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Posted on Jul 1, 2009 in Carlo D'Este, War College

What the Fourth of July Really Means

By Carlo D'Este

Confetti rains down on the orchestra and audience at the completion of the Stars and Stripes Forever, during the 35th Boston Pops Orchestra and Fireworks Spectacular in Boston, Massachusetts, July 4, 2008. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Gearhiser)

But the true meaning of the Fourth too often forgotten is what we are really celebrating: the freedom to do all this.

After some of the worst June weather in memory in my part of the country (rain, rain, and more rain plus a three-day Nor’easter) another July 4th is upon us. For the cities and towns that can still afford it there will be fireworks, and other celebrations that Americans traditionally engage in at this time of year: picnics, family gatherings, parades, band concerts, bicycles, children, real family time, cookouts, boating, and the freedom to just lie back and enjoy a good summer holiday. It’s a grand time of year.


In the Cape Cod town of Falmouth, Massachusetts our annual celebration of the Fourth takes place from a barge off a crowded beach with a great fireworks show set to patriotic music that blares over loudspeakers. Falmouth could easily be a microcosm of the rest of the nation.

But the true meaning of the Fourth too often forgotten is what we are really celebrating: the freedom to do all this. It was the persecution of Mother England and taxation without representation that brought us this day. The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, Concord and Lexington are all living symbols of the shots heard around the world, as is the great poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 that became the lyrics for our national anthem. New Englanders still celebrate the recreation of Lexington and Concord, the marching of the Red Coats against the American militia in what is one of the great traditions of this nation.

Our fledging country was started with one idea: that all men are created equal. This concept was novel to the English who had class distinctions, indentured servants, and slavery, conditions we no longer experience but all too often take their absence for granted. These are the fabric that formed the tapestry of the American people and are essential parts of our national DNA. I believe it is essential that we remember and honor the sacrifice of those first courageous pioneers who came to this country seeking a better life. There were no guarantees they would survive, create families, towns and colonies which banded together to form communities who helped each other with barn raisings, crop harvests, fishing and hunting endeavors and created centers of learning and arts.

Nevertheless, these hardy pioneers enjoyed life even though their lives were harsh. They had family get-togethers, community concerts, book clubs, church activities, dinners and dances. Above all there was a great feeling of community. We would do well to learn their lessons and emulate this feeling of family and community. In this modern age our lives are so ordered and structured with technology and timetables that we too often lose sight of the real meaning of Independence Day.

As I was writing this piece, across my desk came a reminder that our sense of community is not dead. From the small town of Hyde Park, Vermont comes a story that serves as an example of what community spirit is all about.

On June 20 a young soldier, U.S. Army PFC Andrew Parker, was given a hero’s welcome. Badly wounded and paralyzed from the waist down by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, he had just returned from more than six months of hospitalization. The citizens of Hyde Park held a parade for him that spanned two towns. The roadside was festooned with posters, flags, cheering crowds and saluting policemen. Some wept as the flatbed trailer carrying him in a wheelchair passed by. But what made this day even more remarkable was what the townspeople did for Parker. In a state hard-hit by the down economy, whose citizens live by modest means, volunteers not only banded together to remodel his parent’s home to accommodate his wheelchair but also presented the family with a check for $100,000 to pay for it. Yet, the generosity did not stop there. Both nearby Norwich University and Johnson State College have offered Parker free tuition to enable him to attain his goal of becoming a history teacher. This is a wonderful example of the sort of community spirit practiced by our forefathers. You can view of video of Andrew Parker’s homecoming by clicking here.

Our forefathers worked long and hard on our constitution, modeling parts of it after Native American confederations. In the early days of America women were not allowed to handle money and were solely dependent on men for everything. Yet it was a feisty New England patriot named Mercy Otis Warren who played a key role in the shaping of our Bill of Rights. She wrote a series of anti-British plays that helped ignite the events that took place in 1775 at Concord and Lexington.

As her biographer, Nancy Rubin Stuart, notes: “during the early years of young America, Mercy became so alarmed about those who forgot the original purpose of the revolution – thrift, honesty and fair treatment for all – that she penned an influential treatise, “Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions,” which pleaded for a Bill of Rights attached to the U.S. Constitution. While George Mason and James Madison are frequently credited with creation of the Bill of Rights, many of Mercy’s suggestions – including freedom of speech and of the press, civil trials by jury, respect for states’ rights and the voice of the people – had appeared in her treatise . . .” (Nancy Rubin Stuart, “Mercy Otis Warren,” The Barnstable Patriot)

Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Iran in 2009 are powerful examples of the absence of human rights. In Iran men and women are dying for these rights, rights that are brutally suppressed by a theocratic dictatorship that rigs elections in order to maintain a crushing hold over its populace.

So, this Fourth of July I hope everyone will stop – even if for only a moment – to reflect on the freedom we enjoy, a freedom that others who came before us earned the hard way for a cause they believed was worth the heavy price it cost.

