After enjoying a very traditional Fourth of July replete with burgers, barbeque, fireworks, patriotic clothing and even a group Pledge of Allegiance, I realized I didn’t fully understand the genesis of the holiday, so I set about researching.
We think of July 4, 1776 as the day that represents the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and the birth of the United States of America as an independent nation. But July 4thwasn’t the day the Continental Congress decided to declare independence. They actually did that on July 2, 1776.
At the time, “Taxation without Representation” was the battle cry in all 13 colonies, as a result of being forced to pay taxes to England’s King George III despite having no representation in the British Parliament. As dissatisfaction grew, British troops were sent in to quell the early movement toward rebellion, but repeated attempts by the colonists to resolve the crisis without military conflict proved fruitless.
The conflict between the colonies and England was already a year old when representatives from the colonies convened a Continental Congress in Philadelphia in the summer of ’76. In a June 7 session in the Pennsylvania State House (later to be renamed Independence Hall) Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented a resolution with the famous words, “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be totally dissolved.”
Lee’s words were the impetus for the drafting of a formal Declaration of Independence and a Committee of Five was appointed to draft a statement presenting to the world the colonies’ case for independence. Committee members were John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia who actually wrote the draft.
On July 2, Lee’s Resolution for Independence was adopted and discussion of Jefferson’s more expanded document resulted in 86 editing changes, culminating in a vote on the revisions on the afternoon of July 4th.
However, contrary to popular belief, the decision was not unanimous. Of the 13 colonies, nine voted in favor – Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted no,
Delaware was undecided and New York abstained. It is said John Hancock signed with such a flourish so that King George could read without his spectacles!!
On July 3rd, in great foretelling, John Adams had written to his beloved Abigail that, if passed, the Declaration of Independence would be celebrated as “the” great anniversary, with “pomp and parade, shows, games, sports, guns, bells bonfires and illumination from this time forward forever more.”
However, it did take a fair bit of time before Adam’s prophecy rang true.
For the first 15 years or so following ratification, too much else was happening in our young nation to stop and celebrate. Then the 1790’s ushered in a period of very partisan politics with the Federalists thinking the document was too French and too anti British.
After the Federalists party began to unravel, the parties of the 1820-30’s all considered themselves proud inheritors of the Jefferson document. Sadly, the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the same Fourth of July 1826 helped to promote July 4thas an important date to be remembered.
Celebrations became more common as the years passed, especially after the end of the War of 1812 with Britain, and in 1870, almost 100 years after its signing, July 4th was declared a national holiday. Only in 1938 did Congress reaffirm it as a paid holiday.
The night before the fourth was once the focal point of celebration, especially in New England. Towns competed to build towering bonfire pyramids, the highest ever in Salem, Massachusetts on Gallows Hill, scene of the famous executions for witchcraft.
Celebrations vary greatly in size and scope throughout the country from 10k races in Atlanta to a Freedom Festival in Detroit to our own Macy’s fireworks display, televised since 1976. In 2009, New York City had the largest fireworks display to date, exploding over 22 tons of pyrotechnics and this year marked the 42nd year of the hotdog eating contest at Nathan’s Famous of Coney Island.
The meaning of the holiday, as is no surprise, was articulated best by Thomas Jefferson on his death bed in a letter declining an invitation to journey to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50thanniversary on the signing of theDeclaration of Independence. “May it be to the world, what I believe it will be…the signal of arousing men to burst the chains…and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man…For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh ours recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.