Next Sunday will be Independence Day, the Fourth of July which is the day that we celebrate the “birthday” of our country. It is one of the three holidays which Americans in past years have said that they experienced happiness and enjoyment without a lot of stress and worry. The other two holidays were Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Over the years the celebrations have changed; however, we have carried out the wishes of John Adams for observing Independence Day. He wrote to his wife after July 2, 1776, when Congress had voted for independence: “I am apt to believe that it (July 2) will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.”
In all the colonies of that long-ago July, independence was celebrated as the Declaration was posted in every community and hamlet for all the citizens to read and discuss. In Philadelphia, the great bell in the statehouse rang out the message of liberty for all to hear.
Even though that bell had been cast years before, it seemed as though the words which were engraved on it had been intended for this great event: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. Leviticus XXV, 10.”
All the other bells in the city joined in. That night bonfires and torches lighted the sky, and cannons boomed as the people of Philadelphia celebrated their independence and freedom. In other colonies, the citizens paraded to the sound of beating drums, and there were bonfires and fireworks to celebrate the news.
On that day, Americans showed their approval of independence in other ways. They turned their pictures of King George to the walls of their homes. In Philadelphia the King’s coat of arms was torn from the statehouse door.
When George Washington’s army heard the Declaration read, some of them showed their enthusiasm by “beheading” a statue of King George. Many of the statues of the King ended up in the melting pot and were made into bullets for the patriots. The many “King Streets” throughout the colonies were given the new name of “State Street.”
Even during the war years which followed, there were independence celebrations on July 4th. In 1783, when Great Britain had at last been defeated and independence was certain, July 4 was celebrated in all the states with a deep feeling of thanksgiving. That is how Independence Day became established as our first patriotic holiday.
On July 4, 1826, Americans celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It was on this day that the two surviving members of the original American revolutionaries both died within five hours of each other. They stood up to the British Empire and forged a new political system in the thirteen colonies.
John Adams was 90 and Thomas Jefferson was 83. They both believed in democracy and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; however, their opinions on how to achieve these ideals diverged over time. These political rivals later in life became estranged. Subsequently, it was Abagail Adams who intervened and was able to get them to resume writing to each other. Well into their retirement years, they again exchanged letters.
“You and I ought not die,” Adams wrote Jefferson, “before we have explained ourselves to each other.” Adams, the more loquacious statesmen of the two, did more explaining, writing two letters for every one of Jefferson’s. They were both worried about the country’s future, noting the growing divide between the Southern and Northern states.
From the very beginning, communities of every size celebrated Independence Day. The Norfolk Weekly News-Journal of July 10, 1908 reported that Gregory held a five day carnival featuring twelve different shows. It featured a fifty foot steel ferris wheel and a high-diver who would dive 100 feet into a three foot tank of water. One of the largest crowds of merry-makers ever gathered was in Gregory for the festivities.
That same year, Dallas had a three-day celebration which hosted four to five thousand visitors. The Norfolk paper reported that “All local freight trains on the Northwestern will be annulled on the day of the Fourth. All passenger trains will carry extra equipment to accommodate the heavy passenger traffic. Train No. 403 on the Bonesteel line, both Friday and Saturday is run through to Dallas, giving two trains each way from Dallas.”
During one of the three baseball games in Dallas, the middle section of the bleachers collapsed and two hundred spectators went down with the wreckage. One lady was badly hurt with an ankle injury. Several were badly bruised.
It was the fireworks accident at dusk on the last night which got the attention of everyone in Dallas. The display of fireworks came to a sudden and spectacular close when sparks from one of the first rockets set fire to the entire supply of fireworks.
On July 4th we once again celebrate the Declaration of Independence. Those words have become the greatest, most consequential statement of political philosophy of all time. Today, more than ever before in our history, we must all take some time to read and study that document which has survived the stupidity and selfishness of man for two hundred and forty-five years!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on June 30, 2021