The Fourth of July from the get-go has been a rowdy holiday with ringing bells, gunfire, cannonfire, fireworks, feasting, speeches and toasts.
Over the years, people tried to turn it into something else: a platform for temperance speeches, a chance for immigrants to express their ‘American-ness,’ a ‘safe-and-sane’ holiday. But it always seems to revert to a rowdy celebration.
Here then, is a short list of 12 fascinating facts about the Fourth of July.
- John Adams got the date wrong. In a letter to his wife Abigail from Philadelphia on July 3, 1776, he wrote, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” You can understand his mistake, since the Continental Congress approved independence on July 2. And all the signers of the Declaration of Independence didn’t exactly gather around the parchment and sign at once. Some had left Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. Moreover, the Declaration wasn’t printed with all the names of the signers until January 1777, by Mary Katherine Goddard in Baltimore.
- Fireworks go all the way back to 1777, when Boston and Philadelphia held the first displays. Congress authorized the fireworks in Philadelphia, and in Boston, “Col. Crafts illuminated his park on the commons, threw several shells, and exhibited a number of fireworks.”
- The Adams family participated in official Fourth of July celebrations for 116 consecutive years, from the time John signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to 1892, when Charles Francis Adams, Jr., gave a speech at the First Church in Quincy, Mass.
- During the 19th century, people loved to drink patriotic toasts on the Fourth of July celebrations. Tipplers carefully prepared the toasts and often published them in the local newspaper. They frequently toasted George Washington. For example, a toast from Lexington, Mass., in 1814, went like this: “The memory of Washington. May his name no more be profaned by Hypocrites, as that of Jesus has been by the Jesuits.”
- On the Fourth of July in 1795, Paul Revere and Gov. Sam Adams laid the cornerstone for the Massachusetts State House in Boston. They also buried a copper time capsule. It contained a pine tree shilling coin from 1652, a copper medal engraved with an image of George Washington, several newspapers and a silver plate thought to be engraved by Paul Revere. State officials opened the time capsule in 2014.
- On the Fourth of July 1800, Daniel Webster launched his political career as an 18-year-old Dartmouth junior. He was chosen to deliver a speech at the college because of his reputation as a speaker and debater. In the speech he praised the veterans of the Revolution, George Washington and the unifying authority of the U.S. Constitution.
- John Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His last words were “Jefferson still survives.” He got it wrong; Jefferson died five hours earlier. Only one signer of the Declaration still lived in 1826: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Md., who died six years later at the age of 95.
- A Fourth of July firecracker in 1866 started the Great Portland Fire in Maine. The conflagration, the worst to date in the United States, burned 1800 buildings. It left 10,000 homeless and killed two. Fireworks, though, didn’t cause as many Fourth of July fatalities as toy guns. The toy bullets — blank cartridges, actually — pierced the skin and caused tetanus, the leading cause of Independence Day deaths in the 19th century.
- Starting in 1870, Henry C. Bowen, a businessman, hosted the country’s largest Fourth of July party in Woodstock, Conn., at his Roseland Cottage. The event featured many, many, many speeches; so many, that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes tried to get out of going in 1877. Bowen didn’t drink, and President Ulysses S. Grant had to sneak a cocktail on the porch at the first party in 1870.
- The Boston Pops Orchestra has played Stars and Stripes Forever at the end of its concerts since 1899, two years after John Philip Sousa composed it. Arthur Fiedler included it in the first Fourth of July Pops concert on the Esplanade in 1929. The Pops has played it ever since, the flag always dropping in the final moments of the piece. As many as 500,000 people show up for the concert.
- Future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis kicked off the first Americanization Day with a Fourth of July speech in 1915 at Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Americanization Day, an attempt to crowd out Independence Day, responded to nearly two decades of increasing immigration, a sore spot for many Americans. The Americanization Day movement set about to reshape the day’s image around themes of immigrants embracing American culture. It didn’t last.
- The saddest Fourth of July in the White House was probably in 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge spent most of the day at the bedside of his 16-year-old son. Calvin Coolidge, Jr., had developed septic poisoning after he played tennis without socks and it caused a blister that got infected. He died on July 7.
With thanks to James R. Heintze’s Fourth of July Celebrations Database. Boston Fireworks image By Pablo Valerio – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15723763. This story was updated in 2020.