Why Cancelling The Independence Day Parade Should Be Avoided At All Costs
On April 13, 2021 the North Ogden City Council voted, without debate or hesitation, to cancel its Independence Day parade for the second consecutive year. Their reason for cancelling it was a flawed understanding of Utah law and the current State Health Order (State Public Health Order 2021-10). I have advised the city of their error, which I have summarized in more detail here.
Since that time several members of the community, myself included, have voiced opposition to the Council's decision. Those in favor of the parade likely have a variety of reasons for supporting it. From a much needed community stress release after a pandemic year, to giving our youth the opportunity to be recognized for their achievements, to getting free candy. There are any number of valid reasons why people like parades.
Those, however, are not my reasons. I want to discuss why cancelling an Independence Day Parade is a very big deal from a historical perspective, and why only a council consisting of individuals unaware or unappreciative of their own history would be willing to do such a thing without careful deliberation.
I posed the following question to my college students today. Why does virtually every city in America, from coast to coast, celebrate Independence Day in precisely the same manner? Why parades? Why fireworks? Why not dance parties or Easter-egg-style hunts for flag shaped candies? None of my students knew the answer, and I suspect that might also be the case among the city council as well.
The uniformity of Independence Day celebrations is not a mere coincidence, and it finds its genesis at the start of our nation. On July 2, 1776, John Adams had just wrapped up a four-week drafting session in Independence Hall, Philadelphia. He was joined by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Their appointed task was to draft a document that would be used to justify to the American people why a war with the British was necessary. 4,064 days later, and after a most unlikely victory over the British, Benjamin Franklin would once again sit in this same room and sign his name to the US Constitution. I have written about Franklin's unique perspective on the signing of those two documents here.
At the time these five men drafted the Declaration of Independence there were three hundred British ships and thirty-two thousand British soldiers amassing in Sandy Hook. The Declaration was not a message being sent to some distant nation on the other side of an ocean. The British were here, they were ready to fight, and this document would light the fuse. All signs pointed to a swift British victory. Those five men believed in what they were writing enough to die for it, and likely die very soon. They were simultaneously traitors and patriots, only the outcome of a war would decide which title history would award them.
Although formal drafting and initial approval of the document was complete on July 2nd, the Continental Congress ultimately gave its formal approval to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
Knowing how significant of a moment in history this was, John Adams would write his beloved wife Abigail the following after drafting of the Declaration was complete:
"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." - John Adams July 3, 1776
And so it was celebrated in precisely the manner Adams had intended. The first formal Independence Day parade took place the following year, July 4, 1777, in Philadelphia. Despite being embroiled in a terrible war, one it appeared they would ultimately lose, Americans understood the importance of commemorating that day. Remarking on the 1777 Independence Day celebration, the Pennsylvania Evening Post reported: “Yesterday the 4th of July, being the anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America, was celebrated in this city with demonstrations of joy and festivity. About noon all the armed ships and gallies in the river were drawn up before the city, dressed in the gayest manner, with the colors of the United States and streamers displayed...at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.”
For five years America fought the British, and each year they would again pause to celebrate their revered proclamation of freedom. Washington would be known to read the Declaration to his soldiers as well as issue double rations of rum on that day. Parades and fireworks were held, even in that most trying of times. In what can only be considered fate, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would both die hours apart exactly 50 years later, on July 4, 1826 (at age 90 and 83 respectfully).
In the decades and centuries to follow Americans would encounter a number of tremendous difficulties. The war of 1812, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, Vietnam. No matter what was happening at the time, no matter how trying, difficult, or insurmountable their sufferings, American's held their Independence Day parades. There was no amount of suffering, it seemed, that would cause Americans to forget the import of that day.
One such example can be read in the 1933 diary of Harriet E. Whitcher. It was the height of the Great Depression, and as an added bonus a terrible drought had afflicted her farming community of Okreet, South Dakota. Despite their trials, however, her community made certain to pause and celebrate on July 4th. Harriet was unable to participate in the celebration, "having broke [her] leg falling down a half-dug new toilet hole." Still she wrote of the festivities, which included competitions for baldest man and youngest married couple. She finishes her journal entry by stating "it was a glorious Fourth of July." You can see a slideshow of Harriet's celebration below.
It is impossible for us, with all of our comforts, to imagine being Harriet and her family. A young woman during the Great Depression, unable to grow crops because of an unprecedented drought. Broken leg from falling down a toilet hole, and without any semblance of modern healthcare or anesthetic. Can you possibly imagine how much Harriet and her family must have valued their freedoms for them to take the time to celebrate under those circumstances? One might understand a day of rest from their toils, but celebration!?
Now, juxtapose that scene with North Ogden, Utah, in 2021. The average household income in North Ogden is currently $81,198. Although we are certainly not without our troubles, the top issues facing the city at the moment would likely not rank very high on a historical rank order of difficulties. I find it difficult to imagine that we are not currently living in the most comfortable time in human history. That is precisely why I fear the lackadaisical attitude of the North Ogden City Council in voting to cancel their Independence Day celebration, without so much as a single word of debate, speaks volumes about our current state of ingratitude. Every generation prior to us, for the past 245 years, has possessed the respect and reverence needed to celebrate that day as it deserves to be celebrated. Celebrate it as Adams envisioned. Are we the generation that breaks that chain? Are we the generation that decides it is no longer worthy of celebration? As history has shown, no amount of suffering can cause Americans to forget the value of that day. It appears, however, that comfort and prosperity might accomplish what suffering could not.
Now, many may astutely point out that celebrations can be accomplished without the government being involved. That is most certainly correct. However, let us not forget that an Independence Day celebration is the singular time when the government acknowledges through ceremony that they are subservient to the people. The primary time the government acknowledges through "pomp and parade" that freedom is important above all else, and that it was with the intent of constraining, not expanding, governmental influence that the founders drafted these documents to begin with. THAT is why we should not allow our government to simply forgo that acknowledgement by cancelling the parade. To sweep it under the rug of yesteryear as if it's of no value in our day.
It is of value. A lot of value. Perhaps more value today than ever before. North Ogden needs to hold its parade. I want my children to see their government publicly acknowledge the importance of freedom. Acknowledge the sacrifices of those who fought for that freedom. Acknowledge the accomplishments of those in our community. Acknowledge that the individual, sovereign and free, is what America values most.
I understand there are unique challenges to holding the parade this year. Form a citizen committee to help if needed, I would be first to volunteer. Let's not drop the torch carried by so many before us who carved out a day, in times of suffering and sacrifice we can't begin to imagine, to honor and celebrate in the manner Adams envisioned all the freedoms that are so uniquely American. If that's not worthy of celebrating, then what truly is?
Phillip Nelsen is an attorney, college professor, author, entrepreneur, hunting guide, father and husband.