The U. S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness,
only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.
When we think of travel, the words happiness and freedom often halo the thought. In America, traveling for pleasure didn’t begin until after the Civil War and only the rich could do it. Anyone fortunate enough to travel these days most likely doesn’t give thought to the genesis of the idea of “vacation.” We travel to free ourselves in some way. Travel is escapism. Yes, it can be all about rest and relaxation but one of the benefits of travel is that—if we allow ourselves—we break out of our own world and glimpse it through the eyes and lives of others. We may not always like what we see but it can give us a better understanding of who we are, what we cherish, what’s important, and what matters. A Swiss chef I once worked with told me that Americans don’t appreciate their freedoms. This was a long time ago, and I didn’t really understand what he meant back then but over the years I get it.
This past week, at The New York Public Library on 42nd Street a rare exhibition of two of the most important American historical documents were on display together. Anyone interested could see an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights. With the 4th of July approaching, I figured I could use a refresher on the documents that form the foundation of freedom in the United States. As kids we learn about them in school but as we grow older we forget about them. About what they really mean and the collaboration it took to get those ideas on paper. We forget that pretty much everything we can do, including travel, was built on the bedrock of these ideas and the history that followed.
Let’s start with the Declaration of Independence. It’s written in iron gall ink on handmade laid paper. There’s hardly anything that we use that’s handmade anymore, so I was impressed just peering at it. And I hardly know of anyone who writes by hand these days, and Thomas Jefferson’s is beautiful. The Bill of Rights displayed is one of 14 original copies. Aside from the obvious aesthetic worth of these documents, their true value was evident by the amount of international visitors, and Americans, in the gallery. These manuscripts are slightly faded, and you have to either be really young to read them or have great eyeglasses. But it didn’t matter. You could hear people reciting sections from these documents and it gave me chills. A black man who lives in Washington Heights said he wanted to see them because his family hails from South Carolina. There is slave blood in his veins and he wanted to view Jefferson’s original, unedited, version of the Declaration. The power of these documents generated energy in that room and I felt proud. They were giving away copies and I snatched one up.
Today is a holiday for a reason. Before you jump on a plane or in a pool, raise the sails, or fire up the grill, kick back in a hammock or crack open a cold one, maybe take a moment to thank Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Livingston, Sherman, and Madison, who had the intelligence, foresight and the good sense to create these documents and hook us up in a very big way.
Wherever you are, here’s to catching up with freedom and happiness.
Here’s to a Happy Independence Day!