Independence Day is a national American holiday, celebrated each year on July 4. It commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
The Declaration told the world that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." July 4 marks, therefore, the birth of the United States of America.
At the time of the signing, the United States consisted of 13 colonies under the rule of England's King George III. There was a growing unrest in the colonies concerning the taxes that had to be paid to England. This was commonly referred to as "Taxation without Representation," as the colonists did not have any representation in the English Parliament and had no say in what went on.
As the unrest grew in the colonies, King George sent extra troops to help control any rebellion. In 1774, the 13 colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia to form the First Continental Congress. The delegates were unhappy with England, but were not yet ready to declare war.
In April 1775, as the King's troops advanced on Concord, Massachusetts, the battle of Concord would mark the unofficial beginning of the colonies war for Independence.
In June 1776, a committee was formed to compose a formal Declaration of Independence. Headed by Thomas Jefferson, the committee included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Philip Livingston and Roger Sherman. Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write the first draft which was presented to the congress on June 28. A vote was taken late in the afternoon of July 4.
Of the 13 colonies, nine voted "in favor" of the Declaration, Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted "No," Delaware was "undecided," and New York "abstained." To make it official, John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence.
The first celebration of American independence took place 4 days later in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was meeting. The ceremony began with a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. From the tower of the State House, now called Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell rang out. Church bells rang, there was a parade, bands played, cannons boomed, and people celebrated by placing lit candles in their windows. The coat of arms of the king of England was taken down.
John Adams, a signer of the Declaration, thought that Americans would celebrate a "great anniversary festival." In the letter to his wife, he wrote, "It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore."
The first anniversary was celebrated in Philadelphia the following year. It included pomp and parade, guns, bells, and bonfires. A more elaborate celebration was held there in 1788, after the Constitution had been ratified. There was a large parade, a speech, and a dinner.
During the dinner many toasts were proposed, accompanied by fanfares of trumpets and cannons. There were toasts to: "The People of the United States," "General Washington," and "The Whole Family of Mankind."
When the soldiers of the Revolutionary Army were sent home in 1783, they carried to their hometowns the idea of celebrating July 4. They would gather each year on this day to tell stories of the war to each other. The celebrations quickly spread to new towns.
As people moved west during the 1800's, they spread the celebration of the Fourth to new territories as well. The first celebration on the West Coast was held in Los Angeles, California, in 1847.
It was not long before the whole country celebrated the Fourth, almost as John Adams had suggested. At sunrise, all over the nation, gun salutes were fired and bells rung. Flags were flown from buildings, from homes, and along the streets. Many shop windows were decorated with red, white, and blue. Churches held special services. There were parades followed by public readings of the Declaration of Independence. National songs were sung and speeches were made.
Many important events have taken place on July 4:
The United States Military Academy at West Point was opened on July 4, 1802.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826.
Construction of the nation's first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, began on July 4, 1828.
The cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid on Independence Day, 1848.
On July 4, 1946, the United States granted independence to the Republic of the Philippines.
The first 49-star American flag, honoring the new state of Alaska, was raised on July 4, 1959.
The following year, on July 4, 1960, the first 50-star flag, honoring Hawaii, was flown.