I had an odd little experience yesterday; I was biking home from campus around nine PM when I saw some fireworks—and liked them. I used to like fireworks as a kid, but I haven’t recently. Last year I actually went with my mother to watch a display and I found myself completely distracted by the other people in the crowd and by the movements of a large moth flying in loops around a nearby streetlight. The fact of the rocket’s red blare above seemed completely uninteresting and irrelevant to me. I don’t know why I lost interest, but I expected the loss to be permanent. And then last night, right above the trees along the Ashuelot, right as I got ready to follow the bike trail out of town, an explosion bloomed green against the clear dusk sky. And it was beautiful.
I had a tendency to think of the Fourth of July as Fireworks Day, when I was a kid. I suspect many people did, and some still do. I remember going up to a park in Wilmington with my parents and buying ice cream from trucks parked in the grass among the crowds. It was always hot, and there was always a huge press of people, all strangers, but I didn’t mind. There was a bandstand with music and occasionally actors portraying Benjamin Franklin and other notables, and I never paid much attention. There were men walking through the crowd at dusk selling glow-in-the-dark necklaces, and I always wanted one and sometimes I got one, my sister and I both did. And then the show began, pop! pop! pop! pop! One year I was totally obsessed with the color green for whatever reason, and I cheered that color whenever it appeared. My mother’s favorites were the big bells of color, giant chrysanthemums of color that filled the sky and trickled down on all sides. And then the grand finale, which was always way too loud, and the world was all bright and color and sound and not thinking, and then it was over and smelling like gunpowder and I had to hold tight to the end of the beach blanket my mother’s hands were full of, hold tight and not get lost as thousands of people all fled to our cars at exactly the same time.
I was intellectually aware of the patriotic dimension, of course, but it failed to move me. I’m not anti-patriotic, not anti-American, but I can’t love my country any more than a fish can love water. I can’t wrap my mind around it, can’t think of it as an object to have feelings about.
But I can wrap my mind around, feel emotions about, even commit myself to people, individual people, like, for example, John Adams, the second president of the United States. I started reading about him some years ago and more or less didn’t stop. It amazes me that he, together with his colleagues, made a country for us. They did it quite deliberately. John Adams once said that he studied war so that his grandchildren would be able to study art. He put his marriage and his family and his life on the line—as a ringleader of the revolution he would certainly have been hanged if we had lost the war—because he thought it was the right thing to do, and because his wife and best friend, Abigail Adams, also thought it was the right thing to do. She has gotten popular in recent years as something of a proto-feminist, and as such I do admire her. She was a remarkable human being, and she deserves the recognition she is finally getting, though it would have flustered and embarrassed her. But it is him I identify with. We are a lot alike, John Adams and I, for we are not only both intelligent, dedicated, and idealistic, but also moody, a trifle vain, self-analytical, stubborn, and disorganized. When I visited their home and the tour guide showed us the room where Abigail died, I broke down crying, not in misty-eyed sympathy, but in frank, full sobs. About John’s death I felt only mild interest—but then, he would hardly have grieved over himself.
The Fourth of July thus becomes meaningful to me as a celebration of the work and the sacrifices of a particular man, John Adams, but it is also more than that. Today is the anniversary of the day he died. One hundred and eighty-six years ago today, John Adams was alive—and that statement will never again be true, never in the whole sweep of time. From now on, that number will always be bigger.
It’s easy to think of these people as somehow timeless, almost fictional, living always and forever in some parallel universe where tricornered hats are always in fashion and the debates of the Founding Fathers play out in an eternal, historical present. Actually, all those people, the founding fathers and mothers, are dead.
John Adams died in the late afternoon, during a thunderstorm. His last words are usually quoted at “Jefferson survives,” or something similar. Actually, his last words were “help me, child.” The more popular version is probably the one he meant, for it would have been like him to think about what his last words should be, and to choose something heroic. Intellectually he didn’t mind dying; he was always brave, and of course Abigail had already died and he looked forward to seeing her again. But then, when he felt himself finally going, maybe he grew afraid, like how one sometimes feels afraid just before sleep, afraid to let go, and he made a grab for control and said “help me!” But he did say the line about Jefferson, he just said it earlier. He and Jefferson were the last two signers of the Declaration of Independence, and he must have wondered which one of them would be the last. Maybe he was gratified to at least have the answer to the question—except he was wrong. Thomas Jefferson had died several hours earlier. The two men had held on quite deliberately to make it to the Fourth, that year the fiftieth anniversary of Declaration. The day meant a great deal to both of them.
And the day after, in the days after, what then? John Adams’ oldest son, John Quincy Adams, could not be there when his father died. He was president himself, at the time, and did not have the freedom to sit vigil. In those years of horseback communication, it must have taken a few days for him to find out his father was dead, sharp news, unbelievable news, and he had to pull himself together and keep running the country. But gradually his grief grew less sharp, gradually it got easier to go on. A year went by, then two, milestones passed after which John Quincy could no longer say “the last time this happened, my father was alive.” Gradually, his status as adult orphan must have come to seem normal. It became his life, decade after decade, until he himself died, fell in the political traces on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and was grieved in turn.
Or imagine the more complicated wake of Jefferson’s death. Jefferson’s official last words (“Is it the Fourth? It is a great day, a good day”) were not his final words, either, but his real final words were not recorded. He addressed them to a group of his slaves--almost certainly his lover, Sally Hemings, and their grown children. What was that deathbed like for her? Thomas Jefferson had been the dominant fact of her entire life, and she had been his lover since she was a teenager. She had had some choice in the matter, since the relationship began in France, where she could have legally claimed her freedom; many black people did take advantage of French law, but Hemings did not. She chose to go back to America with Jefferson. But that choice must have been constrained by such a weight of non-choice as to hardly merit the term. Did she love him? Did she merely find him useful? Was she in any psychological position to even ask herself that question? Was she angry with him for the fantastic presumptions of his life, he who simultaneously believed that his slaves loved him and that black people would rise up and kill all white people if ever they had a chance? When Jefferson died, this embodiment of all the contradictions of his age, was she grateful? Grief-stricken? Or only frightened by the death of her patron in a world where she had no legal rights at all? Legally, she and her children and her entire social world were the property of a man who had died ten thousand dollars in debt. What would become of her?
A year went by, then two. Decades passed. People moved on, gliding out over the gulf of time as generations lived and died and coped, day after day until today, our day, one hundred and eighty-six years.
And we are no less real.
Happy Fourth of July, my friend. In a hundred and eighty-six years, what will become of our work?