The History of Independence Day in the U.S.

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Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, is celebrated in the United States to commemorate the Declaration of Independence and freedom from the British Empire. Although the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence from Great Britain on July 2, it wasn’t until July 4 that revisions of the declaration were completed. Most delegates didn’t sign the document until August 2.

Since then, Americans have celebrated the Fourth of July in many ways, although it wasn’t until 1870 that it was declared a holiday. From fireworks to parades, this is how — and why — Americans celebrate the Fourth of July

Early Celebrations

While people often celebrated on the Fourth of July in the decades after the Revolutionary War, there was little regularity to the festivities. John Adams described a spontaneous celebration in Philadelphia on the first anniversary of the original July Fourth, and both Philadelphia and Boston held the country’s first Fourth of July fireworks in 1777, but none of these festivities became annual celebrations. Bristol, Rhode Island held the oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration in 1785, but it wasn’t until after the War of 1821 that such events became common across the country.

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The first Fourth of July celebrations includes parades, speeches, feasts and especially toasting ceremonies. There had previously been a British tradition of using celebratory toasts on monarchs’ birthdays and other events to indirectly speak about current political events, and it was soon applied to the Fourth of July. By the mid-1790s, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans — the two major political parties of the time — each held separate Fourth of July events where the festivities had distinctly political overtones. In the 1800s, the Fourth was used by everyone from abolitionists to nativists to spread their political goals.

The Fourth of July represented not just a time to celebrate the country’s past, but also to plan its future. While it wasn’t yet a federal holiday, it was an important celebration, with one European observer even going so far as to describe it as “almost the only holy-day kept in America.”

Black Americans and Independence Day

For much of U.S. history, Black American enthusiasm for Independence Day was mild at best, and for understandable reasons: the American Revolution brought freedom from the British crown, it did not end slavery. In fact, many of the Founding Fathers themselves owned slaves, while the British abolished slavery three decades before the United States in 1833.

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In a speech later known as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass eloquently critiqued the holiday: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

After the Civil War, Black Americans suddenly had cause to embrace the holiday, with massive celebrations sweeping the South. White Americans, however, resented their participation in the Fourth of July. Through a combination of new laws and acts of violence, Black celebrations of Fourth of July became a thing of the past by the end of the 19th century.

Fourth of July Fisticuffs

While we don’t think of the Fourth of July as a particularly violent holiday today, wrestling and other forms of controlled fights were once popular ways to celebrate American independence. One account in the Library of Congress from a woman who lived in Oregon during the 1870s describes a tradition where “the men who drank got into fights and called each other Englishmen” in a rather creative reenactment of the American Revolution.

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Similarly, a South Carolina man describes a sort of Fourth of July fighting tournament: “A great barbecue and picnic dinner would be served; candidates for military, state, and national offices would speak; hard liquor would flow; and each section would present its ‘bully of the woods’ in a contest for champion in a fist and skull fight. Butting, biting, eye gouging, kicking, and blows below the belt were barred. It was primitive prize fighting.”

Big boxing matches, such as the July 4, 1910 World Heavyweight Championship match between Jack Johnson and James Jeffris (illustrated above), were also major draws on Independence Day. Needless to say, Fourth of July Celebrations of years past could get a bit rowdy.

Independence Day Now

Today’s Fourth of July celebrations still emphasize the founding of the country, independence from Britain and the liberties Americans have won over time. However, the observance of the holiday has shifted over time. Deaths, injuries and property destruction caused by fireworks, alcohol consumption and even tetanus-inducing toy guns led to the Safe and Sane Fourth of July movement, which called for less dangerous Independence Day celebrations. As a result, the Fourth of July today is much tamer than it once was.

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Additionally, while speeches from elected officials were once an essential part of the holiday, few people spend Independence Day focused on politics. Instead, because of a rising standard of living and a shorter work week thanks to the labor movement, many Americans use the holiday as a chance to enjoy summer and hold cookouts with friends and family. Freedom and patriotism are still the reasons for the season, but hotdogs and hamburgers fresh off the grill also help keep Americans enthusiastic about Independence Day.