The Fourth, happily

July 04, 2002

LIFE AND LIBERTY are hard to beat, but it is not far off the mark to point out that the Fourth of July has always mostly been about that other, truly wonderful unalienable right -- the pursuit of happiness. What nation was ever founded on the idea of a quest? For happiness? There's something Zen-like about it: It's not the happiness, even, but the search for happiness that America has enshrined.

American Zen on the Glorious Fourth finds expression in softball, watermelon, fireworks, bunting, brass bands, fireflies, meltiplying ice cream, favorite uncles, cock-eyed croquet, cookouts and red-and-white stripy-ness. It's a heck of a good excuse not to be somber.

Reflection can wait for another day. Yes, of course, this Fourth is not quite like any that has come before, but there have been tougher times in the past and there will no doubt be tougher times in the future. Independence Day is not a day for taking stock or even counting blessings -- it's a day for whooping it up.

When the Continental Congress decided that the pursuit of happiness and British rule were mutually exclusive, it was thinking of happiness as a somewhat more exalted state than would be suggested by lawn games and picnics. Happiness experienced as a product of civic virtue was what the Founders had in mind. No quarrel from us there, however elusive that sort of happiness may prove to be. But today's a holiday, after all -- for one day, at least, let happiness be experienced as a product of plain old fun. Let the pursuit of barefooted silliness be a stand-in for, or a reminder of, the more philosophical national purpose.

The Declaration of Independence was adopted in a far different world. Few nations that existed then exist today in anything like the same form. Even here, plenty has changed in the intervening 226 years -- but there's still that idea of pursuing something finer. That comes pretty close to describing the American genius. July 4, 1776, didn't so much create something as set something in motion. It's the fluidity let loose by the Revolution that Americans celebrate today.

Will the country ever attain pure happiness? No. But it's the journey, not the destination, that counts. Americans at their best are seekers and improvers and explorers. So let's celebrate the notion of Americans at their best. Let's hear it for the pursuit -- and let's have a bang-up, grass-stained, seed-spitting, fire-working, crowd-pleasing, star-spangling Fourth of July.

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