Fireworks. Cook-outs. Parades. Concerts. And an excuse to dress in red, white, and blue (if you have the wardrobe). More so than any other holiday recognized in the United States, Fourth of July celebrations are ubiquitous. They can be found in urban, suburban, and rural locales in cities and towns both big and small. They are also joyous celebrations that bring family, friends, and communities together.
The Fourth of July, or Independence Day, commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 proclaiming that the 13 American colonies were not subject to the rule of Britain’s King George III. Although the Revolutionary War had been underway for over a year by that time, the Declaration of Independence formalized the union of the 13 colonies into free, independent, and united states.
A detailed account of the first July Fourth celebration held in Philadelphia in 1777 explains the origins of setting off fireworks on July 4: Multiple 13-cannon salutes “in honor of the Thirteen United States” went off throughout the day. In the evening, a dinner for members of Congress and “General Officers and Colonels of the army, and strangers of eminence” was marked with numerous toasts extolling liberty, independence, and the bravery of “patriots who … fell gloriously in defence of freedom and the righteous cause of their country.” Each toast “was followed by a discharge of artillery and small arms.”
On the 50th anniversary of the Fourth of July, in 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the only two signers of the Declaration of Independence who went on to serve as president, both died. In 1826, another founding father, James Monroe, died on July 4, prompting newspapers around the country to speculate that the deaths of three presidents on the Fourth of July “may be scarcely permitted” to be the result of mere coincidence.
On the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1781, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize July 4 as a state holiday. In 1870, Congress made Independence Day an unpaid holiday for federal employees and in 1938 voted to make it a paid day off.
Politicians have long used community Fourth of July picnics and parades to meet voters and give speeches. But throughout the 1850s, during the long run-up to the start of the Civil War, abolitionists used commemorations of the Fourth of July to remind Americans of the Declaration’s unfulfilled promise that “all men are created equal” and spur them to action to end slavery.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to give a speech on the Fourth of July by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass insisted that he give the speech on July 5, because slave auctions were commonly held in the South on July 4, “sullying the date in African American memory,” as David W. Blight recounts in his biography Frederick Douglass Prophet of Freedom. Because July 4 fell on a Sunday that year, the Rochester Ladies acquiesced and on July 5, Douglass delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history. First, Douglass honored the signers of the Declaration of Independence as “statesmen, patriots and heroes.” Next, he delivered a lengthy jeremiad on the “revolting barbarity” of slavery and the “shameless hypocrisy” of a nation celebrating freedom even as millions lived in chains. He ended with a hopeful appeal to the “obvious tendencies of the age” which guaranteed that “the doom of slavery is certain.”
Two years later, on July 4, 1854, during “one of the era’s largest and angriest antislavery rallies,” as Laura Dassow Walls recounts in her biography of Henry David Thoreau, the “professed hermit of Walden Pond” climbed up onto a high stage and delivered a speech titled “Slavery in Massachusetts” to an audience of 2000. Amid references to nature and long walks to Walden Pond, Thoreau called out the hypocrisy of those who “ring the bells and fire the cannons, to celebrate their liberty” on the Fourth of July despite the ignominy of slavery.
The Fourth of July’s commemoration of the founding of the United States and its rich history over the centuries as an event to spur social change resonates deeply with our mission at HopeWell to “expand the opportunities of individuals and families.” While we explicitly identify today’s systemic racism that can be traced back to slavery as the key driver of racial disparities in outcomes among foster youth, we also embrace the optimism and pride in our country evinced during Fourth of July celebrations. That energy and hope for the future is what drives our innovative programming.
In 1776, on the bicentennial of the Fourth of July, essayist E.B. White said it best when he wrote: “What other country is so appalled by its own shortcomings, so eager to atone for its own bad conduct?” After listing out a variety of “insuperable” problems he then noted that “everywhere you look” people are busy working on “an antidote for melancholy, a cure for disease, a correction for misconduct.”
“Let us, on this important day,” he concluded, “take heart from good John Adams. We might even for a day assume the role of patriot, with neither apology nor shame.”