How to Explain July Fourth to a Four-Year-Old | Opinion

This year, pandemic progress allowed me to celebrate the Fourth of July with my grandchildren, and the day provided some unexpected perspective on the ferocious fights currently raging over the teaching of American history and values.

This is not to suggest that our family's four preschoolers, as precocious as they are, have already developed strong opinions about the authors of our independence. In fact, none of them even knew the word "independence," much less the accompanying concepts that still confuse even adults.

But as it happened, the first-born child of our newest generation—four-year-old Julia Rose Medved—did demonstrate some admirable curiosity about the fireworks, flags and fun connected to the frolicsome summer festival.

The easiest path to an explanation runs through an institution that even very young kids have learned to cherish: the birthday party. But what does a birthday mean for a nation, rather than an individual, especially since the settlements that grew into that nation were born more than 150 years before the signing of the document we honor on Independence Day?

This brings inevitable attention to the story of a mean and arrogant king, the sort of villain with which Julia, raised in a religious Jewish home, already enjoyed some familiarity. After all, the similarities between King George III and Pharaoh in the Passover holiday—or Antiochus, the bad guy in the Hanukkah saga—drew notice from the revolutionary Founders themselves.

A modern four-year-old might not comprehend the cruel injustice of "taxation without representation," but she can certainly comprehend the horror of soldiers in a hostile army forcibly occupying your family's home. Among the royal outrages explicitly enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, "quartering large bodies of armed troops among us" counts as especially invidious.

Another passage of our founding document should make an impression on even the very youngest Americans: the notion of governments "deriving their just power from the consent of the governed." In other words, ordinary people get to choose their own leaders, and nobody's born as a boss over you—an utterly shattering, world-changing notion in 1776, when even the most enlightened nations on Earth gave primary power to inherited authority.

And what about the most famous passage of all in Mr. Jefferson's handiwork, the ringing proclamation that "all men are created equal?"

For modern teachers and students, that passage comes with an unavoidable asterisk: the majority of the brave leaders who risked their lives by signing on to the Declaration had, at one time or another, owned slaves, benefiting from an evil institution that survived in their new nation for another 89 years.

Jefferson Memorial statue
Rudulph Evans' Thomas Jefferson statue sits inside the rotunda of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on April 10, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

In my holiday conversation with our granddaughter Julia, I chose to avoid that aspect of the story—not to obscure the faults of our forefathers but because without context, the realities of slavery among the Founders remain incomprehensible at best and profoundly misleading at worst.

Contrary to contemporary radicals' assertions that racism and slavery provided the very basis for the new nation launched in 1776, none of the signers of the Declaration expressed pride in, or long-term commitment to, an institution that enjoyed near-universal, global acceptance at that time.

Jefferson himself, in his original draft of the Declaration, denounced slavery in unequivocal terms as an "assemblage of horrors" and an "execrable commerce" amounting to a "cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty."

The Continental Congress removed this passage at the insistence of South Carolina and Georgia, but by the conclusion of the War for Independence, several of the most populous northern states had already abolished slavery. The Northwest Ordinance, adopted just weeks before the drafting of the Constitution in 1787, prohibited slavery in the vast territory that later became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and part of Minnesota.

This history is indispensable for all students when they can learn it in context, together with a deeper understanding of the struggles against human bondage and racial injustice that permeated the nation's politics for the first century—and more—of American independence.

But in talking with a four-year-old, or any other young children just beginning their education, it's simply not possible to present the tragic story—including the 700,000 battlefield deaths in the war that ended slavery—with any sort of meaningful perspective.

By the same token, when talking with Julia about the Declaration's promise that Americans would be able to choose their own leaders, I didn't include a discussion of the long exclusion of women from that process.

We did speak, however, about the fact that today a girl like her could grow up to lead the country that Washington, Adams and Jefferson helped to start. In fact, I said, "You're such a natural leader, that I think you could be a very good president someday."

Without hesitation, my preternaturally self-confident granddaughter delivered an instinctive response. "I know," she said. "Everybody tells me that."

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.