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The Fourth of July

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 11 months ago
July 4th



 The Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day, is a holiday celebrated in America every year on July 4th. The Fourth of July became a federal holiday in 1941 (Nemanic 148). This day is marked with celebrations all over America, including firework displays, cook outs, picnics and parades. The significance of the Fourth of July to Americans is the celebration of America’s freedom. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was written. The document proclaimed that America wanted their freedom from Great Britain. 



  This is an image of the original Declaration of Independence (courtesy of www.archives.gov)


The Declaration of Independence  


     It is believed that the Declaration of Independence was passed on July 4th, 1776, but in reality “the Continental Congress passed the resolution for independence on July 2, 1776” (Nemanic 146). The final draft of the Declaration of Independence was not approved until July 4th, 1776 (Nemanic 146). Even before the Declaration of Independence was approved, steps were taken by some colonies and people to promote the idea of independence from Great Britain (Warren 238). Virginia was one of the first colonies to initiate independence. Virginia set up a committee called the First Continental Congress that represented the colonies (“Independence Day”). This committee wrote up a list of complaints against the king of England, “which became the first draft of a document that would formally separate the colonies from England” (“Independence Day”). On July 2nd, 1776, the Second Continental Congress created and signed “a second draft of the list of grievances” against the king of England which was later called the Declaration of Independence (“Independence Day”). Not all colonies were ready to give up their reliance to Great Britain. Of the thirteen colonies, New York abstained from the vote for the Declaration of Independence (Giblin 3). On July 4th, John Hancock and Charles Thomson signed the Declaration and the rest of the delegates signed on August 2nd (Giblin 4).


     The Declaration of Independence was written as propaganda. The objective of the Second Continental Congress was to persuade the people of America to proclaim their independence from Great Britain and “solicit foreign aid” (“Declaration” 63). The Declaration can be broken up into three parts. The first part is a general introduction of what the Second Continental Congress believed, the second part lists what King George has done to the people of America and the third part states America's freedom from Great Britain. 

     The first few paragraphs of the Declaration proclaim that all men are equal and are given certain rights which are secured by a government. This is stated in the second paragraph as “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” (“Declaration” 64). Whenever the government abuses their power it is the peoples right and “it is their duty, to throw off such Government” (“Declaration” 64). These statements were used to propose to the people of America that they are given rights that are entitled to them and as the government of Great Britain abuses his power, the people of America need to stand up for themselves and to proclaim their independence. In order to prove to the American people that the King of Great Britain has abused his powers, the Declaration lists several wrong doings done by the King to the American people. The King failed to pass laws that would be the best for the people of America; he did not consult the legislatures of those of America, he gave special treatment to his soldiers and passed laws without representation from America (65-66). The King protected his soldiers “by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders with they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States”, waged war against the people of America and imposed taxes on America without their consent (66). These were just some of the wrongdoings done by the King, in the Declaration there were many more listed. The Declaration listed these wrongdoings done by the King to help gain support from the American people. Not everyone in America wanted their independence from Great Britain (63). The last few paragraphs of the Declaration the writers declare their independence as “Free and Independent States” and as “Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce…” (68). This is stating that as an independent nation, the people of America can legislate themselves and do what they want to do. By publishing their disdain for the British government, the signers of the Declaration put their lives in danger. When Great Britain received the Declaration, the British could hang the signers because of treason (Wood 56). The significance of the Declaration of Independence to the Fourth of July holiday is that without the Declaration of Independence there might not be an Independence Day holiday to celebrate in America. 


What the Declaration Meant to Others


     The Declaration of Independence claimed 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” (“Declaration” 64). The equality and rights claimed in the Declaration were not rights and equality given to everyone in America at that time. Blacks, women, Native Americans and immigrants were not treated as equals, nor were they given freedom that was expressed in the Declaration. In early drafts of the Declaration there was an opposition to slavery, but these words were later omitted by the Continental Congress (“Declaration” 64). One person who could not understand how the Declaration can claim that “all men are created equal” and are given rights that includes “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” when this was not the case for slaves, was Frederick Douglass (“Declaration” 64). In his speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? he expresses that blacks cannot really celebrate the Fourth of July because they are not free. 

     To read about Frederick Douglass's speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? go to this wiki page : What to the Slave is the Fourth of July Speech 

This wiki page has an analysis over his speech and a photo of what Frederick Douglass looked like.



 First Reading of the Declaration of Independence


     The Declaration was first read aloud at Philadelphia on July 8th by Colonel John Nixon (Wood 56). The reading of the Declaration was received with a positive reaction by some people. Some troops who heard the Declaration fired off salutes as the bells of Philadelphia; “including the Liberty Bell” rang (Smelser 27). Soon after the Declaration was read, “patriots tore down and destroyed the King’s Arms displayed in the courthouse” (Wood 56). John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer, printed the Declaration on an eighteen by fifteen inch paper (Smelser 26). The purpose of printing the Declaration was to inform the public and “spread the word” of the Declaration (Wood 68). In order to reach as many people as possible, the Declaration was posted in several places. The Declaration was posted in “government buildings, pulpits, marketplaces, and military camps” (Wood 56).








