Since 1776, when the loose federation that would become the United States first flexed its philosophical muscles, people have been delivering speeches on July 4. Speakers have wrung every possible meaning out of that auspicious date.
Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, firecrackers, Old Glory, the price of freedom, divine inspiration, the honored dead, mom, apple pie and the girl back home are just a few topics that have become familiar themes (the final three being especially meaningful to veterans).
As we celebrate July 4, 2004, it’s clear that a new era of human history has dawned. The opportunity for peace and prosperity has never been more possible.
Yet some things don’t seem to change. War is still war, sacrifice still causes pain and freedom is by no means free.
So we thought that it might be a good time to re-examine our feelings about this oldest of our national holidays, the one that comes closest to defining what America really is.
To do so, we asked readers to send in their thoughts. Hundreds answered the call.
Our thanks to all those who responded, and our apologies to those whose submissions we couldn’t use because of space limitations.
An edited representation of what we received follows:
“Independence Day is a good time for reflection of mankind’s progress in the pursuit of happiness, life and liberty. A good way to chart this progress is to compare important documents through our history, from the Bible to our Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and our subsequent hard-fought and won civil liberties. We have progressed from the God’s chosen people’ of the Bible to our Constitution, which finds no room for chosen people, chosen religion or chosen social class. Noteworthy also is that it is stated that all people are created equal with unalienable rights, not just U.S. citizens. We have come a long way from the divine rights of kings to the divine rights of the people, but the journey is not finished.”
Jim Allen, Spokane
“The Fourth of July is a chance to be with family and friends at a barbecue to celebrate the great freedoms we have as Americans. In what other country, regardless of race or religion, can a simple person with lofty goals and dreams meet or exceed them? The Fourth of July is the ultimate celebration of our freedom of choice in everything.”
Barbara Rueppel, Spokane Valley
“The Fourth of July has a habit of changing meaning as time goes by. As a little guy on our Rocklake, N.D., farm, I thought it meant firecrackers and maybe even a cap gun with real caps. Then it was a time to be with your children. But this is written on June 11, 2004, the day they buried President Reagan, which brings into focus what our forefathers did to make this nation. President Reagan was a perfect reason to help us realize just what Independence Day means to our country. There have been others of his stature, though few that have helped more to make our nation what it is at this moment in time.”
Robert Clouse, Spokane
“I am of the Vietnam generation. I graduated from high school in 1968 believing that most of the leaders we had were corrupt, self-serving ideologues. They have done nothing since to prove otherwise. Celebrating the Fourth of July, waving the flag, was something scoundrels did. Being cynical or pessimistic is, I believe, more politically and patriotically healthy than believing without question everything that our leaders’ tell us or, perhaps worse, not being involved at all. The Fourth of July is, after all, a celebration of independence.”
Robert Wallace, Spokane
“When I think of the Fourth of July, I think of the rows and rows of pure white tombstones lined up in perfect array at Arlington National Cemetery. I remember reading the gravestones of these young men, and then, as chills go down my back, realizing that each one of these precious souls died so that I, my wife, my children — all of us — could exercise the freedom of an American. Each of these men bought my freedom with their blood, and I need to remember and cherish their ultimate sacrifice.”
Bill Gothmann, Spokane
“Independence Day for me signifies the power of the people to change their government. It signifies the rise to power of government of, for and by the people. It celebrates the Declaration of Independence, which itself signifies the rebellion of common folk against unlimited and capricious governmental power.”
Lee N. Pierce, Medical Lake
“For me, the Fourth of July means coming together as a family. We get together to have fun and to strengthen our bonds to one another, and we always have a special historical treat. Some years ago, my brother James memorized the entire Declaration of Independence. Each year he brushes up and then does a dramatic recitation of the Declaration, giving emphasis to any line that is particularly apt for the events of today.”
Christopher Parkin, Chewelah
“The Fourth of July has always been a special event in our family, but for me there is one that will always stand out. My great grandmother, Nettie James, was probably the most patriotic person I ever knew. She would read me the preamble to the Constitution during my bath time as a baby, and she made sure that I knew who the bald man in the picture in the living room was (some called him Ike; we called him our president). If someone ever forgot to hang out the flag on a national holiday, Gram’ was sure to come down hard on them. Fittingly for someone who loved her country so, Gram died peacefully in her sleep on July 4, 1972, after watching the national fireworks on television.”
Stu Hightower, Spokane
“To our family, the Fourth of July is a time to celebrate a nation founded on God and to come together as a family for a great summer day. It means the crops are in and the water is on a schedule and we have some time before the hard work of harvest begins.”
