When I was a kid, we always celebrated Independence Day by going down to my grandparents’ house. They lived on a lake, and you could walk five houses down in either direction and know just about every single neighbor, half of whom were relatives.
After an afternoon of eating boiled peanuts and hot dogs and jumping off the dock, all the kids knew the best part came when it got dark. We’d all go out to the end of the dock, dads and uncles lugging boxes of fireworks, and wait expectantly for the navy sky to explode.
Each child got a sparkler, and if we were lucky we got to help light the big rockets. If we were really lucky, a black powder cannon made from the driveshaft of an old truck would make an appearance, and fire smoky blanks into the open air over the water.
There’s something connecting the American spirit with the love of blowing things up. We shoved dynamite into mountains to lay train tracks across the continent. We created rockets powerful enough to shoot men into space.
In evil hands, explosives are a formidable means of taking human life, making it all the more important for the arsenals of democracy to hold such evildoers to account. But in judicious hands, the ability to blow things up represents Americans’ fearless legacy of harnessing the powers of nature in the pursuit of innovation.
We are a people who grew up testing the limits of nature, inventing ways to overcome those limits, and shaping the world as a result. Our national personality has always enjoyed the smells of gasoline and black powder. They represent our people’s movement — our restless enterprise and determination to build.
In America’s infancy, notes the Institute of Makers of Explosives, “black powder was used to mine for minerals, break rock, clear fields and make roads.” The invention of dynamite enabled better mines and the extraction of more coal and iron as well as cement and concrete.
“Harbors were deepened and widened, railways and roads pushed into the wilds and dams were built,” the Institute continues. “America found in dynamite, a new set of muscles to be applied to all forms of industry, including oil and gas exploration, power production, mineral mining and pipeline, tunnel and highway construction.”
The combustion engine — one of the most foundational elements of industrial progress — gets its power from controlled and constant explosions. External combustion engines fueled the trains and steamboats that canvassed the expanding American landscape, bringing pioneers and supplies to build the frontier. Innovators eagerly strapped internal combustion engines inside automobiles and airplanes, launching the new machines across highways and into the sky.
By the middle of the 20th century, the descendants of those engines were propelling the descendants of those innovators across the sound barrier, into space, and onto the moon. In the meantime, Americans had found a way to split atoms to create explosions with unforeseen consequences, and gravely used them to end the century’s biggest conflict.
Not only has blowing stuff up resulted in monumental victories for the protection of freedom abroad and for American industry at large, it’s also a familiar tool in the American home.
When my grandfather was growing up in Homestead, Florida (before Miami’s postwar transformation from an army airfield into a metropolis), he would help his father carefully clear out stumps in their orange groves. When they needed more dynamite, the kids were sent to the hardware store and trusted to carefully bring it all back. After covering the stump with a raft of wooden railroad ties, my grandfather and the other kids would stand on top during the explosion to feel the thrill of the blast.
The controlled explosion that takes place within a firearm has enabled generations of Americans to defend themselves and their homes, hunt food for their families, and enjoy sporting activities from shooting skeet to practicing at the target range. We benefit from engines every time we drive to the store, catch a flight, or partake in the great network of interstate commerce.
And of course, we enjoy hurling loud, brilliant explosions into the sky on any holiday we can — especially Independence Day. So this Sunday, head out to a wide-open space with a box of fireworks and a box of matches, and proudly partake in the grand old American pastime of blowing things up.