July 4th was the nation’s first secular holiday. In fact, Americans began informally commemorating their independence from Great Britain on that date even before they were independent. On July 4, 1777, there was a thirteen-gun salute in Philadelphia to mark the day. The next year, General George Washington celebrated by issuing his men a double ration of rum. In 1779, Massachusetts led the way in making the date an official state holiday, and others soon followed. In 1785, the town of Bristol, Rhode Island held a parade, a tradition it has continued ever since, making it the longest running July 4th celebration in America.
As the 19th century unfolded, the United States went through a startling transformation, and as the nation changed, so too would the meaning of July 4th for many people. The relatively small and highly agricultural nation began to urbanize, industrialize, and expand at an astounding rate. The changes came fast, were highly jarring, and the federal government was still quite small and weak. Consequently, economic development was largely unregulated and things simply ran amok.
By mid-century, the United States was beginning to look like a third world country in many respects. Cities in particular were teeming with squalor, as each day overcrowded slums became home to more people and animals than anyone had thought possible. In the warmer months, streets were filled with pedestrians, push carts, children, rooting pigs, stray dogs, and the bloated and rotting corpses of overworked horses who had pulled their last load. In the evenings they were joined by many neighborhood residents who were fleeing the heat of their un-air conditioned homes.
Jobs were the main draw for the millions of immigrants, both foreign and domestic, who flooded the cities. The Industrial Revolution created jobs by the thousands, but more and more openings were for semi-skilled and even unskilled manual laborers. Electricity was still in the offing, so many people not only worked beside animals, but also worked liked them. Factories chewed up workers and spit them out at an alarming rate. To look back at some of the statistics today is to be shocked.