July 4th has long been celebrated as America’s birthday. The day in 1776 that the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence has been commemorated for generations by fireworks, parades, cookouts, and all manner of festivities.
It is easy to see why when reading the Declaration and its words that changed the world:
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 words remain worth celebrating, as does the courage of those who put their names to the document and the soldiers of the Continental Army who fought to make the words real.
But for some notable Americans, July 4th was not just their country’s birthday but their own. Their careers and accomplishments also indicate some of the characteristics of the country we celebrate on Independence Day.
One of the reasons behind the Declaration was to advance an argument for the United States as an equal and independent power based upon the breaching of the social contract to govern by George III and the British government. For that to be true in a cultural and not merely political sense required the genius of individual artists.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, born July 4th, 1804, was one such individual in the field of literature. His short stories and novels such as The Scarlet Letter often explored the mindset of his Puritan ancestors who settled his native New England. His originality and interest in exploring the psychological background that shaped America contributed to the development of our distinct culture.
Hawthorne’s work often cast a critical gaze upon his ancestors and the places they settled, such as Salem, Massachusetts, site of the infamous witch trials. In comparison, one can trace a line between where the songwriter and musician Bill Withers, born on July 4th, 1938, grew up and the uplifting spirit of his famous song “Lean on Me.”
Withers was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia and raised in Beckley. Although not without its troubles, the community where his father mined coal left an impression upon him of its virtues, which can be found across our country.
“People helped each other get by,” he remembered. Of his father’s profession specifically, he observed, “Coal miners work together in a very dangerous situation, and they have to have a certain trust in each other.”
It is easy to see how these sentiments might lead to the lyrics of “Lean on Me:”
Lean on me
When you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on…
For it won’t be long
Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on
An honorary mention for songwriters born on the Fourth of July must be made for George M. Cohan. Although he was actually born on July 3rd, 1878, he liked to say he was born on the Fourth. Whatever the date, the artistic output of this great showman, including songs such as “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” leaves no doubt of his patriotism.
While two presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, famously died on the same Fourth of July (and James Monroe died on that date a few years later), one president, Calvin Coolidge, was actually born on the Fourth of July, in 1872.
He happened to be president during the Declaration’s 150th anniversary. Although remembered as
“Silent Cal,” the words he offered in defense of the Declaration on that occasion eloquently counter those who seek to diminish this founding document:
If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final . . . If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress.
Our country may not have always lived up to the words of the Declaration, but there can be no doubt of their power and truth. Of the many reasons to celebrate the Fourth of July, they remain the greatest.
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