Picnics, cardboard boat races, belly slam contests, red-white-and-blue stars and stripes bunting, flags and fireworks! It doesn’t take much to recognize these Fourth of July celebrations and decorations, but what are they really all about?
America commemorates her independence the Fourth of July each year. In the year 1776, the Declaration of Independence was ratified and America gained its self-government from England.
Prior to this, America was a new territory which consisted of 13 colonies that belonged to England. America had about 2.5 million people living in these colonies. The colonies were broken into settlements that each had a governor who reported to the British King.
New King, New Rules
The colonies were left alone to govern themselves in relative peace. However, in 1760, a new power came to the English throne. King George III was juggling a war with France. Since 1754, England had been warring with France over control of North America and other colonies. This was known in the Americas as the French and Indian War.
In 1756, other nations joined the fight against imperialist-inspired England. In Europe, the fight was known as the Seven Years’ War. This battle was fought on both land and sea, and as far away as Quebec in Canada.
Paying for the War
At war’s end, England had spent so much money financing the war—doubling the national debt—that it was mired in obligation. To remedy the situation, King George III and George Grenville, the new prime minister, put their heads together and decided in 1763 to make the colonists pay a tax on sugar to help offset costs. The British citizens had already seen a tax increase, but one had not yet been imposed on the colonists.
In 1765, another tax called the Stamp Act was imposed on colonists. They now had to pay for stamps that were needed on all legal documents, including newspapers, almanacs and more.
The taxes angered the colonists because they felt they had plenty of taxation but no representation. The British government was composed of representatives of the mainland, but did not lend the same privilege to its colonies. The colonists felt that it was not right that they did not have the ability to vote on any issues affecting them.
Americans began burning their tax stamps in protest. They began to boycott the English products found in their stores. New taxes showed up on glass, paint and even tea, a nationally recognized favorite drink. Statues of the king were pulled down in retaliation.
In 1773, American colonist men dressed as Native Americans climbed aboard a British ship anchored in the Boston Harbor and dumped a cargo of tea into the water. The act became known as the Boston Tea Party. The British responded by closing the port in Boston.
Troops from England began to show up to quell the colonist’s protests. In 1774, delegates were sent to Philadelphia from all but one of the colonies (Georgia agreed in absentia). This was the First Continental Congress. After meeting again the following year, they decided to declare war. This became the American Revolution.
The Second Continental Congress
Because of this newfound patriotism, the delegates agreed that Thomas Jefferson should draft a document called the Declaration of Independence, which was approved on July 4, 1776.
Copies of the Declaration were handed out and printed in newspapers, and on July 8, a bell was rung in Philadelphia’s Independence Square (the bell became known as the Liberty Bell). The Jefferson document was read aloud to the crowd that gathered.
According to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., July 2, 1776 is the day that the Continental Congress actually voted for independence. The delegates signed the Declaration of Independence on August 4 but since the celebration took place a month earlier, the Fourth of July was accepted as America’s birthday.
Many parades and celebrations were marked by marching bands and patriotic songs. One of the best-known tunes is Yankee Doodle Dandy by George M. Cohan. Many other activities are associated with the celebration of America’s freedom. Along with parades, speeches take place and fire engine companies shoot water (instead of cannon fire!) and, of course, fireworks wow crowds across the nation.
Other Festivities Countrywide
Soldiers perform a 38-gun salute at Fort Mackinac, in Michigan. Colonial Williamsburg has a fife and drum core, dancers, storytellers and more. Even Native Americans celebrate “Indian Rights Day" and often stage pow-wows, rodeos and tribal dances.
Florida hosts a stock car race, a festival of candles is held in Lititz, Pennsylvania and Inuits in Alaska hold a whale-catching contest.
Other Fourth of July celebrations run the gamut from a hot dog eating contest at Coney Island in New York, to the Fair St. Louis under the arch, commonly called “America’s Biggest Birthday Party."
How you will celebrate the Fourth of July?