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4th of July ~ Celebrating Independence

Known as the 4th of July or Independence Day, July 4th has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.  The tradition of the 4th of July celebrations goes back to the 18th century, and the American Revolution.  Since 1776 we have been celebrating July 4th as the birth of American Independence – today these celebrations include parades, fireworks, BBQs and other family gatherings.

The Birth of American Independence

When the initial battles of the Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, few colonists actually desired complete independence from Great Britain – those who did were considered radical. By the middle of the following year, many more colonists had come to favor independence, thanks to growing hostility against Britain and the spread of revolutionary sentiments as those expressed in Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense,” published in early 1776.

On June 7th, when the Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, the Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies’ independence. As heated debate ensued, Congress postponed the vote on Lee’s resolution, but appointed a five-man committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert R. Livingston to draft a formal statement justifying the break with Great Britain.

On July 2nd, the Continental Congress voted in favor of Lee’s resolution for independence in a near-unanimous vote (the New York delegation abstained, but later voted affirmatively). On that day, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

On July 4th, the Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, which had been written largely by Thomas Jefferson. Though the vote for actual independence took place on July 2nd, from then on the 4th became the day that was celebrated as the birth of American independence.

Did you know? Since John Adams believed that July 2nd was the correct date on which to celebrate the birth of American independence, he would reportedly turn down invitations to appear at July 4th events in protest.

Early Fourth of July Celebrations

In the pre-Revolutionary years, colonists had held annual celebrations of the king’s (King George III) birthday, which traditionally included the ringing of bells, bonfires, processions and speechmaking. However, during the summer of 1776 many colonists celebrated the birth of independence by holding mock funerals for King George III, as a way of symbolizing the end of the monarchy’s hold on America and the triumph of liberty.

Philadelphia held the first annual commemoration of independence on July 4, 1777, while Congress was still occupied with the ongoing war.  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, Americans continued to commemorate Independence Day every year, in celebrations that allowed the new nation’s emerging political leaders to address citizens and create a feeling of unity. By the last decade of the 18th century, the two major political parties (Federalists and Democratic-Republicans) began holding separate Independence Day celebrations in many large cities.  Held since 1785, the Bristol Fourth of July Parade in Bristol, Rhode Island is the oldest continuous Independence Day celebration in the United States.  Since 1868, Seward, Nebraska has held a celebration on the same town square-in 1979, by Congressional Resolution, Seward was designated as “America’s Official Fourth of July City – Small Town USA.”

July 4th Becomes a National Holiday

The tradition of patriotic celebration became even more widespread after the War of 1812, in which the United States again faced Great Britain. In 1870, Congress made July 4th a federal holiday- in 1938, the provision was expanded to grant a paid holiday to all federal employees. Over the years, the political importance of the holiday has declined. Falling in mid-summer, the 4th of July since the late 19th century has become a major focus of leisure activities and family get-togethers with fireworks and BBQs. Independence Day still remains as an important national holiday and a symbol of patriotism.  The most common symbol of the holiday is, of course, the American flag with musical accompaniment “The Star Spangled Banner”.