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What Do We Celebrate on the Fourth of July?

By Sarah Skwire

I know exactly where I will be tomorrow. I’ll be sitting on a grass-covered hill in a small town in Maine, applauding as fire trucks and floats roll by, watching my kids wave to the parade royalty and chase down candy thrown by the marchers, getting just a little teary as the war veterans ride by, and celebrating this unwieldy and flawed conglomeration of people and history and ideas called America.

It has taken me a while to understand why I like the Fourth of July so much. I don’t like government or politics. The onset of yet another round of presidential elections fills me with a vague dread and nausea. I don’t even like the Pledge of Allegiance.

If I have problems with all of these bastions of Americana, why bother celebrating this weekend? Why don’t I treat the Fourth of July with the same indifference I show Election Day?

For me, the Fourth of July is not a political celebration. I understand that it is for most people. And yes, I do see all those local politicians driving by in bunting-draped cars during that parade I’m so fond of. But for me, vaunting celebrations of contemporary political issues and personalities are not the point of the Fourth.

Mixed feelings may well be the only appropriate kind.

I’m not even there for the historical aspects of the celebrations. (Though, for the record, one of the most surprisingly moving things I have done on a past Fourth of July was to attend a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. I was brought to tears at many points, and to full-on rage at others. You could read it this weekend, if you wanted.) The June 17 tragedy in Charleston has reminded us, yet again, that history is never as uncomplicated as we would like it to be. Mixed feelings may well be the only appropriate kind. And so, as interested as I am in America’s founding, and as inspired as I am by so many aspects of it, that’s not why I’ll be sitting on the hill watching the parade go by.

I’ll be watching the parade because I can, and because no one is making me. I’ve long thought that the American freedom to assemble is a freedom we don’t celebrate enough. We’re allowed to get together — when we choose and where we choose — to celebrate or mourn or express our opinions. There’s value in having a parade just to appreciate the right to have a parade. And there’s value in having one just to appreciate that you don’t have to have one. I’ve written for Anything Peaceful about Soviet May Day parades. These were enforced “celebrations” where workers had to check in with their bosses to prove they had attended, had shown their loyalty, and had expressed sufficient delight over belonging to the Soviet Union. No one will check to see if I attended the parade this weekend. That’s a pretty good reason to go.

I’ll be watching the parade because in with all the fire trucks and the government agencies are the local businesses, the city orchestra, the Girl Scout troop, the school of martial arts, the CrossFit gym, and all the other voluntary associations that Tocqueville correctly observed are such an important part of American life. I’ll be there because I think those organizations are worth celebrating, not only for the specific activities they promote, but also because they remind us all that “if men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.”

But mostly, I’ll be watching the parade because everyone will be there. We will line the streets and watch the floats go by. And even within my own small family, we don’t all vote the same way (We don’t all vote!); we don’t all worship the same way; we don’t all agree on anything. But we’re all there, cheering for the parts of the parade we like best, politely acknowledging the parts we don’t care for as much, and helping the kids catch candy.

That’s plenty for me to celebrate.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

—Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing”

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