It’s a uniquely American holiday and at first glance seems pretty straight forward: The Fourth of July, Independence Day, celebrates and commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the moment when the American colonies officially put England on notice that they were going to break away from the British Empire and would be forging a new future as a free people.
But, as it is with most stories, there are a lot more layers to it than that.
For starters, we should really be celebrating on the second of July. That was the day that the actual vote took place, the day that independence from Britain was actually declared. It was on the 4th of July that the document, the Declaration of Independence, was published.
While we now see the Declaration of Independence with all of the signatures at the bottom, Charles Thompson and John Hancock were the first and only signers for the first month. It would be well into August of 1776 before the other 54 signers had an opportunity to add their names.
No disrespect to Nicolas Cage and his “National Treasure” conspiracy theories, but there is not a secret map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. There is, however, some writing. And it says, “Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776.”
Here’s a fact for you that can allow you to dazzle and impress at that next trivia game: there are 56 signatures on the Declaration of Independence. Ready for a bonus round? The youngest signers, Thomas Lynch and Edward Rutledge were 26 at the time they signed. The oldest signer was 70 and already a legend; Benjamin Franklin.1
Signing the Declaration of Independence was an exceptionally risky business, something we don’t often think about today. Signing the document was seen as high treason against the King of England and the penalty for that treason was execution. In spite of this, only one signer recanted. “Richard Stockton, a lawyer from New Jersey, became the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to recant his support of the revolution after being captured by the British in November 1776 and thrown in jail. After years of abusive treatment, and his recanting of loyalties, Stockton was released to find all of his property destroyed or stolen by the British. His library, one of the finest in the colonies, was burned to the ground.”2 Others who refused to recant and were captured by British troops were tortured.3
Check out these Fourth of July numbers: Fireworks are a 1 billion dollar a year business in the US. Almost 13000 people end up in the ER as a result of fireworks injuries and 70% of those patients are men. And Americans eat 150 million hot dogs on the holiday! There were about 2.5 million people living in America at the time of the first Fourth of July. Today, the population of the United States is over 330 million.
We’ve been celebrating the Fourth of July pretty much right from the beginning. By July of 1777, the year following the Declaration of Independence’s publication, the city of Philadelphia was celebrating in a very recognizable way: “The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Everything was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.” Reports also say that ships were decorated in patriotic colors and that the streets were lined with red, white, and blue streamers.4
As you celebrate with your family this year, enjoy the history, good food, and celebration that the day brings. And may God bless America!