Fireworks and barbecues are on July 4, but only 58 percent of Americans know we celebrate our Brexit on that day according to a 2011 poll. Even fewer Americans know that the vote for independence happened on July 2, 1776, not on July 4.
Declaring Our Independence
By the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, the relationship between the colonies and Britain had already reached its breaking point. The Declaration was drafted to cut ties with the British government officially and make the case for independence. In addition to declaring independence from England, the document set forth a list of grievances against the King and made general statements about the purpose of government. As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Continental Congress approved a resolution for the colonies’ independence on July 2, 1776. Delegate John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that July 2 “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” He predicted the celebration would include “Pomp and Parade…Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” While Adams did not get the date right, he did make a fairly accurate prediction of what the holiday would entail.
July Fourth marks the date that the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. In the days that followed, the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence took place in Philadelphia before news of independence could be spread throughout the colonies. The reading was accompanied by band music and bells ringing.
July Fourth Becomes Official Holiday
Philadelphia held the first annual Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1777, even though the Revolutionary War was still raging. It included bonfires, bells, and fireworks. The following year, General George Washington made sure all of his soldiers celebrated the anniversary with double rations of rum. In 1781, Massachusetts became the first state to formally recognize July Fourth as an official state holiday.
Celebrations continued to be held throughout the country and became more prominent in the wake of the War of 1812, when the United States again defeated Great Britain. In 1826, failing health prevented Jefferson from attending a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Of the document’s significance, he wrote:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be … the signal of arousing men to burst the chains … and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. …For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
In 1870, Congress officially designated July 4th as a federal holiday. In 1941, it became a paid holiday to all federal employees. It is one of only four federal holidays that falls on the same day every year.