What So Proudly We Hail: A Look at Independence Day

Posted by on Jul 6, 2016 in People and Culture, Top Stories, United States
Night sky filled with colorful fireworks display. ©Studio Photogram/Alamy. MHE World.

Night sky filled with colorful fireworks display. ©Studio Photogram/Alamy

So you probably celebrated the recent July 4th by engaging in one of the following activities—wearing red, white and/or blue; consuming vast amounts of cookout food; and, of course, fireworks. You know the general reason for the day, but btw is going to help out by filling in some more of the details.

Celebration of a New Nation

Settlers came to North America since the early 1600s, but they lived under British rule. The 13 colonies that were established throughout the 17th and 18th centuries were also subject to laws created in England. By the 1770s, however, colonial Americans had grown frustrated with the Parliament’s refusal to allow them proper representation in the British government. Tensions, protest and rebellion led to the creation of the First Continental Congress, a meeting made up of representative from the colonies and held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1774. It was the Second Continental Congress, held the following year, that produced the list of grievances against the English king, George III, that is known around the world as the Declaration of Independence. A five-man committee—Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston—were selected to create the document, with Jefferson writing the first draft.

While the world has changed a lot since those early days, the ways we celebrate this beloved holiday have not. In a letter written to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776, John Adams predicted that the occasion would be “celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival,” and believed that it ought to be commemorated with “pomp and parade . . . games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations (fireworks) from one end of the continent to the other from this time forward.” Indeed, after the Declaration of Independence was read in public for the first time a few days later (on the 8th), crowds responded with gunfire and bonfires. The following year, citizens of Philadelphia celebrated the anniversary with fireworks and music, with Congress authorizing the official use of fireworks. It became a legal holiday in 1870 and a paid federal holiday in 1938. Today, there are more than 14,000 fireworks displays around the country.

Jefferson Survives (But Not Really)

Fifty years after the Founding Fathers put quill to parchment and created a document that would launch a revolution, two of its most prominent creators died. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (our second and third presidents, respectively) both died on July 4, 1826. The once-allies had a political and personal falling out and did not speak to one another for eleven years before reuniting in 1812 through a series of meaningful correspondence that stretched fourteen years. As the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence approached, Jefferson and Adams were the last surviving of the Founding Fathers. On his deathbed, Adams’ last words were supposedly, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” But he was wrong, as Jefferson had died hours earlier.

The Centennial and Bicentennial

In 1876, the first official World’s Fair was held in Philadelphia to commemorate 100 years of independence. During the formal ceremony, members of the National Woman Suffrage Association presented a “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States,” written by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage. This was a significant moment as the Civil War had, just a decade before, granted freedom to slaves, but women still had significantly less equality. One hundred years later in 1976, the country celebrated its Bicentennial with elaborate ceremonies and retrospectives. Companies of all kinds cashed in on the mania, offering up its products in a wash of red, white and blue.

Dig Deeper In the wake of the recent festivities and the current political culture, take a minute to reflect on what it means for you to be an American. Write a few sentences about your thoughts and feelings.