The meaning of independence

IMAGE: Aaron J. Brown, based on iconic Benjamin Franklin political cartoon
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

Today is Independence Day. 

In the United States, July 4 is always Independence Day, our country’s birthday. But this year brings new meaning to the words and symbols of our national holiday. 

Here in northern Minnesota this weekend teems with traditional celebrations — parades, Iron Range street dances, and spectacular fireworks displays. With COVID-19 rates arrested by vaccines, we are free. Not just from the British, but from the public health restrictions that have governed the past year and a half. 

And so we light the barbecues. The relatives circle the lawn chairs while the dusty boom box from the garage makes its annual journey to the patio. Melons and dip sit out in the sun, ill-advisedly, until they find violent expiry in the gaping maw of Uncle Stu.

We do this in the name of independence, to celebrate all that which unites a people from proverbial sea to shining sea. But how do we know we are independent?

Intelligent people invariably realize they do not and cannot know everything. Moral people often are the first to understand their own flaws and weaknesses. And so independent people must be ready to accept when they need the support and shared responsibility of a society. 

Not a society of clones. Rather, we are a collection of diverse people and thoughts, the kind of place that can pull jazz and country music from the same source material. A place where a shared past and future are marked by very different interpretations of the present. Here, we have become an adult nation still learning how to cope with our imperfection.

I suppose some of us might view holidays like today in somber terms. Yes, we could spend today thinking deeply of our founders, the risks and sacrifices they took to sign the Declaration of Independence. Or perhaps we think of the slaves of some founders, how they kindled hope of freedom for centuries until they made best of limited new rights. We may yet mourn with native America, for whom this holiday marks the willful destruction of culture.

But this is not the way most will mark today’s festivities. Instead, most will gather with family and friends to reconnect after one of the strangest years in most of our lifetimes.

A year ago was July 4, 2020. Health restrictions barred many of us from parades and public gatherings. And yet there were still fireworks to see. We decorated our homes while flags flew throughout the public square. The symbols of the Fourth of July endured, and yet it still did not feel right. No amount of crying eagles and tattered images of Old Glory on our tiny phone screens could possibly fill the void. 

That is because there is something more important to America than its symbols: its people. 

“We the People” is more than a catchy line from the preamble to the Constitution; it’s the sum and substance of the country itself.

What we missed last year was people. Hugs with old friends (that is, for those who hug). Standing shoulder to shoulder on the streets of our town. Republicans and Democrats sharing space in parades and family picnics, perhaps joshing each other but still understanding our shared connection. Live music. Kids in costumes. The knowledge that America is nothing without Americans, and we are all Americans. 

May that spirit fill our hearts today, even as so many of us worry far too much about perceived enemies among us. Get off your phone and look around. This is our country. Our actions shape its future. That is the promise and also the responsibility of independence. 

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 4, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Gerald S says

    Good article.
    And really excellent article in “The Minnesota Reformer.” Everyone should read that one.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.