Donna Brazile: A grand ol’ Fourth of July
July 4th. Midway through another year of turbulent weather, political unrest and market uncertainty, we celebrate our shared history.
For my family, we celebrated the Fourth of July with a big picnic in the backyard complete with burgers, dogs or freshly caught seafood. Frequently, we went downtown to see the local parade. And my parents often saved enough money to take us more than five hours away on a bus to Houston to watch the Astros.
The Fourth was always about family, and I believe it still is. Is there any American reading this who doesn’t have childhood memories of celebrating the Fourth?
I remember the parades of my youth, where almost the entire town would come out and wave small flags and applaud the procession, often led by a local revered person. Sometimes, even the governor might come to a small town and celebrate with them.
Still the best part of July 4th is the last: watching fireworks after the sun has gone down. In Washington, D.C., the National Symphony Orchestra gives a concert on the Capitol lawn, timed to end with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — as rousing a piece as was ever written, concluding with cymbals crashing, crescendoing strings, bells and horns and the resounding thunder of actual cannons firing.
Just as the overture ends, fireworks streak upward over the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, decorating a starry sky. (FYI: You can watch it on PBS.) As grand as that is, our home fireworks and sparklers, hot dogs and hamburgers, radios and CD players, matched it — at least in our minds.
One of my favorite quotes about the Fourth comes from homespun columnist Erma Bombeck: "You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks and soldiers ... but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism."
Speaking of patriotic overeating, I believe there are only about three or four nations that celebrate a national holiday for Thanksgiving — and ours was the first.
One hundred fifty years ago this week, the Battle of Gettysburg essentially settled what was perhaps the core issue of the Civil War: whether this nation would exist as a nation of equals before the law.
Abraham Lincoln came slowly to the concept of emancipation but not to the concept of equality. Grateful for the pivotal, even decisive, victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln announced that the last Thursday of November would, from then on, be a national Thanksgiving holiday. So on Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, and on Nov. 26, the nation celebrated the first official Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are the most iconically American of all our holidays.
Both are holidays of families. Although the tradition of giving thanks goes back to the Plymouth colony and the Pilgrims and Indians, Thanksgiving is really about this nation as a family and as a nation of families. I’ve always liked the idea of families gathering and sharing food and stories and games, and most important, giving thanks. And in this instance, the individual family and the national family reflecting each other.
Thanksgiving and July 4th are also about shared sacrifices and our freedoms. The Fourth reminds us that, yes, we have had our ups and downs, our recessions and wars — times when our unity was tested — but we always came through them.
Our unity was tested from the founding, when on July 2, 1776 the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence. John Adams thought that would be Independence Day. But the celebration became set on July 4, the day the declaration was approved.
Adams, the voice of independence, and Thomas Jefferson, the pen of independence, were first friends, then bitter political rivals — the presidential campaign of 1800 still ranks as one of the nastiest — then friends again, whose correspondence late in life is a classic of national dialogue, reconciliation and unity. Both died on July 4, 1826, symbolizing that even in death, our union transcends regions and ideologies.
If July 4th is Independence Day, perhaps July 2nd should be Equality Day. After all, we cannot declare our independence unless we truly hold it as a self-evident truth that everyone is created equal.
Thus, it was surely no coincidence that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 on ... July 2nd. Johnson was a complex man who, like Lincoln, slowly came to understand the need for a new emancipation. Johnson’s efforts on behalf of civil rights also came at great political sacrifice. But it strengthened us as a nation — as a family.
This July 4th we have much to celebrate and many thanks to give. Lincoln asked whether this nation could long endure. This July 4th, as I hear families talking and see people celebrating together — across regions and ideologies — I have no doubt the answer is yes.
DONNA BRAZILE is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.