Early Fourth of July Celebrations


     The First official Fourth of July celebration did not happen until 1781, but on July 4th, 1776 there was some celebration in Philadelphia (Wood 121-122). In 1777 there were more celebrations than that of the first year (122). That day was also marked by violence. That year some homes of the Quakers were vandalized because others believed the Quakers were not patriotic because they did not celebrate the Fourth of July (122). The Quakers did not celebrate the Fourth of July because of their religious beliefs (122). Quakers did not “celebrate holidays that commemorated military victories” (122). Not everyone did celebrate the Fourth of July that year, but one place that did was Philadelphia. The people in Philadelphia celebrated with parades, picnics, and they “established the custom of drinking a toast for each of the states in the union” (122). The celebration also included “a dinner for Congress, state officials and officers of the Army, also a military review, ringing of bells, and fireworks” (Warren 254-255). In a letter from John Adams to his daughter, Adams described the Fourth of July celebrations that he witnessed. In his letter, Adams expressed to his daughter that no one even thought to celebrate the Fourth of July until July 3rd (Warren 255). Adams stated that Congress dined together to celebrate (255). On board of the Delaware, along with “the President and several gentlemen of the Marine Committee” they “were saluted with a discharge of thirteen guns which was followed by thirteen others from each other armed vessel in the river” (255). Along the shore many people were lined up “shouting and hurrahing which gave great joy to every friend to this country” (256). That day Adams was walking along the street and saw most houses lighted up and was “amazed at the universal joy” (256). Even though the Fourth of July celebration was not planned, Adams found that many were celebrating it. In a letter dated July 3, 1776 by John Adams to his wife Abigail, Adams stated how important he thought July 2, 1776 would be for America. Adams thought July 2nd would be the celebration of Independence of America because that is when Congress “passed an independence resolution” (“Declaration” 63). Adams believed that the 2nd of July would 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.” (Heintze “Tradition of Celebration”). Adams’ letter shows how great he thought Independence Day would be for America and continue to be for many years to come.


Political Celebrations


     Starting in 1788, early Fourth of July celebrations were mainly political (254). For approximately twelve years, the Federalist Party, mainly those in Philadelphia and New England, tried to “claim a monopoly in the celebration of the Fourth” (260). To celebrate, there were toasts at dinners that were ‘truly Federal’ and at these toasts there were several people who “were always the subjects of toasts” (qtd. in Warren 261). Some were: John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Washington and John Hancock (261). One person who was never mentioned though, was Thomas Jefferson (261). In fact, Jefferson’s name did not appear to be mentioned at any Federalist dinner for about forty years (261). Even Anti-Federalists did not mention his name until Thomas Jefferson was elected as Vice-President in 1797 (261). In 1799, some Anti-Federalists toasted Thomas Jefferson and said Jefferson is the ‘statesman who drew the memorable Declaration of Independence- may his virtue and patriotism live forever in the hearts of freemen of America’ (qtd. in Warren 263). One Federalist believed that too much credit was given to Thomas Jefferson. The Federalist wrote to a newspaper and claimed that the vote by Congress on July 2nd declaring independence was more important than the Declaration that was drafted by Jefferson (269). The Federalist stated that the Anti-Federalists did not give Jefferson credit for the Declaration and his importance to independence, until Jefferson was elected President (270). Another Federalist wrote into another newspaper and stated their dislike for Jefferson. The Federalist stated that what Jefferson did contribute to the Declaration was small, and what little he did contribute was stolen from John Locke’s essay (271). Some Federalists believed that Jefferson was given too much acknowledgment for Americas' independence. 


     By 1798, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists celebrated the Fourth of July separate because the “partisan controversies had grown so heated” (261). The Federalists and Anti-Federalists had their parties and toasts separately. When the Anti-Federalists found out where the Federalists were going to have their Fourth of July celebration, the Anti-Federalists would publish in their newspapers where the Anti-Federalist citizens could celebrate the Fourth of July, away from the Federalists (267). To celebrate, the Anti-Federalists would toast the President and then someone would read the Declaration of Independence (267). Even though the Declaration of Independence is such an important part of the Fourth of July, it was rarely published in newspapers for people to read. In 1801, four out of five newspapers did not publish the Declaration of Independence (264). Not until 1826 did celebrating the Fourth of July as separate parties end.  The deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826 helped break up the custom of the political parties celebrating the Fourth separately (272). After this the celebration of the Fourth of July became more of a community celebration rather than a mainly political one.


Nineteenth Century to Civil War


     The community wide celebrations consisted of parades, fireworks, sporting events and ceremonies, much like what goes on today (Nemanic 146). The popularity of the holiday led to other community events. As the Fourth of July became a popular community event, “its rituals affirmed community ties as well as nation identity and became linked to other community events such as ground breakings, building dedications and rededications of historic sites” (146). The community wide celebrations lasted from the nineteenth century until the Civil War (146). 


