Independence Day: why America celebrates 4 July
The significance of the Declaration of Independence - and why it should be celebrated two days earlier
Everyone knows that 4 July marks Independence Day. From the Founding Fathers to the Declaration of Independence, the date has achieved mythical status for many Americans.
Yet despite its huge importance as the birthday of the nation, for decades the day itself has been marked with scrupulously non-political celebrations.
Not this year. 2019 will see a Fourth of July parade in Washington D.C. unlike any other. Tanks will roll through the streets of the capital, fighters jets will fly overhead, a military band will play and at the centre will stand Donald Trump, surrounded by army, navy and airforce chiefs.
The Guardian reports that “critics fear that he will be unable to resist turning it into a vainglorious and politically divisive campaign rally”, while there are also demands the US president should “foot the bill for any damage caused to Washington’s roads, bridges and monuments by his ‘authoritarian-style’ display of military pomp”.
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.
Much of the nation’s attention will this year be focused on Washington D.C. where Trump’s “Salute to America” celebration will see tanks, fireworks and a military flyover by Air Force One and the Blue Angels fighter squadron.
“For decades, presidents have kept a low profile during Washington’s annual celebration of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, as typically hundreds of thousands of people gather at the National Mall for a nonpartisan concert and fireworks,” says the Guardian, “but ever the disrupter, Trump is putting himself centre stage this year.”
The militarisation of the Fourth of July parade has provoked comparisons with dictatorships around the world, while others have criticised the cost. The White House has not released a budget for the day but the Pentagon postponed a military parade planned for last November after estimating it could hit $90m.
Tom Udall, a Democratic senator, said: “The American people deserve to know how much of their money the president is spending to turn their July 4th celebration into a de facto campaign rally.”