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The Fourth of July: known as Independence Day or July 4th

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

NEWS PROVIDED BY HistoryAPR 17, 2020, 10:10 ET

ST. LOUIS, May.23, 2020 /MateFit/ -- 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 the present day, 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. The Fourth of July 2020 is on Saturday, July 4, 2020.

News The Fourth of July also known as Independence Day or July 4th

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, however, many more colonists had come to favor independence, thanks to growing hostility against Britain and the spread of revolutionary sentiments such as those expressed in the bestselling pamphlet “Common Sense,” published by Thomas Paine in early 1776.

On June 7, when the Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House (later 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—including Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York—to draft a formal statement justifying the break with Great Britain.

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. Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

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.

READ MORE: Two Presidents Died on the Same July 4: Coincidence or Something More?

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.



Two Presidents Died on the Same July 4: Coincidence or Something More?
On July 4, 1826, two prominent presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, took their final breaths within hours of each other. Some have wondered if it was somehow planned.


On July 4, 1826, America celebrated 50 years of independence as, just a few hours apart, two of its Presidents took their final breaths. At the time of his death, Thomas Jefferson was 83, while John Adams had turned 90 the year before. Though both were unwell, their deaths came as a surprise to many—particularly as they coincided with one another on this very striking date.

In the weeks that followed, Americans offered a variety of explanations for the sudden loss of these two presidents. Though some likely wrote it off as coincidence, many saw evidence of divine design at work. In a eulogy delivered the following month, for instance, Daniel Webster wondered what this “striking and extraordinary” coincidence might suggest. The men’s lives had been gifts from Providence to the United States, he said. So too were their length and “happy termination,” which he saw as “proofs that our country and its benefactors are objects of His care.”

But if it wasn’t a coincidence or divine intervention, what other explanations might there be? Modern scholars have sometimes attempted to pinpoint why such a statistically unlikely event might have taken place. After all, Jefferson and Adams didn’t only die on the same day, with an already low probability of 1 in 365. They died on the same significant date and historic anniversary. “When appeals to coincidence are insufficient,” writes Margaret P. Battin in a 2005 Bulletin of the Historic Society report, “we must look for explanations in common circumstance or common cause, or for causation from one case to the other.”

One possible explanation proposes that Jefferson and Adams deliberately “held on” for the anniversary. The phenomenon of people keeping themselves alive until they’ve said goodbye to a loved one or experienced a significant anniversary is well-documented: It’s entirely possible that Adams and Jefferson’s “will to live” kept them going through those final days ahead of July 4th—but wasn’t enough to keep them alive after that.

Benjamin Franklin and John Adams meeting with Thomas Jefferson, standing, to study a draft of the Declaration of Independence. (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Benjamin Franklin and John Adams meeting with Thomas Jefferson, standing, to study a draft of the Declaration of Independence. (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

In fact, even contemporary observers thought this might have been a conscious decision. In a eulogy for Jefferson delivered in New York in mid-July, the businessman and politician Churchill C. Cambreleng observed: “The body had wasted away—but the energies of a powerful mind, struggling with expiring nature, kept the vital spark alive till the meridian sun shone on our 50th Anniversary—then content to die—the illustrious Jefferson gave to the world his last declaration.”

Jefferson is also said to have refused his usual laudanum on the night before he died, which might have affected his ability to cope with the pain. In a separate eulogy, in fact, John Tyler described Jefferson’s often-expressed desire to die on the Fourth of July, adding even more credence to the theory that their deaths on that providential date may not have been entirely accidental.
Conspiracy theories about their concurrent deaths have also circulated, both at the time and in the centuries since. Battin suggests a possible “silent conspiracy among physicians, family members and other caregivers to help their patient ‘make it’ to the 4th,” where the effort came to an end once the day had been reached. Adams’ granddaughter, she observed, reported their doctor giving her grandfather an experimental medicine which he said would either prolong his life by as much as two weeks, or bring it to a close before 24 hours were up. Even those quite unconnected to the deaths wondered if something more sinister, or planned, had been afoot.

