U.S Independence Day: Observances and Historical Significance

Independence Day is a massively important holiday for all Americans both young and old. It is also known as the Fourth of July, but the meaning applies in either term. This is the day that the concept of the United States was born and marks the beginning of the nation’s history. A more important milestone is hard to come by.

The story of America’s birth is one that is taught in schools and revisited throughout each year, but this holiday represents the day that everything came together for the infant nation, and marked the beginning of a long and prosperous journey that has led to America’s place as a global entity.

Let us explore the ways this annual holiday is celebrated, and how history came together to create a nationally recognized birth date for this nation.

Historical Observances and Celebrations

The date of America’s Independence is celebrated each year on July 4th. The day is recognized as a federal holiday in the United States and commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain (now known as the United Kingdom) on July 4th, 1776. From that date over 200 years ago, there have been numerous observances throughout history:

  1. The First Anniversary

In 1777 thirteen gunshots were fired in salute. They were fired once in the morning and once in the evening on July 4th in Bristol, Rhode Island. The first anniversary was celebrated with an official dinner where the Continental Congress was in attendance. Speeches were given, music was played, and fireworks were shot off.

This was one of the first times that fireworks were used in celebration of America’s independence. The idea to use things like firework shows was something John Adams suggested in a letter sent to Abigail Adams on July 3, 1776:

“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.”

His prediction was off by two days, but the concept was wholeheartedly accepted by the American people.

  1. The Second Celebration

On July 4, 1778, General George Washington celebrated the occasion with a double ration of rum for his soldiers, along with an artillery salute. Meanwhile, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin held a dinner for Americans while acting as ambassadors in Paris, France.

  1. Other Notable Celebrations Throughout History

In 1779 July 4th fell on a Sunday, which prompted the celebrations to occur on the following day. In 1783, Moravians in Salem, North Carolina celebrated July 4th with a music program written by Johann Friedrich Peter. The piece was titled “The Psalm of Joy.” This is known as the first recorded celebration of the date.

The holiday’s name was used for the first time in 1791, and in 1938 Congress ruled that it become a paid federal holiday.

Modern Customs and Practices

July 4th is a national holiday for Americans, marking the day that the nation became an independent and sovereign entity. Since the holiday is federally recognized, all non-essential government businesses like the postal service and federal courts are closed on the holiday. Various outdoor celebrations are organized since the holiday occurs in the favorable summer season.

Politicians will typically make appearances on this day to speak in front of the public on the nation’s laws, history, people and more. Celebrations are usually held with family members and include things like picnics and barbecues. Decorations that are colored like the American flag (red, white, and blue) are used to frame the settings for these celebrations.

In the morning, parades are usually held with similar decorations and patriotic displays. At night, the customary celebration is to attend a massive firework display. These shows are usually held at major public places in various cities across the nation. During the shows, various patriotic songs are played including, but not limited to the following:

In addition to these public firework displays, it is also customary for many citizens to purchase their own personal fireworks, though recent laws have been put in place to limit the size allowed for personal use. In addition, military bases will commonly perform a “salute to the union” in the form of a single gun salute for each state in the United States.

There have been plenty of impressive firework displays throughout the modern era. For example, in 2009 New York City had the largest show in the country. They set off over 22 tons of pyrotechnics during the display. Other notable displays include the Windsor-Detroit International Freedom Festival where a firework show it displayed over the Detroit River.

The History Behind the Holiday

The central document surrounding the meaning of this holiday is called The Declaration of Independence. This statement was written after Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776. This was after a year’s worth of fighting the aforementioned country in the American Revolutionary War.

Thomas Jefferson was selected to write the document, provided Congress would then review and edit it. In the document, the thirteen American colonies stated that they were no longer a part of the British Empire, but instead were now thirteen sovereign states. This new group of states would be referred to as the United States of America.

The document was ratified on July 4th of 1776 and issued in several different formats. At first it was published as the printed Dunlap broadside which is the version read to the public. The main document used for this dispersal has since been lost however.

However, the original draft written by Thomas Jefferson that includes notes from John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Congress is still preserved at the Library of Congress. The most widely known version is the signed copy that many know as the official version of the document. This draft is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The document’s purpose was to announce America’s independence, but it was also meant to provide a list of reasons, or grievances against King George III, that justified the revolution taking place at that time. The document hasn't been referenced widely throughout history, but it was quoted significantly by President Abraham Lincoln and was the driving force for many of his policies.

In his October 1854 Peoria speech, Lincoln argued that the document should be a focal point for all Americans when he said:

“Nearly eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a "sacred right of self-government. ... Our republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. ... Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. ... If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union: but we shall have saved it, as to make, and keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”

The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence was described by Stephen E. Lucas in one of his books as “one of the best-known sentences in the English Language.” In American Creation it was said that “It contains the most potent and consequential words in American History.” The second sentence of the document is presented below:

“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.”

This bold step forward for civilization inspired over a 100 other declarations of independence around the world according to David Armitage in his book The Declaration of Independence: A Global History.

The grievances listed in the document came about as a result of the British Parliament being in debt after the Seven Years’ War in 1763. To make up for the debt incurred, the mother country began enacting a series of acts to increase the tax revenue they received from the colonies. Legislation such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767 only served to further anger the colonists.

The American colonists believed that they could be forced to pay taxes because they were not directly represented in any form at the British Parliament. Despite these concerns, further mounting issues resulted when Parliament passed the Coercive Acts in 1774.

These were meant to punish the colonists in Massachusetts for the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773. It was these things that led to the eventual severing of ties with the mother country.

All of these events led to the creation of the United States of America, and ultimately the creation of it’s Independence Day on July 4th. For all Americans this is truly one of the most well-known and recognized holidays.