Celebrating Independence Day on the Fourth of July

We celebrate American Independence Day on the Fourth of July every year. We think of July 4, 1776, as a day that represents the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States of America as an independent nation.

But July 4, 1776 wasn't the day that the Continental Congress decided to declare independence (they did that on July 2, 1776).

It wasn’t the day we started the American Revolution either (that had happened back in April 1775).

And it wasn't the day Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence (that was in June 1776). Or the date on which the Declaration was delivered to Great Britain (that didn't happen until November 1776). Or the date it was signed (that was August 2, 1776).

The Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. They'd been working on it for a couple of days after the draft was submitted on July 2nd and finally agreed on all of the edits and changes.

On July 4, 1776, the thirteen colonies claimed their independence from England, an event which eventually led to the formation of the United States. Each year on July 4th, also known as Independence Day, Americans celebrate this historic event.

Conflict between the colonies and England was already a year old when the colonies convened a Continental Congress in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. In a June 7 session in the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall), Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented a resolution with the famous words: "Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

Lee's words were the impetus for the drafting of a formal Declaration of Independence, although the resolution was not followed up on immediately. On June 11, consideration of the resolution was postponed by a vote of seven colonies to five, with New York abstaining. However, a Committee of Five was appointed to draft a statement presenting to the world the colonies' case for independence. Members of the Committee included John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The task of drafting the actual document fell on Jefferson.

On July 1, 1776, the Continental Congress reconvened, and on the following day, the Lee Resolution for independence was adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies, New York not voting. Discussions of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence resulted in some minor changes, but the spirit of the document was unchanged. The process of revision continued through all of July 3 and into the late afternoon of July 4, when the Declaration was officially adopted. Of the 13 colonies, nine voted in favor of the Declaration, two -- Pennsylvania and South Carolina -- voted No, Delaware was undecided and New York abstained. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence. It is said that John Hancock's signed his name "with a great flourish" so England's "King George can read that without spectacles!"

Today, the original copy of the Declaration is housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and July 4 has been designated a national holiday to commemorate the day the United States laid down its claim to be a free and independent nation.

For the first 15 or 20 years after the Declaration was written, people didn’t celebrate it much on any date. It was too new and too much else was happening in the young nation. By the 1790s, a time of bitter partisan conflicts, the Declaration had become controversial. One party, the Democratic-Republicans, admired Jefferson and the Declaration. But the other party, the Federalists, thought the Declaration was too French and too anti-British, which went against their current policies.

By 1817, John Adams complained in a letter that America seemed uninterested in its past. But that would soon change.

After the War of 1812, the Federalist party began to come apart and the new parties of the 1820s and 1830s all considered themselves inheritors of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate again, all with the date July 4, 1776, listed at the top. The deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, may even have helped to promote the idea of July 4 as an important date to be celebrated.

Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on and in 1870, almost a hundred years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4 to be a national holiday as part of a bill to officially recognize several holidays, including Christmas. Further legislation about national holidays, including July 4, was passed in 1939 and 1941.

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