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Fourth of July Facts Through History

Separate our celebratory facts from fiction. 

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When you think about the Fourth of July, do you think of the John Trumball painting of the Continental Congress lining up to sign the Declaration of Independence? 

A staple of American history, the Fourth of July is the celebration of the Continental Congress declaring independence from Great Britain. While our traditions are similar to celebrations colonists held in 1777, the history surrounding the Fourth and its traditions have shifted over the past two centuries. Here are eight facts about the Fourth that you may not know. 

1. We didn’t actually declare independence on the Fourth— we declared it on the 2nd.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After voting on a resolution put forward by a Virginian delegate, Richard Henry Lee, the Continental Congress technically declared its freedom from Great Britain on July 2nd, 1776. The reason we celebrate our independence on the Fourth, however, is because the public statement of this change took two days to draft, edit, and present to the public. Congress approved what we now know as the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. 

2. Very few signed the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth—not even John Hancock. 

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When most people think of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, they often picture the famous John Trumball painting of the delegates of the Continental Congress lining up to sign it. While this is an amazing painting, it’s also fairly unlikely that this ever happened. Most of the delegates didn’t sign until August 2nd, 1776. Some experts believe that the final signature was added at some time in 1777

Related: 14 Little-Known Facts About America's Founding Fathers

3. One woman's name is on the Declaration of Independence.

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Continental Congress was briefly moved to Baltimore, Maryland as British troops began to move in on Philadelphia. While there, they relied on one particular wartime printer to help. Though she was not one of the delegates, Mary Katherine Goddard’s name is printed on the Declaration of Independence. Goddard was a resident of Baltimore. She also ran a weekly paper and was the town’s postmaster, making her the first female federal employee. Goddard’s name can be found at the bottom of a copy of the Declaration of Independence that’s currently in the Massachusetts Archive and Commonwealth Museum. 

Related: 30 Important Women in History You May Not Have Heard of

4. An estimated 2.5 million people were living in the Thirteen Colonies when they declared independence.

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According to map and census data from the time, roughly 2.5 million people were living in the Colonies in 1776. However, whether or not this figure includes Native Americans and enslaved persons isn’t specified. Cities with similar population density now are Chicago and Houston.

5. Massachusetts was the first state to make the Fourth an official holiday.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Massachusetts recognized the Fourth of July as a state holiday in 1781, in the midst of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Yorktown, which is considered to be a turning point in the war, wouldn’t be fought until September of that year. Congress would go on to pass a law marking the Fourth of July as a federal holiday on June 28th, 1870.

6. We’ll be frank— we eat a lot of hot dogs.

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  • Photo Credit: Jay Wennington/Unsplash

If you’re heading to a barbecue or having one yourself, it’s likely that hot dogs will be on offer. July itself is actually National Hot Dog Month. Considered to be an iconically American food, the hot dog has German origins, and has been part of American fare since the 1860s. Americans are expected to eat 150 million hot dogs, according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council. That’s enough hot dogs to stretch between L.A. and Washington D.C. more than five times (though they might not last in L.A., as residents of this city eat more hot dogs than any other). 

7. The Star Spangled Banner, originally known as ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’, didn’t become the National Anthem until 1930— 116 years after it was written.

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Defence of Fort M’Henry was a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key. Key was inspired by British siege of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. He watched the bombardment of the fort from aboard a British ship where a friend of his was being held. When the British were unable to seize the fort and Key saw that the American flag was still flying over Fort McHenry, he wrote the poem to commemorate his experience and relief. The poem was later set to the tune of a popular English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven”.

By 1916, people were referring to it by the “Star Spangled Banner”. In 1929, Maryland Representative John Lunthicum introduced what was, at the time, a controversial bill to make the song the National Anthem. The vocal range of the song was considered too wide for the average person, and the song itself was also considered to be a drinking song. However, the bill was passed and the song was named the national anthem on April 21st, 1930. 

8. Not everyone in America gained their independence in 1776.

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While the Declaration of Independence declared the Colonies independent from Great Britain and included the text, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed [...] with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, the Founding Fathers didn’t include the rights of women or enslaved peoples in this statement. 

Related: Black Patriots and Loyalists: An Untold Story of the Revolutionary War

States in the North would go on to abolish slavery over the following 75 years. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he only freed the slaves in the Confederacy as the proclamation stated, "all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." 

On June 19th, 1865, two months after the end of the Civil War, Union General Gordon Granger informed enslaved African-Americans in Galveston Texas that they had been freed. This announcement came two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender. This day is celebrated and known as Juneteenth. 

Featured photo of Washington's Promotion by the Continental Congress: Wikimedia Commons