This past July 4th there were barbeques, fireworks and visits to the beach. In most places across the United States, the day commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence was celebrated just as John Adams predicted it would be over two centuries ago: “It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance; 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.”

In 1976, on the bicentennial of Independence Day, one student wrote about his views on the celebrations. His opinions are his own, but the backdrop of current events he writes against is eerily familiar today.

Below is an excerpt from the 1976 Silver Medal-winning essay What a Way to Celebrate 200 Years by novelist, law professor and human rights activist Thane Rosenbaum, our 2009 Alumni Lifetime Achievement recipient.

“200 years ago today, Americans were at war against the oppressive rule of England’s King George the third. Farmers and noblemen fought as brothers, side by side, for the freedom they so desperately wanted and the liberty on which their young country would be founded. Today, 200 years later, Americans again find themselves at war, this time against the oppressive weight of our nation’s birthday of independence in the middle of an economic recession and the increasing rate of unemployment. Our revolutionary ancestors celebrated their triumph with the grace and glory deserving of a great new nation. We now celebrate their victory with the glitter and glamour of the plush Broadway musical 1776 and as much grace and glory as a Marx Brothers comedy. The stars and stripes still wave, though not as proudly, on the seat of someone’s faded jeans and our Star Spangled Banner had been changed to the tune of ‘You deserve a break today at McDonald’s.’ And that’s the way it was…and is.

What a way to celebrate 200 years. In the grip of an energy crisis and a pollution menace, the government is encouraging our citizens to jump into their family cars and to rush madly to some place else to celebrate the bicentennial. Never mind the tension, overcrowding, waste, and pollution we will create scrambling about our giant ant-hill; we will spend money, and that’s what really counts. I wonder what Benjamin Franklin would think about his phrase, “A penny saved is a penny earned” if he found out that Congress, over the past decade appropriated 500 million dollars for state and local festivities to celebrate the bicentennial…

That old American saying “What so proudly we hail,” has now been changed to the new version of ‘What so proudly we sell.’ Even our enemy during the revolution has learned something about America. Their British Airways has changed its advertising slogan to read ‘You gave us the business 200 years ago, America; here’s hoping you’ll do it again…’

Some study and reflection upon our past might reveal just how we got to this time, and how we can profit by our mistakes as well as our success. True, public debate, town meetings, and commitments by government, education, religion and labor to find answers are not flashy. They don’t sell products, they don’t light up the marquee and cause lines to form, but if we don’t reverse the trend of our celebration now, then many more will swarm into the city like locusts, feed on tacky souvenirs, visit a museum or two, and then depart mid a trail of empty pop bottles and candy wrappers. Government will feel smug about having provided bread and circuses, and the Chamber of Commerce boys will throw their arms out of joint trying to pat themselves on the back and count all the money at the same time. And, like true patriots, we’ll all salute the banner bearing our national symbol, the dollar sign, and if we last another 100 years, perhaps some announcer at the end of a brief recapturing of history will say….’And that’s the way it was…in 1976.’”

Image credit: Benjamin Simon, Grade 12. Waiting for Superman. Painting. 2010 Art Portfolio Gold Medal.

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