Liberally Speaking (6/25/09)

A historical look at the Fourth of July

June 25, 2009

By Steve Mount

As a young boy, I remember quite well the trips that I, my siblings and cousins would all take to the fireworks stands that sprouted up all around Los Angeles and Orange counties, Calif. in late June. July 4 was not only a celebration of our nation’s birth, but of my grandfather’s, too. We would buy some fireworks to celebrate each. On the night of the Fourth, the entire block would close down as families set off all sorts of pyrotechnics to honor the nation and my grandfather.

As an early teen, my family celebrated a private Fourth of July. We lived in Canada, and the big July celebration there, July 1, is for Canada Day. Since we lived in Quebec, the Canada Day celebrations were a bit ironic, since Quebec seemed poised to secede from Canada.

As a full-fledged grown-up, I gained distinct and fond memories of my first Fourth of July in Williston. We came here from Starksboro, a town too small for any extensive July Fourth celebrations. Coming to Williston, with its magnificent parade, daylong family activities, cacophonous book sale and glorious fireworks show, I suddenly had something to look forward to, like those youthful days in California.

It’s worth taking a few moments to remember what the fuss is all about, and to realize that if not for the work of some very dedicated men, we might not be celebrating at all. In early 1776, the case for independence had not yet been forcefully made. Compromise with Britain, and seats in Parliament, were seen by many as the better way to go.

A relatively short pamphlet, “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine, finally made a convincing argument for independence, and the opinion of the populace and the Congress began to change.

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, delegate from Virginia, formally brought the arguments in “Common Sense” to the Second Continental Congress. He proposed both a declaration of independence and a union of the colonies. A committee was formed to craft a document. The committee included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson was assigned by the committee to write the declaration, which he completed in just a few days.

Jefferson’s first draft was edited by Franklin, then forwarded on to the Congress, which toned down some of Jefferson’s most inflammatory language. In the end, the Declaration of Independence listed almost 30 grievances against the king, called for independence and unification, and told the people of Britain that the quarrel of the United States was with the king, and not with them.

The document was accepted by the Congress on July 4, 1776, though not until Aug. 2, 1776 was the Declaration actually signed.

Though the new United States was still at war in 1777, history records several small-scale celebrations in honor of the first anniversary, including several 13-gun salutes. In Philadelphia, official dinners and celebrations were held along with prayers, parades and fireworks. In 1778, Gen. George Washington ordered a double ration of rum for the troops.

By the turn of the 19th century, fireworks were becoming more and more common, as were formal celebrations of the day at the White House. Parades, military revues, bands, songs, plays, poems, anthems and ballet were all performed to celebrate the date.

In 1870, July 4 was designated a day off, without pay, for federal workers; in 1938, the law was changed to give the day off with pay. In 1998, Congress designated the days between Flag Day and Independence Day as “Honor America Days.”

Many notable events have been scheduled to happen on July 4, including temperance and anti-slavery speeches, the laying of cornerstones (of the Washington Monument, for one) and the christening of ships. In recent memory, the July 4’s of 1976, the nation’s bicentennial year, and 2002, the first following the Sept. 11 attacks, were notable for the proud displays of patriotism from the citizenry.

The Fourth of July is a uniquely American holiday, and we celebrate it in a uniquely American way. At some point before the holiday, to celebrate the 233rd year of the American Republic, take a few minutes and read the Declaration of Independence; refresh your memory about what the fireworks, barbecue and camaraderie are all about.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at