The case for the 4th, from a part-time American
Flora Roy is a former intern at Made By Us and the Smithsonian and Emerson Collective’s Leadership for Change program. Originally from Berlin, she is a rising junior at the George Washington University majoring in Geography and Political Science.
As a French German, national days were never a prominent part of my cultural upbringing. Back home, the only time you’ll see a German flag on someone’s house is during a World Cup summer. Celebrating our national heritage, particularly with the vibrancy Americans do, is simply not part of our cultural fabric. Germany’s historical association with the Nazi regime has shaped a more reserved approach to expressing national identity compared to the overt displays of patriotism often seen in the United States. During my first week in the U.S., I went to a hockey game and my hat was snatched off my head by my neighbor when I didn’t have the cognizance to do so during the national anthem. While seemingly ever-present in the American psyche, displays of American patriotism explode around July 4th, very much like the dazzling fireworks that accompany these displays. It took me a while to understand why.
Of course, I understood the connection between July 4th and America’s founding. Everyone knows the textbook story in which the thirteen colonies removed themselves from British control:
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.
We fast forward, annual barbecues and pool parties all around. But, in reading Frederick Douglass’ “What, To the Slave, Is Fourth Of July”, I found a deeper significance behind the importance of the day that strays deeply from current themes of celebration. In an almost unnerving way, this to me encapsulated every reason to mute the superficial July 4th celebrations I often see in search of more reflective considerations. While the spectacle of fireworks or the joy of backyard grilling might evoke a sense of nostalgia or tradition, I couldn’t help but cast judgment through my own unlearned eyes on whether such festivities truly encouraged the necessary introspection and critical examination of America’s complex history.
May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? 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…Cling to this day—cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.
On one hand, Frederick Douglass’ perspective is stained with angst and frustration, citing the shortcomings of America’s independence. And on the other hand, said angst is largely secondary to the jovial celebration in the modern American conscience. The historical enigma in this case cannot be ignored. Nor should it be. The 4th is a jointly celebratory and somber historical reference point.
While the 4th is overtly historical, other countries celebrate national holidays in a way that aligns with their contemporary narratives. Germany celebrates its unity to remember the strength of its diverse communities and emphasize the inequalities that remain. France’s national holiday commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution, which continues to shape the country’s societal discourse. Other nations commemorate their hard-won independence from colonial rule, a testament to their ongoing struggles against neocolonialism and the enduring challenges posed by external influences in a way that emphasizes the arduous historical path to present strengths, which paves the way for continued success in the future.
I failed to see how the U.S., a hegemon of such strength, needed to publicly bathe itself in toasts to its invincibility. With new data showing record low levels of patriotism and national pride among young Americans, maybe the fourth has lost its luster; becoming more akin to a generic, celebratory summer day.
Contemplating an alternative national holiday for the United States, such as Constitution Day or the day of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, raises the question of whether it would genuinely promote the kind of reflection raised by Frederick Douglass’ book on the fourth. Adjustments such as these would allow the continuance of genuine celebration balanced by a greater sense of meaningful appreciation. However, I began to imagine that Americans would most likely celebrate those days in the same way they celebrate July 4th. If we celebrated July 2nd as a national holiday to remember the signing of the Civil Rights Act for example, there would still be fireworks, hotdogs, and pool parties. Recently recognized as a federal holiday, even long-standing Juneteenth traditions have become more diluted through mainstream commemoration. Even Thanksgiving, built on a myth, is another excuse to enjoy a meal together with listless afterthoughts to the origin of said celebration. The significance of July 4th thus lies not in the specific historical event it commemorates, but in the broader themes of resilience, and the pursuit of the rights that it represents.
What makes July 4th remarkable is the collective spirit of joy and celebration that permeates American society on this day like no other. Americans seemingly relish being in a good mood, which is something they clearly do so well on July 4th. This day may now be about leisure and celebration but it’s also about remembering that rights, freedoms, or even present joy are hard-won and worth delighting in. The U.S.'s identity is not rooted in land, ethnicity, or religion but in ideals, making it crucial to have a day dedicated to exalting these ideals.
However, when Americans become aware that some of these ideals clash with reality, confronting the discrepancies becomes vital. How might a national holiday do that?
Although German and French holidays may not be celebrated with the same intensity as July 4th, a sense of national pride still exists. Surprisingly, studies have shown that both Germans and French exhibit a higher level of pride in their country compared to Americans, who are more likely to experience feelings of shame. On the other hand, France’s general inclination towards color-blindness and Laïcité allows it to conveniently evade discussions on neocolonialism or racial injustice. Until recently, Germany even prohibited dual citizenship for certain immigrants, painting German nationality as an exclusive identifier. Both German and French national pride remain conciliatory, hindering even the acknowledgment of wrongdoings.
Western Europeans often like to believe that systemic racism and related issues are exclusive to the United States, primarily attributing them to the country's history of slavery and segregation. They tend to overlook their own participation in this history of slavery and the fact that at a minimum the U.S. actively confronts these challenges. In fact, even its celebrations reflect this openness and dialogue. Culturally, July 4th serves as an opportunity for Americans to openly engage in conversations that might be avoided in other countries.
I personally admire that rather than imposing a single, uniform way of commemoration, this day encourages diverse conversations that contribute to the construction of a more inclusive and just society, both within the United States and beyond. It fosters a sense of ownership among Americans, suggesting that the celebration is not dictated by a predefined nationality, but rather a collective responsibility. These exchanges of ideas and discussions remain vibrant and relevant throughout the year, but the significance of the July 4th itself cannot be overstated.
When 4th of July rolls around yet again, my hope is that in between the splashes of poolside cannon balls, we all understand that celebratory relics such as this stem from an appreciation for America’s need to further set its sights on progress. American born or not, the case for the 4th is not in the celebration; it is in what it symbolizes.