Another Fourth of July has rolled around, and all across the land flags are unfurling, hot dogs are sizzling, potato salad is festering in the sun and coolers are being filled. We Americans love a good holiday celebration, and the Fourth is the grandaddy of them all. Festivities abound: parades, fireworks, picnics, backyard barbecues. And Old Glory is flying everywhere you look.
Earnest editorials urge us to give a thought to the sacrifice of those who made America possible. But in the main, it’s a time of joy. At the very least, for the millions who get a day off from work.
But for some of us (okay, me), the Fourth also raises questions. Specifically in two areas: Marching Bands and Historical Accuracy.
I like a parade as much as the next guy. Unless the next guy hates parades, in which case I like them a lot more. Or if he loves them more than life itself, in which case I like them a lot less. But I digress.
Whenever I watch a parade and a marching band comes by, it’s apparent to me that marching band uniforms were not designed to be worn in the middle of a hot July day. Or while marching and playing for two miles. Would it violate some secret Band Code to let the kids wear something a little more tropical? I’m all for pageantry, but is it really necessary to look like mid-18th century French fusiliers or the cast of “The Music Man”? I know there is a military provenance to band uniforms, but even the actual military makes allowances for the climate.
The other thing about marching bands is that they never seem to be actually playing music when they pass by me. Maybe I’m just unlucky, but from my vantage point the musicians are just a bunch of kids marching in formation while carrying musical instruments. With the exception of the poor drummers, who never get a break.
I hear music in the distance, so I assume that actual music is played at some point, but by the time the band gets to me, it’s just strutting with horns and reeds, punctuated by occasional chanting. I’ve tried several locations—beginning of the parade, end of the parade, and every spot in between. And still no tunes. I suppose I could walk along with one band to see if they ever actually play, but that would sort of lose the point of watching a parade. Plus that would require effort on my part. Asking the question is about as far as I care to take this.
But before I leave the topic of parades, one other thing: I have noticed a trend toward territorial marking among parade watchers. People arrive hours ahead of the start time, and place lawn chairs, blankets, Coleman coolers, tape and chalk lines to demarcate their reserved seating areas. Woe to the late-comer who tries to encroach on these land-holders, who defend their enclaves with a mixture of righteousness and a rigid knowledge of right and wrong. I suppose one could examine local statutes to see if there is legal basis for these claims, but again, that would require effort.
The best I can conjecture is that this is a demonstration of long-held American values. Early explorers landed in the New World and declared “Mine!”, much to the chagrin of the local inhabitants. Manifest Destiny drove settlers west, where they called “Dibs!” all the way to the Pacific. Right up to the present day, where the Haves lord over the Have-Nots: “You want it…I got it…tough toenails for you.”
So in a way, nothing says “I salute you, my beloved country!” like the belief that a tape-marked area with 2 broken-down lawn chairs and a leaky cooler indicate inviolate squatter’s rights.
Let’s move on to Historical Accuracy. Specifically, the notion that the Fourth of July is Independence day in anything other than name only. (Spoiler Alert: it isn’t.)
Pick out any red, white and blue-clad reveler and ask what the celebration’s all about, and odds are you’ll get a response around the theme that it’s the day we declared independence. Some may even know from whom we declared independence. (Listen for clues such as “England”, “Great Britain” “Redcoats” or “the tyrant King George III…that tool!”)
The facts are these: It was on July 4, 1776 that the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. That document had been written after a resolution of independence had been approved two days earlier, on July 2nd. Many, including future President John Adams, considered July 2nd to be the true Independence day. As Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail:
“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
Well, old John had just about everything right but the date and that part about solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. Americans—even then reluctant to follow the leader or bend to historical accuracy—celebrated on the Fourth from the get-go. Today we probably rationalize this lack of precision with the image of those beloved old guys in wigs lining up to sign the Declaration of Independence.
But alas, another swing and a miss. Though Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin later claimed to have signed on the Fourth, historians have generally concluded that only two—John Hancock (he of the big signature) and Charles Thomson actually signed on the Fourth. Most of the rest signed nearly a month later, on August 2, 1776, but the last signature (you remember, it was Thomas McKean of Delaware!) wasn’t added until 5 years later.
All that is prologue for my question: why are we so resistant to historical accuracy? With all the information at our fingertips, is it that hard to get it right? The answer becomes clear when you bring such things up. For example, try it yourself at whatever holiday functions you attend today. You might say something like, “You know, this isn’t really Independence Day. That was 2 days ago.”, then watch the reaction.
My guess it won’t be, “Oh thank you for that vital clarification. The scales have fallen from my eyes! My erroneous beliefs have been challenged and found wanting! I now walk in the sweet light of the truth! And it’s all thanks to you, oh noble Fact-Master!”
No, it’ll probably be something along the lines of “Yeah, okay. I’m getting another beer.” And take it from me, pulling out your phone and showing them a Wikipedia entry on the subject won’t help.
The path of the Illuminator is a lonely one, indeed. Handy if you want to avoid future invitations, but lonely nonetheless. Take it from me. Or John Adams.
Anyway, Happy Belated Birthday, America. Sorry for being 2 days late.
Today’s Fact Cetera
The first instrument played by John Philip Sousa was the violin.