Steve Lund, Quincy, Wash.
“My mother-in-law, Mildred Deeter Young, is almost 92 years old. She was born and grew up in rural southeastern Colorado. Time has dimmed her memory and taken most of her yesterdays. Yet, without fail, mention of the Fourth of July brings (forth the following reminiscence): Papa (Alva Byron Deeter) was born on the Fourth of July, you know. He would have been — how old would he be? That’s right — 126 years old this year. On his birthday, we’d always go downtown to watch the parade, with Grandpa Deeter (Abraham) and the rest of the Civil War veterans marching. Since Grandpa was a judge, he usually got to give one of the patriotic speeches of the day. Then we’d go back to the farm for a picnic. We’d have watermelons that were as long as your arm and Papa would get five gallons of store-bought black walnut ice cream. The Fourth of July was about the only time we got to eat store-bought. Usually, we hooked the ice cream freezer up to the Model T to turn the crank.’ To this day, she loves black walnut ice cream, and it’s very hard to find!”
Florence Young, Spokane
“To me, the Fourth of July is a time to remember the great things that have happened in our country’s past that have made us who we are. It is a time to commemorate the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and all that they stand for. It is a time to show off your patriotic pride and love of country. I am an Eagle Scout, and I am proud to be one. In earning this rank, I learned many things. I feel, though, that one of the most important things I learned was the respect and responsibility that each of us as citizens should have for this great country.”
Perry Bugbee, Spokane
“I was raised in a small mining town in Colorado that was struggling for existence. The Fourth of July was the one time when the population multiplied tenfold as family and friends from years past all converged into the little valley just below timberline. It gave us the feeling that we were in the most important spot on Earth. The day started at 6 a.m. to a few sticks of dynamite resonating in the mountains near town. A terrific boom and shock came through our house, and no amount of the day’s firecrackers could match it. For a young boy it was a wonderfully exciting way to wake up. This tradition continued into the ‘60s until one Independence Day, when we witnessed an incredible explosion the likes of none in the past. Windows were broken and foundations were cracked, which to some seemed somewhat excessive. A little investigating concluded that a night of liquor, some merry albeit patriotic miners and an entire case of dynamite were a bad combination.”
O.D. Fullmer, Chewelah
“There’s nothing quite like a group of Americans coming together to celebrate July 4 on foreign soil. I remember vividly that first time in 1955. Dad had worked for Standard Oil in California’s San Joaquin valley for a number of years and had accepted a job in Bahrain, then an obscure little island in the Persian Gulf. I’d never seen real poverty before. Beggars on the street, most with deformities, families living in crude, thatched one-room shelters, naked children, veiled women. That first July 4 in another country, we few Americans from different walks of life gathered at Zallaq beach. Whether there as oil company employees, missionaries, diplomats or sailors from a 6th Fleet ship temporarily anchored off shore, we came together to celebrate America. Not as a perfect country, but a country with a mandate to seek liberty and justice for all.’ Tears mingled with salty sweat as we sang the Star Spangled Banner’ that night. Sometimes you have to leave a place, a person, a job to appreciate what you had before. Even at 10 years old I realized how much I’d taken for granted living in the USA … and sometimes, regrettably, still do.”
Kay Charbonneau, Spokane
” ‘Twas on this date, 82 years ago, that I was born
And I’m still as patriotic as that date stands for!
I love this country, with its beautiful mountains,
And the precious gift of our inherited’ freedoms.
I am dismayed at how fragile these have become
… and pray we restore America as it once was.”
Virginia Petersen, Republic, Wash.
“Is it bad that the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the Fourth is hot dogs? Large amounts of hot dogs. And paper plates. Festive ones that are red, white and blue. I know what the Fourth stands for and what it symbolizes, but it takes a back seat to the thoughts of the amounts of grilling and eating of hot dogs taking place in millions of homes across the country. And I don’t even like hot dogs.”
Taryn Graham, Liberty Lake
“What immediately comes to mind when I’m celebrating July 4 is family. We have the freedom and affluence of a nation to enjoy fellowship with our loved ones.”
Don Winant, Tucson, Ariz.
“For over 200 years our forefathers paid in both substance and life to preserve America’s freedom. In my lifetime, literally trillions of dollars and millions of lives have been spent to allow me to live in a free America. We and our successors will continue to pay the high cost of maintaining our freedom, but I — as should we all — willingly pay it, because freedom costs. I give thanks on this day to veterans and the brave members of our armed forces who believe as I do: that freedom is not free. These patriots — some who pay the ultimate price — rank in history with America’s greatest heroes. They make the payments that maintain our freedom. As a token of my appreciation and gratitude, I salute them all on this day.”
