Thursday, July 05, 2012
4th of July away from home
Stephanie, an actor from New York City, wanted to go somewhere "American" for the 4th of July. Here in Florence, there would be no fireworks -- we had some last week, but they were in honor of San Giovanni. The 4th of July was just a typical Wednesday here.
The cast was game, and after our rehearsal concluded, many of the cast -- American, British, and Italian actors together -- walked across the city to check out the Hard Rock Cafe. Doesn't get much more American than that. Despite some wariness at paying 15 euro for a hamburger, we entered the place only to learn there was a long wait for a table. We then walked to Via dell'Acqua, near the Bargello, to seek out a place called "The Diner" that served American-style diner food. By the time we got there, however, it was closing up shop, and we all ended up at an osteria nearby, where we toasted Independence Day in the U.S. with chianti and beer.
Back home in the States, the common practices of the 4th of July include outdoor cooking, beer, parades, and fireworks. There are requisite displays of patriotic fervor and pride. And yet it has been my feeling for many years that I now live in a nation defined more by the 11th of September than the 4th of July.
The day is called Independence Day, and yet many of my countrymen become confused on the particulars of this anniversary. Many associate it with the United States Constitution or think of it as the birthday of the country.
In fact, what happened on 4 July 1776 was the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the Continental Congress. It was the formal declaration that the 13 colonies had seceded from the British Empire.
And while he was not an author of the Declaration, the very fact of this document and for popular support for independence in the colonies owes much to Thomas Paine, an advocate of republican politics whose wildly popular Common Sense ignited public debate about independence and moved popular opinion in that direction.
The Declaration was not simply a list of colonial grievances against the empire. It remains relevant as a powerful statement of human liberty, declaring a number of "self-evident" truths, including the idea that all humans are equal and possess "unalienable rights" as their birthright, including a right to revolt against tyranny. The right of revolution remains a provocative idea to this very day: the idea that it is not only a right but a duty for a people to overthrow a government that acts against their interests. This was the basis of the American Revolution, and yet the document's sentiment seems buried with that war.
According to historical sources, Jefferson's original draft pressed the matter of human rights even more strongly, criticizing the British Empire's slave trade despite the fact that Jefferson owned slaves himself. This points to what may be the primary moral contradiction of the U.S.: we are unparalleled in our eloquence on behalf of human liberty and self-determination, despite a history that includes military aggression, conquest and imperialism, slavery, and political inequality.
Even with the contradictions, the Declaration is a great document, and I still dream of a republic based on its principles.