We all consider July Fourth to be “our nation’s birthday,” but given the number of steps it took to be a free country, it’s good to be reminded of what the day actually signifies.
The Nation’s Birthday
This holiday–also known as Independence Day–commemorates the fact that in 1776, the Continental Congress, representing the thirteen colonies, approved the Declaration of Independence–the first step on the road to freedom as a sovereign nation.
It seems fitting to re-visit the most famous words from the document; words that have guided us since that time:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Also see Martin Luther King’s remarks on the Declaration of Independence.
2. Consider the change in the country’s population then and now
In July 1776, the estimated number of people living in the newly independent nation: 2.5 million
The nation’s estimated population on this July Fourth: 311.7 million
We must marvel at the fact that a government created for 2.5 million people living in thirteen colonies/states still serves a nation of fifty states with 311.7 million people.
3. The Fourth did not start out as an official holiday.
Observing Independence Day only became commonplace after the War of 1812. Over time, local communities began to schedule other events such as groundbreaking ceremonies to coincide with July 4th festivities to add to the fun.
As tensions over slavery grew during the 19th century, some African Americans began to talk about the fact that the declaration did not apply to them. By 1859, movement was afoot to address this directly. The Philadelphia’s Banneker Institute–begun by Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) an African American mathematician who was born free in a slave state–urged African Americans to celebrate Independence Day but to bear witness to the inconsistencies between the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the practice of slavery.
By the 1870s, the Fourth of July had become the most important secular holiday on the calendar. On June 28, 1870 Congress passed a law making Independence Day an unpaid federal holiday on June 28, 1870. In 1938 Congress voted that it should become a paid holiday for federal workers.
4. Fireworks and the Fourth.
Founding Father John Adams foresaw that the signing should be celebrated “as a great anniversary festival…” He wrote to his wife, Abigail, “…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.”
Some have thought that his letter is making reference to the use of fireworks, which play an important part in celebrations today. Adams actually was referring to the custom of using candles to light buildings and plazas — this would have been just as dramatic as fireworks in a day before streetlights.
As the country grew a little older, cities began featuring fireworks celebrations, but rural areas relied on firing guns, setting off cannons, or “firing an anvil.” This was a somewhat risky process that involved two anvils and a fuse to ignite gunpowder, which “launched” one of the anvils, creating a cannon-like bang when the top anvil landed again on the bottom anvil.
Dangers of Fireworks
As might be anticipated, fires, deaths, and bodily injuries were part of many celebrations. As early as the 19th century, fire departments and volunteers were on heightened alert around the holiday. In 1866, Portland, Maine suffered massive destruction from a fire that started because of fireworks.
In 1873 the editor of Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine wrote an editorial suggesting that children donate to the needy the money they normally were given to spend on fireworks. However, most Americans, than and now, feel that it is an American right to celebrate Independence Day with fireworks.
In the interests of safety, two relatively recent developments have occurred. The federal government bans the sale of the most dangerous types of fireworks, and a few states have tried to ban their sale totally (but neighboring states are very likely to set up stands just over the state border to facilitate sale to those who care deeply enough to transport the contraband across state lines). Public displays have also been instituted as a safer alternative to backyard fireworks.
Yet another step forward was made by Disneyland in Anaheim in 2004. Earlier styles of fireworks release high levels of pollutants, so Disneyland instituted the use of fireworks using compressed air rather than gunpowder, which reduced smoke and fumes from the big displays.
Wherever you are this weekend, have a safe and happy holiday, and just for a moment, pause to remember how fortunate we are to live in the United States of America. The country is not perfect, but on Tuesday, July 5, we can all start working toward making it better–in whatever way we each see fit. Each of us can make a difference.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone.