On Our Weird, But Historically Accurate, Fourth of July Traditions

Hot dogs, fireworks, Will Smith marathons—the Fourth of July is Americana pop culture at its finest. Can’t you practically hear the Lana Del Ray song playing in the background? Believe it or not, this is actually pretty close to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.

When the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence on July 2, 1776, future president John Adams wrote the following to his wife, Abigail:

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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 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 forever more.”

Aside from the early advocation of manifest destiny, Adams was actually incorrect—it would be the Fourth that would be fêted, as that is the date upon which the actual Declaration of Independence was dated (there is some skepticism about the actual timing of the signing, but whatever). Written by Adams’s legendary friend Thomas Jefferson (maybe you’ve heard of him?), the Declaration was the first time that anyone had bothered to write down the self-evident truths of equality and unalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Let’s set aside a whole lot of politics for the moment and focus on the Happiness. The history of events and celebrations around the Fourth are interesting in their own right and tell a surprisingly comprehensive story of our evolved and evolving national culture.

National Holiday

Despite the immediate acclamation the Declaration received, the term “Independence Day” wasn’t actually popularized until the late eighteenth century—the first recorded usage of the name was in 1791, fifteen years after the initial signing. And, ever the slowpokes, it took Congress until 1870 to make Independence Day an unpaid holiday for federal employees. The cheapskates finally made the Fourth a paid holiday in 1938.

Fireworks

Despite their Chinese origins, fireworks have long been a part of national celebrations, dating back to the original thirteen colonies. The first instance of fireworks being used to celebrate was the very first Fourth of July celebration in 1777. Nearly 200 years later, in 1976, Macy’s sponsored their first Fourth of July fireworks show.

Hot Dogs

While no one is sure exactly who to credit with creating the hot dog, everyone pretty much agrees that they were invented in America, adapted and popularized by German and Polish immigrants who began selling sausages in rolls throughout New York, St. Louis, and Chicago. Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York began in 1972, and regularly attracts half a million live spectators, in addition to more than a million viewers who tune in to watch on ESPN. American Joey Chestnut has held the title since 2007.

Movies

For a time after the westward expansion, the American Dream became synonymous with fame, fortune, and Hollywood glamour. And, while we can’t claim the invention of cinema, blockbuster films are definitely a uniquely American export. Mr. July himself, Will Smith, has faced countless aliens across two franchise films in the name of patriotism. Though his star has faded in recent years (just say no to Jayden and Willow, America), huge tent-pole movies are still released on the Fourth of July weekend with the expectation of breaking box office records. This year, look out for Earth to Echo and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to battle it out for the #1 spot.

Weird and Wonky

Some things just come full circle. Both Jefferson and Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration’s signing, July 4, 1826. Lifelong political foes and personal friends, the two continued a written correspondence throughout their lives. Though Jefferson passed several hours before, word never reached Adams, whose last words were reportedly simple—“Jefferson survives.”

A year later, on July 4, 1831, former president James Monroe also died, making him the third president in a row to pass on the Fourth. Calvin Coolidge so far remains to be the only president to be born on the Fourth, though current White House occupant Malia Obama also celebrates her birthday on the same day.

Perhaps the oddest fact of all is that the most sobering quote about the Fourth comes from a fictional president:

“In many ways our great Declaration of Independence was a work order issued under fire. One we still struggle to fulfill.” – President Bartlet, The West Wing

Photo by Andy Sutterfield
Photo by Andy Sutterfield
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