The letters that passed between John Adams and his wife Abigail gave a firsthand account of Independence Day first celebrations. His description included "pomp and parade, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations" all over the country. While he described the festivities, it wasn't until 1791 that the term Independence Day was used to denote this holiday.
Setting the stage for Independence Day
Although a committee was assigned the task of writing a formal declaration of independence from Great Britain to end its rule over the colonies, most of the document's content is attributed to the skills of Thomas Jefferson. He presented the first draft to Congress on June 28, 1776. After 86 changes were suggested and implemented by Jefferson, the document was presented for final approval before the Continental Congress where it passed on July 2. However, it wasn't until July 4, 1776 that the document was formally adopted by the Congress with John Hancock's bold, first signature.
Circulating the Declaration of Independence
Copies of the document were circulated to the people within days with publication in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6, 1776. A few days later, public readings began in Philadelphia's Independence Square. The document was cheered by the people and joyous celebrations ensued.
Independence Day bells
In keeping with their European roots, early Americans used the ringing of church bells to announce this historic occasion. The prominent Provence Bell in Independence Hall rang loudly on July 8, 1776 to summon Philadelphia's citizens to hear the initial reading of the Declaration of Independence. Thereafter, it became known as the famous Liberty Bell and continued to be used in Independence Day celebrations. Historians agree that the final debilitating crack in the Liberty Bell did not occur until the 1846 celebration of George Washington's birthday.
Celebrations during the Revolutionary War
Even while the war was raging, citizens continued to organize parties around the Fourth of July. Congress closed for the day, bells rang, bonfires burned and fireworks blazed at night. General George Washington made sure that his men were issued double rations to mark the anniversary. In 1781, Massachusetts was the first state to mark July 4 as a state holiday.
After the war
Celebrations became even more widespread after the colonists won the Revolutionary War. Emerging political leaders began to use Independence Day celebrations to address citizens of the new nation hoping to create unity among the people. At the end of the 18th century, two political parties had formed-Federalists and Democratic-Republicans-and each party organized their own celebrations in the nation's largest cities.
The War of 1812
Even though Great Britain lost the war with the colonists, King George did not accept their Declaration of Independence which led to the War of 1812. Americans held firm and won this war that marked the final blow to Great Britain's hopes to rule in America. Americans recognized that the end of this war was another reason to celebrate their freedom on Independence Day.
Even though Independence Day celebrations continued throughout the country, it wasn't until 1941 that Congress declared July 4 as a National Holiday.