A Little History Lesson About America’s Birthday

Jul 3, 2019

Credit wikipedia.org

As Americans celebrate the nation’s 243rd birthday, we take a look at the events surrounding the Independence Day holiday, both then and now.

July 4th, 1776 is commonly known as the day the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Second Continental Congress, freeing the 13 colonies from the rule of King George III.

But was it?

“As a matter of fact, July 2 is the date that the colonies actually voted to move away from the Crown of England,” said Pensacola State College historian Andy Barbero.

“What we tend to get mixed up here is that, the fourth is the date of the Declaration of Independence,” Barbero says. “That’s when the Continental Congress came together and signed this declaration, to put that final stamp on it, to say ‘this is what we believe.’”

The idea of celebration with fireworks, picnics, concerts, baseball games, family reunions and other activities stems from a letter from Founding Father Adams to his wife.

“It ought to be solemnized, with pomp and parade, with shoes, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires,” said Barbero, reading from Adams’ letter. “And illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, this time forever forward more. [But] he’s talking about July 2, the day that they actually made the decision. The Declaration of Independence — that’s where July 4th comes in.”

But Adams spent the rest of his life insisting that the new nation’s birthday was July 2, and not July 4.

“He would routinely turn down opportunities to speak at Independence Day celebrations because they were being held on [July] 4th and not the 2nd,” Barbero says.

Ironically, John Adams – who became the young nation’s second president -- would die exactly 50 years later -- on July 4, 1826.

Christmas and Easter are celebrated around the world, as are Yom Kippur, Passover, and Ramadan. Many countries observe days of thanksgiving, and honor their workers and military. But the Fourth of July is a true stand-alone American holiday.

Andy Barbero, Historian, Pensacola State College.
Credit Dave Dunwoody WUWF Public Media

“If you think about it, [it’s] the celebration of equality; to celebrate this act of civic equality, as being the basis of who we are as a people, I mean that’s an amazing thing,” Barbero says. “Celebrated by everyone; it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what color you are, what creed you are. This is an American holiday.”

In 1870, Congress made Independence Day an unpaid holiday for federal employees. That was changed to a paid federal holiday in 1938. Fast forward to modern times, and increasing numbers of Americans hitting the road for the holiday. Barbero says that trend began in the 1950s, with the opening of the Interstate Highway System.

“They had these new, modern cars and modern roads; and the three-day weekend,” said Barbero. “It set it off, but also something else that’s uniquely American. A lot of us travel for the holidays; we pull our hair out and say, ‘why do I get in the car with all of these other people?’”

“But we do it anyway; it’s who we are,”

John Adams’ letter also mentioned making some noise on the Fourth. Fireworks shows across the nation will celebrate on Thursday evening, including the traditional shows on Pensacola Beach and downtown Pensacola, weather permitting.

“It was a popular way of celebrating, even back then,” Barbero says. “Loading up cannons; firing off [the] sides of ships into harbors. What were Revolutionary cannons became celebratory cannons years later; and it’s just been that way ever since.”

Perhaps some of those most touched by the celebration of America are its citizens who live elsewhere. One thing to be recognized, contends Barbero, is the impact the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence have had on the rest of the world.

“Nations from France, to Haiti, to Vietnam and so on and so forth; have used the language of the Declaration of Independence to declare their own universal freedoms – their own experiments in civic liberty,” said Barbero. “If you think about it, it’s a tremendous mantle for the rest of the world to kind of emulate.”

In what is now a nation of political divide, Pensacola State’s Andy Barbero says July 4th is a good day for everyone to put that aside and band together.

“We’re all Americans; we’re all proud to be Americans, we all want what’s best for this country,” said Barbero. “What Independence Day is about is about regular people being able to demonstrate that they can have a representative government, [and] that freedom. “This is the result of it.”

Elsewhere, the Philippines celebrates July 4 as “Republic Day” to commemorate that day in 1946 when it ceased to be a U.S. territory and became independent. Rebild National Park in Denmark is said to hold the largest July 4th celebration outside of the United States. And the 50-gun “Salute to the Union,” -- one for each state -- is fired on Independence Day at noon by any capable military base,