The Declaration of Independence
We celebrate American Independence Day on the Fourth of July every year. We think of July 4, 1776, as a day that represents the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States of America as an independent nation.
But July 4, 1776 wasn’t the day that the Continental Congress decided to declare independence (they did that on July 2, 1776).
It wasn’t the day we started the American Revolution either (that had happened back in April 1775).
And it wasn’t the day Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence (that was in June 1776). Or the date on which the Declaration was delivered to Great Britain (that didn’t happen until November 1776). Or the date it was signed (that was August 2, 1776).
The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on July 4 (or in July at all).
It might make for an iconic painting, but that famous image of all the Founding Fathers and Continental Congress huddled together, presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence for July 4, 1776 signing, isn’t quite how things really went down. As famed historian David McCullough wrote, “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”
It’s now generally accepted that the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on the Fourth of July—that’s just the day the document was formally dated, finalized, and adopted by the Continental Congress, which had officially voted for independence on July 2 (the day John Adams thought we should celebrate). Early printed copies of the Declaration were signed by John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to be given to military officers and various political committees, but the bulk of the other 54 men signed an official engrossed (finalized and in larger print) copy on August 2, with others to follow at a later date. Hancock (boldly) signed his name again on the updated version.
So what did happen on July 4, 1776?
The Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. They’d been working on it for a couple of days after the draft was submitted on July 2nd and finally agreed on all of the edits and changes.
July 4, 1776, became the date that was included on the Declaration of Independence, and the fancy handwritten copy that was signed in August (the copy now displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) It’s also the date that was printed on the Dunlap Broadsides, the original printed copies of the Declaration that were circulated throughout the new nation. So when people thought of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 was the date they remembered.
In contrast, we celebrate Constitution Day on September 17th of each year, the anniversary of the date the Constitution was signed, not the anniversary of the date it was approved. If we’d followed this same approach for the Declaration of Independence we’d being celebrating Independence Day on August 2nd of each year, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed!
The first celebrations weren’t much different than today’s.
After years of pent-up frustration, the colonies let loose upon hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Military personnel and civilians in the Bowling Green section of Manhattan tore down a statue of King George III and later melted it into bullets; the King’s coat of arms was used as kindling for a bonfire in Philadelphia; and in Savannah, Georgia, the citizens burnt the King in effigy and held a mock funeral for their royal foe.
Independence Day celebrations began to look a bit more familiar the following year, as the July 18, 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette describes the July 4 celebration in Philadelphia:
“The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.”
There were even ships decked out in patriotic colors lining harbors and streamers littering city streets. Once you get past the mock funerals and rioting of 1776, modern Independence Day celebrations have stuck pretty close to the traditions started in 1777.
Eating salmon on the Fourth of July is a tradition in New England.
The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July began in New England as kind of a coincidence. It just so happened that during the middle of the summer, salmon was in abundance in rivers throughout the region, so it was a common sight on tables at the time. It eventually got lumped in to the Fourth and has stayed that way ever since, even with the decline of Atlantic salmon.
To serve salmon the traditional New England way, you’ll have to pair it with some green peas. And if you’re really striving for 18th-century authenticity, enjoy the whole meal with some turtle soup, like John and Abigail Adams supposedly did on the first Fourth of July. (You can still be a patriot without the soup, though.)
Massachusetts was the first state to recognize the holiday.
Massachusetts recognized the Fourth of July as an official holiday on July 3, 1781, making it the first state to do so. It wasn’t until June 28, 1870 that Congress decided to start designating federal holidays [PDF], with the first four being New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This decreed that those days were holidays for federal employees.
However, there was a distinction. The Fourth was a holiday “within the District of Columbia” only. It would take years of new legislation to expand the holiday to all federal employees.
The oldest annual Fourth of July Celebration is held in Bristol, Rhode Island.
Eighty-five years before the Fourth of July was even recognized as a federal holiday, one tradition began that continues to this day. Billed as “America’s Oldest Fourth of July Celebration,” the town of Bristol, Rhode Island, has been doing Independence Day right since 1785.
The festivities began just two years after the Revolutionary War ended, and 2019 will be its 234th entry. Over the years the whole thing has expanded well beyond July 4; the town of 23,000 residents now begins to celebrate the United States on Flag Day, June 14, all the way through to the 2.5-mile July 4 parade. What began as a “patriotic exercise”—meaning church services—has morphed into a cavalcade of parades, live music, food, and other activities.
The shortest Fourth of July parade is in Aptos, California.
From the oldest to the shortest, the Fourth of July parade in Aptos, California, is just a hair over half a mile long. Taking up two city blocks, and measuring just .6 miles, this brief bit of patriotism features antique cars, decorated trucks, and plenty of walkers. Afterward, there’s a Party in the Park, where folks can enjoy live music, food, and games.
There are around 15,000 Independence Day fireworks celebrations every year.
According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, around 15,000 fireworks displays will take place for the Fourth of July holiday (even if some aren’t exactly on July 4). Though pricing varies, most small towns spend anywhere from $8000-$15,000 for a fireworks display, with larger cities going into the millions, like the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular that averages more than $2 million.
We’ll eat an obscene amount of hot dogs.
Around 150 million, to be more specific—that’s how many hot dogs will be consumed by Americans on the Fourth of July. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, that amount of dogs can stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.
And we’ll spend billions on food.
Americans will spend big on food and drinks this Fourth. Big to the tune of around $6.7 billion when all is said and done, according to the National Retail Federation. This includes food and other cookout expenses, averaging out to about $73 per person participating in a barbecue, outdoor cookout or picnic.
Then comes the booze. According to the Beer Institute, “more beer is sold on and around the Fourth of July holiday than during any other time throughout the year.” Generally, Americans will spend around $1 billion on beer for their Fourth celebrations, and more than $560 million on wine.
Three presidents have died, and one was born, on the Fourth of July.
You probably know that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826—50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. They’re not the only presidents to have died on the Fourth, though; James Monroe—the nation’s fifth president—died just a few years later on July 4, 1831.
Though the holiday might seem like it has it out for former presidents, there was one future leader born on Independence Day. The country’s 30th Commander-in-Chief, Calvin Coolidge, was born on July 4, 1872.