A Better 4th of July Speech

July 5, 2012 By Mark Green

This post was originally published in 2010.

The 4th of July is the most important day in the life of any American embassy . . . it certainly was for the mission I led in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

We staged two events around Independence Day. For the American community, we hosted the closest thing we could create to a classic American picnic.  There was face painting, hotdogs and hamburgers, and games for the kids – even a dunk tank for charity.  The more important event, at least from the official State Department perspective, was the reception we hosted on embassy grounds for top Tanzanian officials and the diplomatic community.

As with any such occasion, much of the official reception was shaped by protocol.  It began with Sue and I, along with our senior embassy team, standing at the designated spot to formally greet guests as their drivers dropped them off with country-flag-adorned black sedans. It ended with the traditional exchange of public toasts to the health and leadership of both the Tanzanian and American presidents.

We did our best to flavor the evening with touches of Americana.  We had American folksongs playing in the background. In addition to traditional diplomatic fare, we made sure that our guests were offered little hotdogs and burgers.  There were red, white and blue streamers wherever we could put them. To introduce the official program, we had a Marine color guard that bore the colors and raised Old Glory as only the United States Marines can do.

The official program – traditional short speeches by myself as head of mission and a representative of the government of Tanzania – was the centerpiece of the evening.  These speeches gave each side a chance to publicly emphasize the importance it placed on the friendship between the two countries. In fact, at most such “country day” occasions, the speeches were almost a laundry list of the projects and policies the two governments were working on together.

I wanted to do something a little different with my speech that evening. For one thing—perhaps a product of my years in politics—I enjoy public speaking and the work that goes into crafting speeches. For another, because I was confident that a lot of press would be in attendance, I saw my speech as a great opportunity to emphasize the importance of democracy and essential democratic freedoms.  Not only was it an election year back in the States (2008), but Tanzanians were already talking about their next set of national elections (2010).

I spent hours preparing for my speech.  I carefully crafted a message that used the history around our Declaration of Independence to emphasize both the fragile nature of democracy and the price some have paid to help launch it.  I strove to remind my audience that, just like Tanzania, America had once been a colony that suffered under the burden of European control.

Here’s an excerpt from my remarks:

Each year we celebrate the 4th of July as America’s birthday. But with all the fun and festivities, we sometimes forget what that date really means. 

It’s not the date when the British surrendered at Yorktown in our Revolutionary War. That’s October 19.  Or when they formally recognized our sovereignty. That’s September 3. It’s not even the date of our Constitution. That’s September 17.

Instead, we look to July 4th, 1776 because that’s when our founders adopted the Declaration of Independence. First and foremost, we celebrate because the Declaration’s concepts and ideas were truly revolutionary. 

And you can see it with the first words of the Preamble:

“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.”

At a time when kings and queens ruled the world, Thomas Jefferson’s words were explosive. They said that liberty and freedom weren’t rights to be won in battle or granted by a king—they were God-given.

It reads, “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

In 1776, our founders put at risk everything they had and everything they hoped to be. And they put it up against an empire.

I did well in delivering my speech—even if I do say so myself. And when I was done, I received encouraging applause and could see important heads nodding in the audience.

Then it was the turn of our Tanzanian speaker.

We had invited Lawrence Masha, then the 39-year old Minister for Home Affairs, to serve as our special guest and to represent the government of Tanzania that evening.  A graduate of Georgetown University Law School, in many ways he is the personification of Tanzania’s hopeful future. Very smart, very articulate and very smooth.  His bearing suggested a thoughtful confidence in both his abilities and his importance.

Just as I had done, when he reached the podium, Minister Masha pulled a typewritten script from the pocket of his tailored suit.  He began unfolding it, but then he paused for a moment, and folded it back up, saying softly that he didn’t need it.

After a few brief sentences thanking us for the evening and for the opportunity to speak, he scanned his audience, seeming to single out the Americans with his eyes.  He paused again, and as he did, he suddenly seemed to relax . . .the formality of his position melted away.

“What I would say to you tonight is simply this: we want to have what you have. We want to be who you are.”

There was a long moment of silence.  I immediately knew that no one would remember the speech I had given . . .nor, compared to the minister’s, should they.