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Independence Day; History, Fact and Fiction

By Paul Lonardo

For many people, July 4, 1776 is the date that represents the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States and its thirteen original colonies as a sovereign nation. However, this wasn’t the exact day that our founders declared our independence from English rule. That actually happened two days earlier. Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence June 1776, and it was submitted to the Second Continental Congress on July 2. The drafters then spent a couple of days revising the document, making edits and changes, before the final wording was approved on July 4. This was also the date that original printed copies of the Declaration were produced for distribution throughout the colonies by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap. It is not known how many copies of what came to be called “the Dunlap broadside” were printed on the night of the 4th, but there are twenty-five known copies in existence today; twenty owned by American institutions, two by British institutions, and three by private individuals.

There are 56 signers of the Declaration, and researchers have determined that 49 of them did not add their signatures until August 2, 1776. By contrast, we celebrate Constitution Day on September 17th 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 be celebrating Independence Day on August 2nd of each year.

John Hancock is famous for the large, flourishing mark he made on the document. Upon signing it so prominently, he was alleged to have been asked why he did so, to which he quipped that he wanted King George III to be able to read it without his spectacles. This amusing anecdote most likely is not true, as most historians agree there is no contemporary evidence for what Hancock said, if anything, as he signed the document. So why did Hancock, a wealthy merchant, accused smuggler, and president of the Second Continental Congress, leave such a large signature? Well, as president of the Continental Congress, Hancock would have likely signed the document first. Also, if you take a look at some of the other documents he signed during his tenure in the Continental Congress, it turns out the man just had a large signature.

So then, how exactly did the 4th of July become a national holiday? The fact is that the country did not collectively celebrate its independence for many years. It was too new and there was a lot going in the young nation. The 1790s was a time of bitter partisan conflicts, and the Declaration had become controversial. One party, the Democratic-Republicans, admired Jefferson and the Declaration, but the other party, the Federalists, thought the Declaration was too anti-British, which went against their current policies. After the War of 1812, the Federalist Party began to come apart and the new parties of the 1820s and 1830s all considered themselves inheritors of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate at this time, all with the date July 4, 1776, listed at the top. Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on.

There are numerous interesting facts and quirky tidbits about the Declaration of Independence and the 4th of July celebrations through the years that are worth mentioning. Here are just a few:

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on a “laptop,” a kind of writing desk that could fit on one’s lap. He subsequently changed the wording of the Declaration of Independence from “the pursuit of property” to “the pursuit of happiness.”

The Liberty Bell rang out from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 8, 1776. It was sounded to bring the people out to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. It was read by Colonel John Nixon. It has been thought that after the colonies declared independence, the citizens of Philadelphia partied so hard that they cracked the bell. While this is a great story, it is total nonsense. The first time the Liberty Bell cracked was the first time it was rung, in 1752. It cracked several times, and each time it happened because the bell was rung. It was repaired each time it broke, but the last time, in 1846, after it was rung for George Washington’s birthday, it cracked really badly and could not be repaired.

In 1777, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania commemorated our independence with an official Continental Congress dinner, parades, prayers, music, fireworks, speeches, 13-gun salutes, and more.

Locally, in 1777, Bristol, Rhode Island celebrated July 4th by firing 13 gunshots, once in the morning and once again in the evening. The Bristol Fourth of July Parade Celebration (officially known as the Military, Civic and Firemen’s Parade), was founded in 1785 and is the oldest Fourth of July celebration in the United States. 2018 will be Bristol’s 233rd July 4th celebration.

In 1778 General George Washington celebrated the two-year anniversary of Declaration of Independence by giving his soldiers a double ration of rum and having an artillery salute. That year, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were in Paris, France, and held a dinner for other Americans there.

1781 was the year the first state legislature, the Massachusetts General Court, established July 4th as a state celebration.

In 1791 the name “Independence Day” was used for the first time. It may have been used before then, but that was the first time it was recorded.

1801 was the first time a July 4th party was held at the White House.

In 1805, Lewis and Clark celebrated the first July 4th celebration west of the Mississippi, at Independence Creek.

Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. That may be the most extraordinary coincidence in all of history since it was the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the declaration. . Their deaths may even have helped to promote the idea of July 4 as an important date to be celebrated.

In 1870, almost a hundred years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4th to be a national holiday as part of a bill to officially recognize several holidays, which included Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and New Year’s Day. In 1941 Congress made the 4th of July a federal paid holiday.

There are lots of ways to celebrate the founding of our country, and we all get the day off to do it, whether it is flying an American flag outside your home (65% of Americans own a replica of Old Glory, spending more than $5 million annually), observing a fireworks display (44% of Americans watch some 16,000 fireworks displays, with fireworks for individual consumers and for public display total close to 300 million pounds of the explosives), watching a parade (almost every city and every county holds and Independence Day parade, attended by 35% of the American population), and enjoying a picnic or cookout with family (more than 75% of Americans attend 4th of July picnics, spending $8 billion dollars on food and consuming over 150 million hotdogs on this day alone).

How will you celebrate the 4th of July? If you miss it, don’t forget that August 2nd was the day the Declaration was signed, and September 17th was the when the Constitution was signed.