Weather in Philadelphia in early July 1776, was hot and sticky, just as ours is 239 years later. Fifty-six suited, vested and stockinged men, some bewigged, were embroiled in a quarrelsome task: finding the words to declare independence from Mother England. Opinions, drafts and revisions flew. If the tall windows of Constitution Hall were open, as some paintings suggest, papers that made history rustled and declared their own independence.
History doesn’t happen in the abstract. Winds blow, humidity rises, rain falls. Real people sweat and scratch, even when they’re taking action so audacious that its only repetition in the history of the nation they began nearly severed that nation, at the cost of 620,000 lives.
Imagining the circumstances of history brings it home to me. None of those 56 men of mostly English and Irish extraction are my ancestors, as far as I know, though I descend, in part, from men and women from those nations. Yet of all us Americans, no matter what nation we derive, share the legacy of these men whose articulate, far-thinking bravery gave us the nation we celebrate this July Fourth.
Fireworks and parades highlight the celebrations of Chesapeake Country as towns, business associations and ballparks honor president-to-be John Adams’ wish that Independence Day “be solemnized with pomp and parade, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this day forward forevermore.”
I love fireworks and parades, and assuming you do, too, we bring you a full listing of Chesapeake Country’s indulgence in such gleeful celebrations.
Still, my favorite independence celebration is the annual Fourth of July naturalization of new citizens at the Annapolis home of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The people about to become Americans share a special connection with Paca and the other fathers of our nations: None was born an American citizen.
In that spirit, I honor Independence Day in yet another way. It’s become my custom to reimagine the Americanization of my own foremothers and fathers. Imagine I must, for these are stories I’ve never heard, neither directly nor passed down. What a terrible loss, I think, that these stories were baggage jettisoned as my recently American ancestors moved, in the American way, steadfastly and swiftly into the future.
Why did they make the enormous decision to separate from the lands of their births to become Americans? I doubt if their motives were as articulate or lofty as those expressed by our white, upper-class, Anglo forefathers in still-ringing words that instill responsive harmonies around the world.
Still, those great men and my lowly, all-but-forgotten ancestors each sought the improvement of their physical circumstances. Certainly, too, audacious hope was a shared motive, born of the in-the-blood-and-bones conviction that each of us small human beings is, in Thomas Jefferson’s winning wording, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Perhaps inchoate, those are the feelings I like to imagine that in 1920 inspired Catherine and Sylvester Olivetti, with their small son Massimo and the gestating daughter who would become Elsa, my mother, to leave behind their family and village of Pessinetto in the Italian Alps above Turin, travel to Le Harve, France, to steam to America, eventually to settle in the impoverished coal culture of Franklin County, Illinois.
I imagine that what they left and what they hoped was much the same for the Martin and Nairn ancestors for whom I have not even the shred of a story. Nor so different — for all our details of difference — from the hopes and lettings go of any new American, including those who join our family on this Independence Day.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
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