Don Graham, Spokane
“Up until this year we celebrated July 4 just like most Americans — camping, fireworks hot dogs, etc. But this year our son is in Iraq. He tells us his base is mortared every night and that it will be strange to not hear that sound when he comes home. It made me think of the Star Spangled Banner,’ when Francis Scott Key saw all those bombs bursting in air. It makes me think of all those who came before our son who served this great country of ours so that we can be free. So this Fourth of July we will be thanking our troops.”
Judy Lambert, Spokane
“When I think of Independence Day, I think of the early settlers that came to this country in the bellies of ships. For those that survived the journey, I think of the hard and miserable times they endured — establishing shelter for harsh winters, providing food for their own tables and a wife with child almost every year of their lives. Early settlers did not have the options of just turning up the thermostat or flicking a light switch. I think of the enormous task of just transporting themselves 15 miles, much less travel around the moon! With all the things they were required to accomplish just to stay alive, they found time to establish their independence with a great desire to be free people in 1776.”
Sheldon Ralston, Stratford, Wash.
“To me, the Fourth of July will always be epitomized by Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Tillman, only 27, was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Fort Lewis. The ex-football player gave up millions of dollars to volunteer for service shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and he lost his life fighting in Afghanistan to defend America. We take for granted that, like Pat Tillman, our founding fathers pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor’ for the cause of freedom. We cannot remember our nation’s birth without remembering those who risked it all to make it happen and those today who do the same to protect it.”
Booker T. Stallworth, Olympia
“Growing up, I was taught that the Fourth should remind Americans of freedom, liberty, and peace, not just loud and expensive fireworks. Recently, my placement into the Peace Corps was cancelled because of funding cuts, which hundreds of other potential volunteers experienced. Currently, applications for the Peace Corps have increased by 11,000 and there are 20 countries on the waiting list. With all of the money going to the war, there is no money for peace. America’s greatest programs lacks funding. Promises not funded are promises not kept. In essence, maybe this year the Fourth of July should only symbolize what is going on in Iraq … a bunch of loud and expensive fireworks!”
Daniel Kriz, Spokane
“My formative years were during World War II, and no matter where we were, there were military bases with the troops as a big part of every parade. I loved to see them marching to the cadence of a drumbeat. There seemed to be miles and miles of them. I was fascinated by the sun’s glint off the kaki military arms as they swung back and forth in perfect unison. I wanted to get out there and march along. Even to a small child, July Fourth meant national unity, pride and integrity.”
Ruth E. Bragg, Spokane
“Then: Marching with paper hats that our brother made for us. Waving banners, colored with red, white and blue crayons. The sparklers that we watched and held out before us. We were so proud. It was the Fourth of July. We stood when the Star Spangled Banner was played, and loved watching any parade. We were just children. Now: Our favorite picture, our son teaching his sons to pray. Having breakfast together, holding hands while saying grace. Freedom. How precious to enjoy. We appreciate our great country and the precious freedom that was given at a great cost.”
Nina Hutton, Oldtown, Idaho
“My nephew, Jess Brucker, is in Iraq and has been for more than a year. We think of him every day, but we will celebrate his dedication to the United States on this Fourth of July especially. As we gather with family, I will think of my wonderful country that I am lucky enough to live in. Our two grandpas who fought in World War II — one crossing the English Channel 33 times as an LCI commander, one as a staff sergeant in the Army Air Force on Tinian in the Pacific campaign. Finally, I will think of my third-grade students and hope they all are aware of how important the Fourth of July is to us.”
The Simpsons, Coeur d’Alene
“To me, the Fourth of July is a time of freedom and happiness, knowing that many years ago our country became free of British rule and became the United States. We all have many different traditions on the Fourth of July. My tradition is to go up to the lake with my mom, dad, aunts, uncles, grandparents and other close friends and buy fireworks. We buy a box for the whole family, then each of us kids gets to buy one of our own. (I can remember when I was 6 years old I got a firework that was a dark green turtle with light green spots, a black nose and big red eyes. It has always been my favorite in my memories.) Then we light off the fireworks from the dock. We all have a blast! We all have different traditions and beliefs, but I don’t think that the Fourth of July should be spent chugging down your Diet Coke and gobbling down your Big Mac! I think it should be spent at a place you love with people you love. And remember that this day many years ago our country became its own.”
Megan Fallquist (age 11), Spokane