Independence Day is something every American celebrates, but how many of us know of its origins?
Many believe that the United States of America gained its independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain on July 4, 1776, but that’s actually not true. The U.S. didn’t gain its independence until September 3, 1783, when the two sides in the American Revolutionary War signed the Treaty of Paris and the last of the British troops were removed from ports in New York and the Carolinas.
And most historians now believe that the Declaration of Independence wasn’t even signed on July 4, even though Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin later wrote that they had signed it on that day. Now most historians agree that it was actually signed almost a month later, on August 2, 1776.
Even after the Treaty of Paris, the colonies of America didn’t actually become a unified country until the Constitution of the United States went into effect in 1789. Even then, the colony of Rhode Island (the 13th state) didn’t ratify the Constitution until May 29, 1790, and then only with a two person majority, 34-32.
Though the United States didn’t officially become a country until 1790, the 4th of July has been celebrated since 1777, when the first July 4 celebration occurred in Bristol, Rhode Island. Thirteen shots were fired twice that day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania also held a celebration that day, with a dinner for the Continental Congress, toasts, 13-gun salutes, speeches, prayers, music, parades, troop reviews, and fireworks.
There are several other significant dates in the history of July 4.
· On July 4, 1778, at that time General George Washington served a double ration of rum to his troops and marked the day with an artillery salute. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, ambassadors in France at the time, held a dinner for their fellow Americans in Paris.
· July 4, 1779-The holiday fell on a Sunday, and was celebrated on a Monday instead, July 5.
· In 1781 the Massachusetts General Court became the first state legislature to recognize July 4 as a state celebration.
· July 4, 1785-the first Bristol Fourth of July Parade is held in Bristol, Rhode Island, and is the oldest continuous Independence Day celebration in United States.
· 1791-the use of the name “Independence Day” was first recorded
· July 4, 1820-the first Fourth of July celebration was held in Eastport, Maine, and remains the largest in the state
· July 4, 1868-Seward, Nebraska held its first July 4 celebration. It as been held on the same town square ever since. In 1979 the United States Congress designated Seward as “America’s Official Fourth of July City-Small Town USA”. It is also the Official Fourth of July City of Nebraska, as proclaimed by Governor James Exon.
· 1870-Congress made Independence Day an official holiday for federal employees, though unpaid
· July 4, 1916-Four immigrants decided to settle the dispute of who was most patriotic with a hot dog eating contest. This became Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City.
· 1938-Congress changed Independence Day to a paid federal holiday
· Since 1959 the International Freedom Festival has been jointly held in Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario as a mutual celebration of Independence Day and Canada Day (July 1). The celebration is held during the last week of June, and culminates in a large fireworks display over the Detroit River.
· Since 1973, the Boston Pops Orchestra has hosted the “Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” annually over the Charles River Esplanade. The U.S.S. John F. Kennedy often sails into the harbor. The 1812 Overture ends the concert, which was broadcast on the A&E Network from 1987-2002, and is now aired on CBS since 2003.
· 1976-The Macy’s fireworks display usually over the East River is first broadcast on NBC. The display has been moved to the Hudson River several times, most notably in 2009 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of that river. It was the largest fireworks display in the country, with over 22 tons of pyrotechnics exploded.
There are also several things of note in the history of Independence Day.
John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776 that Americans would celebrate July 2 as their day of Independence, saying, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” As you can tell, his prediction was off by two days.
Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the only signers of the Declaration of Independence to later serve as Presidents of the United States, died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. Another Founding Father and President, James Monroe, died on July 4, 1831. Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President, was born on July 4, 1872.
Many towns celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, parades, and even bonfires. The most famous of these occurs in Salem, Massachusetts, where a bonfire was once constructed out of forty tiers of barrels. Gallows Hill in Salem is the infamous site of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, where 13 women and 6 men were executed for witchcraft.
Music traditionally accompanies the fireworks displays of most towns, with such patriotic songs as the national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”, “God Bless America”, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, “Stars and Stripes Forever”, “America the Beautiful”, and “This Land is Your Land”. Regionally “Yankee Doodle” is played in northeastern states and “Dixie” is played in southern states.
And any capable military base will fire a salute of one gun for each state in the United States at noon of the Fourth of July. This is called a “salute to the union”.