Monday, April 15, 2024 -
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July 4 — obviousities

Hail the Fourth of July, when barbecue picnics scent the sultry midsummer air, when rainbows of fiery light illuminate the balmy night, when Old Glory flutters from many a porch and pole —— and when newspaper editorialists from coast to coast repeat themselves with mind-numbing truisms, clichés and — to coin an utterly new word — obviousities.

We haven’’t a thing against patriotism, mind you, not a scintilla of scorn for those who fly flags, ignite Roman candles, play volleyball, fire up grills or go to baseball games — even for those American Scrooges who prefer to ignore the whole holiday.

But instead of penning  yet another litany of obviousities celebrating the above-noted rituals, instead of yet another affirmation of the Founding Fathers’ undeniable courage and brilliance, instead of  yet another semi-scolding reminder of the precious freedoms that we all must cherish and hold so dear (as if we didn’t!), allow us to examine what really happened on the most historic Fourth of July of all, in the immemorial year of 1776.

We all know from elementary school, of course, the day’’s pivotal event —— the approval by the Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence, the definitive act which formally triggered the American Revolution, set off the Revolutionary War and led — seven painful years later —— to the actual birth of the United States of America.

All true as recorded, as far as can be gathered today, but there were many interesting facets of the day which history has largely forgotten and which are seldom discussed in latter day Fourths of July.

For example, while the Declaration was indeed approved on July 4, 1776, the actual signing of the document was quite another matter. Only two patriots —— Charles Thomson and John Hancock (who, wit that he was, signed his name especially large and with a flourish so that “King George can read that without spectacles!”) —— actually signed the document on that day. Most of the other signatures didn’t appear until August 2 of that year. One of them, that of Thomas McKean, wasn’’t applied to the parchment until 1781!

Nor was the Declaration itself unanimously endorsed. When, late in the afternoon of the seminal Fourth, the vote was finally tallied, two of the 13 colonies —— Pennsylvania and South Carolina —— voted against the document. New York abstained, since it had yet to receive final word from its home government, and Delaware officially remained undecided.

The nine other colonies, however, all of which voted “yes,” were enough to carry the day.

One of the signers, then future president John Adams, firmly believed that July 2, 1776 —— when it appeared that everything was just about ready to be signed, sealed and delivered —— would forever be considered America’’s true birthday.

“”The second day of July, 1776,”” he wrote to his wife Abigail, “”will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to G-d Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward for evermore.””

Demonstrating a remarkable knack for prophecy, Adams got everything right but the date.

The first public celebration of what was already being called Independence Day took place one year later, July 4, 1777, when the redcoats’ muskets could still be heard across much of America.

By the early 19th  century, the traditions of parades, picnics and fireworks —— all still so familiar to us in the 21st century —— were already firmly established.

It wasn’t until 165 years after the first Fourth of July, in 1941, however, that the US Congress finally got around to officially declaring the Fourth of July a federal holiday.

Finally, what about the weather?

Was July 4, 1776 a typical Philadelphia summer day, with lots of heat and humidity, much like we routinely associate with the holiday?

Interestingly, it was not. It was unseasonably cool and mild in Philadelphia that historic day. We know of at least two prominent personages —— figures known both for their political and scientific acumen — —who actually kept records of the day’s temperatures.

The ever-curious Benjamin Franklin recorded 68 degrees Fahrenheit at 6 a.m. that day, and 76 degrees by 1 p.m.

The equally curious Thomas Jefferson, like Franklin, using his own thermometer, came up with identical temperatures.

Brilliant minds, as they say, think alike.

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