Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Common Sense and the 4th of July

When I get up in the morning one of the first things I do is put our American flag in its holder on the front of the house.  Most of the time this is just a routine and I don’t think much about it, which is probably not good. On the 4th of July when I do it I do tend to think about a lot of random things.

I think about what we will be doing that day.  What barbecues with the neighbors we might attend, where we’re going to see the fireworks, and other similar things.  I also think about some deeper things and some memories I have.  I think about our Founding Fathers and what they risked in the midst of a revolutionary war to declare our independence, but mostly I think of Thomas Paine who I admire greatly.

Thomas Paine was a man who lived in England and came to the colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin.  When he saw what the situation here was like he decided to do something about it.  Thomas Paine was described as being a “corset maker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination.”   In January of 1776 he wrote and with two other men, published and printed a 46-page pamphlet call Common Sense.  He signed it “by an Englishman,” because they were all afraid they might be hung for treason.

In the essay he argued for the separation from Great Britain.  He said these things (and I am paraphrasing):  It is absurd that an island should think that it can rule a continent; this is not a British nation, but one composed of people from many European nations; a lack of representation in the British parliament is criminal, and if one were to consider Great Britain “the mother country” of the American colonies then she is a horrendous mother.  No mother would treat her child so brutally for her own benefit.

There is no direct evidence that Thomas Paine’s work had a direct influence on the gentlemen in Philadelphia who were debating and drafting our declaration of independence.  It did have a lot of impact on public opinion though, and it remains the most bestselling and most read published work per capita in US history.   It was so influential that John Adams once said, either around that time or some time later, that “Without the pen of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”  Hard to imagine it didn’t have some sort of impact on the elected delegations in Philadelphia.

On the 4th of July I also think a lot about John Locke.  John Locke was a British philosopher who lived in the 1600s and thought and wrote a lot about what he called the inalienable rights of mankind.  He deeply influenced the writing of Thomas Paine, and of Thomas Jefferson who prepared the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.  I imagine he influenced a lot of the other patriots.  He once wrote, “All mankind... being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”  If you have read the preamble to our Declaration of Independence it sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

On Independence Day I don’t just think about what I’m going to do that day or history.  I think about a lot of fond memories of past celebrations too.

I think about my friends Greg and Linda.  Linda is my wife’s best friend and was her maid-of-honor; Greg was an usher in our wedding.  Later on both me and my wife stood up in their wedding.  Every year, for a number of years, we used to go to their lake house for the 4th of July.  Sometimes we would take their boat out and watch the fireworks as they were fired over the water.  Sometimes Greg and I would just fire off stuff on the shore so all seven of our kids could ooh and aah.

Greg and I share a mutual affection for the musical, 1776, which is a whimsical and, if done right, moving depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  The four of us went to see a production of the play right after 9/11 and many parts did move me. Sometimes when Greg and I are together we will spontaneously burst in to snippets of songs from 1776.  Usually wives’ eyes roll and children begin to scream.  We don’t care.

I think about times when the core group of friends I had in college used to go to the Taste of Chicago, get a little raucous, watch the fireworks over Lake Michigan, and then either drive back to the suburbs, or when we were older go back to my place in the city. 

I remember how my oldest son, when he was little, used to wear earmuffs when we sat on a hill by our friends’ house to watch.  He liked the way fireworks looked but did not like their sound.

My fondest memory of the 4th of July is from when I was a kid and my family would go down to Indiana to visit my grandparents.  When it started getting dark my older sister, Melissa, and I would climb up on one of the lower roofs with a blanket and watch the fireworks that were being shot off in the civic park.  We held hands because we thought that way if one of us tumbled off, we could try to save whoever went off, or at the very least go down together.

This year as the 4th of July comes around I am thinking about some other things too. I’m thinking about how lucky I am that I live in a place that I don’t have to worry about how I vocalize my opinions and what’s on my mind; that there is opportunity if I am willing to work for it and seize it; that I can practice whatever religion I want even if it’s no religion at all, and that I don’t live in fear.  Not everyone in this world has that.  It’s a blessing that should be deeply appreciated.

Happy Independence Day, my friends.