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Some birthdays more important

By DAVID BALLINGRUD

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 4, 2001


Today, free Americans, is the 225th birthday of your nation.

Does the thought give you a little tingle? It should.

The Declaration of Independence by the 13 "united States of America" was adopted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

And here we still stand.

All across the land today, people will light backyard grills and bottle rockets, and more than a few politicians will share important thoughts. The day will be marked by cities, neighborhoods and, most of all, families. And then it will be gone.

There's little happening on the national stage.

Remember the national party that was the 1976 Bicentennial celebration? Bells ringing and flags flying everywhere; tall ships in New York Harbor; The USS Constitution firing her cannon for the first time in 95 years; the Miami Beach Convention Center converted into federal court to make elbow room for 7,241 new citizens created that day.

Nothing like that going on today. The "silver anniversary" of the Bicentennial will pass with little note.

But not to worry, says a man who studies these things. Some birthdays are just more important than others. Historically, the nation has tended to note the anniversary in 50-year intervals, said James Heintze, a librarian at American University in Washington, D.C. That's about the time it takes one generation to make room for the next, he says.

Heintze created the Fourth of July Celebrations Database in 1995 (www.american.edu/heintze/fourth.htm) "to capture a slice of the American cultural tradition -- its pageantry, spectacle, music and symbol."

Twenty-five year anniversaries pass without much notice, he said, in part "because of the wherewithal it takes to put on any kind of national event. The 1976 Bicentennial almost went down the tubes because of tremendous planning and organizational problems. Funding almost dried up."

Thankfully, Fourth of July memories, and the symbolic power of the day, don't depend on the calendar.

In 1826, there were plenty of celebrations to honor the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but the day became memorable because two former presidents and good friends -- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- died within hours of one another.

"There were still people alive who had witnessed the revolution in one way or another," Heintze said, "but the public's memory was beginning to fade. There was almost a sense of desperation that the memory must be kept alive."

Both men were keenly aware that their deaths on the Fourth of July would serve as inspiration to their countrymen, and at least one historian has written that the two men struggled to live until the day arrived.

There's a more recent lesson, too.

In Oklahoma City, Okla., at 9:02 a.m. on July 4, 1995, all the U.S. flags in the city were returned from half staff to full staff, after honoring those who died in the federal building bombing just a few months earlier.

"Sometimes people have a need to celebrate their national heritage," said Heintze. "That collective raising of the lowered flags -- a very powerful moment -- was to acknowledge what the rest of the country had done, to thank the nation for mourning with them."

Citizen to citizen.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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