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Why Do We Celebrate
Independence on July 4?

John Hancock's Signature on the Declaration of Independence
Hancock Didn’t Sign Until August 2

Next Friday fireworks will erupt over the Charles, the Decla­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence will be read from the balcony of Boston’s Old State house and similar celebrations will take place throughout the land. But why July 4th? The vote for independence was taken on July 2 and the Declaration itself wasn’t signed until August.

Population Density Maps for London and New York
Reading the Declaration at the Old State House.

Details important when an event occurs often fade with time. Congress didn’t meet in 1776 to declare war, war was already raging — Lexington and Concord occurred in April 1775 and Bunker Hill, the bloodiest battle of the revolution,1 was in June 1775.

The question in 1776 was whether we were fighting to secure rights within the British Empire, or to form a separate nation. Opinion was divided, both in Congress and the country. Only after months of debate and backroom politicking, including a special election that replaced the government of Pennsylvania with one committed to independence, was the matter brought to a vote. Independence carried on July 2. The next day John Adams wrote —

"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."2

Discussion then turned to the wording of a formal proclamation. On July 4, 1776 Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. It was read to the people of Philadelphia and sent to be printed. The formal signing didn’t take place until August 2.

July 4th Date at Top of Declaration of Independence.
Date at Top of Declaration.

So why is July 4th the big day? It’s the power of the written word — the Declaration says July 4, 1776 at the very top. It was widely distributed to rally citizens to the cause of independence. In Massachusetts copies were sent to every town to be read from every pulpit and recorded by every town clerk.3 It is the information in that document that people would have had available when deciding when to celebrate.

Professor John Ferling, who celebrates on July 2nd, tells a different story. He says someone brought it to the attention of Congress that no celebration had been planned for the 1777 anniversary. Too late to organize an event for the second, the delegates decided to celebrate on the fourth.4

By the way, Boston has celebrated independence on July 4th since 17775 and in 1783 was the first municipality in the country to make it an official holiday.6

Happy Independence Day, whenever you celebrate.

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  1. Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. Viking (2006).
  2. Letter from John to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776. Available on-line at Massachusetts Historical Society web site.
  3. The order was issued by the Massachusetts Council, the provisional government during the war. The Pepperell Historical Commission’s web site has a copy of their town’s record of the Declaration.
  4. Carey Winfrey, Celebrating a Magazine’s Good Fortune – and a Nation's, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2004.
  5. James R. Heintze, The First Fireworks on the Fourth of July.
  6. James R. Heintze, Fourth of July Celebrations Database.

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Updated June 26, 2014.