What is Independence Day in the United States of America All About?
Many non-Americans are pretty familiar with the country’s Independence Day holiday: it’s about patriotism, independence from Great Britain, and defeating an invading army of enormous slimy aliens (that actually happened, right?).
Of the United States’ 10 public holidays, the Fourth of July stands out as easily the most well known to non-Americans around the world and probably the most significant for Americans themselves.
As I’ve written before, I think it’s an important part of an expat’s experience in their adopted country to try to understand and to mark important public holidays in their host country. With that in mind, what is Independence Day all about, and how should a non-American mark it? Here’s Independence Day explained.
Why do Americans Celebrate Independence Day?
The United States declared itself independent of Great Britain on July 4, 1776, a key date in world history that is well known to school children the world over.
However, in order to fully understand the significance of the date, it is necessary to look 13 years prior; to the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. The close of this bloody conflict, which saw the British pitted against the French and their Native American allies, saw Britain — briefly — rule supreme in all of North America.
The British victory did not come cheaply, however. Heavily indebted by the war, and unable to raise taxes any further at home, the British opted to tax the colonies themselves. Starting with the Sugar Tax in 1764, the British imposed a series of deeply unpopular taxes on the 13 colonies, so beginning a cycle of tax imposition, rebellion, and violent suppression that was not to end well for the imperialists.
The cycle reached crisis point on Boston’s harbourside in the winter of 1773. Angered by the Tea Act — a British effort to force the colonies to purchase tea from the East India Company (which, being owned by the state, paid all of its profits directly to Britain) rather than tea smuggled in by colonialist merchants — the colonists rebelled by refusing the let the East India Company’s ships unload their cargo.
The resistance culminated in the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773, when colonists raided British tea ships docked in the harbour and dumped their tea overboard, destroying it. The British, none too pleased at the destruction of their tea, reacted harshly to the rebellion in Boston, closing the harbour, increasing the number of British soldiers on the ground and imposing direct rule from London.
Collectively dubbed the “Intolerable Acts” by the patriots (the anti-British faction), the British response did little to quell the growing rebellion. By the spring of 1775, the uprising reached new levels of violence intensity: the American Revolutionary War had begun.
Believe me, dear Sir: there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.
—Thomas Jefferson, November 29, 1775
Initially, the colonists were not seeking complete independence from Great Britain, but rather a radical re-envisioning of the relationship between Britain and her colonies. Even during the fighting of 1775 there were still a number of people in the rebellion movement who hoped for reconciliation with the British — if the Intolerable Acts and taxes imposes since 1863 were repealed then, perhaps, the colonies could remain loyal to the Crown.
The King, though, did not favour compromise. The British attempts at suppressing the rebels grew more violent and the King hired 30,000 German mercenaries to enhance British forces. Aided by the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in January 1776 — a pamphlet written in plain, accessible English that powerfully argued for republicanism as opposed to royal rule — a popular movement for full independence began to emerge.
In June 1776, representatives from the 13 colonies met in congress in Philadelphia and agreed to begin drafting a declaration of independence, famously delegating the task to a committee of five (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Livingston and Sherman). In just a couple of weeks Jefferson, in consultation with the other committee members, drafted much of the famous document.
However, It wasn’t agreement on Jefferson’s famous declaration that officially announced independence. On Tuesday 2 July 1776, while the precise text of the declaration was still being finalized, congress voted on a simple resolution of independence. It was this vote, passed with 12 affirmative votes and one abstention, that officially severed the colonies’ ties with Britain.
So Why Isn’t Independence Day Celebrated on July 2?
If it seems to you as though the United States ought to celebrate its independence on July 2, then you’re in good company.
Writing to his wife on July 3, 1776, founding father John Adams remarked that “the Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary festival.”
So why do Americans celebrate their independence on July 4?
It’s because, rather than the simple resolution passed on July 2, Americans have chosen to mark the moment that the actual Declaration of Independence — the document Jefferson had been working on with Adams, Franklin and others — was presented to, and voted on by, congress. On this day, July 4, 1776, as the Pennsylvania Evening Post declared on its front page, congress had “declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”
Contemporary historians now believe that the document wasn’t actually signed by most of the congressional delegates until August 1776. August 2 being the date on which the assistant to the secretary of the congress, Thomas Matlack, produced a clean final draft of the document.
As for the British? they didn’t actually receive news of the declaration until August 30, 1776. Though since the British ignored the document and continued to fight to suppress the rebel colonists this hardly seems to matter.
How do Americans Celebrate Independence Day and What Should Non-Americans do?
On the first anniversary of the signing of the Declaration — July 5, 1777 — the city of Philadelphia marked the occasion by adjourning congress and celebrating in the streets with bonfires, bells, fireworks and music.
Gradually, this custom spread to towns and cities across the United States, with most major municipalities organizing parades and public displays of fireworks by the turn of the 19th century. The major events that are a familiar site in US cities today really took off after 1870, when congress officially declared July 4 a public holiday for the first time.
Today, Americans celebrate (as, I think, they do most holidays…) by visiting family, firing up the barbecue and having a party. Non-Americans should, of course, simply join in the fun.