Brent E. Zepke
I am pleased, actually thrilled, to be able to again pause in my daily activities to say “Happy Birthday, America” today.
A birthday signifies the creation of something new — in your case it was becoming an independent country, America. You were created by the Declaration of Independence, which gave all of its citizens the gift of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …”
I remain impressed by its use of “unalienable” rather than searching for a justification for the “Rights,” using “among them” so as to not limit the rights, and making “life” and “liberty” unalienable rights and making the “pursuit” of “happiness” unalienable since “happiness” is so personal. The “pursuit” is the right.
Starting from John Adams claiming your birthday should be July 2, the date a few approved your Declaration, instead of July 4 when the majority approved it, your path has not been easy, America. However, despite all the ups and downs of your 245 years, on July 4, 2021, you remain standing.
There is a similarity to our paths. Your birth was marked by the Revolutionary War where your citizens fought the English and Hessians, and mine by World War II where your citizens fought the Japanese, Germans and others.
Your first birthday on July 4, 1777, was during a war, as was mine.
Your early years included celebratory parades on the Fourth, as did mine down Kings Highway in Haddonfield, N.J. (founded in 1701). This small town is just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
Ironically, our parade honoring our independence from the King of England was on King’s Highway. How’s that for symbolism?
With red, white and blue streamers flowing off our bicycles as we rolled on the brick streets past the fire station (founded in 1764) near where Ben Franklin created the concept of firefighters. We went past Indian King Tavern where the New Jersey Assembly met in 1777 to escape the British. The site was later was used by slaves to escape recapture as part of the underground railroad.
As I grew up and crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge over the same Delaware River crossed by General Washington on Christmas to surprise the British in Trenton, N.Y. I was able to enter the historic district in Philadelphia.
In the small meeting room in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed, I could sense the presence of the Continental Congress. As I walked around, I could almost feel their images shift from the pages of history books and Classic Comic Books to those of real men. Real men with hopes, dreams and fears. Men, many of whom were husbands, fathers and grandfathers with families to love and protect.
Much like the crack in the Liberty Bell, their signatures illustrated that nothing, not even the faulty casting of the Bell, could stop their drive for their freedoms: and ours. Nearby is Betsy Ross’s ordinary house where extraordinary ideas were woven into a flag illustrates the contribution of women, many of whom were wives, mothers and grandmothers with families to love and protect.
The original 13 colonies, or rather its citizens, continued to grow and expand their “pursuit of happiness” by expanding into more areas, including the Louisiana Purchase and south to the Rio Grande River before adding Alaska and Hawaii.
Similarly, my growth led me to be at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., on July 4, 1969.
A sign of the times was that the threat of Russia had caused the Office of Civil Defense to pay a few professors, including me, to attend a month-long course. (I can neither confirm, nor deny, the rumors that Clint Eastwood is planning a thriller based on our eight-hour days learning how to design and occupy, underground cement bunkers called fallout shelters).
This set the scene for a pivotal moment for both my country and me.
The morning of July 20, 1969, began with my walking off of the campus as Neil Armstrong was walking onto the moon. I will never forget thinking that if the space team and Armstrong “dared to be great,” what would I do to “dare to be great?
After a lifetime of listening to others, this jolted me: What would I do to truly pursue my happiness?
After much introspection, I changed my career path and became an instructor in the College of Business Administration of the University of Tennessee, and the next day, I began attending their law school.
My only guarantee was the right to pursue happiness, and while the path had more than a few bumps, it was all worth it when I was sworn in to the practice of law by a justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, and subsequently many other courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1870, federal holidays were created for federal employees working in the District of Columbia. In 1938, these holidays were extended to federal employees everywhere (that it took 68 years illustrates the priority the feds give themselves in D.C.). And in 1941, these employees began to be paid on the holidays.
Gradually private companies followed the federal government in recognizing the importance of celebrating the accomplishments of ordinary men daring to be great. The numbers indicate the percentages of private companies that give these holidays: Thanksgiving (97%), Christmas (95%), Labor Day (94%), July 4th (93%) and New Year’s (90%) That’s according to the Society of Human Resources Management in 2016.
As the country went through its own iterations for July Fourth celebrations, so did I. Through our trials and tribulations, we both knew we could depend on the fireworks, both actual and symbolic, occurring on July Fourth.
The ones this year will carry the reminder that our country distinguished itself by having leaders use their “liberty” to create a vaccine and distribution system that is leading the world in emerging from this pandemic.
The challenge now, much like after the Civil War that pitted us against each other, is to keep the temporary measures imposed by our federal and state governments’ restrictions on our “unalienable Rights” from becoming permanent. It is important to remember that “The essence of government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, is ever liable to abuse” (James Madison).
Permitting fireworks over the District of Columbia while prohibiting them over Mount Rushmore is a vivid example.
On this July Fourth, much like the flag still flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Keys on Sept. 14, 1814, to write the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I remain inspired by the events that began on July 4, 1969, which helped prepare me for the July 20, 1969 message as Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin walked on the moon.
Happy 245th birthday, United States of America.
The author lives in Santa Barbara.