Most people know we celebrate our nation on the fourth of July. It is a national holiday, just for the United States. Some other nations have their own, similar celebrations, but only ours is on July 4th. While we may associate the 4th of July with patriotism and fireworks displays all across the country (and maybe a barbecue or picnic with friends or family), do we really know the true meaning and history of this uniquely American holiday? This is the real story behind the reason we celebrate the United States on the 4th of July.
Not many Americans know this, but the original 13 American colonies officially declared independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776, not the 4th. Thomas Jefferson has already written the Declaration of Independence, and the Continental Congress agreed independence should be declared. In fact, John Adams was sure July 2 would go down in history as a great patriotic national holiday. He even wrote to his wife, Abigail, about it, saying:
“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.”
Well, John almost had it right. We do celebrate American independence that way, but we don’t do it on July 2. We do it on July 4. Why the change in date?
The reason is pretty simple. While independence was officially declared on the 2nd, the Continental Congress wanted some edits to Jefferson’s document. The Congress took two more days to revise it and then vote on the edits. The Declaration of Independence in its final and current form was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
We celebrate the day the Continental Congress approved the written Declaration of Independence, not the day they officially declared independence from Great Britain. It’s a subtle distinction, but important to know. You want to know exactly what you’re celebrating, right?
The July 4th date was probably selected because it is the date written on the final approved version of the Declaration of Independence. Everyone knows this date because it was publicized with copies of the Declaration being sent out all over the new nation. Every colony got at least one copy, while other colonies got more, and everyone heard about it in their local coffeehouses and newspapers. That date became famous. The original July 2nd date was not well known outside the members of the Continental Congress because that session of Congress was not open to the public. People only knew about it later from the published minutes of that session. Not everyone heard about it like they did with the Declaration of Independence. Everyone knew about that.
The date the Declaration of Independence was signed is still a matter of historical debate. John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all wrote independently of one another that they personally signed the Declaration on the 4th. However, most historians now believe it was signed on August 2, 1776. However, it is possible different members of the Continental Congress signed the document at different times.
As a matter of historical interest, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the only signers of the Declaration of Independence to serve as U.S presidents. Also interestingly, they both died the same day as each other… July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was particularly keen on making sure he lived to witness that special anniversary, as it was an important one to him in his life. One of the last things he said was to ask whether it was the 4th. When he was told it was, he was able to let go and move on. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away from Virginia, where Jefferson was, John Adams was speaking his last words in Massachusetts. Adams never forgot his old Revolutionary friend, and though they had a political falling out with each other for many years, they reconciled and wrote to each other often in their old age. Adams’s last words were that Jefferson still lived. He did not know Jefferson had passed away four hours prior in Virginia.
The history of the 4th of July has been part of the United States from its very beginning. The very first time it was celebrated in some manner was on July 4, 1777, when thirteen gunshots were fired in the morning, and then again in the evening, in Bristol, Rhode Island. The same day, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an official dinner was held for members of the Continental Congress, which included toasts, 13-gun salutes, music, parades, fireworks, prayers, and speeches. The ships in port were decorated in red, white, and blue colors to commemorate the celebration.
The next year, in 1778, with the American Revolution still going, George Washington rewarded his troops with extra rations on July 4, as well as an artillery salute. Overseas in France, colonial ambassadors John Adams and Benjamin Franklin had dinner with their fellow American patriots in Paris, France.
The holiday was celebrated every year in some way or other in every colony, even while the Revolution was still going on. In 1781, Massachusetts became the first state to make the 4th an official holiday at the state level.
July 4 was made an official federal holiday around the nation in 1870, though it was an unpaid holiday for federal workers. Congress changed the 4th to a paid federal holiday in 1938.
Even from the very first celebration in 1777, families have celebrated the 4th of July in a similar way, with picnics, family gatherings, leisure time, and even small fireworks displays. The nation, beginning with each individual colony, and continuing at the national level in Washington, D.C., has always made the 4th a big production, with fireworks, parades, and other public festivities. The 4th has been part of our national history from the very beginning of our independence, and we continue to celebrate it today, in our modern world, always remembering it is our freedom as a nation we are celebrating.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)