Ask any little kid what the Fourth of July is and he'll tell you, & quot;Fireworks & quot; -- a cookout followed by sparklers and a red, white and blue display in the sky. & quot;Our flag on the front porch. & quot;
It's also the day both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died -- an amazing quirk of history, don't you think?
And the day that Congress approved one of the greatest documents ever written: the Declaration of Independence.
In teaching an argument writing class at Youngstown State University, I refer to Thomas Jefferson. Inevitably, I discover the majority of my students know only that Jefferson was some historical figure, that he was a president ( & quot;Right, Mrs. Murphy?") and, vaguely, that & quot;he did something with the Declaration of Independence. & quot;
(It's not just our kids! Last night, on one of the new quiz shows for twenty-somethings, the question was asked, & quot;Who served as both vice president and president but wasn't elected to either office? & quot; The young woman answered -- mispronouncing as she went -- & quot;Colin Powell." Should we be surprised Thomas Jefferson also gets a lukewarm response?)
In 10th grade, thanks to the insistent badgering of my quite excellent English teacher, Mr. Toniff, I had to memorize several lines written by American patriots. The first recitation came from Thomas Paine: & quot;These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. & quot;
And, of course, high on Mr. Toniff's list were Jefferson's words, upon which our nation is built: & quot;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. ... & quot;
Those words from the Declaration of Independence laid the groundwork not only for the establishment of the United States, but for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. They embody the sentiment that permeates the world human rights movement today. What amazing words!
It was a simple thing Mr. Toniff did. I'm not sure I understood what I was memorizing at the time (I think age has an amazing way of making the study of history more meaningful), but I'm glad I was introduced to those words. And though I cannot claim that every Fourth of July I think of them while the fireworks are bursting overhead and everyone is oooing or ahing or that Jefferson's words ring in my ears, this year I AM going to be thinking about them.
Freedom, our forefathers declared, is worth fighting for. They knew that. They put their lives on the line for it. All the rest -- the grilling of hamburgers, the sack races, the sparklers, the swim parties, the family gatherings, the blankets under the stars and Roman candles -- is a celebration of our knowing this. When Benjamin Franklin, Adams and Jefferson, penned the Declaration of Independence, they knew they were launching a revolution.
They did not, perhaps, know how long and hard we would have to fight it. They perceived England to be the oppressor; could they have foreseen the Kaiser, Hitler, Hirohito, and now, Osama bin Laden? Freedom is a precious commodity, including freedom from fear, as we all now see as clearly as ever.
So don't forget, as your flag is streaming over your front porch railing or your hot dog is splitting over hot coals, to recall what you're celebrating, to recall both Jefferson's and Paine's words. And if you want to make a real difference, recite those words to your children -- maybe even make them memorize a line or two.