July 4th calls to mind grilling in the backyard, parades filled with red, white and blue everything, days spent in the sun, and fireworks, but there’s much more to the holiday that celebrates America’s Independence.
When the initial battles of the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, many of the colonists were against being entirely separated from British rule. Many just wanted the oppressive taxes including the Stamp Act to stop. However, in the next year, as hostility grew against Great Britain, many opinions started to change. The release of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” in early 1776, which argued for American independence and highlighted the tyranny of England. Paine’s pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies, an astounding feat of the time.
On June 7th, 1776, the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss the colonies’ independence. The debate amongst delegates was heated and indecisive, and the vote was postponed. A 5 person committee was selected to draft a statement formalizing a separation from Great Britain in preparation. The committee was made up of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston.
On July 2nd, the congress met again to hold the vote on whether to declare independence. Almost unanimously the congress voted to officially break ties with England.
What’s in a Date?
A great deal of controversy surrounds the dates of America’s independence. The vote to declare independence was officially made on July 2nd, 1776, but a revision of the declaration was made and produced on July 4th, 1776 changing some of the phrasings. While many claim the original draft was signed on July 2nd by the 5 members of the selected committee, the official recognized date for the signing of what we now refer to as The Declaration of Independence happened by a majority of congress members on July 4th.
One of the strongest claims that the holiday should be celebrated on the 2nd came in the form of a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail 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.”
John Adams believed that July 2nd was the correct date on which to celebrate the birth of American independence, and would reportedly turn down invitations to appear at July 4th events in protest. Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
In the pre-Revolutionary years, colonists had held annual celebrations of the king’s birthday, which traditionally included the ringing of bells, bonfires, processions, and speechmaking. By contrast, during the summer of 1776, some 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. Some of the mock funerals, known as funerals for liberty, went so far as to include lynching a mock-dummy of the king to hang. Celebrations included real coffins, eulogies, and mourning-clothed funeral attendants.
Festivities including concerts, bonfires, parades, and the firing of cannons and muskets usually accompanied the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence, immediately after its adoption. Philadelphia held the first annual commemoration of independence on July 4, 1777, while Congress was still occupied with the ongoing war.
In 1778 and again in 1781 as the war waged on, General George Washington marked the anniversary of July 4th with a double ration of rum for his soldiers and an artillery salute.
After the Revolutionary War, celebrations continued each July 4th as a way to promote unity among the colonies and to give political leaders a way to address citizens. While political turmoil continued leading up to the 18th century as a means to outline the new government, the two major political parties—the Federalist Party and Democratic-Republicans—had begun holding separate Fourth of July celebrations in many large cities.
A Tradition of Fireworks
The tradition of setting off fireworks on the 4 of July began in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, during the first organized celebration of Independence Day. A ship’s cannon fired a 13-gun salute in honor of the 13 colonies. That same night, the Sons of Liberty set off fireworks over Boston Common.
After the War of 1812 in which the U.S. faced off against England, the celebrations invoked more vigor as a way to vilify Britain. In 1870, the U.S. Congress made July 4th a federal holiday. Throughout the 19th century, Independence Day celebrations were made to highlight a communal sense of leisure and celebration incorporating barbecues, parties, picnics, and of course—fireworks.
Information from History.com and MentalFloss.com