I always am amazed by people who can’t recognize portraits of recent presidents like Richard Nixon, much less answer questions about American history. Many people ought to know why we celebrate the 4th of July. On that day in 1776, that members of the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to adopt and sign the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. Some famous words from it: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, saying, "I believe that (the 4th) will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other..."
The following year in 1777, Philadelphia remembered the day by ringing bells, firing guns, lighting candles and setting off firecrackers. However, the War of Independence continued until Oct. 19, 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Most Fourth of July celebrations were modest, since American farmers suffered hardships until after the Americans again defeated the British in the War of 1812.
But don’t forget the “west” – Vicksburg, Mississippi. Admiral David Farragut’s fleet fought to free the Mississippi for the Union from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. Vicksburg held out, due to the high bluffs that protected the city. But General Ulysses S. Grant’s siege from May 19th bombarded the city from all sides. People escaped to caves, but the city was forced to surrender on the 4th of July, 1863. Vicksburg citizens banned celebrating the holiday for years.
In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, she recalled political officials who read the entire Declaration of Independence. This happened in cities and small towns across America, because many people had a rudimentary education, if any. By 1940, only half of the U.S. population had completed an eighth grade education. HALF – only up to the 8th grade! Consider the immigrants, the blacks who were discouraged from getting an education, and the rural areas with one-room schools and farming needs for family labor. Things have certainly improved in the last 70 years!
The Declaration of Independence is still read in cities and towns today. Speeches, military events, parades, and fireworks make the day special. The government was rather late in declaring it a federal holiday – Congress finally passed the bill in 1941.
Since then, summer fun on the Fourth of July includes fireworks displays, parades and historical pageants, baseball, sun-bathing on the beach and swimming. The Boston Pops Orchestra always holds a concert on the Charles River bank, with John Philip Sousa marches and music by other American composers before ending with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture that includes cannons and fireworks. Many locals watch on television, because the traffic is horrendous! The Lititz, Pennsylvania, candle festival, the longest continuous celebration of July 4th since 1813, has hundreds of candles floating in water and a contest to choose a "Queen of Candles.” Annapolis, Maryland, shuts down the streets after 3 p.m. for walkers, with fireworks at dusk over the U.S. Naval Academy, and restaurants staying open late.
Out west, an American Indian rodeo and three-day pow-wow used to take place in Flagstaff, Arizona, for fifty years until 1981. Nowadays, several groups hold pow-wows around July 4th in Massachusetts, New York, Missouri and Oklahoma.In Texas, according to one friend, unlicensed fireworks end up with a trip to the emergency room. It happens in Michigan, too, and across the country. Fireworks are best left to the professionals. But people across the country head to the nearest park, lake or beach to watch fireworks.
I’d be amiss not to mention Detroit’s late June “International Freedom Festival” in conjunction with Canada. They celebrate the July 1st date when their provinces joined together in 1867 under the British Empire. Three barges shoot fireworks on the Detroit River near the Renaissance Center, and people pack Belle Isle and the downtown streets of Detroit and Windsor to watch.
But don't forget the regional flavors that grilling can make adventurous!
Clambakes with clams, mussels, Maryland blue crabs, lobsters, oysters and smelt on the east coast… Grilled kielbasa, Italian sausage, bratwurst and S’Mores in the Midwest… Fried chicken, boiled crawfish, pulled pork, fry pies in the South…Pit-roasted pig, Jamaican ribs, tamales and grilled gator in Florida…
Grilled gator?? Yep!
Bacon-wrapped jalapenos (ratas) or cream-cheese stuffed green chiles, smoked brisket, pork loin or turkey, buffalo burgers in the west… Sushi or grilled salmon on the Pacific coast… It all adds up to YUM!
ENJOY your Fourth of July, whatever you have grilling on the "barbie" (heh heh, a touch of Aussie there), and remember to stay safe when handling fireworks of any kind. Even sparklers can cause serious burns.
If you drink, please use a designated driver.
However you celebrate, Happy Independence Day! And remember – America is worth celebrating!!