The Union created by our forefathers is far from perfect and has had to grow and evolve, yet despite its flaws we have more than two hundred years of reasons to be thankful for what we have. One only has to look at Myanmar, Iran or North Korea for why we should count our blessings.

Carlo D’Este is a member of the ACG Advisory Board. His latest book is WARLORD, an acclaimed military biography of Winston Churchill.


  1. The video is very good. Every soldier should receive a similar welcome after his or her time of service.

  2. Tian An Men square,
    was not an absence of human rights.
    The young college kids started throwing rocks at the police. This offense would not go unnoticed anywhere, not even in America. Also, the kids were burning things. If the police and government did not go down and stop the protestations, it would’ve transformed into a riot where the general populace would’ve suffered more harm. It’s great shame that there is such a misunderstanding. I’m not saying that the Chinese Army did not do anything wrong:they did,but i’m saying that it’s not their fault entirely.

  3. …class distinctions, indentured servants, and slavery… – odd way to distinguish between England and the US of the 18 century. I would suggest these where values both held in common at the time.

  4. “more than two hundred years of reasons to be thankful” What about all those years of slavery in the south were there was 4 million slaves for 6 million southerners?And what about now, we had more freedom before the revolution. The revolution did not change anything. We have only become one giant mismanaged overtaxed police state. America is largely an example for what the rest of the world should try not to become. We do at least get to own a gun and have freedom from or freedom of religion but other than that we got nothing worth fighting for the way I see it compared to the rest of the world.

  5. The colonies’ revolt wasn’t about life, liberty and happiness, but about unfettering colonial capitalism & trade, and avoiding paying for (British) colonial security. The constitution was the child of the Age of Enlightenment and some vigourous horse-trading by the Congress delegates.

  6. May I suggest to those that are still indignant about our history concerning the Civil War that they relocate to another geographical area outside the United States so that they can get another perspective in their reality.

  7. The evil that men do lives after them/The good is oft interred with their bones. Of course the men who declared their liberty in 1776 were faillible, and had mixed motives, and some had slaves (and the authors of the Declaration of Independence had to make a compromise).
    But all this is besides the point. The men of 1776 proclaimed an ideal, that all men were created equal, in the face of the class prejudices in Europe (not just England). They held on to their ideal, and set out to build a country where it would be as true as possible.
    Because the ideal survived, other fighters for freedom could take example from the struggle. In France in 1789, the same ideal was proclaimed, as it was in other countries, in 1830 and later. If England has a democratic system to-day, it is because the reformers of 1832 could cite 1776 to shame their opponents.
    The first sentences of the Declaration of Independence are still to-day an inspiration in the rest of the world. I am writing from Québec, Canada, where class privileges were sustained long after 1776, and where the struggle to obtain a representative system of government, which slowly was transformed into a democracy (at least in its main elements) was possible because of the example of the US right next door.
    As late as 1864, the Montreal Gazette, an English-language paper, could congratulate itself that the monarchy in Mexico and the oligarchy in the CSA could balance out the low-class democracy in the USA.
    The men of 1776 could not predict the future, but their example encouraged and sustained the ideal of freedom everywhere. Debate, and questioning, are important as instruments of freedom, but Americans (of course, in Québec we are Americans too !) should stand proud every July Fourth and remember that whatever the painful and obscure sides of historical events, their country will always be a source of hope for all lovers of freedom !

  8. I affirm the gist of Carlo D’Este’s article is about, in addition to the comments posted above. Two things have been left out, however: The founding Fathers stated the ideal that “all men are created equal;” in so stating they left out women. Secondly, in addition to not granting freedom to African slaves, they also overlooked the humanity and rights of Native Americans. If our great nation (and continent) is to grow even greater, we need to continue in our growth in recognizing our past mistakes (rather than glossing them over in the name of patriotism), and moving the ideal of freedom equally to ALL people.

  9. “we need to continue in our growth in recognizing our past mistakes (rather than we need to continue in our growth in recognizing our past mistakes (rather than glossing them over in the name of patriotism)
    The comment from the above post makes me wonder if D.R. read through Pierre Corbeil’s excellent post because his response doesn’t indicate he did.

    Jennys stumbles to the conclusion that no matter what the United States has done to advance the human condition, we remain guilty of centuries old actions that will never be forgiven unless we do…what? What does, “we need to continue in our growth in recognizing our past mistakes (rather than glossing them over in the name of patriotism)’ mean?

    Would you like us to rescind the liberties the descendants of slaves and native Americans now have and replace it with a …check? When I read “recognizing past mistakes,…). I translate that to we want paid for colonial American policies that harmed our ancestors.
    Perhaps you would like to exchange American colonialism for Spain’s?

  10. Sorry, the first two lines of text in my previous post were improperly pasted.