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An Important Day In More Ways Than One

The Fourth of July in American history

If there’s any holiday that’s stuck to its roots, it has to be the Fourth of July. My own experiences on this day are probably comparable to quite a few Americans. There are parades to attend, hamburgers and hot dogs to eat, fireworks to see, and baseball games to watch. Virtually all of these traditions go back to the very first anniversary of that day when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. When July 4 rolled around again, the then-capital in Philadelphia went wild with feasting, fireworks, and a parade.

There is little or none of the old aura of sticking it to the British on this day, though it certainly persisted in some ways. Here in Connecticut, a full 123 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, a Stamford resident got into a scuffle with town selectmen after he raised the British flag on the holiday; he was ultimately fined $50 for breach of peace. Nowadays, there has even been a bit of envy on the part of England. In 2006, Gordon Brown asked, “What is the British equivalent of the US Fourth of July, or even the French 14th of July?...What is our equivalent for a national celebration of who we are and what we stand for?”

The Fourth of July has been further embedded in the national consciousness for its significance in years other than 1776, however. In an eerie coincidence, the second and third Presidents of the United States both died on the same day on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were such political rivals that Adams’ last words lamented that he would pass while his opponent could continue making a mark on the world. “Jefferson lives,” he said, not knowing that his former Vice President had died only hours before.

The less remembered, though perhaps equally important significance of the holiday came about during the Civil War. After over two years of halting progress in the fight against the seceded states of the Confederacy, the Union got one piece of good news after another related to July 4, 1863. Southern troops withdrew from the Battle of Gettysburg, marking the start of a bloody but successful Union advance toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. On the same day, Vicksburg surrendered in a victory that gave the United States control of the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in half, while in Arkansas Union troops defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Helena, shattering the defenses in that state. On three fronts, the task of keeping the country together had taken a huge step.

Then there’s the matter of virtually every symbol associated with the country having a connection to the Fourth of July. The current flag, brought into use after the admission of Alaska and Hawaii as states, was first flown just after midnight on July 4, 1960 at Fort McHenry in Baltimore (the fort whose defense inspired the national anthem, mind you). The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, was officially presented to the United States on Independence Day in 1884. The song “America,” also known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” was first sung on July 4, 1832 in Boston.

Granted, most of these are a result of the already established holiday, but it’s still fairly impressive. It’s a special day in more ways than one, and it’s always good to keep that in mind. But there’s also the added bonus that the holiday has actually stayed true to its roots, and that you’re keeping the tradition going whenever you go to a parade or fireworks show.

So keep up those barbecues and raise the flag if you have one. Just make sure it’s an American one if you’re in Stamford. The government there might still not like the Union Jack too much.

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