"The land was ours before
we were the land's.
She was our land more than
a hundred years
Before we were her people."
"Celebrate good times, come on!"
--Kool & The Gang
Imagine a country founded on the idea that We the People have a right to pursue happiness. Can you imagine the Germans coming up with such a phrase in the constituting document of their nation? Or the Chinese? Or even the Brits?
All these years later, the words of America's founding document still sound like a trumpet: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . . .
The pursuit of Happiness, and capitalized at that. We suppose that there are a great many nations on this planet that consider themselves exceptional. And might deserve to. Greece, Italy, Egypt, Israel. They can hold claims to exceptionalism, even if a few of them have to rely on ancient peoples and civilizations to do so. But none of them, to our knowledge, can claim the pursuit of happiness as a reason for being.
Even dour, sober, solemn John Adams, that gruff Puritan, broke loose when thinking about Independence Day, and the celebration of good times throughout the years to come:
"I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
In his euphoria, he used a version of the word "solemn" twice.
Of course, John Adams got the date wrong. He thought we'd celebrate our independence from Great Britain on July 2. As if Americans would celebrate when John Adams would, on the day a committee report was issued in a closed session of Congress, instead of when it was announced to the world. And the lede of that announcement--hallelujah!--included the pursuit of happiness.
Not the guarantee of it, mind you. Americans aren't guaranteed happiness. But we can pursue it, for the most part, as long as we don't get in anybody else's way. What a country. Share a fifth on the Fourth. Watch baseball. Eat a hot dog. Wet a hook. Or whatever you'd like on this day off. In fact, take Monday off and make it a three-day weekend. We Americans know how to pursue happiness.
They used to describe America as The Great Melting Pot, and once upon a time, it was. Go to Texarkana, either side, and listen to the accents of the people who've been there all their lives. The family of Murphys sounds like the family of McGoughs sounds like the family of Lees sounds like the family of Riveras sounds like the family of Roths.
But more and more, instead of melting into a roux, Americans have kept the old country's hairstyles and dress. The old country's recipes and first names. Even a bit of the language. America is becoming less and less like a gumbo and more and more like a savory stew--instead of fading into the sauce, Americans enrich it with different flavors, colors and textures. Some folks find that uncomfortable, but when has America been anything like comfortable?
America is constantly throwing in new ingredients. Somebody's not going to like the okra, and will doubtless proclaim that the country is going to the dogs. Or at least to the new immigrant. Pick a bogeyman.
In the 1750s, Ben Franklin was warning that we'd all soon be speaking German if Pennsylvania was any example. Just substitute Mr. Franklin's mention of the Germans with the Irish, Italians, Slavs, Asians, Mes'scans, etc., and you'd have a history of American immigration and its discontents.
But remember, when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in Philly, he would do it at the desk of a young German bricklayer named Graff. Irony makes up happy, too.
Besides hot dogs, baseball, fishing and days off, you know what also makes Americans happy?
After all the paperwork was in order and John Adams was straightened out on the date, the real work of putting this nation together began. And the pursuit of happiness was anything but happy. The founders, and not just the founders, knew that before America could become the United States, a war had to be fought. The pursuit of happiness sometimes means delaying it.
Is history luck? Or something else? Consider one incident/miracle: In order to hold off the redcoats, George Washington planned to defend a high point in New York City known as Breucklyn. (We spell it differently today.)
After the first day's fighting out on Long Island, the British inexplicably called a halt while the Americans were engaging in a classic maneuver technically known in exalted military terms as a dead run in the opposite direction. With Washington's forces split between Long Island and New York City, his position was a defeat waiting to happen. Heck, it had already happened.
But it could have turned into the death of a whole nation in the crib. For would Congress continue the fight with the Army scattering? Washington finally ordered a full retreat into a more defensible location. But would his troops have time to get off Long Island?
(Flashes of lightning and roars of thunder.)
A storm put off another round of fighting. Night fell. A wind blew the British fleet to sea. Then, as dawn broke, a heavy fog covered Washington's retreat.
And the continental army lived to retreat another day.
Miracles tended to happen with some frequency during the American Revolution, which would be known today as the American revolution, small caps, if the Brits could have come ashore that day.
Besides divine intervention, how explain the army's surviving at Valley Forge, or the surprise at Trenton, or the hurricanes and drought that forced Spain into trading with the rebels, giving us much needed supplies and ammo? How did Henry Knox get all that artillery to Boston?
It's as though Providence wanted to give the Americans the opportunity to pursue happiness, eventually. We certainly think of it that way.
There are other ways to look at the Fourth of July. Without a brutal war, in and among our families and neighborhoods, the holiday would never be marked. And the founders had their own flaws. As did the Constitution they drew up.
But today, July Fourth, we're going to concentrate on that pursuit of happiness. Or as Thomas Jefferson put it, the pursuit of Happiness. Today, who cares about AP style and the proper capitalization of nouns? We're pursuing here.
Cheers, fellow Americans. Let's get with those Shews, Games, Sports, Bonfires and Illuminations! After the year we've all experienced, and little pursuit of joy today would be a relief.