Fourth of July 2024: How did the national holiday originate and why do Americans celebrate it?

This year marks the 248th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence

Amber Raiken,Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 03 July 2024 12:12 BST
Related: Fourth of July boating safety

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Louise Thomas

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Americans are celebrating the biggest holiday of the year on Thursday, Fourth of July – marking the 248th anniversary of the founding of the United States.

The Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day, celebrates the Second Continental Congress’ unanimous adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which occured on July 4, 1776. The document marked the colonies’ official separation from Great Britain and the establishment of the United States as a sovereign nation.

All around the country, Americans are gearing up for their annual plans, which typically includes the customary barbecues, picnics, town parades and fireworks displays.

With the festivities underway, here’s everything you need to know about the holiday’s historical significance, traditions, and why Americans celebrate it.

What is the Fourth of July and the history behind it?

The occasion honors the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Founding Fathers on July 4, 1776. In putting quill to parchment, these 56 statesmen – who included Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin – renounced the British Empire and pronounced the North American colonies free states.

Prior to this signing, the British Empire had built a commanding presence in the New World since Sir Walter Raleigh led the first attempts to establish settlements on the East Coast in the late Elizabethan era.

By the 18th century, North America was governed from London and comprised of the Thirteen Colonies – consisting of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations.

While relations between settlers and the Crown were initially amicable, tensions began to escalate under King George III, due to the imposition of British laws and taxes on American colonies, also known as the Stamp Act. By 1765, Americans began to demand an end to “taxation without representation,” calling for their voices to be heard in the Houses of Parliament. Acts of dissent followed, notably the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

Two Continental Congresses were staged, bringing together delegates from the Thirteen Colonies to coordinate the resistance. At the second meeting in Philadelphia in 1775, the Declaration of Independence was signed and the American War of Independence declared, with open combat erupting in Concord, Massachusetts, that April. The conflict would rage for eight years, until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

The declaration was drafted by the Committee of Five – Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston – and established citizens’ “unalienable” rights, observing that “all men are created equal” and enshrining the individual’s entitlement to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

The draft was submitted to Congress on June 28, 1776, voted into law on July 2 and formally ratified on July 4, a date that has been celebrated by patriotic Americans ever since.

How has it been celebrated throughout history?

The first readings of the Declaration were made in Philadelphia squares and met with bonfires and the ringing of bells. In Bristol, Rhode Island, a salute of 13 gunshots in the morning and evening marked the day in 1777, the country’s first formal Fourth of July celebration and a point of pride in the town to this day, which has held an annual parade since 1785.

In 1778, George Washington – who was a general in the revolutionary army at the time – issued his troops with a double rum ration to cheer the day. The first recorded music commemorating independence was the “Psalm of Joy,” written by Johann Friedrich Peter in Salem, North Carolina, in 1783.

Congress made the day an unpaid national holiday for federal workers in 1870 but it has been a paid vacation since 1938.

How is it celebrated today?

Firework displays and parties are the most well-known activities associated with Independence Day. As a national holiday, it also serves as an occasion for reunions and vacations.

Over the last two decades, American consumers have continued to purchase more fireworks to celebrate federal holidays. The American Pyrotechnics Association found that in the year 2000, American consumers spent $407m on fireworks. In 2022, there was a significant rise in sales, as consumers spent $2.3bn on fireworks during that year.

Back in the 18th century, Founding Father John Adams predicted that fireworks would become a big part of Fourth of July. In a letter to his wife, Abigail, dated July 3, 1776, Adams wrote that commemoration of America’s independence “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”.

Despite its widespread popularity on July 4, fireworks can be quite dangerous. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that in 2022, 10,200 people were treated at emergency rooms and 11 deaths were blamed on fireworks. In addition, 73 percent of the injuries occured in the weeks before or after July 4.

The organization gave some safety tips for celebrating the holiday, which includes keeping children away from all fireworks, including sparklers, and keeping a bucket of water nearby in case of a fire. The agency also urges Americans to make sure fireworks are legal in their areas “before buying or using them”.

Which US President refused to celebrate the Fourth of July?

While many presidents throughout US history have honored the Declaration of Independence on July 4, there was one President who opted not to: John Adams.

In a letter to his wife, he wrote that he refused to celebrate the holiday on July 4 because he felt July 2 was the real Independence Day. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in favor of the resolution for independence, though the Declaration of Independence wasn’t formally adopted until two days later. Adams was quite adamant about his rule, as he even turned down invitations to Fourth of July festivals while serving as the nation’s second president.

Unfortunately, Adams and Thomas Jefferson – the primary author of the Declaration of Independence – both died on the 50th anniversary of the document’s formal adoption: July 4, 1826. The fifth president of the US, James Monroe, also died on July 4, but in the year 1831.

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