Museum staff Hannah Ostroff and Marko Zlatich have an answer, and it's not barbeques and fireworks.
In the Revolutionary War era, news did not exactly travel fast. There was no air mail, no email, and no @ThomasJefferson to tweet the news of independence to the newly-formed nation. Instead, many of the soldiers fighting in the war had to wait days, or even weeks, to know that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 delegates in Philadelphia's Independence Hall. It was considered essential that Revolutionary soldiers hear the document read, but the reading required sufficient copies to be made and distributed to the headquarters of the various Continental Army commands. Even with dispatch riders and fast-sailing ships, the nation (and its armed forces) had to wait to celebrate independence until Continental regiments in the faraway south could actually hear the momentous words.
When the news did reach them, many soldiers' diaries and memorials mention that the celebration of "Independency" was a ceremonial occasion. They would assemble in two lines with 13 cannons (one for each colony) stationed to the right of the line. The troops would start by discharging 13 shots, followed by a fusillade (shots fired at the same time or in quick succession) of musketry and cannons. This action would travel through the lines, repeating three times in total. After the smoke cleared, there would be speeches and three cheers to conclude the formal portion of the celebration. Soldiers kept the spirit of merriment alive with games and an extra allowance of rum for the rest of the day.
In the next weeks following July 4th, the Declaration reached all American soldiers in the Continental Army. On July 9th, 1776, it was read in a New York City square to George Washington and his troops. Upon the reading, the men went from colonial to Continental regiments, and prepared to meet the army of King George III, on its way to New York.
Jefferson's words made it to Captain Joseph Bloomfield of the 3rd New Jersey Continental Regiment on July 15th. He recorded the orders of the day in his journal, which read:
"The Declaration of Independency being read, the whole present signifyed their hearty & sincere Approbation by Three Cheers and cheerfully drinking the following Patriotic Toastes, Harmony, virtue, Honor and all Prosperity to the free and independent United States of America, Wise Legislatures, brave & Victorious Armies, both by Sea & Land to the American States."
It took until August 5th, over a month after the document was adopted, for the text of the Declaration to be read in South Carolina. Henry Drayton, in his Memoirs of the Revolution¸ says that it was received in Charlestown "with the greatest joy" by "all officers civil and military, making a grand procession in honor of the event." All of the troops in the area paraded to the Liberty Tree, where colonial independence was first advocated by Christopher Gadsden in 1766, and the Declaration of Independence was read and applauded. The tree is gone now, but a historical marker commemorates this spot.
In a world where all of our news is accessible in an instant, it's amazing to contemplate how long it took the soldiers of the Revolutionary War to hear the words that defined their rebellion. July 4th is our national Independence Day, but it's clear that the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be celebrated on any day of the year.
Hannah Ostroff is a New Media intern and member of the William & Mary Class of 2013. She has also blogged about our fire engine installation. Marko Zlatich is a longtime volunteer in the museum's Division of Armed Forces History. He also volunteers at the Society of the Cincinnati Library.
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