PD Editorial: Fourth not always linked to celebrations

  • This artwork by M. Ryder relates to the Fourth of July, the U.S. Independence Day.

If tradition holds, Independence Day will begin with the traditional complaints that communities such as Sebastopol, Windsor and Guerneville held their fireworks shows on July 3 and that Bodega Bay and Monte Rio won't be holding theirs until Saturday. Noted one letter writer on a recent July 4th, "Please, leave tradition alone.''

But tradition is a funny thing when it comes to celebrating America's bold declaration of independence from the British crown in 1776. History shows celebrations were not originally tied to a single date.

John Adams certainly got it right when he wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the document would be celebrated with "pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfire, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.''

But he seemed to get the date wrong. As author David McCullough pointed out in his biography of the second president, Adams firmly believed the nation would celebrate on July 2, the official day when the American colonies, with New York abstaining, first lined up in agreement on the Declaration of Independence. "The second of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America,'' Adams wrote. "I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.''

As for the 4th, well, not much is recorded. "Indeed, to all appearances, nothing happened in Congress on July 4, 1776,'' McCullough wrote. "Adams ... recorded not a word of July 4. Of Jefferson's day, it is known only that he took time off to shop for ladies gloves and a new thermometer.''

Still, at about 11 a.m., without much fuss, the debate in Congress was closed, a final vote was taken and the declaration was sent out be documented and printed.

The public celebrations didn't commence until days later when it was read in public and published in newspapers. In Philadelphia, "The great day of celebration came Monday, July 8, at noon in the State House Yard when the Declaration was read aloud before an exuberant crowd . . . Bells rang through the day and into the night. There were bonfires at street corners.''

On July 9, McCullough notes, the declaration was read aloud to George Washington's assembled troops in New York, where on Broadway that night "a roaring crowd pulled down the larger-than-life equestrian statue of George III.''

The landmark document was not read in public in Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, until July 25 where it was accompanied "by the firing of cannon and musketry'' and a parade of regiments of continental troops. Residents of Savannah, Ga. didn't hear about it until August where they responded with a mock burial of King George.

A good argument can be made that if we really held to tradition, the country would celebrate its independence from July 2 to Aug. 2, the day most of the delegates signed the document. Before then, much of the work had been done in secret.

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