The Fourth of July: a brief history

by Alex Caldwell

Op-ed by Alex Caldwell

Every Fourth of July, Americans celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence with fireworks, cookouts, and parades.

As America prepares for her 247th Independence Day, it is important to reflect upon the significance of the day, and also understand why it must not ever be overlooked.

Why did colonists want independence from Great Britain?

Each of the 13 colonies had its own government but was still controlled by King George III. Many colonists were angry because they did not have self-governance, and could not make their own laws.

Colonists felt that they were paying high taxes to a king overseas that did not have their best interests at heart. They felt that the lack of taxation without representation in government was wrong.

Items like legal documents, newspapers, and playing cards were taxed under laws like the Stamp Act. Other laws such as the Townshend Acts taxed all imports and allowed British soldiers to search colonists’ houses without cause.

Colonists were also upset over being forced to house and feed British soldiers under the Quartering Act, especially after these same soldiers opened fire on a group of protestors in what was known as the Boston Massacre.

What is the Declaration of Independence?

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in American history. It marked an official step taken by the colonists towards independence from Great Britain and King George III.

After the American Revolution began, delegates to the Second Continental Congress met to discuss independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Benjamin Franklin were instructed to draft a resolution for independence.

The document, written primarily by Jefferson, outlined the reasons for separating from Britain. Jefferson took inspiration from philosophers like John Locke, explaining that Americans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Continental Congress voted in favor of independence on July 2, 1776, and formally adopted Jefferson’s document two days later on July 4, 1776.

The Founding Fathers later signed the document in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on Aug. 2, 1776. Among its notable signatories were future presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and founders such as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock.

In contrast to popular opinion, George Washington did not sign the Declaration of Independence.

Today, the Declaration of Independence is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., alongside the U.S. Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

Why did Americans begin to celebrate the Fourth of July?

Every year since the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Americans have celebrated the occasion with parades, cookouts, and fireworks with their friends and family.

As John Adams predicted in a letter to his wife, Abigail, American independence “ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Ironically, Adams refused to celebrate independence on the fourth. He believed July 2 was the real Independence Day since it was the date of the actual adoption to secede from Britain. American independence was only formally adopted on the fourth.

In protest, the second president refused to attend parties and events on the fourth.

However, a large spontaneous celebration of the occasion in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, is believed to have been one of the first commemorations of American independence.

General George Washington once celebrated the holiday by issuing double rations of rum to his soldiers on July 4, 1778.

Some colonists even held mock funerals for King George III to celebrate the holiday and symbolize the end of the British monarchy’s rule over the Americans.

In 1781, shortly before the Battle of Yorktown, Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4th an official holiday. It was later made an official federal holiday by the U.S. Congress in 1870.

Have any presidents been born on the Fourth of July?

Only one president, Calvin Coolidge, was born on Independence Day in 1872, just two years after it became known as a federal holiday.

However, three presidents died on the Fourth of July: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe.

Adams and Jefferson both died the same day on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the declaration.

On his death bed, Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” though Jefferson had died hours earlier.

Fifth President James Monroe is the only other president since Adams and Jefferson to have died on Independence Day. However, many historians believe that President Zachary Taylor died from cholera on July 9, 1850, after eating bad fruit and iced milk during a Fourth of July celebration days earlier.

How have Donald Trump and Joe Biden celebrated the fourth?

During his final year in office, President Trump spent Independence Day in 2020 delivering remarks to his supporters while standing in front of Mount Rushmore. His speech was then followed by a fireworks display.

For 2023, Trump held an Independence Day rally in South Carolina on July 1.

During Joe Biden’s first year in office, his White House Twitter account bragged of saving Americans 16 cents on their Fourth of July picnics amid record inflation just days before the holiday.

Biden also reportedly banned Mount Rushmore from lighting off fireworks that were set off just one year before he took office for climate-related reasons, and has done so every year since.

On the fourth itself in 2021, Biden gave remarks at the White House, and hosted private picnic with his family.

This Independence Day, Biden will host a private event at the White House, with entertainment provided by singers like Ne-Yo and Brothers Osborne. Biden will give remarks in the evening, which will be followed by fireworks.

In conclusion…

Throughout American history, July 4th has remained an important day of patriotism and remembrance of why we should be proud to live in the United States.

Americans celebrate their unique freedoms and honor those who sacrificed their lives to preserve and protect that same freedom.

In the words of President Ronald Reagan, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

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