Americans have a habit of reworking holiday celebrations to suit contemporary needs. Look at Thanksgiving — a pit stop at Grandma’s for fried Butterball, then over-the-river-and-through-the-woods to Walmart.
Halloween has become trunk-or-treat for the kids, swinging costume bar parties. In New England, Presidents Day, which combines Washington’s and Lincoln’s February birthdays, means school’s out, let’s go skiing.
Thus do parades, hot dogs, barbecued chicken, stars and stripes sheet cakes and Jell-O molds signify July 4th — or is it Fourth of July?
Oh, my … what would those back-room politicos holed up in Philly pondering a momentous decision say to stars and stripes on flip-flops, sunglasses, bikinis and paper napkins?
First off, those politicos were all men, thus “Fathers of Our Country.” Yes, but six months later the document was printed and distributed by Mary Katherine Goddard, thereafter known as the Goddard Broadside, with her name, as publisher, affixed to the bottom.
You go, girl!
Then, the painting of the event done by John Trumbull in 1817 that hangs in the Capitol rotunda depicts presentation of the draft to Congress and prospective signers, portrayed as elder statesmen when, in fact, Thomas Jefferson, that handsome devil, was only 33. Amazing how a white periwig, while hiding baldness, adds years.
Notice that nobody’s smiling. Dentists were scarce. Maybe G.W. (otherwise known as No. 1) was the only statesman with wooden teeth. Gen. Washington, however, was too busy fighting the British to attend the signing. On that day only two men actually signed the draft. Yet since Trumbull had met most of the attendees, we take his portrayals as accurate.
Jefferson, a meticulous weatherman, recorded 76 degrees and cloudy that Thursday afternoon in Philadelphia, which at pop. 40,000 was the Colonies’ largest city. If, indeed, the hall was hung, as pictured, with heavy drapery and the participants dressed in formal coats, the air must have been stifling, not to mention malodorous. Before dry cleaning, non-washable garments were worn until stained and smelly, then discarded. No comments on personal hygiene.
After the formal proceedings the men adjourned to City Tavern, a favorite with government officials, for chowder, oysters, rabbit, pigeon, lamb testicles, fruit tarts, custards and pound cake, according to extant menus. Ben Franklin was partial to wild turkey, the feathered non-liquid kind.
Our forefathers still had work to do. The signing (by 50) of the final document didn’t happen until Aug. 2. None of the three signers from North Carolina — Hooper, Hewes, Penn — was born in the state. All died in their 40s. Impressive that John McKean, a direct descendant of Thomas McKean, the last man to sign, lives in Pinehurst.
Remember, too, that by July 4th the Revolutionary War had been raging for a year. American patriots had already perished in the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. By the end of the war in 1783, approximately 6,800 were killed in action, 6,000 wounded, 20,000 taken prisoner and a whopping 17,000 dead from disease.
Besides the flag, the only authentic Independence Day prop seems to be fireworks, available since the early 1600s and set off to celebrate the first anniversary on July 4, 1777. Was it coincidence or kismet that John Adams (90) and Thomas Jefferson (83) both died on the 50th anniversary of Independence Day?
About those made-in-China flags we so proudly wave: They were probably designed by Francis Hopkinson, lawyer and congressman from New Jersey. Betsy Ross may have done the stitching.
Not till 1870 did Congress declare the Fourth a national holiday with the admonition “For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.”
History suggests a different perspective re celebrations. Sad, that we need Fireworks Oreos (with Poprocks in the filling) to remind us of a solemn and momentous occasion, when a tiny new nation broke away from the omnipotent British Empire “on which the sun never sets.” Or that the evening news will lead with the winner of Nathan’s annual hot dog eating contest, at Coney Island, especially since a woman has qualified.
You eat, girl!
More important than holiday trappings are precepts codified in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution (ratified in 1788) which, with amendments, remain relevant 243 years later.
Great guys, those periwigged, aromatic politicians. They literally burned the midnight oil to get it right. True, they weren’t perfect; some kept slaves, others, mistresses. In less than 100 years they would be at war with each other. But do raise a barbecued drumstick and an ice-cold Bud to the stalwarts who charted a course that is still changing the world.
Then, let the fireworks begin.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org .