Rebuilding American Civic Traditions on the 4th of July

Jarrett Stepman | Breitbart | July 3, 2015

Americans celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks, barbecues, picnics and all other kinds of enjoyable festivities. It’s wonderful that we live in a free country and are able to enjoy the fruits of our prosperity and freedom. However, merely wearing red, white, and blue, shirts with bald eagles on them, and other patriotic symbols is only a superficial way to celebrate America’s hard-fought for independence.

On top of the enjoyable celebrations of America’s birth, some time should be dedicated each Independence Day to recognizing and coming to a better understanding of the noble traditions that we have inherited from the founders. The sacred torch of liberty is a precious gift that has been passed down by generations of Americans, it is our duty to keep it alive and pass it on to the next.

On July 5, 1926, the 150th anniversary of the birth of our country, President Calvin Coolidge delivered an address at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

Coolidge spoke about the causes of the Revolution and the curtailment of rights that occurred at the hands of the British government. He explained how in separating from the British, America created a new government, with new principles; a far more profound act than than simply creating a new country out of the ashes of the old.

“It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history,” Coolidge said. He described the origins of American institutions as grounded in Western philosophy and in the American colonial experience. He spoke about how the timeless truths and rights “endowed by our creator,” articulated so eloquently in the Declaration, became cemented by the wise construction of the Constitution.

Coolidge said that the Constitution was created, “to establish a free government, which must not be permitted to degenerate into the unrestrained authority of a mere majority or the unbridled weight of a mere influential few,” he continued. “They undertook to balance these interests against each other and provide the three separate independent branches, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial departments of the Government, with checks against each other in order that neither one might encroach upon the other. These are our guarantees of liberty.”

Finally, Coolidge stressed how America must not fall into the trap of pure materialism, how the grand Declaration came from the “influence of a great spiritual development.”

Coolidge concluded:

No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped. 

Many Americans may have lost sight of the timeless truths and great principles that Coolidge described, but those who still believe that the American heritage of liberty should endure and be passed on must create conventions to keep their country’s founding ideals alive in the modern era.

Radio host Dennis Prager has written about how “America Needs a July Fourth Seder.” Much like how Jews pass down their religion and history through annual reflection and discussion during Passover, Americans who believe in the country created by the founders should read foundational texts to their friends and family while discussing the ideas that made it exceptional. Even a brief, 10-minute exercise looking back on where we came from as a people prevents the pure trivialization of an extraordinarily important holiday.

But there are other ways of honoring America on the 4th as well. I personally make a pilgrimage to George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon to place flowers by the Father of Our Country’s grave. Every year, I reflect on Washington’s virtue and fundamental belief in the cause of the Revolution; I find that my annual tradition deepens my appreciation of the man and the founding generation’s greatness, and enhances the meaning of the holiday for me.

Historian Richard Brookhiser wrote in Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, “When Washington lived he had the ability to give strength to debaters and to dying men. His life still has the power to inspire anyone who studies it.” In dark times, such as the circumstances American find themselves in today, it is a comfort and inspiration to reflect on the life of a man who endured through some of the darkest in our country’s history and triumphed. 

American civic institutions, cultural heritage, and principles are under attack. If they continue to muddle in perpetual decline, and if we fail to pass them on to the next generation, then a more secure border, temporary policy victories, and better elected representatives will amount to very little. The American republic was built on principles and ideas, not ethnicity, and it will not survive unless there are future generations ready to forcefully articulate what those ideas are and what the purpose is of our grand experiment in liberty. That is why on the anniversary of American independence, it is so important to spend some time reminding ourselves of the great task before us: to honor, preserve, and perpetuate the great American tradition.