Jul 03 2012
By Robin Bradford
Virginia is a sweltering place to be in July. I know because I worked as a camp counselor one summer in the Prince Williams forest near Alexandria, VA, teaching inner-city teens from our nation’s capital how to swim in the nearby Shenandoah River. That summer I witnessed a 14-year-old boy’s fear turn to delight at learning the haunting cry that pierced the thick night was simply a bullfrog looking for love.
It was in such summer dog days, 236 years ago, that our nation’s leaders declared independence from Great Britain. It was actually July 2nd - it took two days for the “Declaration of Independence” to be tweaked and signed. “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . .” the poetic document begins. The summer of 1776 was the original “Arab spring,” when brave and idealistic young men drew on the rich ideas of philosophers and thinkers to draft the first document that told everyone what it was to be an “American.”
Photo by ArnyZona Photography
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they boldly declared after listing their grievances with the British Crown, “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.” Their idealism wasn’t perfect, of course. To expand these rights beyond white men would require entire new movements led by even more courageous leaders and several amendments to the U.S. Constitution. But think of it: this document announced the grand vision that in this new country everyone deserved to live freely and pursue happiness. If you were a born a chambermaid, you needn’t die as one. If you can dream it, you can become it. It was a big hairy audacious goal that’s key to American ideals.
But that’s not all the first blueprint for our country says. The following line is just as bold and essential to what it means to be an American: “ . . . we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” In other words, we can’t do it alone and we’re all connected. E pluribus unum, my friend.
So when we tie red-white-and-blue ribbons on our children’s bikes for the neighborhood parade, fly the flag, or gather with friends to watch fireworks, recall the true spirit of the day. We are bound together as Americans. That means as we pursue our little slices of happiness, we must also pledge part of our lives and fortunes to others. Whether it’s checking on how an elderly neighbor is doing in the summer heat, signing up to become a CASA volunteer or clicking the donate button for your favorite cause—this is exactly what it means to be an American. The true spirit of the 4th of July isn’t about wearing patriotic colors and lighting firecrackers, it’s helping others and giving.
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