Independence Day: what America celebrates on 4 July

Independence Day in Michigan

The significance of the Declaration of Independence, and why it should be celebrated two days earlier

LAST UPDATED AT 16:41 ON Thu 3 Jul 2014

Everyone knows that 4 July marks Independence Day, and few Americans are prepared to let Brits forget it. 

But what lies behind the fireworks, festivities and patriotic parades? 

How did the first Independence Day come about?

In 1776, Richard Henry Lee, who was born in Virginia but schooled in England, proposed that the 13 American colonies should declare their independence from Britain.

A committee of five men, including Thomas Jefferson, was appointed to build a case for severing ties with Britain and draft the Declaration of Independence. Congress voted in favour of independence on 2 July and it was formally issued two days later, on 4 July 1776.

The Declaration of Independence was first read out to cheering crowds on 8 July, and by 15 July all 13 American colonies had approved it (New York previously abstained from voting). 

What does the declaration say and how is it significant today?

The Declaration set out new guidelines for basic rights, values and ideals for American citizens.

It proclaimed that in the newly independent nation, "all men are created equal" and should have the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". 

It has since proved moral ammunition to civil rights campaigners in America and beyond. Abraham Lincoln used the "all men are created equal" ideal to justify civil war against the slave-owning southern states, while Martin Luther King Jr borrowed from the declaration in his "I have a dream" speech in 1963.

Why is Independence Day celebrated on 4 July?

John Adams, one of the "Founding Fathers" who signed the declaration, believed that Independence Day should be celebrated on 2 July – the date on which the vote for independence took place. He wrote to his wife Abigail that 2 July "will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival", according to History.com.

Independence Day was not widely celebrated during the Founding Fathers' lifespan, Constitution Daily says. When festivities did begin in the early 19th century, they focused on 4 July – the date printed on the top of the document as it was first publicly issued.

How is it celebrated?

Almost a century after the declaration was written, 4 July became a national holiday in 1870, and a paid holiday for federal employees in 1941.

Celebrations differ from town to town, but many include barbecues, readings of the declaration, and all-American parades accompanied by live music. 

Kathy Arnold, author of the Daily Telegraph's guide to Boston, recommends New England as a place to see the festivities. "The Declaration of Independence is read aloud from balcony of the Old State House," she says, "followed by a parade and in the evening the best live concert on the banks of the Charles River." New York offers one of the most impressive firework displays in the country, and a famous hot-dog eating contest drawing thousands of visitors to the banks of Brooklyn beach.

This year will also mark the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States. · 

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