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A Thought for Independence Day

Can we celebrate the birth of America amid our own desires for independence?

Above all others, Independence Day is the holiday of greatest significance to our national history.

As a people, Americans take pride in using the word "freedom" to describe our way of life; as individuals, we have almost no idea how to celebrate the concept.

We are taught as schoolchildren that what makes our country great is its establishment of an independent system of government.

We are taught as adults that, regardless of that fact, we are obligated to answer to some authority, be it earthly, divine, or base.

Along the way we endure a thousand tiny rebellions, little acts of independence, daring or boring, that test the boundaries of those relationships.

Whether we ignore the suggested serving size on a snack label or a parent's urging to find a new set of friends, we're constantly inciting and crushing a host of impulses about what we should do and who we should be.

We shouldn't feel unique in this.

According to an excerpted history of the borough by Peter Childs, colonial Collingswood—then called Newton Township—"had its share of both Patriots and Tories."

"The birth of America did little to change the way of life" for early settlers in the region, Childs writes, many of whom were more concerned with eking out an existence on the farm than loading up for bear against King George.

Collingswood itself did not become a community independent from Haddon Township until 23 years after the end of the Civil War (and even then it needed a clerical retcon 23 years later to validate the move).

When the congregations of three churches voted to outlaw liquor in the region—a practice that forever established Collingswood as a dry town—Childs says their decision was met with cloistered opposition.

He writes of a turn-of-the-century race track that "existed briefly near the Cooper River" and, some years after, in the same spot, a country club that was later shuttered under "the belief that it promoted Sunday golf and perhaps provided alcoholic beverages to its members."

Were Collingswood's early lawmakers right for setting public policy they believed to be in the best interests of their community? Were their opponents right, for seeking to turn a buck, or perhaps make a philosophical stand, by outflanking them?

Did the same people who may have patronized the race track and the church still pay their taxes, still help dig out their neighbors after a snowstorm, still rely on one another for help in lean times?

As New Jerseyans, we have always been opinionated. Living in the most densely populated state in the union has also locked us in eternally with the opinions of our neighbors, who are closer here to one another than in any other state in the country.

(This is why we even find ways to try to distinguish our opinions from those of people we agree with. With so many people around, there's always an opportunity to object, even when we don't really.)

But however much we desire to express our independence from one another—by our dress, our hobbies, our sporting and cultural interests, our stated tastes and guilty pleasures—we remain connected, if by nothing else, then by geography.

In short, we have always been neighbors.

This Independence Day, as we consider that the same thing that makes us great as a nation also confuses us as individuals, I offer this thought:

Please let the freedom that we share as Americans, however we may choose to express it, unite us in compassion, respect, and neighborly love.

Have a happy holiday, Collingswood.


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