Independence Day or the 4th of July as we call it has only been a federal holiday since 1941, but of course the tradition dates back to 1776 when the Continental Congress voted on July 2nd in favor of Independence. Two days later delegates from all thirteen colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, and celebrated their independence and the birth of a nation on July 4th.
The celebrations major focus is traditionally on leisure activities, parades, concerts, backyard barbecues, games, bonfires and family gatherings culminating in fireworks later at night.
When the Revolutionary War broke out back in 1775, a few colonists wanted complete independence from Great Britain. These colonists were considered to be the radicals of their time. However, more and more colonists came to believe in favor of independence. Many because of Thomas Paine’s famous writing “Common Sense” which he published in early 1776.
In June 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion that called for the colonies’ independence. A heated debate followed and Congress postponed the vote to his resolution. At that time they appointed a committee of five men, Thomas Jefferson from Virginia, John Adams from Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman from Connecticut and Robert R. Livingston from New York to draft a formal statement justifying the break from Great Britain.
On July 2nd, the Continental Congress voted in favor of Independence in a nearly unanimous vote. New York abstained, but later voted yes.
John Adams wrote to his wife that July 2 “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival” and that the celebration should include “Pomp and Parade…Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” He believed that the American Independence celebration should occur on July 2nd since that was the day of the vote to secure it and would reportedly turn down invitations to appear at July 4th events in protest.
Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the 4th of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Before the Revolutionary war, colonists would hold celebrations in honor of the king’s birthday. These celebrations included the ringing of bells, bonfires, parades and speeches. After the adoption of the Declaration of Independence these same colonists celebrated the birth of their independence by holding mock funerals for King George III as a symbol of the end of the British hold on America and a triumph to their new found liberty.
Philadelphia held the first annual commemoration of independence on July 4, 1777. Festivities including concerts, bonfires, parades and the firing of cannons and muskets accompanied the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence. The war was still going on and George Washington issued double rations of rum to all his soldiers to mark the anniversary of independence in 1778, and in 1781, several months before the key American victory at Yorktown, Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4th an official state holiday.
After the Revolutionary War and to this day, Americans continued to commemorate Independence Day each and every year, in celebrations that allow the new nation’s emerging political leaders to address citizens and create a feeling of unity. The tradition of patriotic celebration became even more widespread after the War of 1812.
In 1870, the U.S. Congress made July 4th a federal holiday. Over the years, the political importance of the holiday has declined somewhat, but Independence Day remains an important national holiday and a symbol of our patriotism.
By the late 1700’s, the two major political parties—Federalists and Democratic-Republicans—that had arisen began holding separate Fourth of July celebrations in many large cities.
The most common symbol of the holiday is still the American flag, and a common musical accompaniment is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States.
And did you know New York City has the biggest fireworks display in the United States and that three U.S. presidents died on July 4? John Adams, Thomas Jefferson in 1826 and James Monroe 5 years later in 1831.