‘Light and glory’: A brief history of July 4th

The Declaration of Independence. 1823 official Congress copy of the original document. | Photo by Wikimedia, St. George News

I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states. Yet through all the gloom, I see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth all the means. This is our day of deliverance — John Adams

In this painting by Robert Edge Pine, the Continental Congress secretly voted in favor of independence on July 2, 1776. | File photo, St. George News

FEATURE — In June 1776, representatives of the 13 colonies, then slightly more than one year into fighting the American Revolution, weighed a resolution that would declare their independence from Great Britain.

On July 2nd, the Continental Congress secretly voted in favor of independence. Two days later, its delegates adopted the historic document drafted by Thomas Jefferson.

The Declaration of Independence was first published on July 4, with its first public reading on July 8. However, the delegates did not start signing the Declaration of Independence until Aug. 2, 1776.

Ever a devote to history, John Adams believed that July 2nd was the correct date to celebrate the birth of American independence, and would reportedly turn down invitations to appear at July 4th events in protest.

Perhaps the historic confusion of when to celebrate Independence Day originated once the Continental Congress approved the declaration, July 4, and sent to printer John Dunlap who printed about 200 copies to be read in town squares and taverns throughout the colonies.

Today, 26 known copies remain.

This is why the declaration and its words “IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776,” printed on top was the version approved and signed in Philadelphia.

United States Navy collection — President John Adams (1735-1826), second president of the United States. By artist Asher B. Durand. | Photo by Wikimedia, St. George News

Although described by Adams as a “great anniversary festival,” the term “Independence Day” was not used until 1791.

Prior to the revolution, colonists celebrated the king’s birthday. However, by the summer of 1776, colonists began celebrating the birth of a nation by holding mock funerals for King George III as a symbol of the end of the monarchy’s reign over America.

Philadelphia held the first annual commemoration of independence on July 4, 1777, while revolutionary troops were still occupied with the ongoing war.

For the first two decades after the Declaration of Independence was written, people did not celebrate it much. It was too new and too many other historic events were happening in the young nation.

But there were some early celebrations.

It was reported that Gen. George Washington issued double rations of rum to all his soldiers to mark the anniversary of independence in 1778. He did the same in 1781, several months before the American victory at Yorktown — the last major land battle of the revolution.

President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) third president of the United States. Artist: Rembrandt Peale. | File photo, St. George News

The tradition of patriotic celebration became widespread after the War of 1812, in which the United States again faced Great Britain when the Federalist Party of John Adams began to fragment and new parties emerged in the 1820s and 1830s with everyone embracing the Jeffersonian Republican philosophy.

Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate again. But, the deaths of Jefferson and Adams on July 4, 1826, may have helped to promote the idea July 4 was an important date to be celebrated.

Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on.

In 1870, the U.S. Congress made July 4th a federal holiday nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was written. It was as part of a larger bill to officially recognize other holidays including Christmas.

History.com and the National Constitution Center contributed to this article.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!