Independence Day doesn’t evoke the solemnity of Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Yes to parades, yes to fireworks, no to sober reflection. There are exceptions, especially after the March 22 Oso mudslide and the outpouring of gratitude to first responders and volunteers.
Time for a July 4 version of the first questions at a Passover Seder: Why is today different from all other days?
In the 18th century, independence was a radical notion — a radicalism that demands vigilance. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The guarantee of liberty, of genuine civil and political rights, wasn’t visited upon African-Americans until 188 years after Thomas Jefferson wrote America’s civic scripture. And it wasn’t all that long ago. Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who voted for the bill, is still serving in Congress.
Gordon Wood’s 1993 masterpiece, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” remains the best capsule on the declaration and the battle for independence. Life in the colonies didn’t align with England’s hierarchical, undemocratic example. America gave expression to a new design for governing based on the rights and dignity of the individual. In a world predicated on privilege, rank and servitude, a country centered on equality was miraculous. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Today we’d use “humans” in place of man, and slavery was the great unspoken.)
The United States is a very young country, a reality magnified in the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Prof. Brewster Denny, who died just last year, was the great-grandson of Arthur Denny, who founded Seattle and the UW (the Duwamish were the original inhabitants, but that’s another narrative altogether). Denny knew his great-uncle Rolland who, as an infant, was part of the original Denny party that landed at Alki in 1851. The life of a city carried forth across three generations.
In Snohomish County, there are descendants of those who attended the 1874 Independence Day celebration in Lowell hosted by E.D. Smith and Martin Getchell. The county population hovered somewhere around 600. It was a nanosecond ago in history.
Nations evolve, ideas are permanent. We can’t forget that.