Grab your oversized American flag-themed T-shirt and a fistful of sparklers and get ready to celebrate the Fourth of July! To get you excited about America's birthday, we've assembled a list of fascinating and little-known facts about Independence Day, starting with this doozy:
1. July Fourth Should Really Be July Second
One of the most enduring myths and misconceptions about Independence Day is that the Declaration of Independence was approved and signed on July 4, 1776. In fact the Second Continental Congress voted to approve the resolution to legally separate from Great Britain on July 2, two days earlier. The approved Declaration of Independence was first printed on July 4, so that's the date on the document.
The final "engrossed" Declaration of Independence wasn't finished for weeks, and the delegates didn't sign it until Aug. 2, 1776. Even then, not all delegates were in attendance, so some signed later. But what about that famous John Trumbull painting of all the delegates signing the Declaration of Independence on July 4? That patriotic scene, printed on the back of the $2 bill, took place on June 28, 1776, when the Founding Fathers presented the first rough draft of the document to the Second Continental Congress.
John Adams was so excited about the revolutionary events of July 2, 1776, that the very next day he wrote his wife Abigail that their "Day of Deliverance" from Britain "ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
Miffed by the switch to July 4, Adams would reportedly turn down Fourth of July party invitations.
2. Fireworks Flew at the First Fourth
Americans wasted no time in celebrating the first Independence Day on July 4, 1777, even though the Revolutionary War wouldn't be won until 1783. Taking a cue from John Adams' call for "Bonfires and Illuminations," a wartime Congress adjourned in Philadelphia to light up the night with fireworks. Similar pyrotechnic celebrations were held in Boston.
According to the Philadelphia Evening Post, "The evening was closed with the ring of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated... Everything was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal."
In addition to the rockets, which would have been relatively crude in the 18th century, there were also raised platforms with fizzing fireworks that displayed patriotic images like the profile of George Washington.
3. And Plenty of Gunfire, Too
In addition to fireworks, military cannons and live gunfire were a big part of early Fourth of July festivities. It's important to remember that the United States was at war with Great Britain on and off until 1815, when America finally won the War of 1812. Fourth of July celebrations would have served as military morale-boosters for wearied soldiers and citizens.
Ear-splitting cannon blasts and artillery salutes during Fourth of July continued into the mid-19th century, when leftover weaponry fell into disrepair and concern for public safety won the day, leaving only the fireworks.
4. The Stars & Stripes Were There for the First Fourth of July
On June 14, 1777, less than a month before the very first Independence Day celebration, the Continental Congress passed a resolution creating America's first official flag: "Resolved, that the Flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation."
Did Betsy Ross sew the very first American flag under orders from George Washington? Probably not. But since the new flag was at least in circulation by June 1777, then it would likely have made an appearance at those first July 4 festivities in Philadelphia and Boston.
There have been 27 different official versions of the U.S. flag since that first one in 1777 due to the addition of stars for each new state. Not coincidentally, the current 50-star flag debuted on July 4, 1960, after Hawaii became a state in 1959.
5. Massachusetts Was First to Recognize July 4 as a Holiday
Nearly 90 years before the Fourth of July would be recognized as a federal holiday, the Massachusetts legislature called for an official state celebration in 1781 to recognize "the anniversary of the independence of the United States of America."
It wasn't until 1870 that the U.S. Congress voted to make the Fourth of July a federal holiday. And even then, it wasn't made a paid holiday for all federal employees until 1941.
6. Three U.S. Presidents Have Died on July 4
Incredibly, both Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Father John Adams died on the very same day: July 4, 1826. Even more insane, that year was the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson died in Virginia and Adams passed in Massachusetts, but the close friends weren't far from each other's minds in their final hours. Ironically, rumored to be among Adams' last words were "Thomas Jefferson survives."
In 1831, just five years later, James Monroe became the third U.S. president to die on the Fourth of July. A mourning nation saw the hand of God in the timing of the deaths. The New York Evening Post wrote:
"Three of the four presidents who have left the scene of their usefulness and glory expired on the anniversary of the national birthday, a day which of all others, had it been permitted them to choose [they] would probably had selected for the termination of their careers."
7. President Zachary Taylor Died After a July Fourth Party
Although he didn't expire on the Fourth of July itself, President Zachary Taylor died on July 9, 1850, after contracting cholera from eating tainted fruit during Independence Day celebrations.
Summer in Washington, D.C. is famously hot and muggy. After a long day of festivities in the nation's capital, Taylor walked home all the way from the Washington Monument. Arriving at the White House, Taylor reportedly drank buckets of ice water followed by heaps of cherries and other fresh fruits with iced milk.
Almost immediately, Taylor was beset with severe stomach pain and diarrhea that lasted for five days, until he couldn't keep down any fluids. Food-borne cholera is believed to have been the culprit. Before his death, he called for his wife and told her not to weep. "I have always done my duty, I am ready to die," said Taylor. "My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me."
8. Just One President Was Born on the Fourth of July
Calvin Coolidge is the only U.S. president who was born on the Fourth of July. Born on July 4, 1872, in tiny Plymouth Notch, Vermont, Coolidge was serving as vice president when President Warren G. Harding died suddenly on Aug. 3, 1923.
