It didn’t take long for this country to celebrate the Fourth of July. In 1777, at Bristol, Rhode Island, thirteen gunshots were fired, once in the morning and again in the evening, to mark the one year anniversary of our Independence from Great Britain.
On that same day in Philadelphia, a celebration that would be familiar to modern day America played out; Continental Congress was suspended for the occasion, toasts were offered up, there was a parade, fireworks, an official dinner, speeches, troop reviews, several thirteen gun salutes and ships in port were decked out with red, white and blue bunting.
Music interestingly enough, was provided by the Hessian band, part of the German mercenaries captured by colonial troops led by George Washington at Trenton, New Jersey, on December 26, 1776. I guess they figured “if you can’t beat’em, join’em!”
All that hoopla could have been slightly premature. We hadn’t exactly secured ANY Independence by the summer of 1777.
Far from it! The British held New York City even as Bristol and Philadelphia celebrated. The very day after the toasting, saluting and flag waving, Fort Ticonderoga fell to the dreaded Red Coats. On September 11 the British won a major victory at Brandywine, Pennsylvania. And ten days later, the English invaders, under General Howe, captured the city of Philadelphia itself.
George Washington and his beleaguered troops spent an unimaginable horrific winter at Valley Forge…….
Nobody handed this Independence to us on a silver platter.
On July 4, 1778, General Washington, from his headquarters at Ross Hill, near New Brunswick, New Jersey, fired an artillery salute and ordered a double ration of rum for his soldiers. Wasn’t nobody giving up on this idea of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness either!
In 1781, Massachusetts became the first “state” to recognize July 4 as an official day to celebrate. This was still four months before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown….and our precious Independence was actually won!
I find it of no small consequence that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day, July 4, 1826. Exactly fifty years after both played such a significant role in the preparation, drafting and eventual signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Both of these former presidents were invited to Washington to participate in the Silver Anniversary of our nation. Both were too sick to make the trip. In Jefferson’s letter of regret for not being able to attend, he wrote of the blessings and security of self-government and concluded by saying, “…..let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
They were the last words ever penned by Thomas Jefferson.
James Monroe also died on July 4. The year was 1831. He was not a signer of the Declaration, but you remember the capture of that Hessian band the night Washington “crossed the Delaware” and surprised the British at Trenton. A young Lieutenant Monroe took a bullet in the shoulder that freezing cold night and would have died in the snow except for the miraculous appearance of a doctor from out of nowhere.
President Monroe earned his right to die on Independence Day.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this on July 4, 1956. I was just downtown eating barbeque and baked beans with Larry and Ricky, Ruth Ann and the rest of my friends. Red, white and blue was hanging from every window, light pole, balcony and overhang.
We laughed through the sack races. The whole town yelled and clapped when Charlotte near ’bout drowned bobbing for an apple. We were living large and enjoying life. I’m telling you, freedom abounded on every side!
I did notice some of the men wore their World War II uniforms. And the oldest guys in town gathered over by the World War I Monument.
When the high school band hit the first note of The Star Spangled Banner the entire crowd went silent. Nobody moved. Hands fell over hearts. Even the flags spread out along Broadway and Cedar Avenue seemed to unfurl and stand at attention…..
I don’t know if we bob for apples anymore. And maybe sack races are outdated. And maybe this is just another holiday when the mail doesn’t run, the grandkids come over and nobody goes to work.
But I have learned one dead certain positive for sure thing about the Fourth of July since 1956. The more you know, the more important it becomes…..