Each of us has ideas of what Independence Day means, and memories of how we have celebrated, and commemorated, the greatest of America’s national holidays.
Though it has been many years since I sat in my last American History class, I cannot forget the greatest of sacrifices that our Founding Fathers were prepared to make by declaring the American Colonies independent from England and, as Thomas Paine put it, the “royal brute,” King George III. If this “Grand Experiment” failed, or even if they were captured, each of the brave souls who affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence were certain to look death squarely in their eyes, as treason was a capital offense under English law.
And as if the penalty could be worse, all of their property would be confiscated by the English government and thus, while walking to the gallows, they would know there was no remaining means of support for their wives or children. Knowing the consequences of failure, our Founding Fathers nonetheless signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
Bravery. Each of the signers to the Declaration of Independence displayed nothing short of bravery. Though no gun barrel was aimed at them at the moment, the consequences were clear.
Growing up, visiting such places as Philadelphia and its Independence Hall, Boston’s Old North Church or sites of any of the famous Revolutionary War battles was beyond the means of my parents for their large family. Instead, we celebrated Independence Day with a morning parade in the neighborhood, organized and produced by the kids in the most simplest of means – red, white and blue crépe paper on bicycles, tricycles and Red Flyer wagons with lots of flags.
We would, in the early years, start decorating the day before the Fourth, before we understood that if the night was too cool (and we always prayed for cool nights, hoping that not only sleeping would be much better, but that the night’s coolness portended a more comfortable next day), the crépe paper would lose its crispness and sag. In the latter years, after figuring out this atmospheric phenomenon (alright, it may have take us a couple of years to do so, but we were young), we merely worked earlier and more furiously on July 4th to get our decorations and “floats” ready.
At the appointed hour, our parade would start at one end of the block, go down one side of the parkway in the middle of our street and then back up the other side. That was it. The neighborhood families were the extent of the crowd, but that did not deter us one bit. How many total hours went into this annual effort is hard, if not impossible, to recall. But for fifteen minutes each July 4th, I think each of us kids beamed with pride that would have made our Founding Fathers proud. (Mom and Dad were pretty pleased, too!)
Many years later, while I was married, my wife would regularly introduce me to other young physicians from other countries and suggest to me that they might enjoy going to some sporting event or another. One young doctor, Christopher Terkamp from Germany, and I hit it off pretty well, and we ended up going to a variety of sporting events during the course of his year or two in the States – baseball, football, soccer and basketball games.
One comment Chris made stands out in my memory, and which when made, impressed upon me how different “these United States” really are to the rest of the world. The comment arose at a SLU Billikens basketball game, immediately after the fans sang the National Anthem. Chris said that nowhere else, certainly not in Europe or in particular his home country of Germany, did the locals honor and celebrate their flag or nation by singing their respective national anthems or displaying their country’s flags in the way “us” Americans did. While Olympic events might cause a raising of “the colors,” such displays at everyday sporting event were unheard of, and unseen!
I was both shocked to learn that other countries’ peoples did not participate in such a simple, yet significant, protocol, yet pleased to know that somehow we Americans were different. Maybe it’s our country’s “newness,” as we are still very young compared to Europe’s many nations. Though I always participate in singing our National Anthem, doing so now reminds me each time how different we Americans are.
After my formative years, I did travel more and got to see historical sites, such as Boston’s many Revolutionary War sites and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, and for two summers watched drum and fife corps march in the East Haddam, Connecticut July 4th parades. More recently, I have had the chance to travel to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.
Fort McHenry has little to do with the Revolutionary War, but everything to do with our flag. You see, it was at Fort McHenry, during another war with England, the War of 1812, that the inspiration for The Star-Spangled Banner was taken in by Francis Scott Key. If the young Americans had not stood their ground within the Fort, in the middle of Baltimore Harbor, Baltimore would have been overtaken by British forces, including land forces who were separately repelled at the Battle of North Point (now inside the City of Baltimore). Aboard a prison ship in Baltimore Harbor, negotiating the release of a prisoner, Francis Scott Key observed the entire 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry beginning on September 13, 1814 and ending on the morning of September 14.
Key, a lawyer I might add, penned a poem that would later be set to the music of an English song popular in that era.
When I sing our National Anthem, the words now come alive, imagining the British incendiary shots that lit up the night to illuminate the battle scene, the unending barrage of shells fired at the Fort, the return of cannon fire, and the garrison flag, the “Old Stars and Stripes,” standing through it all.
This year we have American armed forces not on our home soil, but in distant lands. Regardless of the political decisions made in respect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I hope you share in my genuine appreciation of, and heartfelt thanks for, the bravery our soldiers, sailors, marines and air force personnel display every day and that you pray for their safe return.
Independence Day – many thoughts and many memories. I hope you too have a moment to reflect on this greatest of national holidays, for if we did not celebrate this day, perhaps it would be because we were still English.
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever when free-men shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation;
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Francis Scott Key, 1814