In my neighborhood in the Kansas City suburbs, the best part of the Fourth of July comes long before nightfall and fireworks. We gather midmorning for a block party. Some of us are assigned to bring fruit, some pastries, some juice and so on. There’s a lot of milling around and friendly chitchat, but when the moment is right, the year’s designated Uncle Sam leads us in the Pledge of Allegiance, typically with a bright sixth-grader by his side in case he stumbles on a line. Then he reads the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence to remind us all of tyranny’s heavy yoke and — best of all — Sam canvasses 13 adorable children plucked from the crowd to represent the original colonies. The gathering concludes with kids and grandkids parading around the block on bikes and scooters festooned with flags and patriotic crepe paper. This has been going on for decades, rotating from one block to the next on an annual basis. To my knowledge, and great pride, our kids have never failed to ratify the Declaration unanimously.
“The youth of America,” said Oscar Wilde, “is their oldest tradition.” He was being snarky, but I think, this July 4, that this American quality is indeed worth celebrating. By youth, I mean both Gen Z, who seem as though it is doing a good job so far, and the country’s own comparatively young age. Frederick Douglass thought this youth was a source of hope, writing that “were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. . . . There is consolation in the thought that America is young.” We are not yet old enough as a country to be discouraged about the possibility of progress. “In America,” wrote Mark Twain, “the people are absolutely wiser and know much more than their grandfathers did.” Think of all the wisdom we’ve accrued since Twain wrote those words! Assuming they are not washed away by the dubious consequences of our decisions, I am excited for what Gen Z will do!
Sacrifice in service of freedom
We celebrate the Declaration of Independence today, but, of course, it was not a self-executing document. It would require years of arduous battle, the
combat deaths of 8,000 members of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, the wounding of 25,000 more and the impoverishment of tens of thousands of the original “Patriots.”
Of the 56 who signed the Declaration, “Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died,” writes musician Michael W. Smith. “Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the revolutionary army, another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the revolutionary war.” Perhaps artists are more appreciative of the freedoms secured in that conflict, but we all ought to know the cost.
From then until now, it has been the men and women of the American military and their spouses, children, parents, families and friends who have secured the “blessings of liberty.” Enjoy the day, the fireworks, the barbecues, but raise a glass to the warriors, especially those deployed and far from their families, and to those families, too. It is to them we continue to owe this day and every day of ordered liberty.
The Census Bureau does thankless work: It collects and releases enormous amounts of demographic, economic and other data to the public free of charge. It’s a gold mine for me and other wonks who make a living explaining politics, demographics and culture in charts and graphs.
And it’s not just great for wonks. Most Americans don’t have the time or resources to travel across the country and visibly see the incredible diversity of the people who live here. Moreover, no person can really get his or her hands around the complexity and size of a society that includes more than 300 million individuals. Without the census, people would have to rely on gut intuitions and smaller, less complete survey efforts to get a handle on who Americans are. And our understanding of the country would be poorer for it.
The vision of Prince Hall
Today, I celebrate the life and writings of Prince Hall, a free African American in 18th-century Boston who was the first person to invoke the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence for a cause other than revolution. He echoed the Declaration’s resonant language in a petition he submitted to the Massachusetts Assembly in January 1777 arguing for an end to slavery. Victory came later when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 1783 that the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution made slavery unconstitutional. The Declaration of Rights from that Constitution will sound familiar: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.” National independence brought the quickening of the abolitionist movement and eventually, if belatedly, independence for all.
Public swimming pools
Like written constitutions and the concept of a republic, swimming pools were inherited by Americans from the Greeks, Romans and the British. And, at their best, public pools represent similar ideals.
