July 4 is the most quintessentially American day of the year for obvious reasons — it’s when the United States celebrates its independence with fireworks, barbecues, and parades — but at least one Founding Father would argue that we got the date itself wrong. As you get ready to fire up the grill and light some sparklers, here are eight things you might not have known about the Fourth of July.
1. The Declaration of Independence Wasn’t Signed on July 4
Pretty much everything most of us think we know about the signing of that historic document — from the actual date on which the event is thought to have occurred to the image of the Founding Fathers all standing in a room together — is wrong. Since we don't want to burst your bubble, we'll allow historian David McCullough to do it for us: “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.” Still, it’s a nice painting.
The Second Continental Congress officially voted to declare independence from the British on July 2, which is the day John Adams wanted to celebrate as the actual holiday: “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” the future-second president of the United States wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail. And while it’s true that the document itself was finalized and dated on the date we celebrate as Independence Day, the real story is a bit more nuanced.
Most delegates didn’t add their own names to the document until August 2, when a fresh copy was ready; in fact, the full list of names of those who signed wasn’t even released until January of the following year. George Washington and his troops, who were stationed near New York City, learned about the official decree after receiving a letter dated July 6. As for the country the colonies were actually declaring independence from? Britain was made aware of the move on August 30. News moved a lot slower in the 18th century.
2. 56 Delegates From All 13 Colonies Signed the Declaration
And you probably know who the first one was: John Hancock, whose name has become synonymous with writing one’s signature. Two future presidents — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — signed the document, but George Washington did not; he was a little busy leading the Continental Army in the already year-long Revolutionary War. At 70, Benjamin Franklin was the oldest signatory; South Carolina's fresh-faced Thomas Lynch, Jr. was the youngest at just 26. The average age of the 56 delegates was 45, and seven of them went to Harvard.
3. The First Celebration (in 1776) Wasn’t Until July 8
And it happened in Philadelphia, of course. There was a parade and guns were fired, but the Liberty Bell wasn't rung in honor of the event; in fact, said monument didn't receive its current name until decades later, when abolitionists adopted the bell as a symbol of their efforts to end slavery.
4. It Wasn’t a Paid Federal Holiday Until 1938
In 1870, Congress officially declared July 4 a national holiday and made Independence Day an unpaid federal holiday. It took another 68 years for it to become the paid federal holiday we build summer vacations around today.
5. Massachusetts Was the First State to Recognize It as a Holiday
The Bay State was way ahead of the curve on this one. Massachusetts made July 4 a statewide holiday in 1781, with the legislature voting to recognize “the anniversary of the independence of the United States of America” nearly 100 years before the federal government did likewise.
6. New England Celebrates with Salmon
Speaking of Massachusetts, the region in which it’s situated has a unique Fourth of July tradition. Per the American Heritage Cookbook, “from the earliest days it has been a tradition all through New England to serve Poached Salmon with Egg Sauce, along with the first new potatoes and early peas, on the Fourth of July. The eastern salmon began to ‘run’ about this time, and the new vegetables were just coming in.”
The origins of this culinary tradition date back to an apocryphal story about John and Abigail Adams, who are said to have celebrated the first Fourth of July with such a meal. Though it’s unknown whether they actually did, many across New England still do. Even so, salmon is far from the most popular Independence Day meal: approximately 150 million hot dogs are eaten every Fourth of July, many of them at the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island.
7. Three Presidents Have Died on the Fourth of July …
Exactly 50 years after they signed the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ended their famed rivalry by dying just hours apart from one another on July 4, 1826. Five years later, James Monroe also passed away on Independence Day. Oddly, even though three of the first five presidents died on July 4, none others have in the nearly two centuries since. (Zachary Taylor came close — he fell ill after ingesting an abundance of iced milk and fruit at an Independence Day party in 1850, but he didn’t die until July 9, closing out one of the shortest presidential terms in American history.)
8. … and One Was Born on the Fourth of July
America’s birthday is also Calvin Coolidge’s birthday — the future 30th president was born on July 4, 1872. Coolidge wasn’t known for being particularly verbose, but he did give a speech in 1926 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “We meet to celebrate the birthday of America,” Coolidge told the crowd in Philadelphia, “It is to pay our tribute of reverence and respect to those who participated in such a mighty event that we annually observe the fourth day of July.”