Remarks from COM Lee McClenny at the U.S. Embassy Independence Day Reception

Good afternoon.  It’s a pleasure to welcome you to our celebration of the 239th birthday of the United States of America.  Thank you for joining us.  We are glad to have you here.

After a few years of low-profile observances, we decided it was time to do something that was bigger, more casual, less formal, and – we hope – a lot more fun than your typical diplomatic national day celebration.  In other words, we wanted an event that was more in keeping with the way we Americans celebrate Independence Day ourselves.  We hope you enjoy it.

Visitors to the United States during the July Fourth holiday are often surprised at the odd and slightly irreverent ways we observe the founding of our country.  Instead of parades and patriotic pageantry, you are more likely to see homemade floats, antique cars, fire trucks, and high school marching bands… dogs decked out in red, white, and blue costumes, and moms pulling toddlers in a garden wagon.  While military bands will play the usual anthems and marches, their programs will also include jazz, rock, country, pop, and even classical music.  There will be some speeches, like this one, but instead of standing stiffly and solemnly at attention, the audiences will be sitting together as families in lawn chairs and sprawled on blankets, watching their children chase each other around the park.

Our Independence Day festivities are a little different, I think, because of the nature of what we are celebrating.  The Fourth of July commemorates the signing of a document, not the outcome of a battle.  Our Independence Day venerates values, not victories.  Thirteen separate colonies came together to proclaim their belief 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.”  Furthermore, these rights were not granted by governments that could just as easily decide to take them away.  On the contrary, human rights were defined as “self-evident truths” that reflected “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  Our Founding Fathers were skeptical of governments, and knew from their own experience that governments could violate human rights as well as protect them.

Our Founders recognized that democracy is not about unity.  Indeed, quite the opposite: It’s about diversity, and protecting the rights of minorities.  Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly – all of these are designed to protect diversity, whether of religious beliefs, political philosophies, economic principles, or ways of life. Democracy demands that we protect and celebrate diversity, even when confronted with beliefs, cultures, practices, and speech that we don’t like.  Those values are what bring us together today.

When news that our independence had been declared reached towns and cities along the East Coast, patriots erupted in cheers and celebrations.  In Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, bells were rung, guns were fired, candles were lighted, and fireworks were set off. Those early celebrations have been inherited and passed along by subsequent generations of Americans, leading to the many varied ways we commemorate Independence Day throughout the United States today.

The town of Bristol, Rhode Island boasts the title “America’s Most Patriotic Town” because it has marked the Fourth of July every year since 1785 – the longest continuous annual celebration in the United States.  Gatlinburg, Tennessee holds a parade that begins at midnight on July 3, allowing it to lay annual claim to the “first” parade in the country.  Residents of Bar Harbor, Maine start their day with an outdoor blueberry pancake breakfast and hold lobster races during the afternoon.  Hawaii celebrates “Turtle Independence Day” by freeing young turtles that were raised in Mauna Lani Bay.

In the town where my mom lives in rural northern California, they hold a parade.  Half the town’s population arrives early to find a good spot on the curb along the three-block long parade route.  Then the other half of the town’s population – made up of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, members of student and professional organizations, associations of war veterans such as the VFW and the American Legion, drivers of custom motorcycles and hot-rod and muscle cars like those on display here today – marches past.  When the tail end of the procession reaches the people sitting on the curb, all of these get up and join the parade.  Eventually the entire town is part of the parade, and we all march off to the park and enjoy a big outdoor barbecue together.  Happy Independence Day!  On our national shield is the motto “E pluribus unum” – out of many, one people.

At our Embassy Fourth of July party this year, we have tried to give you a little sense of this geographic and cultural diversity – of how different parts of the United States celebrate this most quintessential American holiday.

We have a beach area that reflects our long coast lines as well as the island state of Hawaii.  We have an urban area that will remind you of the many large cities spread across our country – cities that some of you visit quite regularly.  And we have a Wild West area that celebrates our frontier heritage and that serves as a geographic counterpart to the “llanos” of Venezuela.

This year’s Fourth of July is also an occasion to celebrate the diversity of our people, who come from every country in the world and represent an incredible range of skills and talents.  Twenty-five years ago the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.  One of the prime movers was Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who delivered part of his introduction speech in sign language so that his deaf brother could understand.  Just a few days ago, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed that all Americans, regardless of their diverse or different orientations, have the right to get married.  The Embassy is proud – I am proud – that many of our cultural, exchange, sports, civil society, and performing arts programs include people with the broadest range of communities in Venezuela, people with diverse views and different abilities.  Some alumni from those programs are with us here tonight.

While all Fourth of July celebrations may be different, almost all of them end the same way: with fireworks!  Like children of all ages everywhere, we Americans love our fireworks.  At 6:45 tonight, we’ll have a short fireworks display for everyone present – as well as for our neighbors and all of Caracas – and this spectacle will mark the end of our celebration tonight.

Thank you again for joining us as we celebrate our nation’s birthday.  And congratulations to Venezuela as it celebrates its 204th anniversary as a nation this Sunday, July 5.  May these back-to-back events remind us of the many values that our two nations have in common, as well as of the differences that distinguish us as people and that we celebrate just as fervently.

Two nations, two flags, one big party.  In the best tradition of the Declaration of Independence, let us all pursue happiness together!

Thank you!