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July 2, 2008 > A Brief History of the Fourth of July

A Brief History of the Fourth of July

By Aditya Anand

July 4th is an American federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It is a day significant in American history, both politically and socially. Each year, we celebrate July 4th as a reminder of the sacrifices our forefathers made to ensure the freedoms and rights that we have as Americans, today.

For most of the eighteenth century American colonists were subjects of the British crown. Despite England's power, ruling from afar proved to be a negative experience for both the English and the colonists. A series of flare-ups in the colonies, including the Boston Tea Party and rebellions against the Stamp Act, only served to increase tension. It was during this time of intense strain that Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed independence from crown to resolve issues. At his suggestion, the Declaration of Independence was born.

The Declaration of Independence, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, and first signed on July 4, 1776, bravely announced a separation of the American colonies from Britain, igniting the Revolutionary War. The Declaration addressed the grievances of the colonies against Britain, for the many incidents that occurred in the years leading up to 1776. Grievances included taxation without representation, cutting off of trade, removal of colony charters, and quartering of British troops in American residences, among others. Most importantly, the Declaration's memorable words succeeded in letting the world know that America was and would thereafter be a sovereign nation.

Despite its age, the Declaration of Independence is by no means, a document of the past. Time and again its sentiments have been revived to secure further freedoms for different groups of Americans. At the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, women's rights activists cleverly adapted the language of the Declaration of Independence to form their own Declaration of Sentiments: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal..." In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln echoed the Declaration in his famous speech at Gettysburg during the Civil War: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Together, Americans have strived to keep the principles of the Declaration alive throughout the history of our nation.

The celebration of Independence Day has a history as rich as that of its political roots. The first festivity was a spontaneous one that occurred in Philadelphia after the signing of the Declaration. Yet, according to the Library of Congress, Independence Day was only celebrated annually following the War of 1812. Thereafter, important events in the United States were intentionally planned for July 4th. These included ceremonies for the opening of the Erie Canal and the opening of the Ohio railroad. For much of American history and throughout the United States, Independence Day was the largest secular celebration every year. Due to its significance and widespread celebrations, July 4th was eventually designated a federal holiday by Congress in 1870.

Today we observe the watershed date that occurred 232 years ago through a variety of activities that symbolize cultural diversity, rich history, and above all, traditions that are unquestionably American. Fireworks, which date back to the 12th century in China, decorate our evening skies in historic red, white, and blue. The Star Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key during the bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry, continues to ring proudly across the nation. Americans celebrate the day by wearing patriotic colors, and often hold July 4th parades and barbecues. And the stars and stripes of our flag, whose current design was formalized in 1960, flutter freely in every city and town from sea to shining sea.

The Bay Area is no exception to Fourth of July festivities. Every year the city of Fremont hosts an Independence Day parade, resplendent with floats, marching bands, and dance ensembles. Milpitas, Union City, and Newark also celebrate July 4th through traditional fireworks. Join us as we celebrate this significant day in American history through a variety of events in the Tri-City Area.

Interesting Facts Related to July 4th

When each new state joined the nation, a new flag was developed with an additional star, and was put into use on July 4th of that year.

The tune of the Star-Spangled Banner was originally the melody of the popular English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven".

John Hancock's prominent signature on the Declaration of Independence was so well known that it soon became a synonym for signature in the United States.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, second and third presidents of the United States, both passed away on July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of Independence Day.

Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president of the United States, was born on July 4, 1872.

To view pictures and transcripts of the Declaration of Independence, the other Charters of Freedom, or learn more about the history of July 4th, please visit the National Archives online at

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