The United States will celebrate its Independence Day –  July 4th – this week. Fireworks, parades, cookouts, music–the typical content of a 4th of July celebration. It’s a time when many people relax, have fun, and wave the American flag. But who stops to think about what the 4th of July means? Sure, we learned in middle school about the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the official beginning of the nationhood, but as an adult do we give it any thought beyond a day off and BBQ?

I am not what many would call patriotic. Gasp! No, that doesn’t mean I am an un-American commie. It means I do not worship a physical or metaphorical flag or the military/war power. I do respect the structure, process and struggle with which our fore bearers defined the country, its laws and the culture we live in today. Or at least they tried.

The American Revolutionary War began in 1775. It started because the American colonists wanted to break away from Great Britain and start their own country. They felt that the British were treating them unfairly. At first, only a few colonies wanted to be completely independent. However, by 1776 almost all wanted independence from Great Britain.

On June 7, 1776, the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and debated a motion to declare independence for the colonies. They did not vote on the motion that day, but instead made a committee to create a statement saying why they wanted to break away from Great Britain.

This is the point where we should cue a film clip from the musical “1776”. Okay, if you insist.

I do not think Hollywood is factually accurate, but they did tackle some challenging aspects of the day. Slavery, alcohol and religion, to name a few.

When doing some research on this holiday, I found it interesting that 1776 was a leap year. Leap years and specifically leap days have held some historical significance. Here are a few:

  • In 64, the great fire of Rome breaks out and destroys much of the city. Despite the well-known stories, there is no evidence that the Roman emperor, Nero, either started the fire or played the fiddle while it burned. Still, he did use the disaster to further his political agenda.
  • In 1620, some 100 people, many of them seeking religious freedom in the New World, set sail from England on the Mayflower and landed on the shores of Cape Cod.
  • In 1752, Benjamin Franklin flew a kite during a thunderstorm and collected a charge in a jar when the kite is struck by lightning, enabling him to demonstrate the electrical nature of lightning.
  • In 1848, discovery of gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley started the gold rush of California.
  • In 1912, the British ocean liner Titanic sank into the North Atlantic Ocean about 400 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada.
  • In 1988, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu was arrested along with 100 other clergymen during a five day anti-apartheid demonstration in Cape Town.

So 1776 was just another milestone in the history of the world, albeit a significant one. The musical, set in the crucible of the Revolutionary War in which our country was born, is a fantastic way to launch a discussion about what it means to you to be an American – in between the fireworks and hot dogs, of course.

Melody K. Smith

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