History

4th of July: Why Independence Day Became a Holiday in 1870?

4th of July Uncle SAM

4th of July comes each year and the United States of America celebrates the Independence Day remembering the historic event in Philadelphia where the thirteen colonies claimed their independence from England in 1776. Although the Continental Congress did not declare independence on July 4th (it was done on July 2, 1776), the final drafting of the Declaration of Independence was done on July 4th, 1776, and it was the date included on the Declaration signed in August. The famous resolution has been put into words by Richard Henry Lee in the Pennsylvania State House: “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

Despite some minor changes in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the initial reluctance by some of the colonies, the spirit of the document remained unchanged which 12 of the 13 colonies adopted. Nine of the 13 colonies consented for Independence, Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted No. Delaware was undecided and New York abstained. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence. It is said that John Hancock’s signed his name “with a great flourish” so England’s “King George can read that without spectacles!”

Ironically during the first 20 years of independence, American people did not celebrate it at all. Given the severe unrest that led to violent conflict over the issue of slavery, the young nation did not have much time to recollect the significance of it. Almost 70 years later in his famous speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given at the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society, Frederick Douglass states why independence meant nothing for the enslaved African Americans. In his words:

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

This is how the declaration became controversial as it did not incorporate anyone other than Whites into the definition of man. Joe Feagin in Racist America discusses this dichotomy in details. As he says, the ultimate objective of the founding fathers at the Constitutional Convention was to protect private property and maintain economic inequality. Although the final document was oriented to political liberty and the rejection of any established religion, “many right wing and center delegates at the convention were anti-democratic in their thinking, fearing “the masses.” Most of these prominent, generally well-educated men accepted the view that people of African descent could be the chattel property of others—and not human beings with citizens’ rights. At the heart of the Constitution was protection of the property and wealth of the affluent bourgeoisie in the new nation, including property in those enslaved. For the founders, freedom meant the protection of unequal accumulation of property, particularly property that could produce a profit in the emerging capitalist system.

However, celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on and in 1870, almost a hundred years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4 to be a national holiday as part of a bill to officially recognize several holidays, including Christmas. Further legislation about national holidays, including July 4, was passed in 1939 and 1941.

Happy Independence Day!

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About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.

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