On July 4, 1776, inside the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. Today that building is called Independence Hall, and it’s a highlight on student trips to Philadelphia. Visitors can go inside the building and also walk around Independence Square, where citizens gathered on July 8 for the first public reading of the Declaration (to much fanfare).
To Americans today, the Fourth of July and all its traditions are deeply ingrained into our culture. But in those first few years, things were just a bit murkier…
Happy Second of July!
Though the Declaration was formally adopted on July 4, it was officially voted on two days earlier. No wonder that John Adams believed Americans would be celebrating the Second of July for generations to come. The fact that the printed Declaration had a big “July 4, 1776” at the top probably sealed the deal—America’s birthday would forever be the Fourth of July.
The first anniversary
On July 4, 1777, the Revolutionary War was still going on, so the celebrations were a bit muted. Still, citizens in cities across young America marked the Declaration’s first anniversary by ringing bells, firing guns, lighting candles, building bonfires, and setting off fireworks. Of course, the fireworks tradition sticks with us to this day.
Red, white and blue—and green?
In 1778, General George Washington marked July 4 by having his troops put green boughs in their hats and by ordering a celebratory firing of 13 cannons. Washington also treated his soldiers to a double ration of rum.
July 5, 1779
Nope, that’s not a typo. In 1779, July 4 fell on a Sunday, so the holiday was celebrated the next day.
Making it official
In 1781, Massachusetts became the first state legislature to officially host a state-sponsored July Fourth celebration, and 10 years later the name Independence Day was coined for the first time. It wasn’t until 1870, almost 100 years after the Declaration was signed, that the U.S. government officially declared the Fourth of July a federal holiday.
The rest, as they say, is history.