By Caitlin Connelly
In 1870 the 4th of July was made a federal holiday, and since 1941 all federal employees have been given a paid holiday to celebrate. Today most Americans observe Independence Day with barbecues, pool parties, and fireworks shows, and you can easily see twice as many flags – between actual flags and all of the flag-themed clothing and paper dinnerware – on this day than at any other time of the year. It’s a proud, enthusiastic display of patriotism in celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (two of the signers of which, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, lived at Stratford Hall).
In the 240 years since then, how has the 4th of July changed?
For one thing, it nearly wasn’t the 4th of July! The Declaration of Independence was formally adopted by the Continental Congress on the 4th, but they voted in favor of independence two days earlier. Though people immediately began commemorating the 4th, John Adams always maintained that Independence Day was July 2nd, and on that principle refused to attend any celebrations on the 4th. Maybe we should be thankful no one listened to him – “the 2nd of July” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it!
The first celebrations stemmed from an earlier tradition of celebrating the king’s birthday (King George III was born 1738 June 4) with parades, speeches, bonfires, concerts, and the firing of cannons. By 1776, however, general sentiment had largely turned against the British. With the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, mock funerals were held for the king across the colonies in celebration. The old birthday events were carried over and became part of a new holiday. The festivities of 1776 also involved the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence.
When Washington D.C. became the national capital, it also became the focus of July 4th celebrations. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson held a public reception in the State Dining Room at the White House, a tradition continued by all of the presidents until Ulysses Grant (who began a new tradition of vacationing to the Jersey shore to escape the Washington heat). Washington was also the location for many grand parades and concerts. For many years the Marine Band would perform for the public every weekend on the South Lawn of the White House from June to September.
As for the most popular activity, fireworks as we know them did not exist for the first few decades of celebration. The earliest documentation of fireworks dates to 7th century Tang Dynasty China. Arab traders acquired knowledge of gunpowder and its uses in the 13th century, and from there spread to Europe. Chinese fireworks gained popularity in Europe in the 17th century, but did not become the colorful displays modern audiences are used to until the 1830s when Italian pyrotechnicians began adding metallic compounds that produce intense light and bright colors when burned to the gunpowder. Since then many different kinds of fireworks have been developed, allowing modern shows to be varied and dazzling.
Interestingly, the 4th has also been marked by several notable deaths. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – political enemies who later became friends, and the second and third presidents, respectively – famously died on July 4th, 1826, a few hours apart from one other. In 1831 James Monroe, the fifth president, also died on July 4th. Nineteen years later, Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president, celebrated a fateful 4th of July. It’s suspected that he contracted cholera from drinking contaminated water during the festivities, and he died five days later.
On a positive note, Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4th, 1872 in Vermont. He would later go on to be the thirtieth president of the United States.
By the end of the 19th century, 4th of July celebrations had come to focus more on leisure activities and gatherings of family and friends, resembling modern celebrations. But clearly many of the earliest activities have carried on, becoming integral parts of this uniquely American holiday.
Lee Letter of the Week: In celebration of Independence Day, take a look at this 1776 letter from Richard Henry Lee to Patrick Henry discussing the grim situation facing the Continental Army as it gets ready to survive the winter of 1776-77.