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Americans all across the country are celebrating the Fourth of July. People are gathering in their backyards, at the local park and at churches to celebrate our nation's independence with fireworks, parades, barbecues, picnics, concerts and family reunions. But, why do we celebrate the way that we do? And just what is the significance of July 4?
Here's a little history about Independence Day. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence, which legally separated the original 13 colonies from Great Britain. The Committee of Five - Thomas Jefferson (principal author), Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman - had already drafted a formal declaration between June 11 and June 28, 1776 in preparation for a vote by Congress. On July 4, 1776, after debate and revision, the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress. The United States of America were born.
At least, on paper. There were still many years to go before freedom was actually won. The American Revolutionary War had been going on for over a year when the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed. It wasn't until September of 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, that Britain recognized the sovereignty of the United States. The treaty ended the war and gave Americans something to celebrate.
So, why do we celebrate our independence with fireworks and parades? We can thank John Adams for that. In a letter to his wife, Abigail, he wrote, "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 forever more."
The first Independence Day fireworks were set off on July 4, 1777 in Philadelphia.
Originally, the night before the Fourth was the focal point of celebrations and the big show stoppers were the bonfires. In New England, towns competed by building towering pyramids from hogsheads, barrels and casks. The pyramids were then lit at nightfall to usher in the celebration. The highest bonfires ever recorded were in Salem, Massachusetts on Gallows Hill, which were composed of as many as 40 tiers of barrels. Some New England towns still practice the bonfire custom to celebrate Independence Day.
Many patriotic songs usually accompany the fireworks displays we have today, including our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," "God Bless America," "America the Beautiful," "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," "This Land Is Your Land," "Stars and Stripes Forever" and (regionally) "Yankee Doodle" in northeastern states and "Dixie" in southern states.
Parades have become a staple of Independence Day celebrations as well. The oldest continuous parade is the Bristol Fourth of July Parade, held in Bristol, Rhode Island. It was first held in 1785. A "salute to the union" is also fired on Independence Day at noon by any capable military base, with a shot being fired for each state in the United States.
Let's not forget the real meaning of Independence Day, though. Many men fought and died for our nation's freedom - about 50,000 dead and wounded. Men and women are still risking their lives to protect our freedom today. So, when you're around the table enjoying your barbecue, or sitting on the grass at your local park watching the fireworks burst overhead, remember what the Fourth of July stands for. And if you know a soldier or veteran, walk up and shake their hand, give them a hug and thank them.