Fourth of July – Independence Day History
The Fourth of July—also known as Independence Day or July 4th—has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1941, but the tradition of Independence Day celebrations goes back to the 18th century and the American Revolution.
On July 2nd, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence, and two days later delegates from the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, a historic document drafted by Thomas Jefferson. From 1776 to today, July 4th has been celebrated as the birth of American independence, with festivities ranging from fireworks, parades and concerts to more casual family gatherings and barbecues.
A History of Independence Day
When the initial battles in the Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, few colonists desired complete independence from Great Britain, and those who did were considered radical. By the middle of the following year more colonists had come to favor independence, thanks to growing hostility against Britain and the spread of revolutionary sentiments.
The American colonists’ breakup with the British Empire in 1776 wasn’t a sudden, impetuous act. The banding together of the 13 colonies to fight and win a war of independence against the British Crown was the culmination of a series of events, which had begun more than a decade earlier. Escalations began shortly after the end of the French and Indian War—known elsewhere as the Seven Years War in 1763. Here are a few of the pivotal moments that led to the American Revolution.
- The Stamp Act (March 1765)
To recoup some of the massive debt left over from the war with France, the British Parliament passed laws such as the Stamp Act, which for the first time taxed a wide range of transactions in the colonies.
“Up until then, each colony had its own government which decided which taxes they would have, and collected them,” explains Willard Sterne Randall, a professor emeritus of history at Champlain College and author of numerous works on early American history, including Unshackling America: How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution. “They felt that they’d spent a lot of blood and treasure to protect the colonists from the Indians, and so they should pay their share.”
The colonists didn’t see it that way. They resented not only having to buy goods from the British but pay tax on them as well. “The tax never got collected, because there were riots all over the pace,” Randall says. Ultimately, Benjamin Franklin convinced the British to rescind it, but that only made things worse. “That made the Americans think they could push back against anything the British wanted,” Randall says.
- The Townshend Acts (June-July 1767)
The British Parliament again tried to assert its authority by passing legislation to tax goods that the Americans imported from Great Britain. The Crown established a board of customs commissioners to stop smuggling and corruption among local officials in the colonies, who were often in on the illicit trade.
Americans struck back by organizing a boycott of the British goods that were subject to taxation, and began harassing the British customs commissioners. In an effort to quell the resistance, the British sent troops to occupy Boston, which only deepened the ill feeling.
- The Boston Massacre (March 1770)
Simmering tensions between the British occupiers and Boston residents boiled over one late afternoon, when a disagreement between an apprentice wigmaker and a British soldier led to a crowd of 200 colonists surrounding seven British troops. When the Americans began taunting the British and throwing things at them, the soldiers apparently lost their cool and began firing into the crowd.
As the smoke cleared, three men—including an African American sailor named Crispus Attucks—were dead, and two others were mortally wounded. The massacre became a useful propaganda tool for the colonists, especially after Paul Revere distributed an engraving that misleadingly depicted the British as the aggressors.
- The Boston Tea Party (December 1773)
The British eventually withdrew their forces from Boston and repealed much of the onerous Townshend legislation. But they left in place the tax on tea, and in 1773 enacted a new law, the Tea Act, to prop up the financially struggling British East India Company. The act gave the company extended favorable treatment under tax regulations, so that it could sell tea at a price that undercut the American merchants who imported from Dutch traders.
That didn’t sit well with Americans. “They didn’t want the British telling them that they had to buy their tea, but it wasn’t just about that,” Randall explains. “The Americans wanted to be able to trade with any country they wanted.”
The Sons of Liberty, a radical group, decided to confront the British head-on. Thinly disguised as Mohawks, they boarded three ships in Boston harbor and destroyed more than 92,000 pounds of British tea by dumping it into the harbor. To make the point that they were rebels rather than vandals, they avoided harming any of the crew or damaging the ships themselves, and the next day even replaced a padlock that had been broken.
