Independence Day, the 4th of July, is a public holiday in the United States. But what exactly does it mark? To answer that question, we need to go back to 18th century North America.
In the 1600s, people from the Kingdom of Great Britain, as it was then known, moved to settle in North America. Between 1607 and 1732, the British founded 13 colonies in North America: Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. As these colonies grew and developed, so too did their citizens’ resentment for the British government, which treated these American colonies poorly, largely through unfair taxation and political control. The colonists, who desired independence from Britain, eventually rebelled, sparking the Revolutionary War in 1775.
Colonists realised that fighting against the British wasn’t the only way to attain independence, however, and they saw a need to explain their intentions in writing in order to gain support from other European countries. After coming together on the 2nd of July 1776 to vote in favour of independence, the Continental Congress – a group of representatives from each of the 13 colonies – assigned Thomas Jefferson the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence, which was approved two days later on July the 4th. The letter was sent to the British monarch, King George III, but the British government didn’t accept the terms set out in the declaration. And so the Revolutionary War, also known as the American War of Independence, continued, lasting until the British were defeated in 1783.
Before the Revolutionary War, Americans had actually held annual celebrations for the King’s birthday, including bonfires, processions, and speeches. In 1776 however, colonists held mock funeral celebrations for the king to symbolise America’s rejection of British rule. As well as the usual celebratory traditions, the new iteration of festivities included public readings of the Declaration of Independence. Despite the ongoing war, in 1777 Philadelphia became the first city to hold what would be annual 4th of July celebrations (which included a similarly annual fireworks display). Massachusetts declared the day an official public holiday in 1781. Over the next few decades, Americans continued to hold 4th of July celebrations across the country, with the need for festivities made even more pronounced after the War of 1812. The date finally became a federal holiday in 1870 and a paid holiday for all federal employees in 1941. Today, Independence Day is celebrated across the United States as families and friends come together for barbecues, picnics, parades, and yes, fireworks displays.
To learn more about North America’s journey to independence, visit History.com.