Had John Adams been a bit better at predicting the future, we’d all be coming off a three-day weekend.
I think of our second president every time the Fourth of July lands on a Wednesday, which makes it hard to group together with a weekend. Falling in the middle of the week creates a one-day weekend, which hardly leaves enough time to celebrate the birth of the Republic and recover from the celebration of the birth of the Republic.
We put up with the inconvenience rather than suffer the disconnect of having something called the Fourth of July occur on July 3 or 5. But the date itself isn’t as carved in stone as we assume. We stick with it perhaps because it is written in parchment.
For his part, Adams thought an independent America was two days old by July 4, 1776.
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“The second day of July 1776 will be the memorable epocha in the history of America,” Adams wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
July 2 was when the Continental Congress voted on the Declaration of Independence. That was when the decision was made, when the doubt was removed, when the point of no return was crossed.
Adams, a prodigious letter writer and diarist, leaves no written reference at all to July 4. The first day the document was read in public, to much cheering, was July 8. Many colonies didn’t get word for days and celebrated as late as July 26.
But both the original and the handwritten copies of the declaration that spread across the colonies and beyond featured in the largest type across the top, “In Congress, July 4, 1776.” That’s when the final draft was approved and the president and secretary of the Congress signed their names. Most other members of the Continental Congress waited until Aug. 2.
So there are any number of days that could be marked as the birth date of American democracy. Why not pick whichever one works in any given year? OK, maybe not.
Still, if Adams was wrong on the date, he was spot on in his prediction of how we would celebrate: “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.”
Adams didn’t mention overeating and drinking, though they were certain to have been part of any commemoration then as now. The rest of his prediction was accurate back then and still today.
“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,” is how American University’s Fourth of July Celebrations database describes July 4, 1777, in Philadelphia.
The next year, Gen. George Washington directed his soldiers to place green boughs in their hats and ordered an artillery salute. And, of course, he permitted a double ration of rum.
The first Fourth of July in what is now Washington state happened in 1841 after Lt. Charles Wilkes arrived at Fort Nisqually near DuPont. In his history of early Tacoma, “Puget’s Sound,” Murray Morgan described the party thrown by Wilkes’ crew. The guests were American Indians and the British employees at the trading camp.
They roasted a steer, fired the howitzer and their muskets, drank their extra allowance of rye, danced to a fiddle, raced horses and played an early variant of baseball called cornerball. They sang patriotic songs and read aloud the Declaration of Independence.
The celebrations were remarkably similar after Tacoma began holding its festivities in Stadium Bowl a hundred years ago and then when it moved to the Old Town waterfront in 1950.
But despite the very name of the holiday, not all Fourth of July celebrations were celebrated on July 4. Beginning with Wilkes’ and lasting well into the 20th century, whenever July 4 fell on a Sunday, the festivities moved to Monday.
So at least in those years, God gave us something the founders didn’t – a three-day Independence Day weekend.