Most know that the 13 colonies of the United States broke ties with English governance on July 4, 1776; but do you know the history of July 4th celebration?
History of July 4th celebration
From 1763 until 1775 the colonists found their rights as English citizens taken away by the British. This led to unrest and actual fighting from April of 1775 until July 2, 1776.
After this year of conflict between the colonies and Britain, Philadelphia hosted the Second Continental Congress beginning in May of 1775. The famous resolution that came from this congress was a statement by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. “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.”
Thus began the movement to create an official Declaration of Independence. It did not happen immediately as seven of the colonies voted to postpone this draft. Though postponed, five men were appointed to prepare a document that showed the world the case for this break with England. The five men on this committee were John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia who was appointed to prepare the actual document.
The Second Continental Congress gathered again on July 1, 1776, where it adopted the Lee Resolution on July 2nd. At that time, 12 of 13 colonies approved the document, with New York abstaining.
How did July 4th become a national holiday?
After two more days of further discussion, there were 86 changes made in Jefferson’s document including removal of his condemnation of Britain’s slave trade. Overall, the message and spirit of the document did not change. Late afternoon on July 4th the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted. Nine of the 13 colonies voted “yes”, Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted “no”, Delaware was undecided, and New York abstained. On July 9th, New York added its vote for the Declaration. With this signing, the “rebellion” against Britain became a “revolution”. Though it passed on July 4th, it was not signed until August 2, 1776. The final signer, Thomas McKean of Delaware, did not sign until 1781. The American Revolution ended in 1783.
Congressional acceptance and signing, however, did not end the controversy – nor did the end of the American Revolution. By the 1790s, a partisan rivalry was in progress and the Declaration was a focus point for division. The Democratic-Republicans still believed the Declaration to be right and necessary, while the Federalists believed it to be too French and too anti-British. In 1817, John Adams wrote a letter asserting that America seemed uninterested in its past. That changed with the War of 1812 which influenced the political scene into the 1830s. By then the Federalist party disintegrated and the general mood of the country supported Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. A printing of 200 copies of the Declaration circulated throughout the country with July 4, 1776 shown at the top. Adding to the patriotic feelings toward the July 4th date were the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of acceptance for the Declaration.
It was 1870 when the United States congress declared July 4 a national holiday, followed by further legislation on observance of the day in 1939 and 1941.
The full Declaration of Independence can be read here and the original document can be viewed in Washington, D.C. at the National Archives.
Test your knowledge
Here is a quiz for your knowledge of this holiday – and perhaps a trivia contest for your family gathering – a fun way to learn more of our country’s history.