Guest article by the AIU Military Relations Department
Celebrations of this most American of holidays have taken many and varied forms: from one of the last parades of the War of 1812 which featured Revolutionary War veterans, the staged battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac in New York (1862), the reunion of Confederate soldiers in Chattanooga (1890), a grand explosion on top of Pike's Peak (1901), the mock atomic bomb explosion before a crowd of 25,000 in Baltimore (1951), and the Oklahoma City Fourth that included the raising of the American flag back to full-staff after the bombing of the Federal Building earlier that year (1995).
Alternatively known as the Fourth of July and Independence Day, 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 (1775-83). In June 1776, representatives of the 13 colonies then fighting in the revolutionary struggle weighed a resolution that would declare their independence from Great Britain. On July 2nd, the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence, and two days later its delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence, the historic document drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
- Heintze, J. R. (2000, July 4). Fourth of July Celebrations Database. Retrieved from http://www1.american.edu/heintze/fourth.htm
The Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, was meant to justify a revolt against the British, including a list of charges against the British king. The Fourth of July commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It was initially adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776, but then it was revised and the final version was adopted two days later. As Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration, Britain's army was on its way toward to New York Harbor. It began:
"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
- Appelbaum, D.K. (1989) The Glorious Fourth: An American Holiday, an American History. New York: Facts on File.
The summer of 1776 was a harrowing time for the British colonies in America. Open warfare with the mother country had erupted a year earlier and the future was filled with political and military uncertainties. In this tense climate, the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia with the intention of voting for independence from England. In anticipation of this vote, the Congress selected a committee to draft a declaration of independence. The committee, composed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman, in turn instructed Thomas Jefferson to write the declaration. Jefferson’s labors began in earnest on June 11 and he toiled in seclusion writing numerous drafts.
After presenting his final draft, the committee further revised the document and submitted it to the Continental Congress on June 28. On July 2, the Continental Congress voted for independence and refined its Declaration of Independence before releasing it to the public on July 4th. Three U.S. presidents actually died on July 4. Two of them passed away within hours of each other on July 4, 1826: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two had been political rivals and then friends later in life. The other to share the distinction was James Monroe, who died July 4, 1831. In 1777, Philadelphians remembered the 4th of July. Bells were rung, guns fired, candles lighted, and firecrackers set off. However, while the War of Independence dragged on, July 4 celebrations were modest at best. When the war ended in 1783, July 4 became a holiday in some places. In Boston, it replaced the date of the Boston Massacre, March 5, as the major patriotic holiday. Speeches, military events, parades, and fireworks marked the day. In 1941, Congress declared July 4 a federal holiday.
- Dennis, M. (2002). Red, White and Blue letter days: An American Calendar. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died within hours of each other on July 4 1826. What happened was that when Adams was dying that day, one of the last things he said before dying was: "At least Jefferson still lives". He had no way of knowing at the time that Thomas Jefferson had actually died two hours earlier.
Since independence from Britain was declared on July 2nd 1776, lots of people 236 years ago thought that that date would be the one remembered and celebrated. It ultimately became the July 4th holiday because that was the date the written Declaration had on it and the date it was published. The Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 men representing the 13 colonies. The moment marked the beginning of all-out war against the British. The American Revolutionary War is said to have started in 1775, however. The Declaration was signed more than two years after Boston officials refused to return three shiploads of taxed tea to Britain, fueling colonists to dump the tea into the harbor in what became the infamous Boston Tea Party.
- "Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1999). Retrieved from http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/jefferson.htm
When we are celebrating, whether we commemorate the day with firecrackers, family and firing up the grill, perhaps in contemplation of the improbability of the success of the American experiment or in remembrance of the cost of the freedoms we now enjoy; this is a day that truly stands as a celebration of what in its age seemed an ill-advised act of treason by a small group of radicals that now is the foundation of our society.