The History of Independence Day in the U.S.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.