Imagine if they canceled Independence Day.
What if the federal government declared that the Fourth of July was no longer a holiday? We would be told to report for work, cancel fireworks displays and picnics and go about our business the same as any other day.
There would be outrage. Americans would be angered by the suggestion that we shouldn’t celebrate freedom. Not recognize Independence Day? Why, that would be un-American.
And yet we do the same thing every Dec. 15, the birthday of our Bill of Rights.
In embracing these fundamental freedoms in 1791, we set ourselves apart from all other nations on the planet – then and ever since. It is one of the most important days in American history and yet almost no one takes the time to reflect on the importance of Dec. 15.
What does it say about America that we zealously celebrate our government’s Declaration of Independence from another government and totally overlook the American people’s Declaration of Independence from its government?
It’s not as though no one ever attempted to give this day the respect it deserves. On Aug. 21, 1941, a joint resolution of Congress called on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to designate a day in honor of the Bill of Rights.
On Nov. 28 , 1941, the Los Angeles Times reported that “President Roosevelt today called on the American people to observe Dec. 15 as ‘Bill of Rights Day,’ to cherish the ‘immeasurable privileges which the charter guaranteed’ and to rededicate its principles and practice.”
An appropriate kick-off celebration was planned at the Waldorf Astoria featuring actress Helen Hayes and Eleanor Roosevelt. Nine days after FDR’s proclamation, though, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and everything else took a back seat to World War II. This was the holiday that got away and it’s never been properly recognized since.
This year marks the 220th birthday of the Bill of Rights, and it would be nice if all of us could take a little time at dinner tonight to ask our kids what they know about these freedoms, and help them understand why it’s such a significant day. Beyond the teaching opportunity, there’s also a little something in it for young Americans ages 14-22.
The Knight Foundation is funding a scholarship opportunity called “Free to Tweet.” Students who wish the First Amendment a happy birthday by tweeting about the importance of these fundamental freedoms today are eligible to compete for one of 22 scholarships (one for every decade since ratification). They just have to use the hash tag #freetotweet. Full details can be found at www.freetotweet.org.
The irony is that most of us honor the Fourth of July because we believe it’s a day on which Americans secured their freedom. But the truth is that the Declaration of Independence really only secured freedom for white and wealthy men. It took freedom of speech, press, religion, petition and assembly – the five freedoms of the First Amendment – to lead to suffrage for women, the emancipation of slaves and equality for all.
Please join in celebrating freedom today. It’s long overdue.
Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and the American Society of News Editors, and a founder of 1 for All. This post first appeared in The Seattle Times.