The Fourth of July in United States History

Celebrating the Declaration of Independence

The Fourth of July is an iconic American celebration characterized by parades, fireworks, and backyard barbeques. But where did the history of the Fourth of July holiday begin and how did celebrations change over time? In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1776, as the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. On this day in 1776, the Founding Fathers formally declared independence for the thirteen colonies. Since then, this monumental document has been at the center of an annual celebration of American democratic values.

Armed conflict between the North American colonies and Great Britain began in 1775 after British troops and colonial militiamen entered a battle at Lexington and Concord. The Second Continental Congress, a body of delegates from each colony, did not meet until a year later in1776 in Philadelphia to discuss formal independence. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, presented a resolution declaring independence from Great Britain. On June 11, 1776, the Congress selected Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston to serve on a committee responsible for drafting a declaration of independence. Committee member Thomas Jefferson drafted the official document. By June 28, 1776, the committee prepared the Declaration of Independence and read the resolution to the Congress.

Various celebrations took place throughout the colonies during the summer of 1776 as copies of the Declaration of Independence reached each city. The colonies observed the Fourth of July collectively for the first time on July 4, 1777. In order to commemorate the day, colonists hosted a range of events from military demonstrations and dinners to bonfires in the streets. Rebellious celebrations also lead to vandalizing the homes and businesses of loyalists (colonists devoted to the British Crown). For an account of the celebrations in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, read this letter from John Adams to his daughter Abigail Adams:

“In the morning the Delaware frigate, several large gallies, and other continental armed vessels, the Pennsylvania ship and row gallies and guard boats, were all hawled off in the river, and several of them beautifully dressed in the colours of all nations, displayed about upon the masts, yards, and rigging. At one o’clock the ships were all manned, that is, the men were all ordered aloft, and arranged upon the tops, yards, and shrowds, making a striking appearance—of companies of men drawn up in order, in the air. Then I went on board the Delaware, with the President and several gentlemen of the Marine Committee, soon after which we were saluted with a discharge of thirteen guns, which was followed by thirteen others, from each other armed vessel in the river; then the gallies followed the fire, and after them the guard boats. Then the President and company returned in the barge to the shore, and were saluted with three cheers, from every ship, galley, and boat in the river. The wharves and shores, were lined with a vast concourse of people, all shouting and huzzaing, in a manner which gave great joy to every friend to this country, and the utmost terror and dismay to every lurking tory.” 

Fourth of July in the Nineteenth Century: Contradictions of Slavery and Independence

Early American Fourth of July festivities emulated this first celebration in 1777. But despite the joyous occasion, at least one glaring problem remained. The Declaration stated in 1776 that “all men are created equal” and have “certain unalienable Rights,” yet equality and civil rights continued to be denied for centuries to American minorities such as enslaved African Americans. On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to give an oration at a Fourth of July celebration in Rochester, New York. Eloquently noting the inconsistencies between the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the institution of slavery, Douglass shocked Fourth of July guests by using the holiday to make a strong case for emancipation. During the speech, Douglass said: “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-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 July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Douglass recognized that African Americans, both emancipated and in slavery, could not celebrate the Fourth of July because they did not possess the freedoms espoused in the Declaration. The Fourth of July marked a celebration of liberty for white Americans, but a day of mourning for African Americans. For full text of Douglass’ Oration, see the Frederick Douglass Project

Below, actor Danny Glover recites Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July oration on the invitation of historian Howard Zinn:

Poster advertising the Fourth of July event hosted by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on July 4, 1854. Credit: Massachusetts Historical Society.
Poster advertising the Fourth of July event hosted by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on July 4, 1854. Credit: Massachusetts Historical Society.

Two years later, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society took a similar approach to celebrating the Fourth of July by holding an anti-slavery rally. The Society invited Americans to observe the Fourth of July on the Grove in Framingham, just outside of Boston, on July 4, 1854. The event featured speeches from leading abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Henry David Thoreau. Rather than a celebration of freedom and independence, abolitionists used the occasion to highlight the incongruities between the Fourth of July rhetoric and the continued enslavement of African Americans. During his speech, Garrison burned a copy of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act in front of the crowd. While Garrison’s radical actions stunned even some abolitionists in the crowd, he made a strong impression and presented effective criticism of the Fourth of July. One of the most significant Fourth of July celebrations in American history took place on the Centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1876, during Reconstruction. The day marked 100 years since America declared independence, and was used as an opportunity to unite the North and South after the divisions of the Civil War in Independence Square in Philadelphia. The official program for the Centennial in Philadelphia included a number of orchestra performances, a greeting from the Emperor of Brazil, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence by Richard Henry Lee. Centennial organizers hung a new Liberty Bell in Independence Hall to replace the original that had been cracked. Made from four Civil War cannons, the new Liberty Bell rang thirteen times for the crowd in Philadelphia. Throughout the rest of the country, the Centennial was celebrated with a number of activities, including parades, speeches, and fireworks.

The Fourth of July in the Twentieth Century 

America’s Bicentennial in 1976 came on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and at the end to American involvement in the Vietnam War. Most American towns and cities held a Bicentennial celebration on July 4, 1976, with citizen naturalization ceremonies, air shows, and extensive fireworks. One of the most unique Bicentennial events took place in New York City at the South Street Seaport. President Gerald Ford, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, 3,000 dignitaries, and six million Americans gathered at the shoreline to watch over 200 ships sail into the harbor. Millions of additional Americans watched the astounding spectacle on television. Once again, the Fourth of July united the American people in a common celebration. Throughout American history, the Fourth of July has been cause for commemoration and reflection. Officially marking independence for the United States, the holiday also signifies personal liberty. Historic Fourth of July celebrations recognized the achievements of the American government, as well as the need for political and social progress. As this Fourth of July holiday approaches, take a minute to think about the meaning of the celebration.