Imagine if Independence Day were canceled - the day off from work, the fireworks displays, the picnics - and we just went about our business on July 4 as we would on any other day. Sounds un-American, doesn't it?
And yet we will do the same thing today even though it's the birthday of the Bill of Rights, a document that guarantees our core personal liberties - including freedom of expression and faith, a fair judicial process, the right to bear arms, and protection against unreasonable government searches.
In embracing these fundamental freedoms on Dec. 15, 1791, we set ourselves apart from all other nations on the planet. It is one of the most important days in American history, and yet almost no one takes the time to reflect on this anniversary of our fundamental freedoms. Even as Americans zealously celebrate our Declaration of Independence from another government, we overlook our declaration of independence from our own government.
In mid-December, Americans shop for the holidays, finish final exams, and make plans for New Year's Eve. But no one will wish you a happy Bill of Rights Day; the holiday doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.
It's not that no one ever attempted to give this day the respect it deserves. On Aug. 21, 1941, a joint resolution of Congress called on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to designate a day in honor of the Bill of Rights. On Nov. 28 of that year, the Los Angeles Times reported: "President Roosevelt today called on the American people to observe Dec. 15 as 'Bill of Rights Day,' to cherish the 'immeasurable privileges which the charter guaranteed' and to rededicate its principles and practice." FDR called on government officials to fly the flag, and on all Americans to "observe the day with appropriate ceremonies and prayer," noting that Hitler feared our freedom of speech, the press, and religion.
An appropriate kickoff celebration was planned at the Waldorf Astoria, featuring the actress Helen Hayes and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Nine days after FDR's proclamation, though, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and everything else took a backseat to World War II. This was the holiday that got away, and it's never been properly recognized since.
Last year, a group of educators, journalists, artists, and others banded together to help build a greater understanding of the First Amendment with a nonpartisan educational campaign called 1 for All. Obviously, the First Amendment leads off the Bill of Rights, and we thought there might be a way to rekindle FDR's dream of a national celebration, particularly on this 220th anniversary of its ratification. But how to get the attention of the American people and encourage them to reengage with this long-lost holiday?
The American Society of News Editors decided to ask the House of Representatives for a resolution urging Americans to honor this day. But the request was quickly rebuffed on the grounds that Congress is too busy for "commemorative" bills. (Weeks later, the House passed a resolution reaffirming "In God We Trust" as our national motto.)
So much for exercising our First Amendment right to petition the government. If America is going to give the Bill of Rights the credit it deserves, it's clearly up to We the People. So we should take a little time today to ask our kids what they know about the Bill of Rights and help them understand why this is a significant day.
This year, there's something in it for young Americans beyond the learning opportunity. The Knight Foundation is funding a scholarship opportunity called "Free to Tweet." Students ages 14 to 22 who wish the First Amendment a happy birthday by tweeting about the importance of these fundamental freedoms are eligible to compete for one of 22 scholarships (one for every decade since the ratification of the Bill of Rights). They just have to use the hashtag "#freetotweet" on Twitter. And all Americans are urged to join us online, at www.freetotweet.org, to help generate the attention and energy this date deserves.
Most of us honor the Fourth of July because we believe it's the day when Americans secured their freedom. But the truth is that the Declaration of Independence secured freedom only for wealthy white men. It was freedom of speech, the press, religion, petition, and assembly - the five freedoms of the First Amendment - that eventually led to suffrage for women, the emancipation of the slaves, and equality for all. Please join me in a long-overdue celebration of these freedoms today.