Photo by Duane Stateler.

Reflections on the 2020 Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence

It was the year everything was canceled. At first, we started an online listing of all of the agricultural events that were being called off in March of 2020. Soon, though, it became apparent that everything was going to be canceled for the foreseeable future, so there really was not any point listing them anymore.

This went on day after day, week after week. The world as we had known it had shut down. By the time the Fourth of July rolled around, we were all pretty much getting used to the fact that stuff just was not happening. Like the day before, and the week before that, and the month before that, we planned on another quiet evening at home. But, as it turned out, the Fourth of July 2020 was going to be a bit different.

I’m not sure I’d ever been home on the evening of the Fourth of July before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I heard the first rumbles above the volume of the television as the darkness of the night settled in. I went outside in my flip-flops to check it out. We live on a rural, seldom-traveled road in the middle-of-nowhere Fairfield County and I wasn’t really sure anyone would be shooting off fireworks amid the growing gloom of 2020, especially anywhere around us.

It was warm and a bit hazy, but the skies were clear. Lightning bugs were already putting on their own silent display hovering over the soybean fields and on the fringes of the distant woodlot. Beyond that, when I first walked out, there was, as I expected, not much to see but the darkness and the far-off glow of the lights from town. I only had to wait a moment, though, before the western sky erupted in explosions of incredible sound and color. These were no typical backyard fireworks. The display went on for an incredible amount of time. While that display continued, an even grander series of fireworks erupted just south of the others, and a bit closer. Then another to the east. Much closer to the south, less than a half mile away where there was definitely no town, a display of fireworks started up to rival them all. I later found out this was a special celebration for a son who returned home from military service. In all, there were 14 fireworks displays over about a half hour lighting up the Fourth of July night sky visible from the road in front of our house where I stood watching in my flip-flops.

Right in the middle of one of the most divisive times in recent memory, there was an unexpected unity on display flashing through the skies from horizon to horizon over our rural Ohio back road. Those fireworks offered a few minutes of American patriotism with an appreciated dose of not-really-legal backyard firework launching 1776 patriot rebel kind of sentiment.

In the many years since July 4, 1776, when the nation-shaping Declaration of Independence was unanimously adopted by the Second Continental Congress announcing the separation from Great Britain, the physical document itself has greatly faded. Each year, over a million visitors still go to look at the original document on display in the rotunda of the National Archives Building, but it is getting increasingly difficult to see the original ink. It has comparatively deteriorated much more than the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights penned just a few years later. The fading of the writing on the Declaration of Independence is due to many factors. As a matter practicality, the document moved with the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, clearly being rolled and folded repeatedly during that timeframe. Even by 1818, the wear and tear on the document was noted. Since then, the Declaration of Independence has been moved numerous times and, though efforts to carefully preserve the document were employed, sometimes those efforts resulted in more wear and deterioration than intended. The type of ink used, efforts to reproduce the history-changing document and exposure to light from its extended exhibition have all contributed to the fading Declaration of Independence.

While much has changed with the physical condition of the Declaration of Independence since 1776 and the country it birthed, the fireworks on a quiet Fourth of July in 2020 reminded me that some of that same spirit remains. From a flag-bearing combine rolling through amber waves of Ohio grain to urban centers of either coast where people pause to reflect on the incredible blessings and bounty of our nation, there is plenty to celebrate about our country this Independence Day. Hopefully your own plans for this Fourth of July include some time to celebrate accordingly. We still haven’t settled on Reese family plans on Independence Day evening yet for 2023, but maybe this year we’ll just stay home.

For much more on the fascinating history of the fading of the Declaration of Independence, check out “The Declaration of Independence and the Hand of Time” by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Catherine Nicholson with the National Archives from Fall of 2016.  

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