Tuesday, June 29, 2010

4th of July Illumination

Knowing that the 4th of July casts a heavy shadow on reading anything but beverage labels, I seek to write something that can be read by the light of the silvery sparklers and beneath the rockets’ red glare.

We should probably be asking each other what we’re doing on the 2nd of July. The “4th” commemorates a momentous vote taken on July 2, 1776, approving the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain. John Adams wrote to Abigail that Americans would be swilling beer to celebrate July 2nd for generations to come. Something to that effect.

On the 4th of July of 1776, the Declaration of Independence may have been signed by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, its chief author, and others. But according to carpers and grousers, and notably also, one reliable source, History News Network, “most delegates signed the document on August 2, when a clean copy was finally produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Several did not sign until later.” Not until January of the following year did Congress send signed copies to the thirteen states.

So, when did we start to celebrate? Philadelphia threw a big party on the 8th of July. (Have a happy 8th?) George Washington and the Continental army, encamped near New York City, heard the news, and perhaps the celebratory fireworks of muskets—colonialists will be colonialists—on the 9th of July. Georgia didn’t have the news until the 10th of August. And it didn’t cross the ocean to the British until August 30th, give or take a day or two.

In its first days, The Declaration of Independence was read aloud publicly as widely as its text was published. The likely reason for the oral rendering was to bolster the courage, and blood-sugar levels, of the militiamen about to confront the punishing British forces.

The same day we tend to look upon as the birth of the United States of America was initially observed in random American towns by enacting the ritual death of the English throne via mock funerals.

One year later, apparently no one thought of paying tribute or otherwise distinguishing the 4th of July until the 3rd of July, which totally ruled out forever by rejoicing Americans any reconsideration of the 2nd of July as a special day of any kind.

Precisely fifty years after the signing that probably wasn’t, on the 4th of July of 1826, Adams and Jefferson both died. While it’s an extraordinary coincidence, its mention rarely finds a place at the picnic table.

My favorite 4th of July? 1986. “The 4th of July of the Century.”


  1. While I agree that July 4, 1776 was probably nothing like what most people imagine it was, I do appreciate July 4th for what we, the living, have made it into.

    For me, July 4th is a little bit like the Statue of Liberty. Judging from your affinity for July 4, 1986, I imagine that I am not alone when I say that. However, I find commonality between July 4th and the Statue of Liberty not in what they are or what they were, but in what later generations turned them into. Just as July 4th has repeatedly been given new meaning and more reason to celebrate - sometimes for the first time - the Statue of Liberty was never meant to be the "Mother of Exiles" Emma Lazarus rechristened it into. Nevertheless, we are a changing country, our Constitution a living document, and our holidays and monuments as evolving as we are.

    That is why I appreciate these two beacons of freedom: they are changing, and for what I believe is the better. For me, they are masterpieces of American hope.

  2. That is why I call it Independence Day. And I love living in Montpelier, Vermont, where we celebrate on the 3rd of July with beautiful spirit from sustainable, stoic 10th generation Vermont style to multicultural genius. After the parade, the Green Mountain Youth Orchestra will play show and movie tunes on the Capitol steps and a grand, long firework display will shine overhead above the National Life building on the hill. One of the best days of the year - except for the poor dog, who will cower from the "kabooms".

  3. Bristol RI claims to have started the first 4th one that has been celebrated every year since.