By Michael Belknap
What are you doing on the Fourth? The annual question answered with usual responses: family trip, neighborhood party, Pittsfield Parade, James Taylor at Tanglewood, Empire State Plaza fireworks. This year Covid-19 with social distancing has caused cancellations and rethinking. I remember two Fourths both for the celebrations and their lasting impact on me.
Camp Highlands took the Fourth of July seriously. As a 13 year old, I celebrated enthusiastically, beginning with a trumpeted reveille, the raising of the American flag and ending with a giant bonfire, sparklers, marshmallows and finally taps. After the morning track meet, we spent the afternoon decorating the Dining Hall — flags, banners, crepe paper streamers, various constructed ships, cannons, rockets. My cabin opted for a simple large cardboard box, hung from the rafter, with red white and blue covering the four sides, with words stenciled on, “Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Press, Freedom of Assembly.” After dinner, the beloved camp director gave a patriot talk, followed by, “All decorations must be down before breakfast, except the Freedoms display. It will stay up for a week.”
Years later at law school, my Constitutional law class argued over the limitations of the exercise of the First Amendment rights to free speech, press, religion, assembly and petition. We fought over the need to balance the competing interests in these rights. In my mind’s eye, I remembered the cardboard box with its stenciled truth.
At 14, I attended the Independence Day celebration at the 3.36 acre Village Green in the predominately white suburban town where I grew up. Most of the year, it is quiet, but, since 1886, on the Fourth of July, it explodes with crowds of all ages. Speakers declaim our heroic heritage, a band plays, singers sing from the stone platform surrounding the towering American flag and cenotaph, a 1927 memorial to those who died In World War I. Next came 30 different foot races.
I waited nervously for my race to start. I still cherish the faded red, white and blue ribbon, with a medal crowned with an American Eagle, “Winnetka July 4, 1955” and on the back. “Grade School Championship 75yd. Dash First.” Country singer Luke Combs expresses my feelings, “That might not matter to you but it does to me.”
On July 26, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on the same Village Green to an overflow crowd. Sitting there, I recalled my 1958 petition to the Board of Education seeking permission for Dr. King to speak at our high school. My request was denied because he was a “rabble rouser.” Times were achanging. As recent events prove, we still have a long way to go.
This year Covid-19 impacts all of us. After 116 summers, Camp Highlands will not open, although deposits are accepted for 2021. The deeply disappointed Winnetka Recreation Superintendent told me the entire 4th event is cancelled for 2020.
All of us might pause to remember and reflect on Independence Day and ask what do we think about the Declaration of Independence, signed by fifty-six white men without direct input from women, slaves or Native Americans? Throughout the spring and summer of 1776. a group of white males — lawyers, doctors, businessmen, landowners, educators, farmers, manufacturers — met in Philadelphia and founded a “separate and equal” nation. Read the Declaration of Independence with its inspiring, aspirational preamble: “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.” Then consider the nineteen charges against Britain’s King George III “whose character… marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
If you have time, pick up David McCullough’s “1776,” listen to the Broadway mega-hit “Hamilton,” watch the HBO series “John Adams.”
Want an outside activity? Try visiting Revolutionary War sites: Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga Battlefield, Bennington Battle Monument. You could search out local historical signs and sites. I feel connected to the past when I walk down the road from our house to the NYS marker: ”WARNER’S TAVERN Here stood the Tavern of William Warner where on June 2, 1776 the men of King’s District voted in favor of independence from Great Britain.”
On July 4, 1776, the courageous delegates concluded their document, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” This is our inheritance from our Founding Fathers. Let us pledge to fulfill the Constitutional promise “to form a more perfect union” where all people “may secure the blessings of liberty.”
Michael Belknap is President of the Belknap Company, Ltd., a real estate development firm. Belknap has lived in a 19th century house in Columbia County since 1971.