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Americans Reflect on Meaning of Independence Day

Savoring freedoms and hoping others worldwide will soon be able to do the same

Visitors view the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History.
Visitors view the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History.

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America’s independence holiday, July 4th, is a chance for Americans to take the day off, have a picnic, go to the beach or take advantage of sales at the shopping mall.

But for many Americans, it is also a time to reflect on the historic meaning of July 4th.

Music and barbeque

Street musician Raycurt Johnson treats passersby to patriotic music as they head into  downtown Washington on the subway.

Street musician Raycurt Johnson plays patriotic music near a subway stop in downtown Washington
Street musician Raycurt Johnson plays patriotic music near a subway stop in downtown Washington

Music, whether it’s played by street musicians or members of the National Symphony Orchestra, has traditionally been part of the annual Fourth of July celebration, along with barbeques and fireworks.

And, for many Americans, the holiday weekend is also a time to think about history and reflect on what it means to be an American.

For some families, that means coming to Washington, D.C., to visit the city’s historic monuments and museums.

John Carothers, from Santa Cruz, California, says the nation’s capital is especially meaningful to him at this time of the year.

“It’s really wonderful to come here and see the bed of the government that we now live within.”

Reflecting on America’s past

The Carothers family visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where one of the highlights is the almost 200-year-old Star-Spangled Banner. The hand-sewn flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the U.S. national anthem.

Seeing it was one of the highlights of the trip for 14-year-old Milena Carothers.

“It was much larger than I thought it would be,” she says. “And it’s amazing how it’s pretty much well-preserved after so long. You can still tell what it is, not much damage to it. Really amazing.”

The American History Museum expects to welcome more than 100,000 visitors over the holiday weekend.

Top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln to Ford's Theatre on the night of his assassination.
Top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln to Ford's Theatre on the night of his assassination.

“I think July 4th is the time that people come and they really want to connect with American history and with their stories," says Andrea Lowther, director of visitor services for the museum. “And so, of course, they do come to see those icons.”

In addition to the Star-Spangled Banner, those historic icons include the hat worn by Abraham Lincoln the night he was assassinated.

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on this portable lap desk of his own design.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on this portable lap desk of his own design.

And the writing box Thomas Jefferson used while drafting the Declaration of Independence.

“I mean, how much more perfect for July 4th can it be?” says Lowther.

Civil liberty

For other Americans, July 4th is about principles that can’t be displayed in a museum. Christine Coombs of Gaithersburg, Maryland, says Independence Day symbolizes the right to choose her own religion and to practice her Mormon faith without persecution.

“Freedom is everything in our country,” she says. “I think it’s what our country means. It’s what we stand for - the ability to choose. I really love my religion and it was important for me to be able to choose.”

Separation of church and state

Martin Hochhauser of Poughkeepsie, New York, also believes in freedom of religion, but he believes Americans must continue to be careful about separating religion from government - a tension reflected in current political debates.

“In New York, they just voted to let gay people get married and not to treat them as second class citizens,” he says. "But some religious groups are trying to say ‘It’s our country and the heck with every other religion and every other opinion but ours.’ That’s not right.”

Ronnie Stephens of Jacksonville, Florida thinks Americans take many of their freedoms for granted.

“I think it’s time that we need to just step back and reflect on how good we do have it no matter what your political affiliation is,” he says. “We can all come together and enjoy what we have here.”

Milena Carothers, 14, expresses a sentiment shared by many Americans visiting the nation’s capital in the week leading up to the Fourth of July.

“I hope that the countries that are having troubles right now will be able to celebrate their own Fourth of July in the future and their own independence.”

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