Speech questions meaning of July 4th

by Benjamin B. Bolger | 7/5/01 5:00am

The day before nation-wide Independence Day celebrations, people from the Dartmouth community converged at the Rockefeller Center to discuss "Does July 4th have the same meaning for everyone?" In a community dialogue lead by Jennifer M. Bowman '02 and History Professors Alexander Bontemps and Vernon Takeshita, participants explored the positive and problematic aspects of our nation's holiday that commemorates July 4, 1776.

The event began with a screening of movie clips from the film "1776," where the issue of slavery was debated during the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Aspects of the film dramatized how an anti-slavery statement was historically not built into the document. After viewing several segments of the film, the Dartmouth forum opened up to participants who were invited to share their reactions.

"I have a vacillation in saying that this is my country," Jennai S. Williams '03 said. Speaking about July 4th, "I feel a tension in the problematic parts of the holiday," she said.

Williams went on to talk about her "concerns regarding the contemporary condition of capitalism and democracy."

"There is an important relationship between July 4 and October 12. Both dates have great importance for Native Americans. Both Independence Day and Columbus Day connote issues of ownership of land and the displacement of native peoples," Assistant Dean of Student Life Nora Yasumura said.

Yasumura asked students to remember these historical injustices.Yuval I. Ortiz-Quiroga '02 expressed broader concerns raised by the celebration of Independence Day. "What are holidays really for?" he asked. "Why do we have national holidays?"

Professor Takeshita said that "national holidays enshrine certain values." He noted the nature of specific holidays have changed with time. "For example, Thomas Jefferson's birthday was at one time celebrated in many ways similar to our modern Labor Day, but this has now past."

Professor Takeshita also explained that not all holidays attempted to pick up the same momentum as the ones we recognize today. "There was a time when people tried to use Lincoln's birthday to celebrate African-American freedom."

Takeshita suggested that "there is a complex social, political and cultural framework that accounts for the holidays that we celebrate today." However, Takeshita added a note of causation. "Mis-memory of history is often enshrined as well."

Bowman supported Takeshita's statement, "thinking about these mis-memories is one reason we are here."

Much of the dialogue was also devoted to the Declaration of Independence as a document.

"There is no question that it has a lot in common with other great works of literature," Chip Elitzen '69 said. Elitzen added that the Declaration of Independence "continues to have meaning for us today."

While acknowledging the importance of accurately recalling difficult historical parts of American history, "we still need to celebrate the principles of freedom that are represented in our Independence Day" he added.

Professor Bontemps commented, "We don't take it to heart as much as we should that the concept of freedom has always been contested. There is a quintessential duplicity and hypocrisy in celebrating Independence Day. The Declaration really meant freedom for only certain men, but in their minds they weren't being hypocritical."

Bontemps suggested that the Dartmouth forum was not raising totally new issues, but rather revisiting a healthy American debate. "Almost from the start, the 4th of July has become a contested celebration," he said.

Bontemps read several passages from David Waldstreicher's "In The Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820," a book that he recommended students read. With the help of the book, Bontemps raised questions ranging from "Is the 4th of July a day of mourning, not a day of joy?" to "Does the 4th of July breath the spirit of revolution?" and "To what extent are we celebrating American ideals of freedom on the 4th?"

Bontemps also pointed to the works of Alexis de Tocqueville regarding "a series of contents and issues of American nationalism" and Arthur M. Sleshenger Jr. concerning "Divisive identity politics."

"The Declaration of Independence has no legal standing. You can't overturn laws with it," Professor Takeshita reminded students.

"There has been a historical evolution of defining national citizenship -- the document gave this process an important start," he added.

In the end, Bontemps said "the 4th of July represents a dialectic, there is a need for celebration and criticism." Making a comparison between Revolutionary American and Ancient Europe, Bontemps stated, "The greatest articulation of freedom, also occurred during times of slavery. Was this articulation necessarily paid by the enslavement of others?"

"Immigrant groups re-invent the sincerity of freedom," he said. "But for those of us who have been here for a while, how are we now respecting history with our understandings of it?"