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.
EG: And flags, the "Star Spangled Banner," . . .
WB: Yes, all of these things are things that every country in the world does to try to build this sense of identity of nationalism. Or nationhood. The idea that we are all connected to each other, because we can celebrate this moment in our story together. But it's interesting to talk about what the 4th of July means this year, because we're in a moment where the country feels really divided. And, I guess, we could have said that for any time in the last five years, or really the entire history of the United States.
I think there is a sense in which every year, the 4th of July should, if we really sit and think about it, bring up some complicated and mixed feelings.
EG: So, that brings us back to this particular point in history where the country's incredibly divided along political lines.
WB: I think sometimes it's easy for liberals to not really pay attention to that because a lot of liberals have really calmed down since Joe Biden became president, and the headlines, every day, stopped feeling so alarming. However, we have to remember that the media ecosystem is really divided, and there's still a substantial portion of the country that believes that the election was stolen.
EG: And a substantial portion of the country believes that the vaccine is part of some sort of strange conspiracy.
WB: And that on January 6th, people stormed the capital. So what will it mean to be celebrating this country together at a moment when we're not really together? I guess we could have asked that question last year or the year before, or like I said, any time in American history.
EG: Now we're back to that same conversation about democracy being in peril and that somehow this moment is different . . . This is where you usually say something that calms me down— where I realize that there is nothing new under the sun and that I should simply quit watching the news!
WG: That's right. For instance, the 1950s and 1960s are a time that people look back to as this great era of bipartisanship or great era of American unity when it wasn't so complicated. But, of course, the 1950s is when we had the McCarthy witch hunts and people were being blacklisted because of their political beliefs or because of their perceived political beliefs. And there was great fear across the country about communism, and that really tore the country apart. And of course, at the same time in the fifties and the sixties, you had people marching in the South for the right to vote, the right to get on a bus, to eat in the same restaurants as other people. They were faced with police brutality in response to that. Even in Washington, D.C., at that time, people who called themselves Republicans and people who called themselves Democrats were able to pass things such as Medicare and all sorts of Cold War military spending bills. I don't think it's fair to say that as a nation, we were necessarily less divided then.
EG: One of the things that Americans think about a lot on July 4th is that America is a special country.
WB: We have this term "American exceptionalism" that says that America has a special destiny that makes it different than any other country in the world. As a history teacher, it's my job to kind of push back against that notion, because it is a dangerous idea—it has been used to justify all sorts of terrible things from Manifest Destiny to even slavery. For many people who were raised in history classes that talked about how wonderful the Founding Fathers were and what an incredible miracle our Constitution is that in the last few years of really facing up to the history of racism, white supremacy, and violence has been this terrifying wake-up call. And it can be easy to then flip and say, America is an exceptional nation because it's exceptionally bad.
Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.