The 4th of July: Mythology and American History

It’s the 4th of July. A day of almost mythical proportions. For Americans. I got to thinking about the stories surrounding this day, a really special day in the history of the world.

Consider the facts: A small, rather weak and geographically diverse conglomeration of settlers rises up like David against a powerful giant – England, in this case – and slays it. The stuff of myth, yes.

I’ve been thinking about other myths in America’s national story. There are so many.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts get first billing in histories of the United States, leaving the settlers of 1607 Jamestown, Virginia behind. There’s the Thanksgiving myth, too. Not until Sarah Josepha Hale convinced President Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving an official holiday did the day become enshrined in the national psyche.

Mythical thinking, according to experts such as Joseph Campbell and Erich Fromm, drives much of human efforts.

Politics. Literature. Art. Food.

Let’s talk for a second about food.

I’ve commented before on the mythology surrounding certain aspects of food in the American South. The same tendency appears in dialogues about French cuisine and Italian cooking. Tuscany still stands at the center of many tourists’ longing for the unsullied culinary Eden. In food circles, scholars  berate  writers for promulgating “fakelore,” improvable origin stories about food. Take the one about Marco Polo’s return from China as being the reason pasta took hold in Italy … .

Whole books could be written on these myths.

Food. Art. Literature. Politics.

Tear at these myths, question them, and people take umbrage.

Yet, for Americans, behind the myths of the Fourth of July there lies an inalienable truth:

…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen