Celebrating the Not Quite Right Just Yet

So, we’re about to celebrate a pretty big holiday here in the United States. We will follow in the footsteps of John Adams who wrote to his wife Abigail that Independence Day should be recognized with “pomp and parade, with [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

I think we’ll pretty much have that covered. But we won’t be celebrating on the anniversary of the day the Continental Congress first declared independence, nor the day one of history’s most famous breakup letters was drafted. The holiday won’t fall on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and it doesn’t mark the moment when King George III read it and decided to sing a love song about sending an armed battalion.  

A man who knew how to party. John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the July 4th celebration does commemorate all of that, but what it actually marks on the calendar is the day of the final pen stroke of the final draft of the document that spurred a war that birthed a nation.

As a writer who recognizes that first drafts rarely amount to much and that most of the best writing occurs in the rewriting, I find this pretty satisfying. It seems John Adams would not have agreed with me. When he wrote of his future nation’s Independence Day, he was referring to July 2, 1776.

I get it. He was excited. He’d had a hand in the original draft, working with Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and of course Thomas Jefferson to get it just so. Like a student who waited too long to start his final term paper and stayed up all night before the due date, assuming that in his push to get it finished, he’d written the most brilliant words ever penned by any student in the history of students, Adams was probably anxious to get it turned in to the Continental Congress, send it on to the king, and sit back to watch the fireworks.

That looks like a lot of hard work. Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Not surprisingly, however, Adams and his fellow committee members weren’t the only ones who had something to say about the wording of the Declaration. The debating began. In some ways, this important American document was improved by a few tweaks here or there, a little tightening of language or nuance of phrasing. And in other ways, it was made worse, like in the removal of all references to the immorality of slavery.

It’s still possible to make the wrong decision in revision, too, which is one of the things that makes it so difficult. But the Continental Congress figured out where they had to compromise in order to make the declaration work well enough for all the representatives in the room to move forward. The final draft would be signed nearly a month later on August 2. The date at the top of the document, however, remained July 4, which became an officially declared federal holiday in 1870.

The date is pretty ingrained at this point and I think, all things considered, it’s the right one to celebrate, though with the 4th falling on a Sunday this year, and much to the frustration of my poor dog, I suspect many of my neighbors will celebrate with illuminations on the 2nd and 3rd as well.

But in my mind, the 4th is the day the United States truly embarked on the notion that freedom and liberty sometimes require compromise and consideration of those who don’t agree with us, and that revision is painful, difficult, and necessary work.

Ooh. Aah. Illuminations! Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The United States, such as it was imagined by the Second Continental Congress, wasn’t a perfect nation, nor was the vision of it perfected yet. That would take many, many years. So many, in fact, we’re still counting, and I suspect always will be.

But the best work comes in the difficult, painful revision process in which debate and compromise occurs. No matter how politically divided we may think we are, or how we as individuals may feel our nation is doing in this moment, I hope that’s something every American can be proud to celebrate.

If you are celebrating American Independence this weekend, please be careful with all your pomp and illuminations, and have a wonderful holiday!

A Post for Every Season

In 1958, seventeen-year-old American high school student Robert G. Heft needed to find a good project for his history class. Realizing that his nation might be on the cusp of something important, Heft decided what he would do was address the obvious problem presented by admitting two more states to the then 48-state United States.

Young Heft spent twelve hours (probably the night before the project was due), using a yard stick and his mother’s sewing machine to carefully produce a new American flag design featuring 100 hand-cut stars, fifty on each side of the blue section.

The new flag was raised on July 4, 1960 above Fort McHenry where Francis Scott Key famously penned the words that would one day be set to the most difficult tune on the planet for anyone to carry, though that doesn’t stop scores of drunken baseball fans from trying. photo credit: My favorite flag in the world. via photopin (license)

Bleary-eyed, he presented his project to his teacher Mr. Pratt, who promptly awarded him a B-. But young Heft had worked really hard and he wasn’t satisfied with the grade so he complained to his teacher, who sighed and finally agreed that he would give the project an A as soon as Congress accepted Heft’s design as the new American flag.

What was most likely meant as a dismissal, Heft took as a challenge. So in January of 1959, when Alaska became the first new state admitted to the Union since Arizona in 1912, he started to get excited. When later that same year, on August 21, Hawaii became number fifty, Heft held his breath in anticipation. Because he, along with somewhere around 1500 of his fellow citizens (all desperate to improve their history grades), had submitted unsolicited new designs for the flag. President Eisenhower himself called Heft to inform him that his design had been chosen.

It’s a great story, because it’s that of a relatively powerless young person, working hard, taking a chance, and achieving success against the odds. In a way it feels a little like the story of the United States itself.

And super stylish hats. Let’s not forget those.

We Americans love our flag. Mostly, of course, we love what it represents, freedom and sacrifice and that fierce American pride instilled in us at birth. Many of us fly flags at home and we put the stars and stripes on ties and tee shirts and coffee mugs. We hoist our flag on Memorial Day at the end of May in honor of the men and women who have sacrificed to protect all that it represents. We display it again on July 4th, in honor of the original declaration of American attitude.

And thanks to a movement derived from the lesson plans of a creative Wisconsin teacher in 1885, whose school celebrated the flag’s birthday on June 14 (the 108th anniversary of the adoption of the stars and stripes), we now also fly it for Flag Day.

What this means is that in addition to showing our patriotism, we also get to be incredibly lazy. Because from the end of May to the beginning of July, it is perfectly appropriate to feature your stars-and-stripes front door decoration, candy dishes, and knick-knacks. And really, who’s going to say anything if you start at the beginning of May when you finally put the Easter bunnies away, and stretch it until the scarecrows come out in, say, September.

Heck, I’m so patriotic, I might just leave this up all year.

No one. Because you are patriotic. And if they do say anything, then clearly, they are not. If you want to be really lazy patriotic you might even stretch your flag-themed paraphernalia through Veteran’s Day in November, by which time, it is nearly acceptable to swap it for Christmas decorations. I recommend snowmen because they’ll last you well into Lent.  

That, my friends, is how you become the envy of all your neighbors, because you always have such beautiful seasonal decorations in your home, while they can’t seem to find the time for such nonsense. Maybe they just aren’t as thoroughly patriotic as you.

Rest assured, even the addition of more states won’t render this centerpiece any  less delightfully patriotic.

And the best part about all this wonderfully American stuff is that the number of stars doesn’t particularly matter. So if in a few years, there’s a 51st state, your oh-so-starred-and-striped paper-weight should weather the storm just fine.

Of course the flag itself will have to change in that case, but it’s okay because Robert Heft has us covered. He did retrospectively get his A on his project and went on to become a teacher and even served as mayor of his little Ohio town. When he passed away in 2009, Heft also held copyrights to flag designs with fifty-one through sixty stars. Just in case.



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