Fourth of July: Celebrate with History and Traditions

Happy Independence Day, America!

What’s the best way to celebrate the Independence Day of the United States on the 4th of July? Take a moment to refresh your memory about this all-important American holiday. What actually happened on July 4, 1776? How did the founders truly envision our country’s Independence Day celebration? 

When Is Independence Day This Year?

On the Fourth of July, the United States observes a federal holiday in honor of the Declaration of Independence. If the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday, the federal observed holiday is the following Monday, July 5. If the Fourth of July falls on a Saturday, the observed holiday for most (but not all) federal employees is Friday, July 3.

A Brief History of Independence Day

We think of July 4, 1776, as a day that represents the Declaration of Independence, America’s revolutionary Charter of Freedom, and the document upon which the nation’s founding principles were established. But July 4 wasn’t the day that independence was declared. Nor the day that the Declaration was officially signed.

So what did happen on July 4, 1776?
What this holiday commemorates is the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, by delegates from the 13 colonies. On the 4th, the Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence. This is the day we celebrate the birth of the United States of America.

  • April 19, 1775 was the start of the American Revolution. During the Battles of Lexington and Concord (Mass.), the first shots were fired between colonists and British troops. After these first military conflicts, tension between Britain and her American colonists continued to mount.
  • On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted for independence from Britain.
  • Two days later, on July 4, 1776, the Congress approved the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, which had been drafted by Thomas Jefferson (back in June) and edited by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
  • On July 8, the first public reading of the Declaration took place at the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Later that same day, other readings occurred in Trenton, New Jersey, and Easton, Pennsylvania. Printer John Dunlap made about 200 copies of the Declaration, with the date of July 4. Known as the “Dunlap Broadsides,” these were distributed throughout the 13 colonies.
  • However, it wasn’t until August 2, 1776, that the Declaration was officially signed. John Hancock, president of the Congress, was the first of 56 delegates who signed this enlarged version, writing in big, bold letters.
Image: John Trumball’s 1819 painting “Declaration of Independence.” This iconic scene with all the delegates present never actually occurred in Philadelphia.

On August 4, 1776, after delegates of the Continental Congress had signed the document, the Declaration of Independence was made official.

How Did Our Founders Envision Independence Day Celebrations?

John Adams envisioned the celebration to be one filled with fun, games, and fireworks—not an occasion for displaying military strength (as one might expect)!  

On July 3, 1776, he wrote these words to his wife Abigail, describing the way that he hoped future Americans would celebrate their independence.

“Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony ‘that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States might rightfully do…’

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable  Epocha, 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 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.”

On July 18, 1777, an issue of the Virginia Gazette describes the July 4 celebration in Philadelphia:

“The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, 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. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.”

A number of years would pass until celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common. Interestingly, it was the death of John Adams (and Thomas Jefferson) that seemed to promote the idea of July 4 as an important date to be celebrated. And it was almost a century later (in 1870) that Congress declared July 4 a national holiday.

What’s really special about America’s celebration of freedom is it was quite different for its time, focusing on the joys of freedom. Many countries have emulated this spirit of celebration ever since.


Refresh Your Memory: The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in the history of the United States. It was an official act taken by all 13 American colonies in declaring independence from British rule.

The document was originally written by Thomas Jefferson, but Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, along with Jefferson then worked together to make changes. The final draft of the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, but the actual signing of the final document took place on August 2, 1776.

Here is an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence (U.S. 1776):

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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

More Fourth of July History

  • July 4, 1776: Thomas Jefferson noted in his “Weather Memorandum Book” that the weather was cloudy, the temperature 76ºF.
  • July 4, 1826: Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—signers of the Declaration of Independence who each later became president—died on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the declaration.
  • July 4, 1884: The Statue of Liberty was formally presented to the United States by the people of France.
  • July 4, 1911: It was a hot Fourth of July in New England. All-time state records were set in Nashua, New Hampshire (106°F), and Vernon, Vermont (105°F).

Independence Day fireworks

4th of July Trivia

While we celebrate with fireworks, let’s not forget the freedom that our founding fathers declared to the world over two centuries ago. Here are some fun facts you may not know about the holiday:

Q. Why is the name “John Hancock” synonymous with “your signature”?
A. Hancock’s bold signature on the Declaration of Independence dwarfed the signatures of the other signers. Legend says that Hancock wanted the king of England to see the rebellious signature without having to wear his spectacles!

Q. When did America declare independence?
A. Congress ruled in favor of independence on July 2, 1776. Two days later, on July 4, Congress accepted Jefferson’s declaration document. Nonetheless, John Adams thought July 2 should be Independence Day.

Q. How many people signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4?
A. Only two men signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776—John Hancock, president of the Congress, and Charles Thompson, secretary of the Congress.

Q. On what day did most people sign the Declaration of Independence?
A. August 2, 1776.

Q. When did Independence Day become a national holiday?
A. The Fourth of July was not declared a federal holiday until 1938!

Q. Is anything written on the back of the Declaration of Independence?
A. Yes, but not a treasure map like a certain favorite film suggests! The message “Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776” is written upside down on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Q. Where is the Declaration of Independence document today?
A. Thomas Jefferson’s original draft was lost and the one eventually signed is the “engrossed” document. It is kept at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., for all to see.
Of the 200 printed copies of the Declaration made by John Dunlap (the Dunlap Broadsides), only 27 are accounted for. One of these was found in the back of a picture frame at a tag sale and sold at auction for $8.14 million to television producer Norman Lear in 2000. It traveled the country on display to the public for ten years.

Q. Where was George Washington when the Declaration of Independence was written?
A. In July 1776, Washington was in New York with his troops. On July 9, he received his copy of the Declaration with a note from John Hancock telling Washington to share the news with his soldiers. The men were so excited that they rushed over to the Bowling Green and tore down the statue of King George III. Shortly after this, the British, as Washington expected, attacked the colonists, and the American Revolution was under way. The colonists fought eight long, hard years (1775–83) for independence from Britain. 

After the war, George Washington hoped to retire and return to Mount Vernon, Virginia. Instead, in 1789, the electors unanimously voted him in as the first president of the United States. Because it was such an honor, and he felt a great duty to his country, he accepted. He departed Mount Vernon on April 16 and arrived in New York City on April 30 for his inauguration. As he took his oath, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall, the crowd broke into cheers. The members of his first Cabinet included Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state and Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury.

Catherine Boeckmann

Digital Editor

Since 2008, Catherine Boeckmann has been the editor of and all things digital for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Catherine is also a Master Gardener with Purdue University Extension and volunteers with Helpings of Hope community garden to support local refugees and food pantries.