On July 4, 1786, the Beaufort, N.C., courthouse burned down, the result of an errant artillery shell fired during a celebration on the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. History does not record whether the conflagration upstaged the evening’s fireworks show, but I’m guessing it was a tough act to follow.
On July 4, 1804, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, on a mission at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson to discover a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean, conducted the first-ever Independence Day celebration west of the Mississippi River. The observance at a midwestern site they named Independence Creek consisted of firing a cannon at dawn and again at sunset, the dispensation of an extra ration of whiskey to the men, and, when the liquor kicked in, solemn expressions of patriotism around an evening campfire far removed from civilization.
Addressing an Independence Day rally in Salem, Ill. on July 4, 1866, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman used the occasion to defend his scorched-earth strategy employed in his Civil War march to the sea that cut a wide swath of destruction through Georgia and included the burning of Atlanta. The maneuver may not have made him the most popular man in the country, Sherman conceded. But if he hadn’t taken that approach, a lot of veterans — husbands and sons then back home with their families — would not have been there listening to him extol the virtues of this bountiful land.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge gave a speech in Philadelphia on July 4, 1926. Silent Cal — a Yankee Doodle Dandy born on the Fourth of July, 1872 — told his audience, “If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism …” Eighty-four years later, as the national morale threatens to tank because of two wars, a lousy economy, rampant joblessness, a continuing nightmarish environmental disaster and a vague overall sense of impending doom, the advice remains solid.
On July 4, 1912, the new national flag with 48 stars was officially unfurled. On July 4, 1960, the 50-star American flag was raised when Hawaii was granted statehood. You can suppose that the orators were out in force on both occasions, swaddled in red, white and blue cliches and firing on all cylinders.
July 2, 1776 — the day when Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence — was when our forefathers officially filed for divorce from King George III of Great Britain and his minions on grounds of irreconcilable differences. Congress then debated and revised the formal Declaration of Independence — a statement explaining the decision — giving it final approval on July 4, although most members didn’t actually sign the document until Aug. 2, 1776.
John Adams, who, with three others helped Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration, predicted that the second day of July, 1776, would be “the most memorable epoch in the history of America” and forever celebrated as such. But from the beginning, independence has been honored on July 4, the date shown on the revered document.
The day traditionally has inspired patriotic speeches and the commemoration of historic events that define who we are as Americans. Odds are good that more than a few of the orators expounding from bunting-bedecked platforms down through history have met humorist Mark Twain’s cynical definition of a patriot as “the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.’’
But patriotic speeches by themselves do not a national holiday make. This one, more so than most other government-sanctioned official breaks in the work week, is associated with parades and fireworks, concerts, road races, family reunions, picnics, beer and baseball, and, in some Maine jurisdictions, salmon and the first garden-fresh peas of the season.
There is likely something in a venue near each of us to provoke an occasional loud holler of appreciation on this festive weekend, even though we may have no clue beforehand as to what that something might be. May we be safe and sane in our celebrating, leave the fireworks displays to the pros and remove our hats in respect when the flag passes by.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.