Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Birthday, America!: Cool Factoids About the July 4 Holiday

Those of us who love America -- and I count myself solidly in this category -- rejoice every time the Fourth of July rolls around. It's a time to celebrate the democratic experiment known as the United States. I have lots of nostalgic memories of July 4 celebrations: the fireworks shows and flags, the barbecues and parades.

There are some cool factoids about the Fourth of July that are worth highlighting on this Blog. You may already know some of them, but please bear with me. A holiday this important deserves a special tribute. So with no further delay...

-- 232 years ago today, the Second Continental Congress approved of the Declaration of Independence, which was first revealed to the public two days earlier in Philadelphia.

-- Although a huge holiday in America, the Fourth of July was not officially a paid holiday for federal employees until 1941.

-- Thomas Jefferson and John Adams -- two of the most important figures in the birth of America -- died on the same day: July 4, 1826 -- fifty years to the day after the Continental Congress approved of the Declaration of Independence. (Cue the Twilight Zone music...)

-- At the time the Declaration of Independence was approved, 2.5 million people lived in the colonies.

The Fourth of July has always meant different things to different people. On July 5, 1852, the abolitionist, human rights activist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass delivered an important speech in Rochester, New York, where he commented on the meaning of the holiday to slaves:
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy's thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
-- Even though Independence Day is celebrated on July 4, the first person to actually sign the Declaration of Independence was John Hancock (whose signature is the most famous thing about him) on August 2, 1776. The last person to sign it did so in November.

-- Thomas Jefferson (my ultimate hero) tried to insert an anti-slavery passage into the Declaration of Independence, but his efforts were met with intense resistance. As
Ronald Hoffman, director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, noted: "Jefferson’s original draft included a strong condemnation of slavery and the slave trade. The southern delegation wouldn’t go along with it, so Jefferson backed off and allowed it to be removed.”

-- Founding father John Adams predicted that July 2 -- not July 4 -- would become America's independence day. His reason for arriving at this conclusion had to do with the Second Continental Congress approving a piece of legislation calling for independence on July 2. In an enthusiastic letter, John wrote to his wife Abigail:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfire and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
The dude was only two days off. Cut him some slack.

-- The first fireworks ban occurred in 1731 in the colony of Rhode Island, which outlawed "mischievous use of fireworks." Today, many states ban most types of fireworks, especially in the West, where wildfires are raging out of control. In Pacifica, California, Police Chief Dave Bertini pointed out, "We have signs in almost every business. We have lawn signs. We have two electronic signs at both ends of the town that say '$1,000 fine for illegal fireworks.'"

-- First Fourth of July celebration to include fireworks shows: July 4, 1777.

-- Out With a Bang: In February 2008, Mr. Meredith Smith of Indianapolis died at age 74. He was a beloved member of the community who orchestrated the local fireworks show for more than thirty years. To honor him, some of his ashes are going to be mixed with a firework that will burst in the sky as part of the big grand finale. It seems like a fitting farewell.

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