In a letter, John Randolph, of Roanoke decried Adams’ death as “Euthenasia, indeed.” What’s more, he added, “They have killed Mr. Jefferson, too, on the same day, but I don’t believe it.”

But all of these explanations have limitations of one sort or another, particularly as the historical evidence is so scarce. Whatever the reason behind it, these deaths, and their date, were a remarkable concurrence—and one made even more striking five years later, with the death of James Monroe on that same auspicious date. A few days after Monroe passed away, the Boston Traveler was not the only newspaper to observe, “Again our national anniversary has been marked by one of those events, which it may be scarcely permitted to ascribe the chance.”



Why Do We Celebrate July 4 With Fireworks?
The Independence Day tradition dates nearly as far back as the country's beginning and was proposed by one of the Founding Fathers.


It’s hard to imagine Independence Day without fireworks. But how did this tradition get started?

As it turns out, setting off mini-explosions of all shapes and colors (but particularly red, white and blue) on July 4 goes back almost as far as American independence itself.

Fireworks have a long and colorful history, but the story of how they became ubiquitous on July 4 dates to the summer of 1776, during the first months of the Revolutionary War. On July 1, delegates of the Continental Congress were in Philadelphia, debating over whether the 13 original colonies should declare their independence from Britain’s Parliament as well as King George III himself.

That night, news arrived that British ships had sailed into New York Harbor, posing an immediate threat to the Continental troops commanded by George Washington. On July 2, delegates from 12 colonies voted in favor of independence (New York would follow suit on July 9) and the motion carried. On July 3, even as Congress revised a draft of the declaration composed by Thomas Jefferson, an excited John Adams took up his pen to write to his wife, Abigail.

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” Adams wrote. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Adams was off by a couple of days.

On July 4, after making a total of 86 (mostly small) changes to Jefferson’s draft, Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence, though most of the delegates didn’t even sign the document until August 2. Some impromptu celebrations greeted the declaration’s first public readings on July 8, in front of local militia troops in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but the first organized celebration of Independence Day would take place in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777.

“Yesterday the 4th of July, being the anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America, was celebrated in this city with demonstrations of joy and festivity,” reported the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 5, 1777. “About noon all the armed ships and gallies in the river were drawn up before the city, dressed in the gayest manner, with the colors of the United States and streamers displayed.”

After each ship’s cannon fired a 13-gun salute (in honor of the 13 colonies), the festivities continued, including an elegant dinner, a military demonstration and a performance by a Hessian band. “The evening was closed with the ringing of bells,” the Evening Post reported, “and 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.”

Did you know? Adams lived to see exactly 50 years of American independence. On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of Congress’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence, he died at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, just five hours after Jefferson’s death in Virginia.

Adams’s hometown of Boston saw its own fireworks display that July 4th, as Colonel Thomas Crafts of the Sons of Liberty took the opportunity to set off fireworks and shells over Boston Common. In the years to come, various cities continued the tradition of celebrating independence, holding picnics, parades, speeches and fireworks displays for the occasion, though Boston was the first to designate July 4 an official holiday (in 1783).

By the time Independence Day celebrations really took off after the War of 1812 (another conflict pitting the United States against Britain), fireworks were even more widely available. They would become an increasingly important part of the festivities in the years to come, as public safety concerns caused cannon and gunfire to be gradually phased out of celebrations.

In 1870, Congress established Independence Day as an official holiday. By 1898, a reporter would note that “the American Fourth of July is the greatest event the maker of firecrackers knows,” historian James Heintze recorded in The Fourth of July Encyclopedia.

As every July 4 brings numerous fireworks-related accidents, some causing injuries and even deaths, many cities and states would pass bans on different types of pyrotechnics; Adams’s native Massachusetts, for example, now bans all consumer fireworks. Despite these safety concerns, Americans spend somewhere around $1 billion on fireworks each July 4, allowing for a nationwide celebration of independence John Adams would surely have appreciated.

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