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Independence Day Reflections

Ambassador Mark Green

I’m not sure that Independence Day is celebrated any more patriotically than it is in our embassies around the world. It was certainly a festive occasion when I served as US Ambassador to Tanzania (2007-09). 

During the day, 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’s diplomatic perspective, was the formal reception we hosted on embassy grounds for top Tanzanian officials and the diplomatic community. It wasn’t all seriousness… we tried to add some touches of Americana. We played American folksongs, and in addition to traditional diplomatic fare, we offered our guests classic American food. We hung red, white and blue streamers wherever we could. A Marine color guard posted the colors, and they 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 Tanzanian government, was the centerpiece of the evening. These speeches gave each side a chance to publicly emphasize the importance of the friendship between our two countries. That year, 2008, I also saw my speech as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of democracy and essential democratic freedoms. Not only was it an election year back in the States, but Tanzanians were already talking about their next set of national elections just two years away. 

I spent hours preparing for my speech, carefully crafting a message that highlighted the history of our Declaration of Independence to emphasize both the fragile nature of democracy and the price many have paid to renew it over the years.  

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 with 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, a young minister in the Tanzanian government who had been chosen to represent his government. A graduate of Georgetown University Law School, in many ways he was 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, the minister 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. His remarks were the ones that we should all aspire to deserve. 

(A version of this essay was originally posted in 2010.) 

About the Author

Ambassador Mark Green

Ambassador Mark A. Green

President & CEO, Wilson Center
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