The traditional celebrations of July 4th will look different this year as the nation reflects on its history and we deal with the pandemic gripping the nation. Picnics, barbeques, concerts, and family gatherings must be done with caution and social distancing. It is also a time to reflect on our nation’s history as it relates to the current social and equality movements taking place in the country today.
July 4th was established as a federal holiday in 1941 to celebrate our independence as a nation. However, July 2nd, 1776 was the date Congress voted on the resolution to separate from Britain and become “free and independent states”. On July 4th congress voted on the formal document known as The Declaration of Independence. The Declaration itself was not signed until August 1776.
The Adams Family Papers, in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, contains a letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams written on 3 July 1776 in which he states:
“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 God Almighty. It ought to be Solemnized with Pomp and Parade with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
The July 18, 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette recounts Philadelphia's 4th of July celebration. The ships were dressed with the colors of the United States. At 1:00 thirteen cannons were discharged from each ship signifying the thirteen colonies. A dinner for the Congress and other government officials, music, and a tribute paid to those who gave their lives to the cause of the country took place. “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...Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the fans of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more."
Because of the COVID-19 virus this year’s traditional Macy’s fireworks display will be a week-long celebration with smaller shows in each of the NYC boroughs, unannounced to avoid crowds. The celebration culminates with a televised music and fireworks special on July 4th.
The first Macy’s fireworks display was on July 1, 1958. The purpose was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the department store chain founded by Rowland Hussey Macy. It was estimated that one million people watched the program from the east bank of the Hudson River with hundreds of children perched in trees along Riverside Drive and traffic jams in the city and across the river in NJ. The 36 minute display made up of two and a half tons of fireworks illuminated the city’s skyline. Among the more unique displays were Tinker Bell, a silhouette of the Macy’s store, the Spirit of ’76 and, in tribute to Capt. R. H. Macy store founder and former whaler, a fat bellied whale jeweled with lights. (Kaplan, Morris, “Million Here See River Fireworks: Line Hudson Shore to View Display Saluting Macy’s 100th Anniversary”, New York Times, July 2, 1958.)
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."
Throughout history this phrase has been seen to exclude women, LGBTQ+, African-Americans and others who have sought equality.
From the collection of the Library of Congress this Charles Jay Taylor illustration from the July 4, 1894 issue of Puck magazine depicts an “Independence Day of the Future”. The chromolithograph “shows a future 4th of July celebration where women have gained suffrage and equality; it shows young and old women ringing a bell labeled "Equal Rights", as women emerge from underground and participate in a procession, marching under banners that state "United Order of Matinee Women" and "Higher Culture Division" past statures of a woman holding a rolling pin labeled "Erected to the Memory of the First Woman Who Wore Breeches" and an eagle, wearing a bonnet, labeled "The American Bird is a Hen Eagle and Lays Eggs. Lil Blake Sculp." A notice on a bell tower states “Strike Out the Word Male”. (Taylor, Charles Jay, Artist. "Independence Day" of the future, 1894. N.Y.: Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, July 4)
Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
On July 5, 1852 Frederick Douglass addressed the Rochester [NY] Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. The speech explores the constitutional and values-based arguments against the continued existence of Slavery in the United States. Douglass orates that positive statements about American values, such as liberty, citizenship, and freedom, were an offense to the enslaved population of the United States because of their lack of freedom, liberty, and citizenship. As well, Douglass referred not only to the captivity of enslaved people, but to the merciless exploitation and the cruelty and torture that slaves were subjected to in the United States. (Wikipedia: What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?)
Blog-post from the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Douglass states that the nation's founders are great men for their ideals for freedom, but in doing so he brings awareness to the hypocrisy of their ideals with the existence of slavery on American soil. Douglass continues to interrogate the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, to enslaved African Americans experiencing grave inequality and injustice:
“But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!” (transcript of address https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927t.html )
Arielle Gray in a July 3, 2019 commentary “As A Black American, I Don't Celebrate The Fourth Of July” states “I was introduced to Douglass' speech through my grandfather, an active man who made it a priority to expose me to black culture from a young age. I cannot quite remember the last time I accompanied him to a reading of "What to the Slave Is The Fourth of July" but I remember the feeling I had. I knew that the Fourth of July wasn't for me...But what's troublesome is that the United States, a nation that claims to be the land of the free, has a long history of denying citizenship to people who don't fit within certain paradigms.”