Michelle Bellamy: The 4th of July for history nerds

The food, the fun, the fireworks; Fourth of July is a wonderful summertime distraction that has been part of American History since 1776.

Before the Declaration was signed, pre-Americans actually held similar celebrations to honor the birthday of King George III. They would hold bonfires, ring bells, and hold grand speeches. I imagine that some planning committee had a mini collective heart attack when they realized that the people would want to have some sort of party after they’d gained their independence. I would love to have been in that board room:

“Well, the people love a party, we can’t let them down…”

“Yes but we cannot exactly honor the birthday of the king we just got rid of….”

“Oh dear, I’ve commissioned all of these posters of King George III just for the party too…” (I picture this guy being little with a high pitched voice and a pout.)

“Eureka! We shall still have a gathering, and we can still use those posters, for we shall hold… A FUNERAL fo King George III.”

At least that’s how I picture it. You see once independence was established, the people did hold a mock funeral for King George III to symbolize the end of England’s hold over America.

During that summer in 1776, people would gather in towns for the reading of the Declaration of Independence, during which they would shoot cannons and muskets, hold parades and concerts, and in general, party. Sounds a bit familiar, yes? Good old George Washington, being the amazing and innovative man he was, actually started another familiar tradition because during the 1778 celebrations of Independence Day: he issued double rations of rum to all of his soldiers.

It’s interesting to me that we haven’t really strayed very far from that path. I actually kind of love the fact that we still celebrate in similar ways as those who founded our country. We’ve changed it up a little with our family barbecues, pool parties, and more colorful and exquisite fireworks displays, but we still hold true to some very old traditions with our concerts and parades. The thing is, Thomas Jefferson actually asked us to continue commemorating this day annually. It is definitely meant to be a fun day full of celebration, but we also should take time to remember what the Declaration of Independence was truly all about.

“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.” – Declaration of Independence

We are not beholden to a tyrannical government anymore because of these powerful words and those which followed. We earned the opportunity to live, thrive, and grow based on the blood of those who came before us. It’s not just a pretty sentiment or a quote for our history teachers to speak from memory hoping to move the glossy eyed students to feel a sense of pride. Those words are the reason we have come so far today.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter fifty years after the original signing, “for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” It is not just our ‘right’ to watch fireworks and eat burgers and spend time with family- it is an earned responsibility to remember and reflect upon how far we’ve come and how far we’ve still yet to go.

It’s no secret that I love history, especially when I can stand in the building where it happened. I’ve had the opportunity to visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and I encourage everyone who is able to do the same. The room is set up to look exactly like the room in a famous painting which immortalized the signing of this great document. Though I was accompanied on this tour by about 50 other people, a sense of quiet power can be felt in that room.

So enjoy, rejoice, and even if you have to work on this day, consider our great nation and how far we have come. Consider as well how far we still have to go, and what your role could be in all of that. Men and women like us set the scene, and men and women like us shall keep the grand play moving forward for better or worse.

Bellamy is a 35-year-old mother of three girls. She’s a teacher at a high school, which serves students with mental health and behavioral issues. She also guides walking tours in Over the Rhine. A couple of her favorite hobbies are a “little unusual,” such as ghost hunting and special effects make-up. In her free time, she likes reading, writing, drawing, or hunting thrift and antique stores for odd things.