Post Civil War Era


     The postwar era celebrations differed between the upper and middle classes and the working class along the East Coast (146). The upper and middle classes celebrations consisted of: “picnics, private gatherings, games like croquet and lawn tennis, and retreats into the countryside” (146). The working class celebrations were quite different from that of the upper and middle class. The working class celebrations consisted of: “rowdy and carnivalesque festivities such as unruly parades, drunkenness, rough games, and noisy discharges of firecrackers and fireworks” (146). The working class celebration style was also popular with immigrants. Immigrant celebrations consisted of: masking, parades and charivaris, which were “noisy demonstrations to humiliate someone publicly” (146). The two different styles of celebrations were debated by the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress discussed the advantages and disadvantages of both styles. The Continental Congress found that the quiet, more respectful celebrations of the upper and middle class helped “unify a diverse populace” while the more rowdy and loud celebration of the working class stimulated “crowds and allow the venting of tensions” (146). The celebration style of the upper and middle class was favored and was emphasized more, compared to that of the working class (146). The Safe and Sane Fourth of July Program promoted the celebration style of that of the upper and middle class. Their primary goal was to promote the more respectable, quiet celebration as ‘American’ (qtd. in Nemanic 147). The program was aimed toward immigrants to make them more Americanized (147). The program wanted celebrations to consist of: speeches about the Declaration of Independence and the program did not like fireworks or a lot of noise (146). This style of celebration is different from the one that is published today. Today many places have fireworks and parades and consist of a lot of noise.    


     Later on through the postwar ear, the celebrations and styles became traditions and customs. The adoption of the Constitution and the repeated ness of celebrating the Fourth of July the same way every year led to traditions and customs throughout America (Wood 122). There became a custom for the President to give a speech in honor of the day (122). Around the country, different towns and communities have their own traditions and customs when it comes to celebrating the Fourth of July. For example, Lititz, Pennsylvania has a tradition where the Fourth of July begins with a baby parade where the children who are dressed in red, white and blue, ride on floats and at night the boys that live in the town light candles in the park and float the candles on the water (Nemanic 147). Some places in the west, like Colorado and Texas have rodeos to celebrate the Fourth of July (147). The idea that each person and place celebrates the Fourth of July differently shows how diversified America is. Even though each place might celebrate the Fourth of July differently from the next, it does not mean that they have any less patriotism from the next person.




     Presently, Fourth of July celebrations consist of a multitude of different things that vary from one place to another. A popular form of celebration is fireworks. Many people like to shoot off fireworks and many cities in the evening of the Fourth hold a large firework display. In 1800 and 1900 a group tried to get laws passed that prohibited fireworks in certain areas because they were causing harm and death to people (Giblin 37). In a span of four years from 1903 to 1904 over one thousand people died and over twenty thousand people were injured due to the misuse of fireworks (38). Today there are laws passed in several states prohibiting the use of fireworks by the general public (38-39). Two other forms of popular celebration today are picnics and parades. During the late 1800s picnics were sponsored by politicians and after everyone finished eating there would be a game of tug of war (46). Today many families have a picnic or cook out with their friends and family and go to parks, the beach or stay at their home. Many families have their own traditions and customs when it comes to celebrating the Fourth of July.  The website Fourth of July Celebrations has a list of different ways places around the country celebrated the Fourth of July in 2007 (Heintze). It also has several pages consisting of speeches given on the Fourth of July, Fourth of July stories and unusual facts about the Fourth of July.     


Further Reading


     The Library of Congress website has a lot more information on Fourth of July celebrations, customs and traditions all over America associated with the Fourth of July.  This site has articles relating to how certain places in America celebrate the Fourth of July and their traditions associated with that day.




Works Cited


“Declaration of Independence.” The American Studies Anthology. 2nd Ed. Ed. Richard P. Horwitz. Lanham, MD: SR Books, 2004. 63-69.


Giblin, James Cross. Fireworks, Picnics and Flags. New York: Clarion Books, 1983.


Heintz, James. Fourth of July Celebrations Database. 17 October 2007. 15 November 2007 <http://gurukul.american.edu/heintze/fourth.htm#top>.


“Independence Day.” Celebrate! Holidays in the U.S.A.. 24 January 2005. Embassy of the United States of America. 9 November 2007




Nemanic, Mary Lou. “Fourth of July Celebrations.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture Ed. Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast. Vol. 2: E-J.


     Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.


Smelser, Marshall. “The Glorious Fourth - or, Glorious Second? or Eighth?.” The History Teacher 3.2 (1970): 25-30. Jstor. Okalahoma State Univeristy-


     Tulsa Lib., Tulsa, OK. 9 November 2007 <http://links.jstor.org>. 


Warren, Charles. “Fourth of July Myths.”  The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 2.3 (1945): 237-272.


"What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?." The American Studies Anthology. 2nd Ed. Ed. Richard P. Horwitz. Lanham, MD: SR Books, 2004. 105-123.


Wood, Gordon S. One Day in History The Days That Changed the World – July 4th, 1776. Ed. Rodney P. Carlisle. New York: HarperCollins Publishers,



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