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Big Question:  What is the origination of Independence Day celebrations?

By: Dr. A. Kristen Foster, associate professor of history

As America prepares for its annual celebration of independence, Marquette Magazine asked Dr. A. Kristen Foster to explain the history behind Fourth of July fireworks, food and family fun.

What could be more American than Fourth of July celebrations? With friends and family, we enjoy our day off from work; we flock to local parks for the hallowed picnic; we obligingly take our children to parades; and, of course, we finish the day with fireworks the louder and bigger, the better.   

What does all of this have to do with Independence Day? What exactly are we celebrating? The day is a birthday of sorts for the United States a day when larger-than-life revolutionaries like John Hancock, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson signed the treasonous Declaration of Independence. We learned this as children, so it must be true, right?

Actually, almost no one signed the Declaration on July 4, and the names of all signers except Hancock and Charles Thomson were kept secret. So, why choose July 4 for our official celebration? The Battles of Lexington and Concord began the war for independence on April 19, 1775; Richard Henry Lee proposed a resolution for independence on June 2, 1776. Why not September 3, the day the Peace of Paris ended the war in 1783? Any of these dates might work.  

Adams made the most persuasive case for an alternate date. He thought July 2 would live "as the great anniversary Festival" since that was the day the Continental Congress voted to approve the Lee Resolution.  He even left us with instructions for how to mark the day: "It ought to be solemnized," he wrote, "with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, with Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other … " We have done Adams proud even if we got the date wrong.

It actually took years for Americans to embrace Independence Day celebrations. In 1776, Philadelphians celebrated on July 8 with the first public reading of the Declaration. In 1777, they set a pattern marking the Fourth of July with bonfires and fireworks. Other towns followed Philadelphia's lead; and on July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the date the Continental Congress formally adopted (and officially dated) the Declaration of Independence, jubilee celebrations took the country by storm.

It seems that even Adams resigned himself to the primacy of the Fourth: in Shakespearean fashion, he and Jefferson both died on the jubilee, 50 years to the day that they had pushed for the adoption of the magisterial Declaration of Independence.

* It was not until 1870 that the U.S. Congress officially made July 4 a holiday, and 1938 when it made the day a federal holiday with full pay for government employees. 



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