Nevertheless, the act of defiance really ticked off the British government. “Many of the East India Company’s shareholders were members of Parliament. They each had paid 1,000 pounds sterling—that would probably be about a million dollars now—for a share of the company, to get a piece of the action from all this tea that they were going to force down the colonists’ throats. So when these bottom-of-the-rung people in Boston destroyed their tea, that was a serious thing to them.” Willard Sterne Randall
- The Coercive Acts (March-June 1774)
The first Continental Congress, held in Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia, met to define American rights and organize a plan of resistance to the Coercive Acts imposed by the British Parliament as punishment for the Boston Tea Party.
In response to the Boston Tea Party, the British government decided that it had to tame the rebellious colonists in Massachusetts. In the spring of 1774, Parliament passed a series of laws, the Coercive Acts, which closed Boston Harbor until restitution was paid for the destroyed tea, replaced the colony’s elected council with one appointed by the British, gave sweeping powers to the British military governor General Thomas Gage, and forbade town meetings without approval.
Yet another provision protected British colonial officials who were charged with capital offenses from being tried in Massachusetts, instead requiring that they be sent to another colony or back to Great Britain for trial.
But perhaps the most provocative provision was the Quartering Act, which allowed British military officials to demand accommodations for their troops in unoccupied houses and buildings in towns, rather than having to stay out in the countryside. While it didn’t force the colonists to board troops in their own homes, they had to pay for the expense of housing and feeding the soldiers. The quartering of troops eventually became one of the grievances cited in the Declaration of Independence.
- Lexington and Concord (April 1775)
The Battle of Lexington broke out on April 19, 1775. British General Thomas Gage led a force of British soldiers from Boston to Lexington, where he planned to capture colonial radical leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock, and then head to Concord and seize their gunpowder. But American spies got wind of the plan, and with the help of riders such as Paul Revere, word spread to be ready for the British.
On the Lexington Common, the British force was confronted by 77 American militiamen, and they began shooting at each other. Seven Americans died, but other militiamen managed to stop the British at Concord, and continued to harass them on their retreat back to Boston.
The British lost 73 dead, with another 174 wounded and 26 missing in action. The bloody encounter proved to the British that the colonists were fearsome foes who had to be taken seriously. It was the start of America’s war of independence.
- British attacks on coastal towns (October 1775-January 1776)
Though the Revolutionary War’s hostilities started with Lexington and Concord, it was unclear whether the southern colonies, whose interests didn’t necessarily align with the northern colonies, would be all in for a war of independence.
“The southerners were totally dependent upon the English to buy their crops, and they didn’t trust the Yankees, and in New England, the Puritans thought the southerners were lazy.” Willard Sterne Randall
But that was before the brutal British naval bombardments and burning of the coastal towns of Falmouth, Massachusetts and Norfolk, Virginia helped to unify the colonies. In Falmouth, where townspeople had to grab their possessions and flee for their lives, northerners had to face up to “the fear that the British would do whatever they wanted to them,” Randall says.
The burning of Falmouth shocked General George Washington, who denounced it as “exceeding in barbarity & cruelty every hostile act practiced among civilized nations.”
Similarly, in Norfolk, the horror of the town’s wooden buildings going up in flames after a seven-hour naval bombardment shocked the southerners, who also knew that the British were offering African Americans their freedom if they took up arms on the loyalist side. “Norfolk stirred up fears of a slave insurrection in the South,” Randall says.
Leaders of the rebellion seized the burnings of the two ports to make the argument that the colonists needed to band together for survival against a ruthless enemy and embrace the need for independence—a spirit that ultimately would lead to their victory.
We Petition for Freedom
On June 7th, when the Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House (later called Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, the Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies’ independence.
Amid heated debate, Congress postponed the vote on Lee’s resolution, but appointed a five-man committee:
- Thomas Jefferson of Virginia,
- John Adams of Massachusetts,
- Roger Sherman of Connecticut,
- Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania
- and Robert R. Livingston of New York.
