July 4: the right date

Optimistic sorts they were, our forefathers, valuing decency and the spoken word. They willed us their pluck in traditions and celebrations. And the most cherished of those, surely, is July Fourth - Independence Day.

It could easily have been July 2, the day in 1776 on which the Continental Congress first approved, 12 to 0 (New York abstaining), a motion declaring the former Colonies free and independent states.

Or America might have chosen to commemorate its birth on Aug. 2, when - 208 years ago - the 13 state delegations to the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence.

Militarily speaking, we weren't free of Great Britain until Oct. 19, 1781, when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown.

What made the Fourth of July significant was the formal adoption of the Declaration. To adopt a measure, a representative from each colony had to step forward and say whether his delegation was for or against it.

The Declaration was a long, formal, and mulish public document stating that Americans would no longer put up with abusive treatment from anybody, foreign or domestic. No mention appeared of a new United States government, president, or money system.

With each state having one vote, 12 approved the final draft of the Declaration. New York held out for almost two weeks, then also voted for independence.

A delegate's word was as binding as his signature, and Americans took July 4 as the date of actual separation from Britain. All that remained was formal signing of the parchment copy during August in Philadelphia.

To make the Declaration official, Boston's John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, engraced the document with his signature before the others signed. He penned his name with such flourish that someone asked him why he wrote so large. Hancock declared: ''So fat George can read it without his spectacles.''

In time, the term John Hancock became synonymous with signature.

On that first Independence Day the Liberty Bell rang out to proclaim the vote for freedom. The text of the Declaration was first published on July 6 in the Saturday Pennsylvania Evening Post. Ever since, the Fourth of July has been celebrated as Independence Day with both youthful spirit and grand tradition.

Fireworks have been popular with revelers from Colonial days to the present. John Hancock's contemporaries used exploding rockets in the air and serpents and beehives on the ground. Festivities also included games, bonfires, food, and drink.

Many of the Independence Day observances in the early years had a religious tone, but speeches and parades were always common for the event. Sports, outings , and barbecues became parts of the celebrations later.

Apple pie, one of the most traditional American foods, has every right to be on Independence Day menus. Apple seeds were brought here by the first European settlers. While the colonists waited for the seeds to sprout and mature to the fruit-bearing stage, they enjoyed a related fruit: crab apple trees were already growing in North America when the Pilgrims arrived.

John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, became famous for his promotion of the apple. During the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, the lovable, itinerant, eccentric Chapman planted apple seedlings in advance of settlements from the Allegheny River to central Ohio.

There's less logical reason for including hot dogs on Fourth of July tables. The wiener on a bun was born in St. Louis in 1883, although there are San Franciscans who dispute that.

But Americans don't need a matter-of-fact reason for their choices. Benjamin Franklin said, ''So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.''

The United States has chosen the Fourth of July and other Independence Day traditions because a free people celebrates in any way it pleases.

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