By Jackie Nickel, The Avenue News, 7/4/2006
Following the excitement over the June 30 Marine Trades Fireworks Extravaganza, I’m focusing now on the real Independence Day, Wednesday, the 4th of July. Working folks will get a solitary day off from work in the middle of the week to celebrate the birth of our nation. This should be a relaxing day with family and friends, providing time for reflection, perhaps, on the true meaning of independence.
On this day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress, triggering the 13 colonies on the road to freedom as a sovereign nation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in July 1776, the estimated number of people living in the newly independent nation was 2.5 million. The nation’s population on this July Fourth is 302 million.
The Library of Congress states on its web site that “Although Philadelphians marked the first anniversary of American independence with a spontaneous celebration, observing Independence Day only became commonplace after the War of 1812. Soon, events like ground-breaking ceremonies for the Erie Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were scheduled to coincide with July 4th festivities.
By the 1870s, the Fourth of July was the most important secular holiday on the calendar. “Even far-flung communities on the western frontier managed to congregate on Independence Day. In an American Life Histories, 1936-1940 interview, Miss Nettie Spencer remembered the Fourth as the big event of the year. Everyone in the countryside got together on that day for the only time in the year.”
She continued, “There would be floats in the morning and the one that got the eye was the Goddess of Liberty. She was supposed to be the most wholesome and prettiest girl in the countryside — if she wasn’t she had friends who thought she was. But the rest of us weren’t always in agreement on that…”
Coincidentally, my neighborhood for years had a July 4th parade and we too chose a Lady Liberty, a beautiful young girl whom we decked out in full regalia. I fashioned the radiating crown out of tin foil and a gown was constructed from a draped white sheet. It was quite impressive. I still have a photo, in black and white, of me modeling that headpiece. It’s wonderful seeing our communities of today, like Wilson Point and Middleborough, reviving the 4th of July neighborhood parade complete with homemade noisemakers and decorated bikes.
Continues the dialogue of Nettie Spencer, “Just before lunch – and we’d always hold lunch up for an hour – some Senator or lawyer would speak. These speeches always had one pattern. First the speaker would challenge England to a fight and berate the King and say that he was a skunk. This was known as twisting the lion’s tail. Then the next theme was that any one could find freedom and liberty on our shores. The speaker would invite those who were heavy laden in other lands to come to us and find peace. The speeches were pretty fiery and by that time the men who drank got into fights and called each other Englishmen. In the afternoon we had what we called the ‘plug uglies’ — funny floats and clowns who took off on the political subjects of the day.”
We’re sure to see some “tail twisting” on our holiday this year, with national leaders and presidential candidates making speeches all over the country. It’s doubtful though that with the pressures of an immigration bill, there will be encouragement for “any one to find freedom and liberty on our shores.”
Nettie, God bless ‘er, concluded, “The Fourth was the day of the year that really counted then. Christmas wasn’t much; a Church tree or something, but no one twisted the lion’s tail!”
Independence Day will be over by the time you read this but it’s never too late to say God Bless and Happy Birthday, America!