When we Americans celebrate our Independence Day on the Fourth of July every year we think of July 4, 1776, as a day that represents the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States of America as an independent and sovereign nation. But July 4, 1776 was not the day that the Continental Congress decided to declare independence (they did that on July 2, 1776). It also was not the day we started the American Revolution; it had happened back in April 19, 1775, at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Acting on orders from London to suppress the colonists, General Thomas Gage, recently appointed royal governor of Massachusetts, ordered his troops to seize the colonists’ military stores at Concord. En route from Boston, the British force of 700 men was met on Lexington Green by 77 local minutemen and others who had been forewarned of the raid by the colonists’ efficient lines of communication, including the ride of Paul Revere. It is unclear who fired the first shot. Resistance melted away at Lexington, and the British moved on to Concord. Most of the American military supplies had been hidden or destroyed before the British troops arrived. A British covering party at Concord’s North Bridge was finally confronted by 320 to 400 American patriots and forced to withdraw. The march back to Boston was a genuine ordeal for the British, with Americans continually firing on them from behind roadside houses, barns, trees, and stone walls. Total losses were British 273, American 95. The Battles of Lexington and Concord confirmed the alienation between the majority of colonists and the mother country, and it roused 16,000 New Englanders to join forces and begin the Siege of Boston, resulting in its evacuation by the British the following March.
So what did happen on July 4, 1776?
The Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776; the first draft by Thomas Jefferson (the main author)—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston also assisted Jefferson—was written in June 1776. They had been working on it for a couple of days after the draft was submitted on July 2nd and finally agreed on all of the edits and changes.
July 4, 1776, therefore became the date that was included on the Declaration of Independence, and the fancy handwritten copy that was signed in August (the copy now displayed at the National Archives in Washington, DC) It is also the date that was printed on the Dunlap Broadsides, the original printed copies of the Declaration that were circulated throughout the new nation. So when people thought of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 was the date they remembered.
In contrast, we celebrate Constitution Day on September 17th of each year, the anniversary of the date the Constitution was signed, not the anniversary of the date it was approved. If we had followed this same approach for the Declaration of Independence we’d being celebrating Independence Day on August 2nd of each year, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed!
How did the Fourth of July become a national holiday?
For the first 15 or 20 years after the Declaration was written, people did not celebrate it much on any date. It was too new and too much else was happening in the young nation. By the 1790s, a time of bitter partisan conflicts, the Declaration had become controversial. One party, the Democratic-Republicans, admired Jefferson and the Declaration. But the other party, the Federalists, thought the Declaration was too French and too anti-British, which went against their current policies. By 1817, John Adams complained in a letter that America seemed uninterested in its past. But that would soon change.
After the War of 1812, the Federalist Party began to come apart and the new parties of the 1820s and 1830s all considered themselves inheritors of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate again, all with the date July 4, 1776, listed at the top. The deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, may even have helped to promote the idea of July 4 as an important date to be celebrated.
Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on and in 1870, almost a hundred years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4 to be a national holiday as part of a bill to officially recognize several holidays, including Christmas. Further legislation about national holidays, including July 4, was passed in 1939 and 1941.
We naturally have to thank the Almighty for those in uniform who have fought and died, and continue to sacrifice themselves for our freedom. Let us also never forget, notwithstanding their misgivings, what our Founding Fathers left us: a courageous example and the means to stand up to tyranny so that we may exercise the our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness endowed to us by our Creator.