In the United States, Independence Day is observed on the Fourth of July. Independence Day has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1941, but the celebrations date back to the 18th century and the American Revolution. So why exactly do we observe the Fourth of July? And what should we do to celebrate it?
The Historical Roots of the Fourth of July
July 4th has been commemorated as the beginning of American independence since 1776. The United States Continental Congress voted in favor of independence on July 2, 1776, and delegates from the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, a historic document penned by Thomas Jefferson, (one of the most recognized founding fathers) two days later.
In the American colonies, only select few colonists desired complete independence from Great Britain when the Revolutionary War began in April 1775, and those who did were labeled radicals. Due to growing anti-British feeling and the propagation of revolutionary ideals like those portrayed in Thomas Paine's blockbuster pamphlet "Common Sense," released in early 1776, many more colonies supported independence by the middle of the following year.
When the Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia on June 7, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies' independence at the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall). Congress postponed a vote on Lee's resolution amid heated debate but appointed a five-man committee—including Virginia's Thomas Jefferson, Massachusetts' John Adams, Connecticut's Roger Sherman, Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin, and New York's Robert R. Livingston—to draft a formal statement justifying the break with Great Britain.
The Second Continental Congress voted near-unanimously in favor of Lee's proposal for independence on July 2nd (the New York delegation abstained, but later voted affirmatively). On that day, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, declaring that July 2 "would be commemorated, by succeeding Generations, as the grand anniversary Festival," with "Pomp and Parade … Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of our Continent to the other."
The Continental Congress formally accepted the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, which was substantially written by Jefferson. Though the original vote for independence took place on July 2nd, the 4th of July has since become the day commemorating the birth of American independence.
Early Fourth of July Celebrations
Prior to the Revolution, colonists staged annual festivities of the king's birthday, which featured bell ringing, bonfires, processions, and speeches. During the summer of 1776, on the other hand, some colonies commemorated the birth of freedom by staging fake funerals for King George III, representing the monarchy's death and the triumph of liberty. Concerts, bonfires, parades, and the firing of cannons and muskets frequently preceded the Declaration of Independence's initial public readings, which began shortly after its passage.
While Congress was still concerned with the continuing war, Philadelphia staged the first yearly anniversary of independence on July 4, 1777. To commemorate the anniversary of freedom in 1778, George Washington (who would later become the first President of the United States) gave all of his soldiers double rations of rum, and Massachusetts became the first state to proclaim July 4th an official state holiday in 1781, a few months before the crucial American victory at the Battle of Yorktown.
Following the Revolutionary War, Americans continued to celebrate Independence Day every year, with ceremonies that allowed the new nation's growing political leaders to address residents and foster unity. By the last decade of the 18th century, the two major political parties that had emerged, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republicans, were hosting separate Fourth of July festivities in many major cities.
Fourth of July Celebrations
The Fourth of July is commonly celebrated with a grand display of fireworks. As early as 200 BC, the first fireworks were utilized. On July 4, 1777, at the first organized celebration of Independence Day in Philadelphia, the custom of lighting fireworks began. In honor of the 13 colonies, the ship's cannon fired a 13-gun salute. "At night there was a great demonstration of fireworks (which began and ended with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was wonderfully illuminated," the Pennsylvania Evening Post wrote. The Sons of Liberty launched fireworks over Boston Common the same night.
How the Tradition of Fireworks Came to Be on the Fourth of July
It's difficult to picture a Fourth of July without fireworks. But how did this custom originate? Setting off mini explosions of various shapes and colors (but especially red, white, and blue) on July 4th has a history that dates back almost as far as American independence. The narrative of how fireworks became popular on July 4 dates to the summer of 1776, during the early months of the Revolutionary War.
On July 1, Continental Congress delegates met in Philadelphia to debate whether the 13 original colonies should declare their independence from Britain's Parliament and King George III of New England himself. That night, word came that British ships had sailed into New York Harbor, posing an immediate threat to George Washington's Continental forces. The motion was carried after delegates from 12 colonies voted in favor of independence on July 2 (New York would follow suit on July 9). On July 3, when Congress was revising a draft of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, an ecstatic John Adams took up his pen to write to his wife, Abigail. "The Second Day of July 1776, will go down in American history as the most remarkable Epocha," Adams wrote. "I believe it will be remembered as the Great Anniversary Festival by succeeding Generations... From this Time onward, it should be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other." Adams was off by a couple of days.
Congress officially ratified the Declaration of Independence on July 4, after making 86 (minor) revisions to Jefferson's draft, though most of the delegates didn't sign the declaration until August 2. On July 8, in front of local militia units in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, several unplanned festivities greeted the declaration's initial public readings, but the first organized Independence Day celebration took place in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777.
When Independence Day Became a Federal Holiday
After the War of 1812, when the United States once again faced Great Britain, the habit of patriotic celebration grew even more widespread. The United States Congress declared July 4th a federal holiday in 1870, and the legislation was expanded in 1941 to include all federal employees. The festival's political significance waned with time, but it remained a significant national holiday and a symbol of patriotism. The Fourth of July, which falls in the middle of summer, has become a major focus of leisure activities and a regular occasion for family get-togethers, with fireworks displays and outdoor barbecues, since the late 1800s. The American flag is the most prevalent emblem of the occasion, and "The Star-Spangled Banner," the United States' national anthem, is a popular musical accompaniment.
How to Decorate for the Fourth of July
However, putting on a July fireworks show is not the only way to show your pride in the United States of America on this special holiday. Carrot-Top has an extensive collection of patriotic items to display for the Fourth of July. Check out our full Independence Day collection today! We offer a vast selection of high-quality flags, flag products, and other customized items to ensure that you are showing off your patriotism and love for the United States with the best patriotic décor possible.
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