Viewpoint: July 4th – An American Seder

sederplateBy Linda Johnston

Our national birthday, July 4th, is a benchmark to commemorate the founding of the United States of America as a free and separate country through the Declaration of Independence. As with some holidays and national events, much of the true meaning has been lost among the vacation atmosphere of a work-free day, parties, shopping or being able to sleep in. At least this day has not suffered the fate of so many others being relegated to a perpetual Monday or Friday to facilitate the convenience of an escape from one’s job.

It is natural that memories fade as pivotal events of one’s life, family or nation recede into the distance through the leveling effect of time. It is a challenge for any generation to find ways to inculcate far into the future the values, meaning and appreciation of the seminal events they witnessed. Without continuation of the history of such events, the true identity and culture of any family, people or nation will be irretrievably lost.

Generally, people have no trouble remembering their own birthday. Every year a celebration with gifts, parties, greetings acknowledges the long ago event (longer for some than others!) To a great degree Thanksgiving and Christmas retell the original stories, history and culturally important points to keep the meaning and messages alive over the decades and centuries. We remember Christmas more than the revolutionary war battles of Fort Ticonderoga because we know the stories of one and not the other.

For 3,500 years, Jews have commemorated their exodus from Egypt with a Passover celebration called Seder. This celebration is complete with elaborate rituals, reenactments and symbolic activities that firmly place this defining event into each Jew’s mind. Preservation of cultural identity through ritual is so critical that the Bible commands it.  There is a verse instructing Jews to retell the Exodus story, “You shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’”

Do we Americans follow that wise mandate to retell the vital stories from our national heritage and defining moments? For the most part we do not. Apart from regional fireworks displays virtually nothing related to the original event takes place. We used to celebrate in appropriate style but the patriotic fervor and heart-felt appreciation of our Founding Fathers and their unprecedented accomplishments have largely gone ignored in recent decades. They have even been denigrated. Is it any wonder that we have lost so much of what America is truly about – freedom, independence and inalienable rights. Is it any wonder that we are in grave danger of loosing the last remaining shreds?

Here is an excerpt from Peter de Bolla’s book, The Fourth of July and the Founding of America, describing what used to constitute a July 4th celebration. “… it was not until the 1870s that federal legislation was passed making the day into an official holiday. Nevertheless local customs were already being codified into legislation as early as 1780s. …. Notwithstanding the long process of national adoption, the vote by Congress on 4 June 1778 did determine a second extremely important feature of the character of the celebration that to this day persists in the honouring of the Fourth.

“The vote reads: ‘Resolved that Congress will, in a body, attend divine worship on Sunday, the 5th day of July next, to return thanks for the divine mercy in supporting the independence of these States and that the chaplains be requested to officiate and to preach sermons suited to the occasion.’”

It is clear that from the early days, the celebration of our founding took place over two days – one for public civic display and the other for private devotional gratitude for divine providence. Despite de Bolla’s assertion that this habit persists to this day, it is hard to know how long ago that valuable tradition was discarded. Unless there is a Church of the Beach or the Chapel of Picnics, we would be hard pressed to find a single person who currently goes to church as part of their Fourth of July celebration.  

De bolla continues, “All over the emerging new republic the predominant feature of the celebration which could be said to contain a manifest content was an oration. … And these orations at least in the first half-century following independence, took a shared template what was supposed to recall and invoke those beliefs which had led to the separation of the colonies from the mother country.

“ particular the orator was to consider the feelings, manners and principles appropriate to the occasion and to move through five topics. The first was the causes of the revolution, the second the ‘distinguished characters’ who played a role in the event, followed by an explicit recognition of the role France played in bringing a successful conclusion to the process of independence. The forth topic, the ‘superior advantages’ of a republican government … while the fifth, the supreme importance of public and private virtues …”

It is hard to imagine any public speeches being an integral part of the Fourth of July festivities, let alone orations of such moral and patriotic character. Yet, when reviewing the five topics on the template for celebratory public orations, I can’t help wonder how much better our current political and cultural circumstances would be if this tradition was as ingrained in us as is the family picnic with hot dogs and coleslaw.

De Bolla description of what Fourth of July celebrations meant in the first decades after the revolution is just as applicable today as it was then. “… the frequent use of the spirit of ‘76’ and the almost obsessive reiteration of the virtues of the founders and of republicanism in general. And the same impetus gave rise to the sense that it was crucial to re-imagine, even re-experience, the state of bondage, which has been the immediate cause of the revolution.

“These inflections of the rituals of the Fourth played a vital part in the process of founding a new identity since it was a matter of survival for the nation that its citizens continued to hold a vivid picture of the war in their heads, and that they felt the honourable gift of the lives of those citizens who had perished at the hands of the oppressors. … this sense of linking the present of remembrance each Fourth of July to the real of the revolution was a significant feature of the celebratory practices observed on the day.”

“Ritual and repetition are vital to perpetuating cultural identity and values.” De Bolla concurs with Jewish tradition that the ritual of ‘re-imagining’ previous bondage plays a vital role in founding and maintaining the cultural and national identity. As Dennis Prager said, “Ritual is the physical embodiment of a value.”

As we have witnessed, the original American ethos has been eroded, faded and transformed into something our Founding Fathers, Continental soldiers and those first Americans would barely recognize. If we value freedom, individual inalienable rights, limited government and the exercise of conscience, then it is imperative that we restore and enact rituals that express these values. Let’s start this year by giving a short oration using the time-honored template describe above, even if you have no audience but yourself.

 Linda Johnston is a medical doctor in general practice since 1981.  She writes political commentary on a variety of current events and notable health care issues.

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