Though they’ve often been contested spaces, community pools at their best offer the same cheap, or even free, delight to everyone: the relief of a plunge into cold water on a hot summer day. Lifeguards can intervene if necessary, but pools rely on swimmers to self-govern, whether that means choosing the right lane for lap swimming, making sure our exuberant splashing doesn’t scare a toddler tentatively exploring the shallow end, or keeping an eye out for neighbors we might otherwise ignore. It’s no mistake that people who violate this compact attract
intense public condemnation. Community pools, like many other public resources, have been neglected. The pleasures a swim offers remind us that these public goods — and the vision they embody — are worth fighting for.
In my capacity as a libertarian pundit, it is my solemn duty to abominate Washington. Its legions of persnickety bureaucrats! Its armies of pandering politicians! Its avid dreams to bring every last corner of America under the dead hand of state control!
To heck with all that. I love my nation’s capital with all my heart.
We are an ambitious city but not a demanding one, at least for residents. Our dainty proportions mean I can walk to work or to many friends’ homes. I can drive, if I’d rather, because street parking is still reasonably available — or take an electric scooter, the Metro, a bus or a bikeshare. Housing is cheap compared with New York, the city of my birth, the streets uncrowded, the grocery stores palatial, the big-box stores close. And these are just the negative virtues.
The positive ones abound, too: The National Arboretum
offers its shadowed groves, verdant meadows and delightful bonsai shrine. Our museums are excellent, and — take that, Chicago and New York! — mostly free to enter. As are the monuments to our nation’s awesome history. Our restaurants are excellent, if a little pricier than they should be, and our cocktail bars get better every day.
But the absolute best thing about D.C. is its Fourth of July fireworks, which, in proper patriotic spirit, kick off several weeks before that great date. On the night itself, you can see the public housing complexes on North Capitol Street putting on a fireworks show that almost, but not quite, rivals the professional display being staged along the Potomac, and every street corner seems to have its crowd of revelers showing off their pyrotechnic competence. It is loud, it is messy, and it is a wee bit illegal, but it is also a time-honored tradition, and the police step in only to ensure that no one sets the city on fire.
On the night I got engaged, I set off fireworks in a parking lot with friends, then walked home through a dizzy, delightful shower of sparkles. What other city could offer me that, and a $1 jumbo slice to eat while I walked? If you ask me, it could happen only in the best city in the best country in all the world.
Our great female athletes
The U.S. Women’s National Team has played phenomenal soccer this summer, and its quarterfinal against France broke a viewership record. Serena Williams became the first athlete on Forbes’ Richest Self-Made Women list. Lindsey Vonn retired this year after a glorious career as one of the best American skiers of all time. America’s female athletes are showing the world how talented they are — and the country is finally rooting for them. There is still a long way to go: achieving pay equality, ensuring adequate funding and resources for varsity programs, and ending stereotypes that prevent young girls and LGBTQ youths from following their passions. But this Fourth of July, we should take a moment to celebrate how much American women in sports have accomplished despite all the obstacles in their way.
Faith and courage
I learned growing up in the Foggy Bottom-West End section of our nation’s capital that the Fourth of July was meant to be a celebration of the nation’s birthday. The shower of sparkles at the end of wire sticks waved frantically on the sidewalk in front of our home commemorated that event. So, too, the spectacular fireworks on the Mall that three King kids watched with their father from his favorite viewing vantage point near our grandparents’ home on 23rd Street NW, a few blocks north of the Lincoln Memorial.
That celebration, we learned in school, was for the approval of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
It was a date I celebrated in uniform at a U.S. Army post, as a greeter of foreign guests at a celebration staged at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn and wherever I happened to be on the day the birth of the United States of America was celebrated.
Those celebrations were not about all that went on in America — the great, the not so good and the awful — after the revered document was approved. Recognizing America’s certificate of birth, and the faith and courage that produced it, was — up to now — sufficient unto the day.
But that changes on the Fourth of July 2019. Our national birthday party is being crashed.
This July 4 will be the day a narcissistic president celebrates himself and his altered vision of what is worthy of an Independence Day celebration. This year, the Declaration’s inheritors will mourn.