Happy 4th! The History Behind How We Celebrate America's Birthday

Happy 4th! The History Behind How We Celebrate America's Birthday

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Jennifer Hunter
Jul 4, 2015

You probably have big plans to celebrate America's birthday today and you might even be participating in some traditions that have been in place since the very first Independence Day. Way back in 1776, John Adams made a few suggestions for future Independence Day celebrations that sound pretty familiar (and if you happen to drink a few beers at some point today, we have no doubt our forefathers would have heartily endorsed that, too). Here's why we do what we do on the Fourth of July.

In a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776, John Adams puts it like this:

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. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, Harvard University Press, 1975, 142 via American.edu

That gloom he was talking about was, no doubt, the Revolutionary War. You see, the American colonies still had a long fight ahead of them in 1776 — seven years to be exact as the war lasted until 1783.

But Adams and everyone else got their pomp and parades. In 1777 congress first authorized fireworks as an official way to celebrate Independence Day and, according to History, George Washington even celebrated in 1778 by issuing double rum rations to his soldiers.

Another tradition that still holds up? An annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. This practice started shortly after the document was written as a way to tell Americans about the plan for their new country (many couldn't read so it was read out loud in town squares). Many communities still stage a public reading each year to honor the ideals and language of our country's most important document.

Surprisingly, it wasn't until 1941 that Independence Day became a federal legal holiday (one of only four throughout the year) which means most Americans have the day off in order to properly celebrate!

So take a note from John Adams and get yourself some "Games, Sports, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations" and have fun out there. Happy birthday, America.

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