Americans across the country are set to celebrate July 4 this weekend with parades, barbeques, and red, white, and blue gear.
In the nation’s capital, President Joe Biden is set to host a group of essential workers and military families on the South Lawn of the White House on Sunday. The National Park Service is also hosting the annual Independence Day fireworks celebration on the National Mall.
But why does the United States commemorate July 4 specifically, since the Declaration of Independence actually was sign later? When did Americans start observing the patriotic holiday, and why do we set off fireworks?
Here’s what you need to know about Independence Day:
What Do We Celebrate On July 4?
July 4, also known as Independence Day, marks the anniversary of the Second Continental Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
The Congress, made up of delegates from the United States’ original 13 colonies, unanimously approve the document that declare independence from Great Britain.
Barbara Clark Smith, a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History, told USA TODAY that it was an “extraordinary achievement for these colonists to get together” to adopt the founding declaration.
“They did find a way to put differences aside and join together to work for a common goal,” she adds. “While declaring independence, they also declare interdependence.”
Fun fact: The Continental Congress didn’t vote for independence on just July 4. Twelve of the 13 colonies had approved a resolution calling for independence on July 2, 1776. Another fun fact: Many of the original signers didn’t ink their names on the Declaration of Independence until Aug. 2, 1776.
So What Did Happen On July 4, 1776?
The Continental Congress approve the final wording of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. They’d been working on it for a couple of days after the draft was submitt on July 2nd and finally agreed on all of the edits and changes.
July 4, 1776, became the date that was include on the Declaration of Independence, and the fancy handwritten copy that was sign in August (the copy now displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) It’s also the date that was printed on the Dunlap Broadsides, the original print 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 remember.
In contrast, we celebrate Constitution Day on September 17th of each year, the anniversary of the date the Constitution was sign, not the anniversary of the date it was approved. If we’d follow 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!
Why Do We Have Fireworks?
At the first July 4 celebration in Philadelphia in 1777, Americans fired a cannon 13 times in honor of the original 13 colonies. Thirteen fireworks were also fire in the city as part of the celebrations.
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Revelers in Boston set off fireworks in 1777 as well, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Kate Haulman, an associate professor of history at American University, told USA TODAY that fireworks and other festivities fit into a tradition of public celebrations in England, citing Guy Fawkes Day, which commemorates a foiled plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Haulman called early Independence Day celebrations “a continuation of earlier kinds of political culture, but made American.”
And Americans have continued to celebrate with fireworks into the 21st century, with sales of fireworks surging in 2020.
What Were The First Independence Day Celebrations?
Some Americans began celebrating July 4 the year after the Declaration of Independence was signed. In a letter to his daughter, former President John Adams wrote that July 4, 1777, was celebrated in Philadelphia “with a festivity and ceremony becoming the occasion,” according to the Library of Congress.
But July 4 became more widely observed by Americans following the War of 1812. Independence Day became the most important nonreligious holiday for many Americans by the 1870s, and Congress passed a law making Independence Day a federal holiday on June 28, 1870.
Who Wrote The Declaration Of Independence?
The Declaration of Independence was penned by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and four other members of the Second Continental Congress, including Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston, made up a committee in 1776 tasked with drafting a declaration, which would later go through dozens of changes before being signed by 56 men.
But Jefferson is credited with writing the document we know today that calls for “unalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
However, the declaration’s famous words did not apply to everyone in the thirteen colonies, such as enslaved people, Indigenous populations and other groups.
How Did The Fourth Of July Become A National Holiday?
For the first 15 or 20 years after the Declaration was written, people didn’t 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 celebrate.
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 declare 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.
How Will Americans Celebrate July 4 This Year?
In 2021, many Americans will both celebrate July 4 and commemorate being able to gather safely after receiving COVID-19 vaccines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year released guidelines saying fully vaccinated U.S. residents can attend gatherings in homes or other indoor settings without wearing a mask or practicing social distancing.