It could have been some other day. Maybe Sept. 3, the day the British signed the peace treaty in Paris. Maybe March 4, the day the U.S. Constitution became effective. Either one would have made a decent enough national holiday.
But July 4th was the day that audacious group of Americans declared independence. I suspect it was independence that seemed then, and certainly now, the American thing to celebrate.
Independence was what united the different peoples of the suspicious states of late 18th-century America. Independence was what the polyglot population of immigrants in the late 19th century all read into the exploding firecrackers. Independence is what the late 20th-century population of self- seekers marches to.
What connects us back through history to our founders and across space to each other is, ironically, a shared sense of the importance of our own separateness. Together we defend our right to be independent of others, including each other. Together we value self-reliance. And together we often forget our togetherness.
Americans are quick to demand the independence of our country from the world. We are eager to protect the family from the government. We are most eager to protect individuals from every intrusion. It is easier for many us to think of the pursuit of happiness as a getaway plan. Even the words "I have to find myself" have become the farewell address of many relationships.
Yet the Founding Fathers of the country declared a split and a new union on the same day. This same ambivalence runs among modern Americans as well. Our desire to belong still rubs up against the more fierce desire to separate.
In the book "Habits of the Heart," five sociologists describe this duality in the American character as "the deep desire for autonomy and self-reliance combined with an equally deep conviction that life has no meaning unless shared with others in the context of community." But they are aware, as most of us are, that the centrifugal forces are more powerful.
The authors met people who were virtually tongue-tied when they tried to explain the meaning of commitments in their lives. The language of the self was everywhere they went, especially in the popularized lingo of psychology. But the vocabulary of connection was sorely limited.
I have seen some of that in daily life. Many of us get our greatest sustenance from home life and yet raise our own children to leave home. Often we live in families counting on each other for support and yet teach our children "the importance of self-reliance as the cardinal virtue of individuals."
In the same cultural ambivalence, we go on valuing marriage but become increasingly wary of "losing ourselves" in it. Even husbands and wives deeply committed to each other are less able to explain why except in the feel-good terms of psychobabble. Increasingly, religious or political communities, are evaluated by how they serve our individual needs.
"We strongly assert the value of our self-reliance and autonomy. We deeply feel the emptiness of a life without sustaining social commitments," write the authors of "Habits of the Heart." " Yet we are hesitant to articulate our sense that we need one another as much as we need to stand alone, for fear that if we did we would lose our independence altogether."
I don't know why Americans see the "I" as fragile and the "we" as threatening. I don't know why it is easier for us to ward off intrusions on our freedom than to welcome supporters.
It may be because we are a nation of inveterate leavers. It may be because we still feel essentially that we have to make it on our own -- we are loners in the economy if not the wilderness. It may be simply that we need a language to describe the values of sharing and the ways joint effort enlarges any sense of enterprise and mutes loneliness.
But on at least one July 4th it's worth remembering that the original day of independence was also a day of commitment and of community. They were not isolated self-seeking loners who closed the declaration by saying, "With a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."