The Fourth of July: A Little History

I published this piece a while back and thought you might enjoy reading it again.

I think many of us are probably fuzzy on the details of why we celebrate the 4th. Our celebrations are distracting: picnics and barbecues and parades and fireworks. A joyous day to recognize our freedom and those who fought and sacrificed for it and those continue to do so even today.  Fourth of July 2 HuffPo

Jouth of July 3 Huff Po

The legal separation of the original thirteen colonies was voted on by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776, when the colonial representatives approved a resolution of independence put forth by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. What a momentous vote! None of the men present could predict the future, what would happen to them or to the independent country they now declared in existence, and the bravery they took in doing so must have been heavily weighed by fear for the future.

The Declaration of Independence, a statement of the reasons for this decision, had been prepared by the so-called Committee of Five (John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut) appointed by the Congress, with Thomas Jefferson as its principle architect. The Congress debated the content and wording of the Declaration, and approved it with all signing it on July 4.

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During this time of debate, John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail:

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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 commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Ben Franklin agreed, but from the outset, the public preferred to celebrate independence on July 4, the date the Declaration was signed. What’s most interesting is that even though Jefferson, Adams and Franklin all wrote they had signed that day, many historians believe the Declaration was signed nearly a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776.

The first recorded use of the name “Independence Day” occurred in 1791, and the U.S. Congress made Independence Day a paid holiday in 1938.

The most heart-rending association with the Fourth of July, at least to me, is that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the only signers of the Declaration of Independence later to serve as Presidents, died on the same day: July 4, 1826, which was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. They were fierce political opponents with very different opinions on government, Jefferson a bit of a libertarian radical for his time, and Adams a bit of a buttoned-down conservative. But they were friends. After the death of Jefferson’s wife in 1782, Jefferson was sometimes a guest in the Adams’ home, where Abigail Adams and Jefferson became friends as well. This friendship results in 380 letters written between 1777 until their death. You can read these letters in a book entitled The Jefferson-Adam Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams by Lester J. Cappon (Editor):

So to the men who gave us this great nation: my unending and heartfelt gratitude on this July Fourth.

And to all of you who stop by: Happy Fourth of July!!




18 thoughts on “The Fourth of July: A Little History”

  1. Funny to read this just after our own vote for independence as it were. Not sure we have any better idea about our future than the founding fathers

    1. I completely agree! I think of the vote for our independence as one of succession – and we had the grace of God in the years that followed. I wish you all the same.

  2. It seems that John Adams was prescient about the nature of the celebration – even though it is now observed 2 days later than he predicted. The outgoing and charismatic Franklin could be extremely persuasive!

    My first career was acting/directing, so I was already aware of some of the information you shared from the musical 1776 (which used snippets from the letters between Adams, Jefferson and their wives as a plot device). My best friend Robin played Franklin and did quite a bit of research to be able to bring him to life, so he shared a few details I wouldn’t otherwise have known.

    I wish the History classes I was exposed to in my educational background had included items like this post – I might have liked history better and remembered more of it. Back then (and maybe now?) it was simply a string of deadly dull lectures disclosing little more than facts, dates and names. My [then undiagnosed] ADD brain could barely remain awake enough to *look* like I was paying attention, much less recall enough to do well on the exams. 🙂

    I’ve absorbed most of my history information from historical plays and novels. I’m grateful that there are folks like you who enjoy historical research and are willing to share it in a far more interesting manner.

    1. I love doing research and historical research is just wonderful. My son had a history teacher who had his students debate various aspects of what they were studying, and he loved it. He absorbed so much. I would love to teach history – I can think of so many ways to make it fun! Like you, much of what I have learned AND remembered comes from books I’ve read and also movies, where I look up to see if the movie is factual.

      1. Your son is so lucky to have had a good history teacher — and I’ll bet you would be great at it too. Shakespeare might be my favorite historian 🙂 It’s the only way I ever kept all those kings and queens at all straight in my head.

          1. Good teachers make ALL the difference – so do mediocre ones, but in the opposite direction.

            As a theatre major, I read Shakespeare with an eye toward performing it, taught by one of the directors. That made ALL the difference. We did scenes in acting classes, I was exposed to many performances through the years, etc. – so all of those characters had FACES and motivations!

            Lit profs need to be kept away from undergrads when the written word is meant to be performed, IMHO – waaay too academic an approach for first tastes.

            My senior HS English teacher was a well-known Middle English scholar who made college English a *cakewalk* by comparison. (We had to recite the prologue from The Canterbury Tales from memory – in Middle English! I can still recite most of it today, and it certainly sharpened my memorization skills but ?????)

            I’m grateful to her for preparing us well for college level work, but she would have ruined Chaucer for me forever had it not been for my theatre profs.

            Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote,
            The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
            And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
            Of which vertu engendred is the flour; etc. 🙂

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