"When in the course of human events..."
Taxation without representation! That was the battle cry of
the 13 colonies in America who were forced to pay taxes to
England's King George III with no representation in
Parliament. As dissatisfaction grew, British troops were sent
in to quell any signs of rebellion, and repeated attempts by
the colonists to resolve the crisis without war proved
On June 11, 1776, the colonies’ Second Continental
Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, formed a committee with the
express purpose of drafting a document that would formally
sever their ties with Great Britain. The committee included
Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman
and Robert R. Livingston. The document was crafted by
Jefferson, who was considered the strongest and most eloquent
writer (nevertheless, a total of 86 changes were made to his
draft). The final version was officially adopted by the
Continental Congress on July 4.
The following day, copies
of the Declaration of Independence were distributed and, on
July 6, The Pennsylvania Evening Post became the first
newspaper to print the extraordinary document.
The Declaration of Independence has since become our
nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty.
Bonfires and Illuminations
On July 8, 1776, the first public readings of the
Declaration were held in Philadelphia’s Independence Square to
the ringing of bells and band music. One year later, on July
4, 1777, Philadelphia marked Independence Day by adjourning
Congress and celebrating with bonfires, bells and
The custom eventually spread to other towns both large and
small, where the day was marked with processions, oratory,
picnics, contests, games, military displays and fireworks.
Observations throughout the nation became even more common at
the end of the War of 1812 with Great Britain.
On June 24, 1826, Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to Roger
C. Weightman, declining an invitation to come to Washington,
D.C., to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the
Declaration of Independence. It was the last letter that
Jefferson, who was gravely ill, ever wrote. In it, Jefferson
says of the document:
May it be to the world, what I believe it
will be ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains
... and to assume the blessings and security of
self-government. That form, which we have substituted,
restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason
and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to
the rights of man. ... For ourselves, let the annual return
of this day forever refresh our recollections of these
rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
In 1941, Congress declared July 4 a legal Federal holiday.
Today, communities across the nation mark this major midsummer
holiday with parades, fireworks, picnics and the playing of
the "Star Spangled Banner" and marches by John Philip
Many Fourth of July customs have not changed since our
earliest celebrations. But some communities across the nation
have developed their own special traditions:
Celebrants in Seward, Alaska, take part in a six-mile foot
race to the top of Mount Marathon and back. Further north in
Kotzebue, Alaska, traditional Inuit contests are held.
The citizens of Lititz, Pennsylvania,
have spent their winters since 1818 making thousands of
candles so that the children of the town can light them during
a special "Festival of Candles" the night of July 4.
And, on the morning of July 4, the community of Tecumseh,
Nebraska, raises more than 200 flags around the courthouse as
a way of remembering those who have served in our country’s
armed forces. Each flagpole bears the name of a man or woman
from Tecumseh who has served in the United States
On July 4, 1976, major celebrations throughout the country
marked America’s 200th birthday. In Washington, D.C., 33 tons
of fireworks were exploded in the sky above the Washington
Monument, along with Laser beams that spelled out "1776-1976,
Happy Birthday, USA." In New York, a succession of tall
sailing ships from all over the world sailed up the Hudson