Fun Facts: July 4

Long-time Extension School instructor and alumnus Robert Allison, ALB ’87, PhD ’92, is professor and chair of history at Suffolk University. Below he provides some incredible facts about the history of Independence Day.

How we chose July 4

Patriots stand in front of a statue of Samuel Adams in Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts

John Adams thought that July 2 would be the “great anniversary festival,” in fact he wrote to Abigail on July 3, 1776, “But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha in the History of America. … I am apt to believe that it 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 Almight. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of the Continent to the to’ehr from this Time forward forever, forever more.”

So, he was off by two days. Congress on July 2 voted for Independence, which to Adams was the remarkable fact; on July 4 Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, and printer John Dunlap was hired to print up copies of the Declaration. At the top he put in big letters, “In Congress. July 4 1776,”  then underneath that “A DECLARATION by the thirteen” then big letters across the whole thing: “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” 

The date—July 4, 1776—and the name—United States of America—stuck.

In Boston, March 5 had been the anniversary day and a solemn commemoration of the Massacre, March 5, 1770. At the Boston Town Meeting, March 5, 1783, as the war had been won, James Otis moved to change the anniversary commemoration to July 4.

During the political turmoil of the 1790s, the Federalists (the party of Washington and Adams) put most of their energy into observing February 22, Washington’s Birthday. The Republicans (the party of Jefferson) put their focus on July 4. With the Republican ascendancy in 1801, July 4 won out as the anniversary day.

In 1826, as the nation observed the 50th anniversary of independence, Bostonians planning the event at Faneuil Hall wanted to use that quote from Adams (above) but were embarrassed that he had the wrong date. So they changed it—the official invitation had Adams calling for celebrations on July 4, not July 2.

By this point, Adams was happier at being right about the big point—independence—than about the smaller issue of the date. He and Jefferson had both been invited to attend the celebrations in Washington but both men were too ill to travel. They sent their regrets.

Independence forever!

Reading of the Declaration of Independence from the East Balcony of the Old State House in Boston, Massachusetts, 1776

Reading of the Declaration of Independence from the Old State House in Boston, July 18, 1776. U.S. National Archives.

Jefferson in the last letter he ever wrote said that “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man,” and hoped July 4 would awaken people around the world to the truth that one half of mankind is not born with saddles on their backs, and the other born with boots and spurs to ride them.

Adams had also been asked by the citizens of Quincy to attend their celebration. He declined, but offered a toast: Independence forever! Asked if he would like to add any more, he said, “Not a word.”

John Quincy Adams, President of the United States in 1826, left Washington after the July 4 observances, knowing his father was failing. When he reached Baltimore, a rider caught up with him with astonishing news: Thomas Jefferson had died just before one pm on July 4, practically the same moment the Congress had adopted the Declaration. Adams took this as a somber omen, marking the date and time. When he reached New York, a rider coming south brought the news that his own father had died on July 4, shortly before 5 pm.

Adams took this as a sign of Providence—and it still amazes.

Exploring liberty

The tradition of the July 4 oration took off in the nineteenth century. Frederick Douglass, on July 5, 1852, gave an oration, “The Meaning of July 4 for the Negro,” asking “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” He went through a litany of standard July 4 themes, always talking in the third person (their, your forefathers) saying these were notable and impressive aims and events. But to the American slave, they meant nothing—in fact, were worse than nothing because American liberty was based on the enslavement of African-Americans.

Was it all rank hypocrisy? Back in 1773, Samuel Johnson had asked of the Americans, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” A good question, which Douglass amplified. By the 1850s, slave-owners had given up the hypocrisy of Jefferson. Given a choice between the ideals of universal liberty, and the reality of slavery, most slave-owners chose to continue enslaving others, and in fact, argued that Jefferson was wrong about that notion that all men are created equal.

Fair question: would the self-evident truths of Jefferson’s generation—that all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, with the power to create a government to protect those rights—survive?

Lincoln based his position on upholding those truths, ending slavery. His address in November 1863, on the battlefield at Gettysburg (a battle won July 3, 1863;  on July 4, the forces under Grant had broken the Confederate resistance at Vicksburg, Mississippi, ensuring Union control of the “father of waters”), which guaranteed Union victory.  He hearkened back to the nation’s beginnings. “Four score and seven years ago…” the new nation was “…dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

I suppose we are constantly testing that proposition, and our commitment to it.

Check out the three courses Allison is teaching at Extension this year: Boston in the American RevolutionThe American Revolution, and The History of Boston and its follow-up course, Active Learning Weekend: Boston in the Era of Busing.