 1776 and blowing things up has never been very clear to me, so I looked it up. It turns out this is all the fault of Founding Father John Adams. You have to remember that blowing things up is a revered tradition in England. Rebels and dissidents just like our own tried to blow up the English Parliament only a century and a half earlier.
The declaration was approved on July second but not formally signed until the fourth. In a July third letter to his wife, Abigail, Adams proclaimed that:
"I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be 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."
Of course, Adams, who became our second president, had no idea what the rest of the “continent” involved; he only represented thirteen colonies claiming now to be states independent of Britain. Can you imagine the reaction when the many Native tribes occupying the rest of the continent got the email about the declaration and the celebration? They’re sitting around a fire having dinner when the news arrives, and a chief says, “Guys, I don’t think this is good news, you know?”
Much grumbling follows. Another chief says, “Look, these are people who are believers in the Age of Enlightenment—you know, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith. I don’t see a problem.”
“May I repeat, my friend, that these are people who like to seize land and blow things up?”