Happy 4th of July 2017! Today we celebrate the 241st anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. While the Declaration was released more than a year after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the 1776 document is viewed as a formal explanation of why Congress had voted to declare independence from Great Britain.
The Declaration was actually passed on July 2 with no opposing vote cast, but it wasn’t officially approved until July 4. That’s why we celebrate Independence Day on July 4.
The Declaration of Independence was originally released in a variety of forms, including at least 200 of the so-called “Dunlap broadsides,” named after printer John Dunlap of Philadelphia. According to the Contemporary Broadside Editions of the Declaration of Independence, Dunlap’s broadsides were distributed throughout the thirteen states and where they later issued their own copies to the new American citizens.
Learn more about the history and origins of this American holiday here:
1. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia Proposed Independence First
Richard Henry Lee was the member of the Second Continental Congress who called for the colonies’ independence from Great Britain. He had also been a signer of the Articles of Confederation, an early agreement among the 13 original states that served as the first American constitution.
In June 1776, Lee called for a “resolution for independency.” The Lee Resolution was the first formal assertion passed by the Second Continental Congress announcing the formation of the United States. It would later become more famously known as the “Declaration of Independence” after its passing on on July 2.
The Declaration had been the joint efforts of the Committee of Five, with Thomas Jefferson as its principal author. The other four contributors were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, representative of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston, representative of New York.
Prior to the Declaration’s official approval on July 4, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigal on July 3:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.
As stated above, the Declaration was actually passed on July 2 with no opposing vote cast, but it wasn’t officially approved until July 4. That’s why we celebrate Independence Day on July 4.
Lee would go on to become a United States Senator from Virginia. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would assume the presidency. Roger Sherman would gain fame as the only person to sign all four U.S. papers, including the Continental Association, the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Robert Livingston would go on to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.
2. Early 4th of July Celebrations Included Mock Funerals for King George III
Prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1765, colonists held annual celebrations of King George III’s June 4 birthday. According to History.com, these celebrations included “the ringing of bells, bonfires, processions and speechmaking.”
However, by 1776, some colonists coopted the king’s birthday by holding mock funerals as a way of symbolizing liberty.
By 1781, two years before the official end of the American Revolution, Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4th an official state holiday.
3. It Became a Federal Holiday in 1870
It took nearly a century before Congress adopted Indepdence Day as a federal, unpaid holiday. In 1870, under President Ulysses S. Grant and the 41st United States Congress, July 4th was officially recognized. The bill also included an official observance of Christmas, writes Constitution Facts.
However, it would take another 70 years before Congress changed Independence Day to a paid federal holiday under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
4. There Have Been Many Iterations of American Flags
Flag Day is celebrated on June 14 in the United States. The date commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States by the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. The flag was called the Flag Resolution of 1777 and was the first of many iterations of what would become the American flag we recognize today.
Flag Day was first established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Wilson was also the first president to recognize Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, the latter of which is this Sunday. However, Flag Day didn’t officially become established until 1949 by an act of Congress.
Prior to 1777, the flag of the British colonies in North America (pictured above) was known by a slew of names, including the Grand Union Flag, the Continental Colors, the Congress Flag, the Cambridge Flag, and the First Navy Ensign.
Like our modern flag, the Grand Union Flag had 13 stripes representing the thirteen colonies but did not have any stars. Instead, the upper inner corner contained the British Union Flag of the 18th century. The British Union Flag lacks St. Patrick’s cross because Ireland did not join with Great Britain until 1801.
The Grand Union Flag was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on December 3, 1775, and was first hoisted onto the colonial warship Alfred in the Delaware River.
One interesting anecdote about the Grand Union Flag is its similarity to the flag of the British East India Company. Both flags were nearly identical, with the latter sometimes varying between 9 to 15 stripes.
5. It’s the 241st Celebration of American Independence
This year marks the 241st anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In 2026, the United States will celebrate the 250th anniversary of American Independence.
The last major anniversarty of the U.S. was the bicentennial on Sunday, July 4, 1976, with the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
Common Independence Day activities continue to be family time, grilling, and, of course, fireworks.