Today is the United States of America is the Fourth of July. Actually in every country that has not yet turned their clocks to Sunday, it is, generally speaking, the fourth of July. It is capitalized in the US, however, because it is considered the birthday of the country. It is the day on which a document declaring the thirteen colonies to be “independent” from England was adopted. The document, known as the Declaration of Independence, had been voted on July 2nd and published for the colonists to read on July 6th in a newspaper known as the Pennsylvania Evening Post but on July 4th, it was officially adopted. This adoption was the culmination of events that had begun three years earlier.
The Boston Tea Party is one of the American myths that every school child soon learns. Protesting a tax on tea, an item considered to be essential in every home, particularly those of immigrants from England, a group of men dressed themselves as Indians and proceeded to the docks. Most items came from England and the cargoes aboard ships were eagerly awaited and happily received. The English government had appointed governors for the colonies but then, without warning or giving the colonists any representation in the Parliament that levied such taxes, had raised them on a very needed and common item. To the colonists it was as if nature had begun taxing them for the air which they breathed. The British government reacted violently with great power and pride. War eventually ensued and like the story about the little engine that could, the colonists defeated that country that, for eight of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, was their birthplace.
The stories of the American Revolution and its subsequent battles, the most prominent and final being the War of 1812, are the beginnings of legends. While the words myth and legend are often considered synonyms and used interchangeably, there are subtle differences. A myth often is the story of a supernatural being. A legend has its basis generally in history and while the exploits of the characters are larger than life and daily living, heroic at times, they do not have the “other worldly presences” like the main characters of myths. The first American President was George Washington and many legends about him are the result of one man, Parson Weems. Weems called himself the rector of the parish at Mount Vernon and something of a biographer. After Washington’s death, he gathered a collection of his own penned stories about Washington and published them as a group of morality tales for children. In life, George Washington had been respected but lived as just a man. Weems’ stories made him a legend when coupled with Washington’s leadership in the military and as first president.
It may be difficult to see ourselves in the Greek mythologies. Most of us are not the children and spouses of our parents as many Greek mythological characters were. None of us can die and then be reborn, although science had saved many people whose hearts had stopped breathing and could have been considered clinically dead. An age-old question about myths remains: Were the deities of the world created in man’s image or is it the other way around?
Another common myth about the United States of America is that it was a nation founded on Christian principles. In the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli both the first and second presidents, George Washington and John Adams stated otherwise: “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion.” Washington is said to have been a follower of Deism, a philosophy that had a great deal in common with the twentieth century film series known as “Star Wars”. Deism was a system of thought advocating natural beliefs based upon human reason rather than revelation and followers believed in a cosmic energy or “force” governing all as opposed to a specific deity or god. James Madison was an atheist who delighted in writing about the failings of the Christian faith and the negative “fruits” as he described them: “What have been [Christianity’s] fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
Even the author of the declaration of Independence mocked the Christian faith. Writing to John Adams in 1823, Thomas Jefferson is reported to have penned: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus…will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Of the Bible, Jefferson, known for furthering education in this new nation wrote: “The whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful — evidence that parts have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds.” Thus there apparently was no one clear definition of terms the founding fathers used, terms like Prudence and Creator.
It is also a myth that, once published, every colonist now knew about the Declaration of Independence. It is NOT a myth that the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was rung before the Declaration was read on July 8th to the masses assembled there. It is also NOT a myth that this same document served as a compass point for freedom and was used as a model for France, Greece, Poland, Russia, and some South American countries. It is also NOT a myth that when people feel respected, they will be more productive in their living and more loyal in their duties.
“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. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The telling of one story or the signing of one document is not the complete story nor does it accomplish the purpose of said story or document. We have to follow such with actions and those actions may, at some point, become the substance of their own mythologies, their own stories of being.
Freud certainly believed that all myths originated in the mind. Very few people can tell you every single Greek myth. There are thousands of them and almost as many characters, Greek gods and goddesses. At least was described as being somewhat barbaric, wearing an animal hide as a garment, fighting for the rights of the downtrodden while espousing peaceful living. For some that also describes the Biblical character John the Baptist. For others, the description might fit any one of twenty lesser Greek gods. To the refined British gentry accustomed to parlor musicales and lacey Regency-era clothing, it might describe a colonist living in the mountains of Pennsylvania or New Netherlands, the state we call New York. All of a sudden, history seems to give a wee bit of credence to those fantasy figures the Greek built temples for and wrote poems about.
What is not myth is the fact that July 4th has been a prominent date in American history. Three US Presidents died on this date, two within hours of each other. Did John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe have some supernatural help in finding eternal freedom on the day ascribed in history as the day they helped start the path to freedom for the colonies? Perhaps someone should write a myth about that.
Today many people in the USA will celebrate their freedoms and their history. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and yes, even tofu burgers will be eaten. Families will gather, some municipalities will shoot fireworks, and most will wear the red, white, and blue of their nation’s flag. Some will use the day to target this nation and security has been elevated. The gatherings will center on the stories of the nation’s beginnings and, hopefully, include a few prayers about its future. Some will use this day to remind us that the fight is not over, that there is still much to be done. Not all peoples in the world are free and even some living in the USA still feel constrained or are still the victims of discrimination and false assumptions. The myths of the past are still very much with us; the false expectations based upon culture instead of fact still exist and affect our living.
This is why we continue to tell our mythologies. We continue to learn from them, recognizing in antiquity our future. The fourth century BCE writing of Euripides in his tragedy “Medea” is still the unspoken prayer of many today: “Let no one think of me as humble or weak; let them understand I am of a different kind: dangerous to my enemies, loyal to my friends. To such a life glory belongs.”
So, let me say today “Happy Birthday!” to the United States of America and to all those nations who used its declaration as a guiding light to achieve their own. The myth of freedom is fortunately alive and well and continues to be told and believed. Now comes the hard part – We must live it, without bias and for all people.