Even before our nation had won the war fought to gain our freedom from Great Britain, Americans began celebrating the Declaration of Independence. On July 4, 1777, just a year after the Declaration was signed, Rhode Islanders fired 13 cannons to mark the occasion. A year later, with the outcome of the Revolutionary War still in doubt, Gen. George Washington ordered cannons fired throughout the Continental Army - and had a double ration of rum handed out to the troops.
Since then Americans have, unofficially and under government sanction as a holiday, felt that it is important to celebrate Independence Day.
But what is it - other than a day off work, fireworks, cookouts and perhaps parades - that makes July 4 special? Is it merely a commemoration of the birth of our nation, though that by itself certainly would be worth celebrating? Or is it something more?
On July 4, 1776, representatives of the 13 colonies knew they were doing more than merely breaking away from one country in order to create a new nation. The very wording of the Declaration of Independence makes that clear.
That day in Philadelphia, the Founders declared that Americans - then and forever more - would insist on independence not just as a nation, but also as individuals. The Founders proceeded to list specific complaints against the English king and parliament. In doing so, they provided an outline of safeguards essential for Americans to retain our liberties in the future. A few years later, those provisions were codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Above all, the Declaration of Independence made it clear that our nation was intended to rest on the foundation that, ''We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.''
Many of the Founders knew even as they were signing their names to the Declaration that our country was not, in the beginning, living up to that creed. Generations would pass and oceans of blood would be spilled before the clause ''all men are created equal'' was the official policy of the nation. And it is true, sadly, that a few among us do not yet subscribe to that great, truly self-evident idea.
But we as a nation continue to strive for what the Founders pledged we would - liberty for all. And with all our flaws, ours remains a government that, in many ways, offers a larger measure of freedom than any other on earth.
That is not a boast. It is a fact.
The Founders knew that gaining independence was the easy part. Retaining it in a country where basic principles of liberty and justice for all were safeguarded would be more difficult, they knew. That was confirmed while most of them were alive. We are reminded of it frequently. Often, our basic principles of government clash with demands that we ''adapt'' to cope with changing times.
Safeguarding the ''spirit of '76'' demands that we remain vigilant - and that is one reason for Independence Day. It is a reminder of what we have and what we have to lose.
Today, then, we Americans have reason to celebrate the journey we began more than two centuries ago. And, on Independence Day, we pause, also, to rededicate ourselves to the ideals of July 4, 1776.