Yippee! It's Independence Day for the U.S.

Thomas Jefferson presents the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, president of the Congress. This painting by John Trumbull is kept in the Capitol building in Washington DC.
Thomas Jefferson presents the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, president of the Congress. This painting by John Trumbull is kept in the Capitol building in Washington DC.

by Ray Setterfield

July 4, 1776 — One of the most significant dates in the calendar of the United States, on this day the Congress declared independence from Great Britain.

The declaration, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others, proclaimed that the (then) thirteen American colonies were no longer subject or subordinate to the monarch of Britain, King George III, and were now united, free, and independent states.

July 4 has been celebrated every year since as Independence Day, popularly called the Fourth of July, or July 4th. It is also the day when three former presidents died and one was born.

In a letter to his wife Abigail on the day before the historic vote in Congress, John Adams, who was later to serve as the second US President, described how he thought the event would be celebrated.

Considering it to be “the most memorable epoch in the history of America,” he said: “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.”

And so it proved to be. The struggle began in 1775 when people in New England began fighting against British rule. On July 2, 1776, the Congress secretly voted for independence from Great Britain. Two days later, on July 4, 1776, the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved, and the document was published.

The term "Independence Day" was not used until 1791, then in 1870 it became an official unpaid holiday for federal employees, staying that way until 1941 when it became a paid holiday for them.

John Adams, the second President from 1797 to 1801 and Thomas Jefferson, the third President from 1801 to 1809, both died on July 4 in 1826.

Each was a signatory to the Declaration and both had wanted to live until the 50th anniversary. They managed to do it but Jefferson died aged 83 at 1pm on the day and 90-year-old Adams a few hours later. Five years after that, James Monroe, the fifth President, also died on July 4. He was 73.

James Madison was a Founding Father of the United States and the fourth President, serving in office from 1809 to 1817. He also nearly became an Independence Day victim.

At the age of 85 Madison was struck down with a severe case of rheumatism. Barely able to move, he was said to have been in great pain and died on June 28, 1836 from congestive heart failure – just six days short of Independence Day.

Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President, who served for only 16 months from 1849 to 1850, is reputed also to have been an Independence Day victim. While out celebrating the event, he is said to have stopped to drink some iced milk to cool down and at the same time helped himself to a large bunch of cherries.

By the time he returned to the White House the 65-year-old President was feeling ill with stomach pains and a few days later he was dead. The cause was given as "cholera morbus" – a severe form of gastroenteritis, allegedly brought on by the bad cherries.

On a celebratory note, John Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President, was born on July 4, 1872 – the only President to have an Independence Day birthday.

Published: June 23, 2020

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