The Fourth of July

by Aileen Marshall

This month we celebrate the Fourth of July. But do you know what we are really celebrating? It’s not just a day of picnics and fireworks. The holiday is also known as Independence Day. It marks the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, signifying America’s independence from the United Kingdom.

On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution recognizing the separation of the thirteen colonies from England. Thomas Jefferson finalized the Declaration of Independence and it was signed on July 4 of that year. The Revolutionary War went on for another seven years, but we celebrate on the day the independence was declared. John Adams wrote that the day “will be the most memorable Epocha 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 solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews [Shows], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

United States Declaration of Independence, 1823 facsimile of the engrossed copy

John Hancock, President of the Second Continental Congress, was the first to sign the declaration. This is why his signature is the largest, spawning the use of his name as an idiom for a signature. Benjamin Franklin was the oldest signatory at 70 years old. Two other signers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both went on to become presidents and ironically both died on July 4, 1826.

Congress approved fireworks for the Fourth of July in 1777, and from there on, a tradition was born. In 1778, while the Revolutionary War was still being fought, Benjamin Franklin was in Paris, throwing a party for American expatriates, hoping to garner French support for the war. An Independence Day celebration was held in Bristol, Rhode Island in 1785, two years after the war ended, and has continued since then, making it the oldest July Fourth festivity in the country. The first recorded use of “Independence Day” appears in 1791.  In 1820, the U.S. Congress passed Independence Day as an unpaid holiday for federal employees and it didn’t become a paid holiday until 1938.

Different traditions associated with the Fourth of July have started over the years. In 1916, a dispute started among four immigrants in Coney Island as to who was the most patriotic. From this time Nathan’s hot dog eating contest became another holiday ritual. Since 1959, Detroit, Michigan has held a joint festival with Windsor, Canada, on the Detroit River, as a combined celebration with Canada Day, which is July 1. It is the largest celebration in the country. The famous Boston Pops concert started in 1973. The Macy’s fireworks tradition started in 1976, the bicentennial. The “Capital Fourth” concert, held in Washington DC is free and attracts about half a million people a year.

Over the years, July Fourth has come to be celebrated with red, white and blue bunting and clothing, displaying flags and outdoor activities and of course, fireworks. Patriotic songs such as “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful,”,”My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and “Yankee Doodle” are often  played.

This year the Macy’s Fireworks will be on the Hudson River again. There will be barges with the famous Grucci pyrotechnics from 23rd Street up to 42nd Street. The soundtrack will be simulcast on 1010 WINS radio station. To avoid the crowds, watch the show on NBC television.

July/August 2013