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A Historical Look at America's National Day - 2003-06-30

Friday, millions of Americans will take a break from their workweek to celebrate the birthday of the United States. Right from the start of the new nation, the Fourth of July has been an important celebration.

"The day will be the most memorable in the history of America." So wrote John Adams to his wife on July 3, 1776. A framer of the Declaration of Independence and the future second president of the United States, Adams was of course referring to the following day, the Fourth of July. For on that day the 13 colonies formally declared their independence from Great Britain.

Adams was prophetic when he told Abigail: "I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, bonfires and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other."

However, what evolved into American independence actually began as quite something else.

"We were taking on the trappings of an independent state before we had made in all parts of the union a mental resolution that we were going to do this," said Harold Langley, a curator of military history at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

He says the first uprisings against Great Britain - at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in 1775 - were not meant to start a war of independence. They were intended solely as a call to the English parliament to address the grievances of the colonies - excessive taxation, no legislative representation in London, and a strict ban on imports from all nations except Britain. It was a year and a half after what an American poet later called "the shots heard round the world" that the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, produced the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

"In the period between April of 1775 and July of 1776, there was a gradual awareness that in resisting British force, we had already taken certain steps which sovereign nations took," Mr. Langley said. "We had outfitted an army. We had appointed a commander in chief. We had outfitted a navy. We had issued letters of remark and reprisal. We had issued a version of money. We had sent diplomats abroad. So this effort on the part of the Congress is the final recognition of that [process] by the political leaders."

Since the war of independence was already being waged, the first Fourth of July celebrations were marked more by gunfire than by fireworks. In Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, each warship of the young navy fired 13 cannons to honor the new United States. And according to a local newspaper account of the day, the founding fathers of the republic dined at the city tavern that evening and raised toasts to independence.

Smithsonian Institution historian Harold Langley adds that some of the customs associated with the holiday evolved from that very first Fourth of July. "From the very beginning we were accustomed to celebrating that anniversary. And in those days it was a custom to illuminate homes and public buildings by putting candles in the windows and sometimes drawn transparencies of patriotic scenes," he said. "And any town of any significance that had a small saluting cannon would fire it off somewhere in the course of the celebration. In the early 19th century the birthday celebration would often be accompanied by a reading of the Declaration of Independence by some public official, like the mayor of the town, at a public gathering. And then there would be a parade through the village or city, which would be an occasion to trot out any local Revolutionary War veterans that were still there or local militiamen in uniform."

There are no Revolutionary War veterans left alive now, of course, and the custom of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud has all but vanished, too. Still, just about every town and city in the United States has its own Fourth of July parade and fireworks display - a custom that has had to be modified over the years.

"Of course, in their effort to celebrate they found out very early that the business of firing off cannons by people who were not too used to firing off cannons sometimes led to tragic accidents," Mr. Langley said. "And so the business of loading and firing the ceremonial cannon would be entrusted to the hands of people who were most accustomed to using explosives. Out of this there emerged later in the 19th century the use of fireworks."

The problem of cannons firing erratically, and occasionally injuring or killing some onlookers, was replaced by another problem. A citizen of Philadelphia made the following entry about fireworks displays in his diary in 1864.

"As a general rule," he wrote, "30 to 40 houses are set afire every Fourth of July." Since then, the sale of fireworks to the general public has been outlawed in many states - including Massachusetts, which in 1781 became the first state to vote official recognition of the Fourth of July holiday.

Today, major fireworks displays - such as those on the Mall in Washington or at the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor - are staged by professional pyrotechnic companies. Still, the friendly admonition, "have a safe and sane Fourth" is a familiar greeting all across the United States on its birthday.