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Fourth of July revisited

| Friday, July 4, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
EQT Fireworks Fantasia by Zambelli during the EQT Three Rivers Regatta on Thursday, July 4, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
EQT Fireworks Fantasia by Zambelli during the EQT Three Rivers Regatta on Thursday, July 4, 2013.

The Fourth of July is best known in the United States as Independence Day.

Officially, it gradually became a holiday.

Unofficially, July 4 has been celebrated since 1776, though even then it was a question mark.

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America,” founding father John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail after the Continental Congress voted that day to approve a resolution of independence from Great Britain.

That's not the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson and adopted two days later, “in Congress, July 4, 1776.”

Nor was July 4 the day Jefferson's document was signed. According to the National Archives it wasn't signed until Aug. 2 and even then not by all of the 56 delegates to the Continental Congress.

There is evidence the last signer didn't put his John Hancock to the Declaration — or more accurately, his Thomas McKean — until sometime in 1777. McKean was one of Delaware's delegates to the Continental Congress.

It was a bit longer until everyone recognized the anniversary of whatever happened on July 4 as a holiday.

“It was in 1941 that Congress marked the Fourth of July as our nation's birthday,” Cornerstone TeleVision CEO Don Black observed this week in a newsletter published by the Christian ministry in Wall.

His comment, and that by the History Channel that “July 4th has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1941,” refers to Congress acting to give employees of the District of Columbia — that is, Washington — a paid holiday.

In turn, Congress amended a 1938 law making July 4 a holiday with pay for federal employees.

Furthermore, it put paychecks in the hands of employees seven decades after July 4 first was established as an unpaid holiday.

On June 28, 1870, Congress approved a bill making “the first day of January, commonly called New Year's day, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas day, and any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fast or thanksgiving, shall be holidays within the District of Columbia.”

That legislation not only recognized July 4 as a federal holiday, but Christmas as well.

As a number of websites point out, the federal government only can declare a holiday for its employees and those of the District of Columbia, which Congress governs.

States and counties can follow suit, or not. In Pennsylvania, July 4 unofficially has been a holiday since 1777.

The Declaration of Independence first was made public in Philadelphia and celebrated there on July 8, 1776.

On July 4, 1777, in Philadelphia, according to a correspondent writing to the Virginia Gazette, the anniversary of the Declaration “was celebrated in this city with demonstration of joy and festivity.”

Adams supposedly insisted that July 2, not July 4, be marked as Independence Day, but his home state of Massachusetts had the first official state celebration of July 4 in 1781, according to archives gathered by American University in Washington.

“Boston was the first municipality (city/town) to officially designate July Fourth as a holiday, in 1783,” according to archivists who have compiled records for an American University website since 1995.

“Alexander Martin of North Carolina was the first governor to issue a state order (in 1783) for celebrating the independence of the country on the Fourth of July,” the archivists went on.

On July 4, 1787, Gov. William Livingston of New Jersey said, “The present day naturally recalls to our minds an event that ought never to be forgotten, and the revival of the military spirit amongst us, affords a happy argument of our determined resolution to maintain under the auspices of heaven, that glorious independence, the anniversary of which it has pleased God to preserve our lives this day to celebrate.”

That was reported on July 14, 1787, in a Philadelphia newspaper, the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser.

The Fourth actually faded as a holiday in some circles, as political parties formed in the new nation.

One reason was support for the French Revolution among Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans and opposition from Alexander Hamilton's Federalists, from which John Adams was chosen the second president after Washington left office in 1797.

Some thought the Declaration was too French — and the U.S. fought an undeclared naval war with the French in the Caribbean in 1799.

According to the Library of Congress, observing July 4 did not become a tradition (again) until after the War of 1812, a war some call America's second war for independence.

During that war the British sacked Washington and besieged Baltimore, during which Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which would become the national anthem in 1931.

By 1870, according to the Library of Congress, “the Fourth of July was the most important nonreligious holiday on the calendar. All across the country on that day, towns and cities had celebrations with parades, barbecues and fireworks displays.”

Just like many will do today.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or

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