Forty one percent of Americans polled did not know why we celebrate the Fourth of July. Most thought that Americans were celebrating America’s birthday. Close – but not exactly.
On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, and formed a committee to draft a document that would effectively sever the colonies’ ties to Great Britain. The committee included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson was considered the most eloquent writer, so he crafted the original draft document. After a total of 86 changes to the draft, the Continental Congress officially adopted the final version on July 4,1776. The following day, the Pennsylvania Evening Post became the first newspaper to print the newly minted declaration. On July 8, the first public reading was held in Independence Square to the ringing of bells and band music. One year later on July 4,1777, Congress was adjourned, and everyone celebrated with bonfires, bells and fireworks. As fireworks had been invented by the Chinese over 1,000 years previously, there was a large array of pyrotechnics and “Chinese bombs.” John Adams never attended any of the celebrations, as he felt that the true Independence Day was July 2, when the Continental Congress voted in favor of accepting the declaration. Ironically, both he and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4,1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
The custom of celebrating on July 4th quickly spread to other towns where the celebrations became more elaborate with processions, readings, picnics, games, contests, military displays and, of course, fireworks. Observation became even more widespread after the War of 1812 with Great Britain.
San Diego was no exception. On July 4, 1869, a three-day Fourth of July celebration was held. The first day began with speeches held at a small warehouse, which Alonzo Horton had built at the foot of 5th Avenue. The oratory was followed by a parade featuring local honorees, a prayer and the reading of the Declaration of Independence by Capt. Matthew Sherman, a San Diego pioneer and early supporter of William Heath Davis. After the reading was completed, there ensued a dinner, a dance and games for the children. Some of the games included sack races, pie-eating contests, hayrides and juggling or magic shows.
The second day of the celebration was held in Old Town, and featured a picnic, horse racing and fancy riding. Bull fights were suggested , but quickly turned down! The third day, a quieter affair, was held in Monument City ( now South San Diego) , and was largely a picnic with games.
Another early celebratory custom was the firing of the anvil. Anvils ranged in size from 10 pounds to 800 pounds, but the ones fired in early Fourth of July celebrations weighed approximately 100 pounds. These instruments were made of either wrought or cast iron with steel faces. The bases, in the shape of a square, were hollow. Black powder in varying amounts was placed into the bottom of the anvil on the ground. A piece of dampened cardboard was then placed over the powder snugly, leaving just a small opening at the squared end of the anvil. The opening was lined up directly over the opening in the cardboard. Another anvil was placed on top of the original anvil crosswise.The black powder was then poured into the hole. A blacksmith would heat a long, thin iron rod until it was red hot and subsequently apply it to the powder. What followed was a deafening roar that shook the ground and caused the top anvil to sail into the air. As the anvils were practically indestructible, the process could be repeated over and over again.
In 1826, the bi-centennial, San Diego’s celebration was expanded to include militia marching, fife and drum music, a large parade and patriotic costume contests.
Congress formally established Independence Day as a national holiday in 1870 and in 1938, Congress reaffirmed it as a paid holiday for federal employees.
The Declaration of Independence has since become our nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty and a model for other nations.