The Fourth of July is the most celebrated of all the national holidays in the United States. While Thanksgiving has a special place in most American hearts, cherished as a time when families come together, Fourth of July is about BBQs and fireworks on long summer evenings. But what are Americans actually celebrating on the Fourth of July? Professor Tim Lockley from Warwick's Department of History explains why one day represents years of change.
1. America did not become independent on 4 July 1776
It’s known as Independence Day, but Americans were far from independent in July 1776. If Americans wanted to note the date their independence was formally acknowledged and accepted by Great Britain (the former colonial power) they would celebrate the 3 September as that was the date in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris ending the revolutionary war was signed.
2. 4 July 1776 doesn’t even mark the start of the conflict
The 4 July 1776 doesn’t even mark the start of the conflict with Britain. While there were long-standing underlying reasons for the split with Britain, some dating back more than a decade, hostilities actually began more than a year before the Declaration of Independence with the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.
3. Independence was actually approved on the 2 July 1776
The problem for the individuals leading the resistance to Britain in 1775 was that most people did not particularly desire independence. Britain was the pre-eminent world power in 1775, having recently seized Canada, India and numerous Caribbean islands from the French. Its navy was unparalleled, its coffers seemingly bottomless, and many Americans were proud to be part of such an empire having participated in the conquest of French Canada. On the other hand, Americans also resented British interference in internal American affairs, having largely governed themselves for most of the eighteenth century. If it had been possible to reach an acceptable agreement with Britain over the issue of imperial taxation then the Revolution might never have happened. The delegates meeting in the Continental Congress knew they had to present a clear rationale to the people to show why independence was necessary and indeed preferable to the status quo. In June 1776 a small committee was instructed to draft such a statement.
The first draft of the Declaration of Independence was mainly authored by Thomas Jefferson. It was then substantially edited by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, with Jefferson’s condemnation of the transatlantic slave trade being the major casualty, after objections from New England slave traders and southern slave owners. The Declaration was endorsed by the Continental Congress on 2 July 1776, and it was this date that John Adams believed would be the one recognised and remembered in the future. On the 4 July the final text of the Declaration was approved by Congress, and this was the date printed on all the circulated copies of the Declaration. The signing of the declaration took place on 2 August.
4. It took a while to be celebrated
With a war to fight, it is perhaps understandable that the earliest annual celebrations of Independence Day were somewhat mooted, and certainly far from universally observed. Once the war was over most towns and cities held annual celebrations to mark the Fourth of July but the date did not become an official federal holiday until 1870.
5. Not everyone celebrated
For one segment of the US population 4 July was not a cause for celebration. The enslaved population in the southern states grew steadily in the early nineteenth century, reaching more than four million by 1860. The Declaration’s bold claim that ‘all men are created equal’, clearly did not apply to them. Enslaved people clearly understood the wider significance of the date: an aborted insurrection in Camden, South Carolina, was deliberately scheduled to occur on the 4 July. More pointedly Frederick Douglass, a former slave, informed his mainly white abolitionist audience in 1852 that ‘The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn..." It would take a civil war to finally end slavery.
Despite all these curious facts most countries in the Americas, Africa and south Asia now follow the lead set in the United States in 1776 and celebrate an Independence Day commemorating the end of colonial rule (only Britain and Denmark do not celebrate any kind of National Day at all). Each Independence Day carries different memories, some nations achieved independence through force of arms, others entirely peacefully, but for all it symbolises the right of people to self-determination. As the first nation to throw off the shackles of colonialism the United States has certainly earned the right to celebrate the Fourth of July as a symbol of freedom.
4 July 2019
Professor Tim Lockley is an expert in the History of the United States of America, colonial and antebellum North America, especially slavery and the South. He is based in the School of Comparative American Studies, part of the Department of History at the University of Warwick.
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