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Fourth of July at the Cemetery

Note - The Texas State Cemetery will be open to the public on Wednesday, the Fourth of July.

Recently I asked a group of children at the Cemetery for a tour what Independence Day meant to them. Some of them actually looked at me as if I had a hand growing out of my forehead. A few quizzical looks and a few moments later I clarified “The Fourth of July?” All of them knew the Fourth of July of course, but there was no clear answer as to what it meant to them. Top five answers were a) fireworks, b) hotdogs, c) swimming and or going to the park, (d baseball and (e “America.”

“What do you mean by ‘America?’” was my next question. Again there was little agreement other than the Fourth is a celebration of the United States of America. Now granted, these were third graders, but the sheer variety of answers I received was both gratifying and horrifying. After a few patently absurd suggestions by solo members of the group (July Fourth was the day we beat the Nazis in Europe, July Fourth is when we defeated the Confederates during the Civil War, etc.) were put aside for a general consensus of “July Fourth is the day we beat the English and gained our independence in 1776.” Even though the answer is wrong, it did restore my faith in today’s youth. Widely speaking, they had a good date, they had the right foe and the overall flavor of the day “independence.” Except it was wrong. July 4, 1776 was the day the founding fathers announced the signing of the Declaration of Independent, essentially a declaration of war and a list of grievances against King George III and Parliament. The fledgling United States was already at war with England, fighting in Canada and in the colonies and a large English force was very close to taking and occupying New York. Congress declared independence to the world on July 2, but adopted and distributed copies of the Declaration on July 4, 1776. Did this stop the English Army and Navy in any way? No, of course not, in fact, independence was far from guaranteed. At first, no other nation even acknowledged the United States as a legitimate government let alone a peer or equal. Only when France signed the “French Alliance” in 1778 did the United States gain its first ally.

There were many hard years of fighting between July 4, 1776 and the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Between 1776 and 1783 many men died on all sides, Americans, British, French, Indians and others. That intrepid spirit to fight for freedom and to seek freedom led many veterans of the Revolutionary War west, west toward open lands and Manifest Destiny. Two men who fought in the American Revolution went on to become founding Texas fathers. Robert Rankin and Stephen Williams fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Texas Revolution. Rankin was a lieutenant in the Continental Army while Williams was an enlisted man who joined at 18 in 1781. Rankin was a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, a rare thing reserved for French and American officers who fought in the Revolution.

Just so it doesn’t look like I’m picking on third graders, I asked a few of my non-historian adult friends what the Fourth of July meant to them. A few got it right, but a majority sounded little better than my group of third graders, some were worse. Anybody else out there think the Fourth of July is the day the Americans and the British teamed up to beat Napoleon at Waterloo? Never mind, I probably don’t want to know.



- Will Erwin