A Brief History Of 4th Of July Traditions

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - July 01, 2009
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The Albatross helped celebrate July 4, 1814, in Honolulu

Did you know that the federal government doesn’t require Hawaii to recognize the Fourth of July as a holiday?

That’s right. It doesn’t make us observe New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving or Christmas either.

In Hawaii, we’ve passed on Columbus Day and renamed each third Monday in February as Presidents Day. (Washington’s Birthday was first declared a federal holiday by an 1879 act of Congress. The Monday Holiday Law of 1968 shifted Washington’s Birthday from Feb. 22 to the third Monday of that month but that law did not changed the name of the holiday from Washington’s Birthday to President’s Day.)

There no such thing as a U.S. holiday mandated across the 50 states. States can observe federal holidays or create their own. And they do. But every state observes the Fourth of July.

We came to it relatively late, not being a state until 1959. Our first courtesy observance was in 1814 with a small royal luau, and artillery salutes fired by the merchant ships Isabella and Albatross in Honolulu Harbor. A seaman on the Albatross had his hand blown off by a misfiring cannon. (The Albatross would later become a U.S. Navy gunboat.)


Boston first made July 4 an official holiday in 1783. Before that, some Eastern towns had made a ceremony of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud in the town square.

Philadelphia had the first real wingding in 1777 with ships’cannons firing, church bells ringing, a parade and fireworks. So I guess that’s where today’s version began.

The Virginia Gazette editorialized: “Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more. Amen, and amen.”

But 1779 was the first year the fourth fell on a Sunday, which caused quite a problem. Lots of religious folks objected, so celebrations were moved to the following day, a tradition that became common around the U.S. In 1786, the celebration in Beaufort, N.C., resulted in the courthouse being burned down because of an errant artillery shell fired to mark the day.

In 1788, the celebrations became violently political as factions fought over the adoption of the federal Constitution; pro- and anti-Constitution factions clashed at Albany, N.Y. In Providence, R.I., 1,000 citizens blocked the celebration because they objected to ratification of the Constitution.

And in 1800 in New York City, we had the the first newspaper advertisement for fireworks!

So it went, and in 1870 Congress made Independence Day a federal holiday but stipulated it as an unpaid holiday for federal workers.

Imagine that! An unpaid holiday. Seems very quaint, doesn’t it?

Well, in 1931 Congress fixed that obviously unpalatable law and declared it a paid holiday. The 50 states have gone along with that.


So this Saturday, we’ll have some fireworks and politicians on display in the Kailua parade and all the hibachi smoke arising from Ala Moana and Kapiolani parks.

And actually, it should have been The Glorious Second rather than The Glorious Fourth, because July 2, 1776, was when the Continental Congress approved the first version of the Declaration and John Adams wrote to his wife:

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. 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.”

He was off by a couple of days. But he got the spirit right.

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