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America's Birthday: The True Meaning of July 4 (Part 3)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

All Americans would agree that July 4th is an important date for our nation, but we have constantly debated its meaning and the proper way to celebrate it, with interpretations changing over time and in particular circumstances.

The American Calendar project is a series of nine e-anthologies — one for each national holiday — whose stories, speeches, songs, poems, letters, and essays help us think about the meaning of each occasion. Compiled by educators Amy Kass and Leon Kass, they are all available free of charge at http://www.whatsoproudlywehail.org.

The rationale for the collection is simple, explain the Kasses: “National holidays offer wonderful opportunities to learn about and to become more knowingly attached to the American Republic. For the national calendar, as a whole and in each part, provides an excellent introduction to the diverse strands of our national identity and the meaning of our common life and purpose.”

The Kass e-book, “The Meaning of Independence Day,” contains over 50 selections from colonial times to the present, chosen and arranged to illuminate a series of themes: declaring, securing, and maintaining independence; the promise of the new republic; seeking a more perfect union (with special attention to securing equal rights for blacks and women); and celebrating the holiday and remembering its national promise. The readings were chosen for their differing perspectives and for their ability to speak both to hearts and minds about the meaning of Independence Day. In this final excerpt from Amy Kass and Leon Kass’s new e-anthology on the July 4 holiday, the authors introduce us to a story by Sarah Orne Jewett and a speech given by Calvin Coolidge in 1926.

—The Editors

A Village Patriot

SARAH ORNE JEWETT

In this story from 1897, Maine novelist and short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) explores different attitudes toward the Fourth of July among members of a group of workmen who, on July 3rd, are shingling the roof of a new country house outside Boston. Most of the men hail from Boston, to which they are eager to return. The old-timer in the group, Abel Thorndike, lives nearby in the local village, and differs from the others also in his way of celebrating the Fourth.

Read the full story.

Questions for the Reader

How does Thorndike’s celebration of the Fourth differ from that of the others? What do you think accounts for the difference? According to the title, he is a village patriot, rather than the village patriot: does this perhaps suggest that patriotism is influenced by place, and that patriotism in villages differs from — and might be deeper than — patriotism in cities? Consider the “bookends” of the story, the beginning and the end, which take place with the men at work. What is the relation between work and the Fourth of July and between work and patriotism? What is the difference between a day off and a holiday? Which is the Fourth of July for you? What do you regard as the best way to celebrate it?

—Amy Kass and Leon Kass

Speech on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence

CALVIN COOLIDGE

The Fourth of July, the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, is annually celebrated as the birthday of the United States of America, marked for us with parades, marching bands, and fireworks. In earlier times, the day was also marked by specially prepared orations that commemorated our founding principles. A wonderful example of this at once celebratory and reflective genre can be found in the present selection, a speech that President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) delivered in 1926 in honor of the Declaration’s sesquicentennial.

Here President Coolidge affirms the enduring veracity of human equality, inalienable rights, and the consent of the governed — “those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound.” By locating our abstract creed in its historical, cultural, and religious contexts, he argues against the idea that the American republic was founded on thought alone, and insists on the continuing importance of our religious heritage.

Read the full speech.

Questions for the Reader

What specifically are Coolidge’s arguments, and what is his evidence? Do you find them convincing? Do they affect your understanding of the Fourth of July and the ways it should be celebrated?

—Amy Kass and Leon Kass

Cheryl Miller has worked with the Kasses on this collection, and she was instrumental in selecting the essays in this collection from the Kasses’ e-anthology.

Amy Kass and Leon Kass, along with Diana Schaub, are editors of the anthology, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song. Their website is www.whatsoproudlywehail.org.

FURTHER READING: Leon Kass also writes “What Silent Cal Said About the Fourth of July” and joins Walter Berns to discuss Steven Spielberg’s film "Lincoln". Berns also writes the book Making Patriots. Karlyn Bowman, who helps us in “Understanding American Exceptionalism,” joins Jennifer Marsico and Andrew Rugg to analyze “Polls on Patriotism.” Jonah Goldberg talks about “Freedom: The Unfolding Revolution” and Ralph Kinney Bennett hails “This Astounding Enterprise.” Mark J. Perry claims that “The Founding Fathers Were Bloggers.” Charles Murray examines the changing of nature presidents' sense of responsibility in “Of Presidents and Duty.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group; Background photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock.

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