Archive for the ‘Independence Day’ Tag

Labor Day USA   Leave a comment


I missed the chance to write about Labor Day on Monday (it’s always on the first Monday in September). This was partly because I was too busy putting together resources on the Civil War anniversaries which happened during the school holidays here in Hungary, most notably, of course, that of the Battle of Gettysburg.

However, I have just started planning two courses on History and ‘Civilisation’ , one for primary pupils and one for secondary students, so I was pleased to find a child’s story connecting Labor Day to the Civil War. Apparently, the origins of the Day go back before the development of the Labor Movement in the USA to an eleven-year-old boy selling newspapers in New York City. The son of an Irish immigrant who had just enlisted to fight in the Civil War, Peter McGuire had to help his mother with six brothers and sisters. At that time, children like Peter worked in factories, cloth and steel mills, coalmines and in construction. The conditions were often appalling, and the hours long, as many as fourteen per day, seven days a week. There were few breaks, and no vacations or benefits. There was no concept of workers’ rights, and factory owners could hire and fire, and treat workers as they wished. Immigrant workers were especially vulnerable. They were effectively white wage slaves.

Peter J. McGuire (July 6, 1852 - February 18, ...

Peter J. McGuire (July 6, 1852 – February 18, 1906) was an American labor leader of the nineteenth century, the founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and one of the leading figures in the first three decades of the American Federation of Labor. He is credited with first proposing the idea of Labor Day as a national holiday in 1882. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Peter was seventeen, he began an apprenticeship in a piano shop. This was better than his previous factory jobs, because he was learning a trade, but he still had to work long hours with low pay. At night he went to meetings and classes in economics. One of the main social issues of the day was that of labor conditions. Workers had become tired not just of the low pay and long hours, but also the unsafe and insecure nature of their working environments. They therefore began to organise themselves into unions to improve these conditions. In the spring of 1872, Peter McGuire went on strike with a hundred thousand other workers, marching through the streets to demand a decrease in the working day.

English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New Y...

English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882 (Lithographie) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He spent the next year speaking to crowds of workers, including those unemployed, and lobbied the city  government for jobs and relief money. He was labelled a ‘disturber of the public peace’, developing a reputation as a troublemaker, unable to find a job in his trade. So he began to travel up and down the East Coast speaking to laborers about joining the union.

United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners o...

United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1881 he moved to St Louis, Missouri, and began to organise carpenters there. They held a convention at which a national union of carpenters was founded. He became General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. After that, the idea of trades unions spread throughout the US. Factory workers, dockworkers and toolmakers all began to demand an eight-hour working day and a secure trade. Peter McGuire and other labor leaders decided to plan a public holiday for workers, both as a tribute to their contribution to the nation, and as a way of bringing more public awareness to their struggles. They chose the first Monday in September, half way between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. On September 5th, 1882, the first Labor Day parade was held in New York City and in 1894 Congress voted the first Monday in September as a national holiday. Although some cities still host parades, rallies and community picnics (including Irish Stew with homemade bread and apple pie!), most Americans treat it as an end-of-summer long weekend, a chance for one last family beach party before the new school year begins on the Tuesday following.






hire and fire




trade(s) union

to go on strike

to lobby for




to host




Brenner, Ford and Sullivan (eds.) (2007), Celebrate! Holidays in the USA. Washington: Office of English Language Programs, US Department of State.

‘In God We Trust’: Independence Day, 4th July.   2 comments

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


Declaration of Independence,

4th July 1776

The fourth of July is the most important day in the national heritage of the United States and quite an important date in British History, too. It marks the end of Britain’s first overseas Empire. The seeds of independence were sown in 1608 when John Smith founded the state of Virginia, named after Queen Elizabeth I, ‘the Virgin Queen’. Smith married the native princess, Pocahontas, of course, and his motives were for settlement rather than piracy and plunder, like earlier Elizabethan adventurers. The Pilgrim Fathers, ‘independent’ Christians who sailed in The Mayflower in 1620 to seek a country where they could practise their own forms of faith, free from the state Church in Britain and the watchful eyes of King James’ spies. Maryland was founded by Roman Catholics from England in 1633, who were also persecuted by the state church for not ‘conforming’. Other colonists seeking freedom of religion followed from Ireland, France and Holland, until, by the time of King George III there were thirteen colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America, owing varying degrees of ‘loyalty’ to the British Crown.

The colonists considered themselves subjects of the King of England and there was little desire to become independent in 1760, at the beginning of George III’s reign, but they became increasingly resentful of the taxes they had to pay to a distant government, then several weeks away by sea voyage, when they had no representatives in Parliament. Their trade was controlled from London, through laws, regulations, restrictions and high custom tariffs. The colonists protested with the slogan, ‘no taxation without representation’. A ‘Continental Congress’ was formed, meeting in Philadelphia, the city of ‘brotherly love’ founded by William Penn, the English Quaker, who gave his name to the state of Pennsylvania. It was here that the Declaration of Independence was discussed and voted on and adopted on 4th July, 1776. It was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, whose father came from Glynceiriog in North Wales. It was no doubt from his father that he inherited both his spirit of independence and his gift as a ‘wordsmith’. The American War of Independence dragged on for another five years, until the Independence of the United States was recognised by the European powers by the Treaty of Paris in 1782. In the end, the break between the British and the Americans was made without bitterness on either side, enabling the restoration of a friendship between the English-speaking nations which survives to this day.

Independence Day festivities usually take place outside, with parades, barbecues and picnics. The flag of the United States, ‘the Stars and Stripes’, is displayed everywhere, and in schools there is an emphasis on the spirit and theme of Independence in projects and pageants. Families attend church services on the previous Sunday. On the day itself there are speeches by mayors and senators, picnics and parades led by local bands and drum majorettes. The day ends with spectacular firework displays. There is a mood of patriotism, but also one of reconciliation, based on the concept that independence is the basis for a spirit of international inter-dependence and co-operation, rather than the ‘isolationism’ which has, on occasion, brought tragic consequences in international relations.

Within the United States, the strict separation between Church and State has ensured Liberty and Toleration for those of all beliefs, and none, as its founders intended. However, unlike in Britain, Americans do not confuse these secular principles with atheistic ones. The Declaration of Independence begins with an open affirmation of ‘the Creator’ on whom  the inalienable rights of humans depend. On the same side of the coin with Washington’s head on it next to the word ‘Liberty’ is the declaration ‘In God We Trust’. They might have added the word ‘Alone’, but they didn’t add the words ‘and the President’ or ‘and the Federal Government‘. American citizens are independent of the control of the state, and are not subject to any man or woman, no matter how rich, powerful or great they may be. They are only subject to the Creator. So, independence from others is the same side of the coin as trust in God. The state, or states, are on the other side, separate but yet connected in terms of  ‘paying dues to Caesar’.  It’s these themes of independence and inter-dependence which I want to explore in relation to the stage in life where we come more independent, as we leave school and move on in life. That’s the subject of my next blog….

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