How do you celebrate freedom?
In the mid-20th century, members of my family and I would often gather midday July 4 to watch the television broadcast of the movie musical “1776.”
Holiday picnics and fireworks would happen later in the day.
Among my favorite scenes in the musical remains the discussion among John Adams, embodied by Williams Daniels; Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by Ken Howard; and Benjamin Franklin, played by Howard Da Silva, about choosing the national bird. Adams prefers the eagle. Jefferson suggests the dove. Franklin backs the turkey, describing it as “noble ... native American ... the sustenance of our original settlers” and “an incredibly brave fellow.”
I don’t know about you, but I’d never thought of a turkey as a “brave fellow.”
In her book “The Glorious Fourth: An American Holiday, An American History,” researcher Diana Karter Appelbaum details the actual scene set to music described above. A congressional debate about what would become the Declaration of Independence ended on the evening of July 4, 1776, a Thursday, and “America officially became an independent nation,” Appelbaum writes.
News of the break with Great Britain spread through the colonies, officially via copies of the document then read aloud. Celebrations, according to Appelbaum, began in Philadelphia, Easton and Trenton, N.J., July 8, a Monday. Appelbaum described the scene in Philadelphia, where bells rang all day long, crowds gathered, the militia paraded and celebrants built a bonfire to burn a wood carving of the coat of arms of King George III, monarch of Great Britain at the time.
Since then, those in the United States of America have marked the anniversary of the nation’s birth with parties and picnics, bike parades, concerts, fireworks displays and celebrations of all kinds. Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White Jr. notes the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid July 4, 1848. Abraham Lincoln, then a member of Congress, was present.
Lincoln revered July 4, according to many biographers and his own writings and speeches. It is July 4, 1776, Lincoln references at the start of the Gettysburg Address. And the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall was a stop on his trip by train as president-elect from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration in February 1861. Writer Daniel Stashower describes Lincoln, from witness accounts, as emotional: “his head bowed before the portraits of Jefferson, Adams and Madison.”
In his remarks at the scene, according to Stashhower, Lincoln said, “I never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would echo Jefferson’s declaration when it became federal law Jan. 1, 1863, a Thursday, declaring freedom for all slaves in slaveholding states.
Lincoln’s document would spark celebrations of its own, significantly one in Texas more than two years later.
On June 19, 1865, a Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, issued an order that, “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes. Granger, Gates explains, was more than just a few months late. However, celebrations spread on what is now known as Juneteenth, an amalgam of the month and the day. A new anniversary of freedom was marked by readings of the emancipation document, religious sermons, picnics, games and parades. “Juneteenth celebrants dressed in their finest clothes,” and floats featured such symbols as “the Goddess of Liberty,” Gates writes of the holiday observances.
Iterations of freedom come in a variety of ways in the present day. In recent years, Independence Day celebrations have been broadcast on television and streamed from such locations as Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C. Professional athletes have expressed their concerns for freedom in symbolic gestures before games. Musicians have composed songs to demand freedom on behalf of others. Sculptors, painters, dancers and other artists have used their talents to express their perspective of freedoms lost, gained and expected. Actor Howard Da Silva, who played Benjamin Franklin in the movie musical “1776” mentioned above, lost his freedom to work in the film industry for nearly a decade after he was blacklisted in the wake of testifying before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities in 1951. Da Silva eventually was cleared of all charges in 1960 and resumed his film career including his starring role in “1776.”
And in their mission, the U.S. Armed Forces protect the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
However, it is often in the seemingly mundane events day to day where celebration of freedom is made poignant.
On June 25, a Monday, several Emmaus High School students stood before East Penn School District directors to express their concerns about the freedoms of fellow students and friends potentially being tread upon.
“We embrace our differences,” Jeremy Sanville, president of the EHS Class of 2019, said in a June 27 article in The Press.
Independence Day is a national holiday where freedom should be celebrated with fanfare, parades, picnics, music and fireworks. But freedom also is lauded every day in brave acts such as those of Jeremy Sanville.
So, again, how do you celebrate freedom today? Tomorrow? Every day?
East Penn Press