Of all the federal holidays throughout the year, I enjoy the Fourth of July most of all.
At Christmas we’re expected to go shopping and buy things for each other. Thanksgiving has become nine hours of football, combined with a huge meal, then followed by a week’s worth of turkey sandwiches. Sadly too many have forgotten that Memorial Day and Veterans Day are not meant to be a time of play, but rather solemn occasions for thoughtful remembrance.
Then there are the days meant to remember prominent historical figures such as George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Christopher Columbus. While these great men are rightfully honored, those holidays are about celebrating them and what they did for our country. Those holidays are not about us.
But Independence Day is unique. Distilled to its essence, the Fourth of July is a celebration of our community. It celebrates a commitment we made more than 200 years ago and still binds us together today, that we have come together as a community of people to build a society that is more important than any one of us.
The first lines of the Declaration of Independence might be the most memorable, but I’ve always felt that the last line is by far the most important:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Consider just how radical those words truly were for the time, and how even today, they are what make our country unique in the world. Our commitment is not obedience to a king, nor deference to a titled aristocracy, nor service to a wealthy oligarchy. We make this commitment to our fellow citizens. “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred honor,” because we share a common belief in a simple idea:
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.
We so believed in these fundamental principles that when they were threatened, we declared our independence from the only form of government we’d ever known, while under the threat that a revolutionary war was most certainly to ensue.
America is great because our country was built upon a foundation of a mutual pledge of everything we have – from our fortunes, to our honor, to our very lives – in service to one another. Our forefathers had faith that if the people of these “United States of America” could come together in a spirit of community, it would have the strength to overcome the king of the most powerful empire in the world.
Strange as it may sound, these are the things that came to mind recently as I spent a back-breaking Sunday building a firepit in our backyard.
It’s a fairly simple do-it-yourself project, but I will admit that I underestimated the total magnitude of materials needed to complete even this most basic construction project. All total, I figure that we had to haul and set into place about 1½ tons of bricks, gravel and stone to build our firepit.
Of course, having an ample supply of free labor is one of the many reasons that my wife and I had six children. But that story is for another column.
After a day’s worth of hard labor, followed by a week of sore knees and a stiff back, I could barely contain my excitement in anticipation of the first fire we would light on the following Friday. To me, there are few things more enjoyable than spending an evening gathered around an open fire with family and friends. Although we likely never think of it as such, sitting around a fire in fellowship with others builds community. It strengthens the bonds we have to one another, to our county, our state, and our country.
Sadly, too many politicians and pundits make their living trying to divide us. They want us to focus on how we differ. They segregate us into groups and say that it’s us against them so we’ll watch their television shows, listen to their talk radio programs, buy their products, and vote for their candidates.
But I believe in the power of the spirit of community. I don’t necessarily mean “spirit” in a religious sense, although some might feel it that way. I mean the spirit that comes from the strength of a fellowship of people that can look beyond what separates them and find a way to unite to serve something larger than themselves.
We need to spend more time gathered around the firepit – in both the literal and figurative sense – talking with one another so we recognize that what we have in common as Americans far exceeds how we differ.
On this Fourth of July, remember that we are only here because those who came before us made that solemn commitment – “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” – in service of one another. It is our duty as Americans to honor that tradition and find ways to give of ourselves in service of our community.
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on July 2, 2014.