The History of America’s Independence Day

Faculty Insight

The Declaration of Independence Day signed on July 4, 1776

Robert J. Allison

Professor of History, Suffolk University

Harvard Extension School instructor and alumnus Robert Allison, ALB ’87, PhD ’92, teaches the popular Colonial America course, as well as courses on the history of Boston and the American Revolution. In honor of July 4, we asked if he'd shed some light on the history of America's Independence Day.

Why was the date of July 4 chosen?

John Adams thought that July 2 would be the “great anniversary festival.” In fact, he wrote to Abigail on July 3, 1776, “But the Day is past. 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 Almight. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of the Continent to the to’ehr from this Time forward forever, forever more.”

So, he was off by two days. Congress on July 2 voted for independence, which to Adams was the remarkable fact. On July 4 Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, and printer John Dunlap was hired to print up copies of the Declaration. At the top, printed in large type, it read, “In Congress. July 4 1776.” Then underneath that were the words “A DECLARATION by the thirteen.” And, finally, in large type, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” 

Thus, the date—July 4, 1776—and the name—United States of America—stuck.

In 1826, as the nation observed the 50th anniversary of independence, Bostonians planning the event at Faneuil Hall wanted to use that quote from Adams (above) but were embarrassed that he had the wrong date. So they changed it—the official invitation had Adams calling for celebrations on July 4, not July 2.

By this point, Adams was happier at being right about the big point—independence—than about the smaller issue of the date. He and Jefferson had both been invited to attend celebrations in Washington but both men were too ill to travel.

What other significance does the July 4 date have?

In the last letter he ever wrote, Jefferson said that “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.” He hoped July 4 would awaken people around the world to the truth that one half of mankind is not born with saddles on their backs, and the other born with boots and spurs to ride them.

John Quincy Adams, President of the United States in 1826, left Washington after the July 4 observances, knowing his father was failing. When he reached Baltimore, a rider caught up with him with astonishing news: Thomas Jefferson had died just before 1 pm on July 4, practically the same moment the Congress had adopted the declaration. Adams took this as a somber omen, marking the date and time. When he reached New York, a rider coming south brought the news that his own father had died on July 4, shortly before 5 pm.

Adams took this as a sign of providence.

How was the celebration of independence tested during the Civil War?

The tradition of the July 4 oration took off in the nineteenth century. Frederick Douglass, on July 5, 1852, delivered a speech, “The Meaning of July 4 for the Negro,” in which he asked, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” He went through a litany of standard July 4 themes, always talking in the third person (their, your forefathers) saying these were notable and impressive aims and events. But to the American slave, they meant nothing—given that American liberty was based on the enslavement of African-Americans.

Was it all rank hypocrisy? Back in 1773, Samuel Johnson had asked of the Americans, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” A good question, which Douglass amplified. By the 1850s, slave owners had given up the hypocrisy of Jefferson. Given a choice between the ideals of universal liberty and the reality of slavery, most slave owners chose to continue enslaving others and, in fact, argued that Jefferson was wrong about that notion that all men are created equal.

Would the self-evident truths of Jefferson’s generation—that all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, with the power to create a government to protect those rights—survive?

Lincoln based his position on upholding those truths. In his infamous address in November 1863, on the battlefield at Gettysburg, he hearkened back to the nation’s beginnings. (Interestingly, the battle of Gettysburg was won July 3, 1863, and on July 4, the forces under Grant broke the Confederate resistance at Vicksburg, Mississippi, guaranteeing Union victory).

Opening the Gettysburg address, Lincoln said, “Four score and seven years ago…” the new nation was “… dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

I suppose we are constantly testing that proposition—and our commitment to it.

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