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Food, Fireworks, and American Values

Every American child is taught that we celebrate Independence Day to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. On that day, we have cookouts, wear patriotic garb, and gather to watch the night sky lit up by fireworks. Like all traditions, these events can seem like a matter of course, but they have a fascinating historical origin.

One of our founding fathers, John Adams, had ideas for what the celebration would look like even before the document had officially been ratified. In a letter to his wife Abigail written on July 3, 1776, he wrote of celebrations “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.”

It was only one year later the first Fourth of July fireworks display was held in Philadelphia. Of course, the Revolutionary War was still raging at this point, so celebrations were by no means extravagant or widespread. Once the war ended in 1783, Independence Day began to be recognized as a holiday in many parts of the country. It replaced March 5, the date of the Boston Massacre, as the major patriotic holiday in Massachusetts. Around this time, fireworks also became commercially available all over the young nation.

After the War of 1812 ended and American independence was solidified further, celebrations reached even greater heights. During this time, John Philip Sousa’s 1897 march “The Stars and Stripes Forever” became a Fourth of July standard. “Stars and Stripes” may have been the first song associated with the holiday, but it certainly isn’t the only one. “God Bless America,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “America the Beautiful” are all Independence Day classics.

Another integral part of Fourth of July celebrations is, without question, the food. From hot dogs and hamburgers to watermelon, there’s no better day to enjoy some all-American fare — and there’s no more food more American than barbecue. Barbecue has been a Fourth of July tradition, especially in the South, for over a century. When the great American ornithologist John J. Audubon visited Kentucky in the early 19th century to research the local birds, he was treated to an Independence Day barbecue. He never forgot the memory and wrote of the event, “although more than 20 years have elapsed since I joined a Kentucky Barbecue, my spirit is refreshed every Fourth of July by the recollection of that day’s merriment.”

The Fourth of July, though, isn’t just about food and festivities — it’s also a day to remember the ideals our country was created to embody. Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, certainly felt that the holiday was a time to reflect on these values. In the last letter he ever wrote, from his home at Monticello on June 24, 1826, he advocated that annual celebrations “forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”