Today is Independence Day in the United States, one of the big holidays of the summer sandwiched between Memorial Day at the end of May and Labor Day at the beginning of September. July 4th is notable for three things: town parades, backyard barbecues, and evening fireworks. Wherever I lived in the U.S. I had access to all three, and got involved in various ways over the years. Sometimes I simply watched a local parade for no other reason than that I love a parade, sometimes I was in one with my fire company, and sometimes my son was playing in the town band. I’ll talk more about barbecues at the end. The endless production of hot dogs and hamburgers on propane grills that is the typical fare for most people was never my thing. I was more inclined to build a giant fire and use the coals for something a great deal more adventurous. Personal fireworks were illegal in New York, so attending a local town display was more common for us – although there were ways around the ban which I worked on once in a while. All reasonably enjoyable even though this was not a tradition I grew up with, so it did not thoroughly resonate with me.
I have celebrated a great many national days in this blog over the years – almost all of them associated with a significant anniversary, such as the date on which a nation was formally separated from its colonial master (perhaps Spain, or France, or England). The 4th of July is not especially noteworthy in US history. The Declaration of Independence was generally approved (with reservations) by the Continental Congress on July 2nd, 1776, by which time the colonies were already at war with Britain. The Revolutionary War began on April 19th,1775 and concluded on September 3rd, 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The original Declaration contained the following savage condemnation of slavery written by Thomas Jefferson:
He [George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemispere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people [slaves] to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
The Southern states objected to this provision in the Declaration, holding up full congressional approval for two days. John Adams had written to his wife, Abigail:
The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. 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.
Generally accurate, but off by two days. Whether anyone actually signed the Declaration on July 4th is still debated. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all later claimed that they did, but the formal signing took place on August 2nd.
On July 4th, 1777, thirteen gunshots were fired in salute, once at morning and once again as evening fell,in Bristol, Rhode Island. An article in the July 18, 1777 issue of The Virginia Gazette noted a celebration in Philadelphia: an official dinner for the Continental Congress, toasts, 13-gun salutes, speeches, prayers, music, parades, troop reviews, and fireworks. Ships in port were decked with red, white, and blue bunting.
In 1778, from his headquarters at Ross Hall, near New Brunswick, New Jersey, General George Washington marked July 4th with a double ration of rum for his soldiers and an artillery salute.
In 1779, July 4th fell on a Sunday. The holiday was celebrated on Monday, July 5th.
In 1781, the Massachusetts General Court became the first state legislature to recognize July 4th as a state celebration.
In 1870, the U.S. Congress made Independence Day an unpaid holiday for federal employees.
In 1938, Congress changed Independence Day to a paid federal holiday.
So, let’s talk about backyard barbecues. I’m not opposed to hamburgers and hot dogs, but there are plenty of alternatives for a change of pace. I was often inclined to grill chicken pieces that had been marinated in a hot sauce. A more participatory approach is to assemble the ingredients for vegetable skewers for grilling and let guests assemble them themselves. Prepare bowls of chunks of corn, zucchini, bell pepper, onion, mushroom, etc. (see photo), have a set of skewers handy, and let guests build their own to suit their tastes. The vegetables are perfectly fine for grilling plain, but you can also marinate them in olive oil plus fresh herbs ahead of time if you want to perk things up a bit. These vegetables cook fairly quickly, and you need to turn the skewers regularly so that they cook evenly. Serve with crusty bread (which can be toasted on the grill) and a variety of salads – including potato salad, mixed tomatoes and onions, and leafy greens. If you are a confirmed carnivore, I’d suggest lamb chops as a change from hamburgers.