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History of the 4th of July

“Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more. Amen and Amen.”
Virginia Gazette on July 18th, 1777

Schoolchildren in America learn the basic history of the events surrounding the Fourth of July, but the details of this monumental occasion in American history somehow fall through the cracks.

Although July 4th is celebrated as America’s official split from Britain’s rule and the beginning of the American Revolution, the actual series of events show that the process took far longer than a single day. 

Taxation without representation! That was the battle cry of the 13 colonies in America who were forced to pay taxes to England’s King George III with no representation in Parliament. As dissatisfaction grew, British troops were sent in to quell any signs of rebellion, and repeated attempts by the colonists to resolve the crisis without war proved fruitless.

The original resolution was introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia on June 7, 1776, and called for the Continental Congress to declare the United States free from British rule. 

On June 11, 1776, the colonies’ Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, formed a committee with the express purpose of drafting a document that would formally sever their ties with Great Britain. The committee included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. The document was crafted by Jefferson, who was considered the strongest and most eloquent writer (nevertheless, a total of 86 changes were made to his draft!) The final version, the document that we know as the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, although the resolution that led to the writing of the Declaration was actually approved two days earlier.

The following day, copies of the Declaration of Independence were distributed and, on July 6, The Pennsylvania Evening Post became the first newspaper to print the extraordinary document.

On July 8, 1776, the first public readings of the Declaration were held in Philadelphia’s Independence Square to the ringing of bells and band music. 
All of this had occurred with some of the delegates to the Congress not even present; New York, for example, did not even vote on the resolution until July 9th. 
(Did you know that that not a single signature was appended to the Declaration on July 4th. While most of the fifty-six names were in place by early August, one signer, Thomas McKean, did not actually sign the Declaration until 1781.)

One year later, on July 4, 1777, Philadelphia marked Independence Day by adjourning Congress and celebrating with bonfires, bells and fireworks.

The custom eventually spread to other towns both large and small, where the day was marked with processions, oratory, picnics, contests, games, military displays and fireworks. Observations throughout the nation became even more common at the end of the War of 1812 with Great Britain.

On June 24, 1826, Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to Roger C. Weightman, declining an invitation to come to Washington, D.C., to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was the last letter, Jefferson, who was gravely ill, ever wrote. In it, Jefferson says of the document:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains ... and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. ... For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

In 1941, Congress declared July 4 a legal Federal holiday. Today, communities across the nation mark this major midsummer holiday with parades, fireworks, picnics and the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner" and marches by John Philip Sousa.


Special Celebrations

Many Fourth of July customs have not changed since our earliest celebrations. But some communities across the nation have developed their own special traditions:

  • Celebrants in Seward, Alaska, take part in a six-mile foot race to the top of Mount Marathon and back. Further north in Kotzebue, Alaska, traditional Inuit contests are held.
  • The citizens of Lititz, Pennsylvania have spent their winters since 1818 making thousands of candles so that the children of the town can light them during a special "Festival of Candles" the night of July 4.
  • And, on the morning of July 4, the community of Tecumseh, Nebraska, raises more than 200 flags around the courthouse as a way of remembering those who have served in our country’s armed forces. Each flagpole bears the name of a man or woman from Tecumseh who has served in the United States military.
  • On July 4, 1976 major celebrations throughout the country marked America’s 200th birthday. In Washington, D.C., 33 tons of fireworks were exploded in the sky above the Washington Monument, along with Laser beams that spelled out " 1776-1976, Happy Birthday, USA." In New York, a succession of tall sailing ships from all over the world sailed up the Hudson River.


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