They were tasked 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 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.”
On July 4th, the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, which had been written largely by 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.
Early Fourth of July Celebrations
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.
Festivities including concerts, bonfires, parades and the firing of cannons and muskets usually accompanied the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence, beginning 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.
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 the Battle of 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—the Federalist Party and Democratic-Republicans—that had arisen began holding separate Fourth of July celebrations in many large cities.
Fourth of July Fireworks
The first fireworks were used as early as 200 BC. 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.
Ship’s cannon fired a 13-gun salute in honor of the 13 colonies. The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported: “at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.” That same night, the Sons of Liberty set off fireworks over Boston Common.
Fourth of July Becomes a Federal 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, the U.S. Congress made July 4th a federal holiday; in 1941, the provision was expanded to grant a paid holiday to all federal employees. Over the years, the political importance of the holiday would decline, but Independence Day remained an important national holiday and a symbol of patriotism.
Falling in mid-summer, the Fourth of July has since the late 19th century become a major focus of leisure activities and a common occasion for family get-togethers, often involving fireworks and outdoor barbecues. The most common symbol of the holiday is the American flag, and a common musical accompaniment is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States.
Did you know? 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.
John Adams may have been the first to suggest fireworks. In a letter to his wife and political advisor, Abigail, he suggested that “illuminations” be part of the future Independence Day celebrations, the first of which was held in 1777.
News of the Declaration of Independence caused colonists to riot against King George III. On the night of July 4th, citizens of Philadelphia ripped King George III’s coat of arms from the State House door and threw it into a bonfire.
One World Trade Center in New York City, its most outstanding feature (its height), was designed to pay tribute to the year that America received its independence from Great Britain. The tower is exactly 1,776 feet tall to represent the year 1776.
It’s hard to get through an entire 4th of July party or parade without hearing the “Star Spangled Banner” at least once or twice. As Better Homes & Gardens points out, despite being written during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key’s famous song didn’t become the National Anthem until 1931, 88 years after Key had already passed away.
The 4th of July might seem like the holiday that the White House would celebrate before any other, but it didn’t actually host an official Independence Day party until 1801, as Better Homes & Gardens points out. President Thomas Jefferson was in office at the time.
America was free as of that date. Enslaved Black people in America were not granted their freedom until June 19, 1865, following the Civil War. Today, this date is celebrated as Juneteenth.
The oldest 4th of July parade in the nation is celebrated in the town of Bristol, Rhode Island each year. It’s been happening since 1785.
A little-known tradition is that of eating salmon on Independence Day — well, if you are from New England, anyway. “The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July essentially began in New England as a coincidence. During the middle of the summer, salmon was abundant in rivers throughout the region, so it was a common sight on tables at the time,” author Jay Serafino writes on MentalFloss.com. “The dish eventually got lumped into the Fourth and has stayed that way ever since, even with the decline of Atlantic salmon.”
On July 3, 1781, Massachusetts legislature called for an official state celebration to recognize “the anniversary of the independence of the United States of America,” making it the first state to recognize the 4th of July as an official holiday.
There has only been one president ever to be born on the American holiday: Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was born July 4, 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont.
Three former presidents died on July 4th. On July 4, 1826, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was finalized, former U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams reportedly died just hours apart. Exactly five years later, James Monroe reportedly became the third U.S. president to die on the 4th of July.
During the first Independence Day following the end of the Civil War, a celebratory firecracker reportedly started the Great Fire of 1866 in Portland, Maine. As well as destroying 1,800 buildings (including the new City Hall, the Customs House, the Post Office, several churches, and all the city’s banks), the fire left 10,000 people homeless.
Nathan’s annual July 4th hot dog eating contest reportedly began on July 4, 1916.
According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, approximately 150 million hot dogs are consumed by Americans on the 4th of July each year. If lined up, that amount of hot dogs could stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.