Any mention of July to me always conjures up one day in the month in particular: the 4th of July, with its fireworks celebrating America’s Independence Day. Even if I have not lived in the US for close to twenty years and in fact now make my home in England, the country from which the fledgling US Congress in 1776 sought separation at any cost, this particular commemorative date has never lost its significance for me. American Independence was only won after great sacrifice. Not only the US and England paid a hefty price, but France and Spain too paid handsomely. The toll in lives lost is thought to have been proportionally greater than the number lost in the Civil War.
My recall of lessons learned in childhood can be surprising, such as the following lines from that 1776 Declaration of Independence, which spring to mind every 4thof July:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I remember at the time hearing painstaking explanations of words such as ‘self-evident’ and ‘unalienable’. Then: life, liberty and happiness—good; taxes—not so much. I can still recall the dramatic stories we were told of tea being thrown overboard in Boston Harbor, Paul Revere’s ride, and of course Patrick Henry, who mesmerized his audience by calling all, then and now, to action: “Give me liberty or give me death.” What a weighty responsibility being an American felt like to me at nine years old! Like the Minutemen of Massachusetts, I was meant to be always at the ready. There would be no trampling on my rights.
In July, when the weather turns hot—insufferable even, as it currently is in the UK with temperatures hitting highs of 29o Centigrade and forecast to go higher, turning this green and pleasant land into a scorched savannah, alleviated only by the prospect of a vintage year for England’s vineyards (!)—the words ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ always return to mind and I am at once lifted and sobered.
(A brief aside: one of the most frequently asked questions here in Britain, whether by tourists or residents, in black cabs or any place else, is why there is no air-conditioning? ‘Because we don’t need it,’ we say. However, the significant change in the British climate thanks to global warming is signaled by the tell-tale fact that all new black cabs manufactured today have air conditioning as standard.)
Amid the rigors of supporting a family, running a business in England and considering a life’s vision for myself, there is perhaps a danger of overlooking the fact that those inalienable rights I and many of my fellow Americans now take for granted are simultaneously denied to others. So I confess, hands up, I keep the first few paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence mounted on the wall in front of me, in my office. Visible from my desk, the large bold script reminds me constantly to take stock.
Do I deny myself those rights? Do I deny them to others? I have a friend who has narrowed the whole concept down to one pithy slogan: “Live and let live.” The courage required to stick to that maxim can take years to acquire—actively to seek out and maintain my life, my liberty and my happiness, rather than allowing myself to piggyback on someone else’s or vice versa. The rewards? Immeasurable.
Life, liberty and happiness are absolute and inalienable rights for everybody, not the sole preserve of the privileged. But over the many years since I was first enthralled by stories of Paul Revere’s ride—simultaneously acted out with small plastic figures—or tea being thrown overboard by torchlight, I have had to learn and relearn that these givens are not so much bestowed as earned, and ever-present watchfulness is required in order to maintain them. Ho-hum, dare I say it… just like those vigilant Minutemen.
On this 4th of July, entertained by a temperamental English sun, I give myself permission to sit back and reflect—holding a barbeque or not, living in America or not, in my Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness— am I giving it all I’ve got?
Happy month of July,