Two other famous contributors to American culture were born on that day too. Stephen Foster, known as the "father of American music," was born on July 4, 1826, the same day that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams keeled over on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Foster is famous for American folk classics like "Oh! Susanna" and "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)."
Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of "The Scarlet Letter," was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, where his great-great-grandfather played a sinister role in the town's infamous witch trials.
More recently, Malia Obama was born on July 4, 1998.
9. NYC Has America's Biggest Fourth of July Fireworks Display
Of the more than 14,000 public fireworks spectacles that blow up every year on Independence Day, the Macy's 4th of July Fireworks Show is believed to be the biggest. The Macy's show, which has been blasting off over New York City's East River for more than 40 years, includes more than 75,000 individual shells and costs the clothing retailer an estimated $6 million.
Other impressive facts about the Macy's fireworks extravaganza:
- The show lasts 25 minutes, firing off approximately 3,000 shells per minute
- The show takes 55 crew members 10 days to set up, including 25 miles (40 kilometers) of cabling
- More than 3 million spectators come down to view it in person
10. There are Lots of July Fourth Fireworks Injuries
The Fourth of July is a busy day in America's emergency rooms as people get reckless with home fireworks displays. In 2017 alone, there were 12,900 fireworks-related injuries treated in U.S. hospitals with eight known fatalities, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Of those fireworks injuries, 67 percent (8,700) occurred during the month around July 4th (between June 16 and July 16, 2017).
Men were far more likely than women to suffer a fireworks-related injury (70 percent to 30 percent) while kids younger than 15 accounted for 36 percent of all injuries. Almost all the injuries were burns of varying degrees of seriousness, most frequently to the hands and fingers (31 percent) and also to the head, face and ears (22 percent).
11. Sousa Was the "March King" of July Fourth
The great American composer John Philip Sousa wrote 135 marches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of his greatest hits were among the first to be recorded and mass-produced as phonograph records, making Sousa's military band one of the world's first bona fide recording stars.
Since Fourth of July patriotism has always been tied up with military pride, Sousa's marches were the de facto soundtrack of July 4 parades and celebrations. His best-loved marches include "The Washington Post" (1889), "Semper Fidelis" (1888), which has become the official march of the U.S. Marines, and the incomparable "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (1896).
Despite its stirring military melody, "The Stars and Stripes Forever" wasn't composed on a battlefield or while reviewing uniformed ranks of Marines. Instead, Sousa wrote it entirely in his head on Christmas Day while on a return sea journey from a vacation in Europe. Sousa's longtime friend and manager had died suddenly, and he was rushing home to an unsure future.
"As the vessel (the Teutonic) steamed out of the harbor I was pacing on the deck, absorbed in thoughts of my manager's death and the many duties and decisions which awaited me in New York," wrote Sousa in his autobiography.
"The Stars and Stripes Forever" became the official march of the United States in 1987.
12. Sousa Also Inspired a Contemporary Patriotic Anthem
YouTube data shows that Lee Greenwood's patriotic 1984 song "God Bless the U.S.A." gets nearly 25 times more views on July 4th than any other day of the year.
According to Greenwood, part of his inspiration to write the song came from none other than Sousa. Greenwood was out to write an anthem dedicated to the military veterans he met at his concerts.
"The Sousa marches were in the back of my head," Greenwood told NPR. "I did a lot of those as drum major for my high school marching band. And I wanted some pomp and circumstance."
The song was a mild success on the country charts when it was first released in 1984, but it really started to gain traction during the Gulf War of the early 1990s, when it was played during troop homecomings and parades. The song soared to new heights of patriotic popularity after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and has cemented itself as a Fourth of July staple.
13. Here Comes the Horribles Parade
As one of the cradles of American democracy, New England has been celebrating the Fourth of July in its unique way for more than two centuries.
For a long time, salmon was the traditional July 4 dish since wild Atlantic salmon were in abundance during the mid-summer months. Then there was the tradition of the July 4 bonfire, in which wood casks were piled high on July 3 and set aflame on midnight to usher in a new "year of liberty."
While those New England traditions have faded in popularity, the oddest one is going strong — the Horribles Parade. The first Horribles Parade was held on July 4, 1851, in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was intended to be a comical send-up of a stuffy military organization called the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts or the "Ancient and Honorables." The satirical "Antique and Horribles" parade grew into a friendly contest to see who could dress in the most outlandish costumes and poke the most fun at local and national figures.
The Horribles tradition continues in small New England towns like Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, where citizens amuse each other every Fourth of July with mildly insulting and non-P.C. floats ripped from the year's most controversial headlines.
14. The Olympics of Competitive Eating
Joey Chestnut is not a conventional athlete, but he is the undisputed champion of Major League Eating (an organization that hosts professional eating competitions) and an 11-time winner of Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every Fourth of July in Coney Island, New York.
The Hot Dog Eating Contest is the crown jewel of the competitive eating circuit and is broadcast live on ESPN to millions of queasy viewers. In 2018, Chestnut set the world record for most hot dogs eaten when he gobbled down 74 frankfurters (and buns!) in 10 minutes.
According to legend, the contest dates back to 1916, when a group of recent U.S. immigrants settled a bet about who was the most patriotic by seeing who could eat the most hot dogs at Nathan's original Coney Island store. The contest results weren't officially recorded until 1972.