fireworks at july 4th washington D.C
fireworks at july 4th washington D.C

Fourth of July Celebrations : Then and Now

The Fourth of July, the day of Independence in America, is usually marked with parades, fireworks, grill cookouts, and spending time with friends and family. July 4, 2024, will be 248 years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Thomas Jefferson signing Declaration of independence

While we, as a country, have traditionally celebrated the birth of American Independence on July 4, the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence from Britain and King George III on July 2, 1776. It was formally adopted on July 4, as the debate on certain issues, such as slavery, was agreed upon.

There were about 80 other similar documents floating around at the time, including one called the Fairfax County Resolves, co-written by George Washington and George Mason, all citing similar complaints about the monarchy in England and the treatment of the colonies and colonists. A dream team of five men, who came to be known as the Committee of Five—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston—nominated Thomas Jefferson to pen the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third United States presidents, both died on the 50th anniversary of the Fourth of July, and five years later, the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, also died on July 4.

John Adams, the second president of the United States and the first vice president under George Washington, was a firm believer in July 2, 1776, being the right day of Independence when the Continental Congress voted in favor of the resolution. John Adams wrote to his wife saying, “July 2 will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,” and that the festival should include “pomp and parade, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations (fireworks) from one end of the continent to the other from this time forward forevermore.”

Before the Revolutionary War, colonists held annual celebrations for King George III’s birthday on June 4, which traditionally consisted of the ringing of bells, processions, and speechmaking. During the summer of 1776, celebrations started to incorporate more into the festivities, such as holding mock funerals for King George III, some defacing the statue of King George III by beheading it and rolling the head down the street.

The events started to include concerts, bonfires, parades, the firing of cannons and muskets, along with the reading of the Declaration of Independence and fireworks. The first Fourth of July celebration was in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, while the Revolutionary War was still ongoing. George Washington issued a double ration of rum to all his soldiers to mark the anniversary of independence in 1778, and in 1781.

Fireworks were used as early as 200 B.C.E. when China discovered that bamboo tossed into a fire would explode with a bang. This discovery resulted in gunpowder around 800 A.D. As diplomats and missionaries traveled between Europe and China, so did the invention of fireworks, thus finding their way into celebrations all over the world.

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Other earlier traditions for the Fourth of July consisted of a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon, the home of the first president of the United States of America, George Washington. During the 1820s to 1850s, groups of people would travel down to the Potomac on steamers to have dinner on the grounds, pay their respects at the tomb of Washington, while drinking and dancing.

In 1870, the United States Congress made July 4 an unpaid holiday for federal employees. In 1938, the United States Congress changed Independence Day to a paid federal holiday.

Yorktown, Massachusetts, became the first state to make July 4 an official holiday after the vital victory at Yorktown in 1781. By the last decade of the 18th century and the end of the Revolutionary War, the Fourth of July became a place for political leaders and candidates to give speeches and try to give a sense of unity. The rise of the two major political parties, the Federalist Party and the Democratic Party, started to hold separate celebrations in many large cities.

Today, we have come to associate the holiday with summer, opting for family get-togethers, outdoor barbecues, and firework shows in certain cities with friends and families. Activities often include corn hole, beach days, and a few days off work for many Americans, as the Fourth of July remains one of the country’s most traveled holidays, with 70.9 million Americans traveling over the holiday period, according to AAA.

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