July 4th was the nation’s first secular holiday. In fact, Americans began informally commemorating their independence from Great Britain on that date even before they were independent. On July 4, 1777, there was a thirteen-gun salute in Philadelphia to mark the day. The next year, General George Washington celebrated by issuing his men a double ration of rum. In 1779, Massachusetts led the way in making the date an official state holiday, and others soon followed. In 1785, the town of Bristol, Rhode Island held a parade, a tradition it has continued ever since, making it the longest running July 4th celebration in America.
As the 19th century unfolded, the United States went through a startling transformation, and as the nation changed, so too would the meaning of July 4th for many people. The relatively small and highly agricultural nation began to urbanize, industrialize, and expand at an astounding rate. The changes came fast, were highly jarring, and the federal government was still quite small and weak. Consequently, economic development was largely unregulated and things simply ran amok.
By mid-century, the United States was beginning to look like a third world country in many respects. Cities in particular were teeming with squalor, as each day overcrowded slums became home to more people and animals than anyone had thought possible. In the warmer months, streets were filled with pedestrians, push carts, children, rooting pigs, stray dogs, and the bloated and rotting corpses of overworked horses who had pulled their last load. In the evenings they were joined by many neighborhood residents who were fleeing the heat of their un-air conditioned homes.
Jobs were the main draw for the millions of immigrants, both foreign and domestic, who flooded the cities. The Industrial Revolution created jobs by the thousands, but more and more openings were for semi-skilled and even unskilled manual laborers. Electricity was still in the offing, so many people not only worked beside animals, but also worked liked them. Factories chewed up workers and spit them out at an alarming rate. To look back at some of the statistics today is to be shocked.
In 1890, the average American worker clocked in for 10 hours per day, 6 days per week, with few if any breaks, and no sick days or paid vacations. Of course that was just the average. Steelworkers, for example, typically worked more than 63 hours/week. But beyond the seemingly endless parade of mind-numbing labor, there was also real danger at hand.
On average 35,000 American workers died on the job each year from 1880-1900, while another 536,000 were seriously injured. From 1905-1920, not a year went by when at least 2,000 coal miners didn't perish in the mines. The textile industry, which relied mostly on female labor, was so dangerous that its manufacturing epicenter in Lowell, MA had one of the highest death rates in the nation during parts of the 19th century. Railroad work was particularly perilous. In 1901, 1 out of every 399 railroad workers was killed on the job, and 1/26 was seriously injured. For operating train men specifically, the figures were 1/137 and 1/11.
Such staggering figures are made possible by the tally of daily tragedies, the kind to which a society becomes numb. However, the steady toll of fatalities and maiming was also punctuated my the occasional catastrophe. In 1909, 180 men died in a coal mine explosion in Cherry, Illinois. In 1911, 146 women and girls either burned alive or leapt to their deaths during a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. In 1917, 164 copper miners were incinerated in a conflagration at the North Butte Spectacular Mine in Montana.
Amid long hours, low pay, backbreaking work, and ever present risk to life and limb, there were no national holidays, and most states only recognized two: Christmas and July 4th. They were both unpaid. For many Americans then, Independence Day was a cherished respite from the grind of daily labor.
Congress did not make July 4th an official national holiday until after the Civil War. In 1870, it enshrined the date as an unpaid day off for all federal employees. A free day’s pay would not arrive with it until 1938 when many private sector workers began to get the day off with pay during this era as unions rose in number and strength and demanded such things for their members.
Today of course city streets are no longer littered with the carcasses of draft animals, and for most people Independence Day is just one of many days they get off with pay. Meanings change over time and now in the popular culture the holiday is associated with summer getaways, fireworks, baseball games, barbeques and John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Sousa wrote the song in 1896, amid the hyper-nationalism of that decade, which is perfectly illustrated by his self-styled military attire, which looks rather ludicrous to the modern eye. This is also about the same time that the term “Independence Day” began to gain in popularity. Though the holiday was always predicated on a celebration of American independence, the new term reflected an emphasis on national strength and power in an era of unapologetic jingoism.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I have never been one to make a show out of patriotism. It makes me uneasy. And much of that attitude I inherited from my father, which is perhaps ironic because in many ways he fits the profile of someone who would be likely to beat his chest while waving a flag.
My father was born and spent his childhood in Catawba County, North Carolina. His Great Aunt Maude (his father’s father’s sister) once composed a family history that traces our American roots back to the early 1700s. I’ve not read Maude’s book, but as a professional historian I have little reason to doubt that it is typical of the kind of family hagiography that is popular among many Americans, so I take stories of our ancient American genesis with several grains of salt. But then again, many of the German-named families in that part of the state really are descended from 18th century immigrants who originally settled in Pennsylvania before heading south.
In the end, the details matter little. On a daily basis I am confronted with the reality that the mists of time are thick enough to border on the opaque. And in any event, when one’s self-perception is shrouded in history, it need not be real in order to be effective. We are what we believe, and the truth is where you find it.
For my father, reality is streaked with a deep pride that comes from many generations of living in, believing in, and fighting and dying for the United States of America. What that has instilled within him is a quiet confidence about the nation, as opposed to an insecurity that needs to frequently and publicly assert itself.
My father never came right out and said it, but through his actions and comportment, I came to understand that he does not put too much stock in the symbolism of patriotism. Despite this, he is a deeply patriotic person. His is the kind of patriotism that is handed down from generation to generation, a deep and abiding faith in the American people that has been nurtured by a long lineage within it rapacious borders.
My father believes that faith is more important than words, and that a few select actions count a lot, while most don’t matter at all. I agree with him.
Sometimes I don’t stand during the national anthem at baseball games. I often do not remove my cap, and almost never place my hand over my heart. Why? Because deep down I believe that group-think is antithetical to freedom. Because if 35,000 people are all doing the same thing, I’m inclined NOT to do it. Because who the fuck are you to tell me when or how I have to express my patriotism?
You’re an American. And so am I. Neither one of us any better or any worse than the other, each of us citizens, equal before the laws of the land, witnesses and participants in this grand and ongoing experiment, 235 yeas and counting.
Anyway, freedom isn’t about fitting in. It’s actually about the opposite of that.
Standing and taking your hat off during the anthem does not in fact make you patriotic. It just makes you someone who stands and takes your hat off during the anthem. To me, all the action really means is that you’re simply fitting in.
I’m not the kind of person to be overly concerned about fitting in. I think too much of it is bad for the soul.
It’s easy to express your patriotism by taking off your hat during the anthem at a baseball game. It’s often a little bit harder to do so in an important and meaningful way, like by saying No to a bad war or taking an unpopular stance because you believe it is in your nation’s best interest.
Some people scoff at the de-nationalizing of certain holidays like July 4th. Some people are genuinely upset that the focus gets put on flipping burgers and shooting bottle rockets instead of a reverence for the nation. I have no problem with it. In fact, in some ways I think it’s for the best. Because while the nation can be a good thing, nationalism cane be a very bad thing.
Patriotism is very powerful and dangerous. It needs to be handled responsibly. If someone is apt to be thoughtless about it, quite frankly I’d rather they didn’t bother.
And besides, if a hardworking person wants to simply treat The Fourth as a day off, then that’s alright with me. After all, it’s been a cherished American tradition for well over a century now. Hell, it even sounds downright patriotic. And perhaps the ultimate act of patriotism on this day is to decide for yourself what July 4th actually means and how to express it.
So whether you're a fellow American, aspiring to be one, or just have an independent streak you'd like to nurture, happy holiday everyone.