Commemorating the Fourth of July

Posted by: Tom Pappas
Category: Personal Growth

Lessons from Benjamin Franklin, Libertas and the goddess Athena

The Fourth of July is one of the most important federal holidays in the US.  Its our annual celebration of nationhood, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.  We modern Americans traditionally celebrate this momentous day with parades, fireworks, baseball games and family reunions.

But how did our ancestors memorialize this special day?

If we reflect on one of the early celebrations of Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers and ‘The First American,’ we can learn about the following:

  • The 3 most important dates of the American War of Independence
  • The original idea of American Libertas
  • How to emulate the ancient Greek goddess Athena

By reflecting on the Fourth of July wisdom of Franklin, we can become better citizens and virtuous leaders.

In 1782 Ben Franklin was the American ambassador to France. He held this assignment throughout the war of Independence, remaining in France from 1776 to 1785. Franklin wanted to celebrate the support from France during the war. To do this, he created the idea of a medal of friendship honoring the loyalty of France. On Franklin’s own personal initiative and request, coins would be designed and struck called “Libertas Americana.”

The coin would celebrate the 3 most important dates of our War of Independence. For Franklin, these were:

  • July 4, 1776: our Independence Day declared by the Continental Congress
  • October 17, 1777: the surrendering of the British army at the Battle of Saratoga. This crucial battle gave hope to the young American army.
  • October 19, 1781: the American victory of the Siege of Yorktown, the decisive victory which ended the war

One side of the coin was called “Libertas Americana” and honored the Fourth of July. It shows the face and flowing hair of the Roman goddess and personification of liberty called Libertas. Her Greek equivalent was Eleutheria.  The classical ideal of liberty was prized by our Founding Fathers and had a different meaning to what we moderns understand it to be.

Liberty is a very old word, originating from the Latin Libertas.  It’s original meaning and how the concept changed in modern times, tells us much about the character of the Founding Fathers. According to Patrick Deneen, professor of political science, liberty in the classical and Christian tradition meant the condition of ruling oneself according to what is understood to be good.  “A life of liberty always had an understanding of being a life according to virtue. It was a life of self-limitation and orientation towards the good.”

To the generation that signed the Declaration of Independence, a well-lived life involved the virtue of self-control and self-mastery.  Compare this today’s understanding of the word. Our modern conception of the idea of liberty has been redefined to mean an absence to any obstacles that prevent us from fulfilling our desires.  Instead of the liberty to control ourselves for virtuous growth and a higher purpose, our modern society is focused on liberty from all past traditions to indulgence our passions.

The flip side of the coin celebrates the dates of the Battle of Saratoga and the Siege of Yorktown.  These twin victories are represented by an infant Hercules holding two snakes (one for each battle), protected by the Greek goddess Athena (who signifies France), shielding the young, powerful, future hero from the leopard of the British empire.

As the analysis of this unique coin explains, “[t]he legend, taken from Book III of the Odes of Horace, means “the brave child was helped by the gods”, both dates refer to the victories over the armies of General Burgoyne in Saratoga and Cornwallis in Yorktown. Franklin saw in these victories a happy omen for his young country (“The extinguishing of two entire armies in one war is what has rarely happened, and it gives a presage of the future force of our growing empire” – letter of 4 March 1782 to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs concerning his medal project).”

It’s important to reflect for a moment why Athena was a great complement to the idea of Libertas.  The Greek goddess represented war and wisdom. It was said that she surpassed all other Olympian gods in both of these domains. The god of war Ares feared her and heroes like Odysseus called on her frequently for wise counsel and mentoring.

But it wasn’t only ancient warriors who recognized Athena’s unique gifts. The United States Military Academy at West Point also has a special place for Athena. When Col Charles W. Larned led a committee to create the West Point emblem and crest in 1898, he turned to the Greek goddess for inspiration. “The committee began with the creation of an emblem that consisted of a sword, a universal symbol of war, and the helmet of Pallas Athena. Athena, a fully armed mythological goddess, is associated with the arts of war, and her helmet signifies wisdom and learning.”

In 1783 Franklin sent a copy of the coin to the Grand Master of Malta, with a request to protect Americans sailing into the island’s ports.  The response to Franklin from the Grand Master acknowledges the impression this coin made: “This monument of American liberty has a distinguished place in my cabinet.”

The liberty to orient ourselves towards the virtues of wisdom and learning especially during a momentous struggle and contest (what the Greeks called agon) is a deep lesson for all of us leaders to reflect on during our Independence celebrations.

Note: to find out more about the coins history and the artists involved in it’s design take a look at this article from this numismatic (the study of coins) news site:

Author: Tom Pappas

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