If you didn’t happen to watch television last night (because you were at a fireworks display or spending time with friends and family) you probably missed the Macy’s 4th of July Spectacular on NBC. I arrived a little late to that party (tuning in around 10:35 p.m. or so) but found it mesmerizing (in much the way a car crash --- or a NASCAR race, hoping for that crash --- can be). We were informed by the co-hosts Kristine Leahy, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, and Matt Iselin (who are, I learned, the co-hosts of NBC’s American Ninja Warriors which, I don’t think, had any particular significance in relation to the holiday --- but I’m not sure) that five barges in the East River of Manhattan were setting off 2400 explosives every minute! Quite impressive, indeed. Watching it reminded me of a scene that comes late in the movie Apocalypse Now, where Martin Sheen is searching for a commanding officer during a battle over a bridge that is blown up, and then re-built, every day. I was also concerned for any New Yorkers who might suffer from PTSD, given the incessant barrage of explosions and flares in the night. I’m not sure who I might have expected to be sponsoring the evening on commercial television but was a little surprised to discover that it was King’s Hawaiian and Sour Patch Kids candy, with a word from Febreze and its new “odorclear technology” (whatever that might be!). And, as bizarre as this may sound, the awesome display, with its music from the West Point Band and Glee Club, made me think of John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States, as well as the Declaration of Independence --- the reason we celebrate the 4th.
Adams, I believe, is responsible for the kinds of celebrations WNBC was promoting last evening. In a July 3rd (1776) letter to his wife Abigail, he said:
I am apt to believe that it (the Declaration) will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. 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. (masshist.org)
The Declaration’s final draft had been written and approved by the Continental Congress on July 2nd but was not read publicly until the 4th (so it could be sent to all 13 colonies for a reading on the same day). Adams is well known as being an austere figure (and a bit of an arrogant crank), so it is interesting that he followed his call for celebration with this note:
You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. -- I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. -- Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.
Any student of U.S. history would have trouble (and maybe a good laugh) at trying to picture John Adams “transported with Enthusiasm” but that statement speaks to his awareness of how momentous this moment was. The 13 colonies were about to begin a grand experiment in democracy, creating a nation based on the philosophy of the Enlightenment and governed by the principles of the Age of Reason --- a notion that at this moment, may give some of us pause.
HBO was running an interesting “special” over the 4th of July weekend which presented notable political figures, past and present, reading the U.S. Constitution verbatim. The NY Times ran a special section on Sunday, July 2nd, by Garry Wills entitled “Child of the Enlightenment” that included the full text of the Constitution with commentary by elected officials and pundits, citing particular phrases or sections and explicating their meaning. While I understand the conflation of the two documents (the Declaration & the Constitution) on the 4th, I think it’s important to recognize they are distinctly different. The 4th of July is, indeed, a celebration of “America,” writ large, but it is, quite specifically, the day we declared our independence from what the colonists believed was an oppressive British monarchy. Thirteen years later we began our democratic republican life under the Constitution & Bill of Rights. So, I’d like to use this space to remind readers of some of what, exactly, the American Revolution was about --- with a particular eye toward our current situation.
The colonists listed many “grievances” explaining the dissolution of the union with Great Britain. Here are a few that seem pertinent, even today.
He (the King) has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
§ The king refused Assent to Laws regarding immigration. He hindered immigration from England and refused to cooperate in furthering the growth of the Colonies.
Yes, the Colonists were upset that the King was restricting immigration to American, something they saw as vital to their growth and development. The Colonists were also angry with George III “For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world” While we may not have stopped trade “with all parts of the world” our current relations, in trade and diplomacy, are certainly on shaky ground.
Another complaint from the Colonists about the King, a criticism we (on the Left) see reflected in the Budget proposed by the current administration is “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.” Given the proposed cuts to Departments like Education, the EPA, Housing and Urban Development with a huge increase to the military budget, we might deduce that our President is, indeed, a latter day George III.
We also know that the President is no friend of the courts, as has been clearly expressed in numerous Twitter statements. The Colonists found their King to also be a ruler with little regard for the Judiciary. According to the Declaration, “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers. He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” (all quotes, patriotlines.org) While this is more extreme than we have seen (so far) we know that our current President would love to operate more like a king and less like a pubic servant.
So, this year's 4th is now history and we head into summer, with Congress recessed and representatives home facing their constituents while the President tours his various golf courses, then heads off to Europe to meet Putin face-to-face. The Korean toddler is launching ICBM’s and the Middle East is still in flames. ICE is collecting and deporting “illegals” at a record rate and autoworkers in the U.S. are being laid off.
We know that George III was often described as “the mad king” and, in April of 2013, the BBC reported on the most current research validating that notion. Based on reading thousands of George’s letters, Dr. Peter Garrard and Dr. Vassiliki Rentoumi:
discovered that during his episodes of illness, his sentences were much longer than when he was well. A sentence containing 400 words and eight verbs was not unusual. George III, when ill, often repeated himself, and at the same time his vocabulary became much more complex, creative and colourful. These are features that can be seen today in the writing and speech of patients experiencing the manic phase of psychiatric illnesses such as bipolar disorder.
Imagine if George III had Twitter. Hmmm, I wonder what that would have been like.