If you’ve lost track of time and space, stumbling about in a calendar-less COVID-19 coma, the recent explosion of fireworks, sending shuddering dogs into under-the-bed mode, might have alerted you to the sudden appearance of the Fourth of July.
As so many traditional Independence Day activities and formal fireworks displays have been canceled due to the virus, let us be illuminated by some little-known July Fourth history. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted for independence from Britain. Two days later the Declaration of Independence was signed — at least by a few. It went on for weeks. John Adams believed July 2 should be the celebrated date, so adamant was he, that he refused to attend July 4 activities the rest of his life in protest. He wrote to wife, Abigail, that the day would be feted by succeeding generations, including “Pomp and Parade, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illumination from one End of this Continent to the other.” He was certainly right; except we have thankfully nixed the guns part. Massachusetts was the first state to make July 4 a state holiday in 1781. The U.S. Congress declared it a federal holiday in 1870, but it was not until 1941 that it became a paid holiday for federal employees.
Americans have always whooped it up on the holiday. There are 150 million hot dogs consumed, enough to stretch from sea to shining sea — or D.C. to L.A. more than five times. Joey Chestnut scarfed down 74 wieners in buns in 10 minutes to win the National Hot Dog Eating Contest held on the holiday. In Boston this year, fireworks use has increased 5,000 percent. They even formed a task force to deal with it. Maybe folks have something to worry about when you consider what happened in Maine in 1866. One firecracker was said to have started the Great Portland Fire, which burned 1,800 buildings, killing two and leaving 10,000 homeless. In those days, before modern medicine, toy guns used in July 4 celebrations killed more people than fireworks did. Their “blank” cartridge bullets pierced the skin, causing tetanus. In 2017, the US recorded 12,900 fireworks injuries with eight deaths; 67 percent occurred in the few weeks before and after July 4. It is also the Numero Uno holiday for beer sales.
Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe all died on the Fourth of July, and Calvin Coolidge was born on that day. Zachary Taylor did not die on the Fourth but celebrated it by eating cholera-tainted fruit which killed him a few days later. One World Trade Center in NYC is 1,776 feet high in honor of 1776. On July 4, 1795 Paul Revere and Sam Adams (now more famous for beer than history) laid the cornerstone for the Massachusetts State House and buried a time capsule containing a 1652 shilling, some newspapers and a silver plate engraved by Paul. It was opened in 2014. In 1915 future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis tried to kick off a new take on the Fourth, Americanization Day, reshaping the holiday around immigrants and American culture — it didn’t catch on, but clearly he was ahead of his time. Poor Cal Coolidge, whose birthday was that day, in 1924 spent it by his son’s bedside. His son had played tennis, sockless, and developed a blister, causing sepsis and death three days later.
July 4 is also the day any new additions to our flag were introduced. We have flown 27 versions of the Stars and Stripes since it was conceived, but the history of the last design is worth noting. In 1958, Bob Heft, an Ohio high school student, was given an assignment by his history teacher to make a flag, anticipating that Alaska and Hawaii might become states. He redesigned it in 12½ hours, with the stars in five rows of six and four rows of five. The teacher gave him a B-. Bob protested the grade and his teacher countered with the comment, “If it makes it to Washington, I’ll consider changing your grade.” For two years Bob called and wrote to the White House and his State Representative. By 1960 the two states were officially recognized, and Bob got a call from President Eisenhower that his design had been chosen over 1,000 others. He spent July 4, 1960 celebrating at the White House and yes, his teacher did raise his grade to an A. Bob went on to become a professor and mayor of a small town. He also designed a 51-star flag which he gave to his State Representative before he passed away in 2009 — just in case.
We have come a long way since 1776. People are still injured by fireworks, but we, at least, have procedures and medications to help. There are compassionate leaders among us who encourage embracing diversity, but strive for a common union, and we still have young people who won’t take no for an answer when they believe in themselves and a higher purpose. So, recent grads, do not let others define you, figure out who you are, how you can strengthen your community of humanity and let’s keep making this rowdy, ragged bunch of us Americans better, so we can be prouder each year we hoist the flag to celebrate the Fourth of July.