Americans celebrate the 4th of July, also known as Independence Day, with BBQs, beach days, and other summer fun activities. Yet, this historic day is about a lot more than hot dogs and wearing red, white, and blue.
It’s the day we became a nation and officially split off from the British crown. As a country, we gained our independence and became the United States of America.
As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July in our own ways, let’s take a look at some brief history of how the day came to be.
A Brief History of the 4th of July
The Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775. It was a struggle between the colonists and Great Britain, yet the ones who dreamed of independence were considered radical and in over their heads.
However, within the year, more and more colonists caught on to the idea that independence from British rule was indeed a smart move. With sentiments changing, hostility toward the British government grew.
Things came to a head in early 1776 when Thomas Paine published his best-selling pamphlet “Common Sense”. It set the wheels in motion for political reform.
The Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia on June 7, 1776. It was Richard Henry Lee, the delegate for Virginia, who was the first to introduce a motion calling for the colonies’ independence from Great Britain.
Debates between Congress were heated and the delegates couldn’t come to an agreement. The vote on Lee’s motion was postponed and a five-man committee was appointed to try to come up with a solution. These men would later be known as the Founding Fathers.
The committee included Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Robert R. Livingston of New York. These were the men commissioned to draft the formal statement that would be sent to the British government with reasons to justify the proposed split with the king.
It was actually on July 2nd that the Continental Congress voted in favor of Lee’s motion for independence. For the rest of his life, John Adams insisted that Independence Day should be celebrated on the 2nd of July and would protest by turning down invitations to appear at 4th of July celebrations. Still, the 4th of July prevailed as the day we celebrate our independence.
The Declaration of Independence, which was largely written by Thomas Jefferson, was formally adopted on July 4, 1776, which is why this date became known as Independence Day.
To be clear, the Revolutionary War continued to rage between the colonists and the British until September 1783. Just because independence was declared doesn’t mean the conflict was over.
Why Do We Celebrate the 4th of July?
Maybe you’re on Adams’ side and aren’t convinced we should be celebrating Independence Day on the 4th of July when, really, the decision to separate from Great Britain was actually voted into favor two days earlier.
Well, the reason we celebrate on the 4th of July has more to do with the actual Declaration of Independence versus the initial vote.
What happened was, after Jefferson presented his declaration to the rest of Congress, there were a few days of discussions that led to its final draft. Even though the spirit and essence of the document remained unchanged, the process of revision continued until July 4, 1776, when the document was officially adopted.
Interestingly, votes on the Declaration of Independence were not unanimous. Among the 13 colonies, nine of them voted in favor of the document while Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against it. Delaware ended up being undecided and New York didn’t vote at all.
But that was just about the actual Declaration of Independence document. As far as being in favor of independence, the votes were almost unanimous – with New York, once again, abstaining.
So, what we’re really commemorating when we celebrate on the 4th of July is the official adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Today, the original copy of this profound document is housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and July 4th is the federal holiday known as Independence Day.
Early July 4th Celebrations
Prior to the Revolutionary War, colonists held annual celebrations to celebrate the King’s birthday – a tradition still observed today in Commonwealth countries like Australia except since today’s British monarch is Queen Elizabeth, the Queen’s birthday is a national holiday. These celebrations would often include bells ringing, bonfires, processions, and speeches.
Once the Declaration of Independence was signed and adopted in 1776, colonists promptly began to celebrate the birth of independence and the death of British rule. Apparently, mock funerals of King George III (who was monarch at the time) were held, symbolic of the end of reign over the 13 colonies.
Similar to the old King’s birthday celebrations, Independence Day festivities included concerts, bonfires, and parades. In the beginning, each year the Declaration of Independence would be read aloud accompanied by the firing of cannons and muskets.
On July 4, 1777, in Bristol, Rhode Island, 13 gunshots were fired, once in the morning and once in the evening to celebrate. Yet, Philadelphia was the first to hold an annual commemoration of Independence Day starting in 1777 complete with an official dinner and ships donning red, white, and blue.
July 4th seemed to always have been a drinking holiday, as it still seems to be today, and even George Washington issued double rations of rum for his soldiers to mark the occasion on July 4, 1778. Massachusetts was the first state to make the 4th of July an official state holiday.
Once the war subsided, Americans continued to celebrate the 4th of July and victory on the battlefield brought a new sense of unity and patriotism to the festivities.
By the end of the 1700s, both political parties at the time, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, were holding separate Independence Day celebrations in large cities all over the nation.
When Did the 4th of July Become a Federal Holiday?
Over the years after the Revolutionary War, 4th of July celebrations become more and more widespread, especially during the War of 1812, when the Americans faced British soldiers once more.
Yet it wasn’t until 1870 that the 4th of July became a federal holiday, and furthermore, it wasn’t until sometime between 1938 and 1941 that Independence Day became a paid federal holiday.
Even though the political significance of the 4th of July has decreased over the years, it certainly remains a patriotic day of celebration and an important national holiday.
Since the late 19th century, the 4th of July has become synonymous with leisure activities like boating, family BBQs, and classic American pastimes. Although, there are still some remnants of early celebrations of Independence Day.
People today still celebrate with big parades and red, white, and blue. But instead of firing muskets and cannons, now we blast fireworks. A common symbol of the holiday is the American flag which has gained quite a few stars and stripes since its origin and you’re sure to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the national anthem of the United States, at least once this year on July 4th.
How do you celebrate this momentous occasion in U.S. history?