Historically Speaking with Will Bellaimey: The Fourth of July

By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:

I recently met up with my good friend Will Bellaimey to talk all things democracy and the Fourth of July.

If you're feeling patriotic and want to hear an informative, funny, and enormously entertaining podcast, check out Will's show on All the Presidents, Man to see history through the lens of the American presidents. You can also check out more conversations in our on-going series, Historically Speaking.

EG: Okay, Will, by the time this is published, it will be the beginning of July, so let's talk about the state of our country and the Fourth of July, shall we?

WB: I guess as a history teacher, I'm always kind of interested in what are we celebrating on the 4th of July? Like, sometimes, when I'm sitting with my friends and we're watching the fireworks, I like to yell, "Down with the British," and people look at me like, what are you doing? But that's what we're celebrating on July 4th, right? It was the day that they signed the Declaration of Independence, and that was important because that was when we went from being British to being American. Although, technically, it was just a piece of paper until we won the war. So what are we celebrating on the 4th of July? Frederick Douglass has a famous speech called "What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?" in which he basically says there's nothing for me to celebrate about this day—my freedom has not been helped by the existence of the 4th of July. A lot of people nowadays in schools like to read that speech and go, "Oh, wow, there's multiple perspectives to think about with the 4th of July." But as a political science teacher, there's a part of me that says, "Let's get at the really deep question of why does it matter to have a country in the first place?"

There's not only one country in the world that does fireworks on the day of its independence. If you're in Mexico, there's Día de la Independencia. If you're in Britain, they usually celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, which is the day that Guy Fawkes failed to blow up Parliament. France has Bastille Day, which is the day that the revolutionaries stormed the building where they kept all the weapons.

So in some ways, what any independence day is about is a collective ritual of telling the story of who we are as a nation. And I think sometimes we use the nation in the same way that we use it to mean the government or the regime or the country

Technically, the word "nation" means a group of people who share a common destiny, and it's this very mystical concept.

That's at the root of international law: that people have the right to define their independence as a group of people who are a nation. And so when the Declaration of Independence was signed, there was an extent to which what they were saying was we are a nation right now [for] whom, therefore (under the John Locke idea) the government is responsible to the people. We, as a people get to decide who our government is. And when we're watching fireworks in the sky on that day, on some level, we're saying, this is the day that we became some sort of a collective people.

EG: Which is such an interesting thing to think about right now in American history.

WB: When we look at the fireworks on the 4th of July, we're talking about this moment of becoming a nation.