The Real History Of The 4th Of July

July 4th

Good stuff from  Looks like John Adams was two days early in his forecast on the date of the celebration.  Fortunately, he wasn’t trading S&P options, where timing is everything. 

The history of Independence Day was also/still is very complicated by America’s legacy of slavery, which appears we are finally addressing as the touch of leadership is slowly passed to a generation of younger Americans.  The great American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, statesman, and free slave Frederick Douglass’ powerful July 4, 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July.” seems just as appropriate for today as it did almost 170 years ago. 

Providentially, America is still a relatively young nation, 

There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny?

…Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.  — Frederick Douglass, July 4, 1852

Bet you didn’t know the following, we sure didn’t.


The federal government of the United States officially designates “Independence Day, July 4” as a “legal public holiday.” Independence Day is also widely referred to as July 4July 4ththe Fourth of July. Data indicates that, of the terms, Independence Day is most common, but keep in mind that is likely because many other countries around the world observe their own independence days, marking when they became independent from a foreign power. That said, Independence Day is widely known in specific reference to the US’s national independence.

The term Independence Day is recorded as early as 1790, but the term Fourth of July, in reference to the US independence, is found as early 1779. Of course, the Independence Day/4th of July commemorates the events of July 4, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which declared the Thirteen Colonies to be free and independent of England.

The Second Continental Congress, which formed after the start of the American Revolution in 1775, voted to declare their independence (sovereignty) on July 2, but the Declaration of Independence, the document largely authored by Thomas Jefferson explaining this vote, was adopted on July 4th. When the Founding Fathers actually signed the document, however, remains disputed. American independence from the British monarchy was secured in 1783, marking the end of the American Revolution in 1783.

After the July 2 vote, John Adams famously wrote to Abigail, his wife:

The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

Indeed, Americans commemorate their independence this way—but on July 4th, of course.

While celebrations of the 4th of July have taken place since 1777, it wasn’t until 1870 (referred to as the fourth day of July as a holiday for the District of Columbia) that it became a federal holiday—unpaid for federal employees until 1938. In 1781, Massachusetts was the first state to officially recognize the holiday.

Why are we emphasizing the word federal (vs. state and local) here? Because the US does not observe any national holidays mandated by the federal government, although the 4th of July is, in effect, celebrated like an official national holiday.  The US Embassy in the UK provides a helpful explanation here:

Technically, the United States does not celebrate national holidays, but Congress has designated 10 “legal public holidays,” during which most federal institutions are closed and most federal employees are excused from work. Although the individual states and private businesses are not required to observe these, in practice all states, and nearly all employers, observe the majority of them.

Remarkably, both Thomas Jefferson (the US president who enslaved the most people) and John Adams (one of the few of the early presidents who didn’t) both died on July 4, 1826.


The 4th of July is traditionally celebrated with fireworks, barbecues, festivals, and other public events, including readings of the Declaration of Independence. Due to the patriotic nature of the holiday, it often involves red, white, and blue decorations (after the US flag), as well as tributes to American troops and government institutions. On the 4th of July, many people get to enjoy a day off from work to enjoy a long weekend or vacation.

Americans may wish one another (or be wished by residents of other countries) as Happy Independence DayHappy July 4thHappy Fourth of July, or simply Happy 4th. The 4th of July appears throughout popular cultures, such as in the films Born on the Fourth of July (1989, based on a 1976 autobiography by Ron Kovic) and Independence Day (1996).

The 4th of July, however, remains a complicated holiday given the history of slavery in the US. The Declaration of Independence famously observes: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But that freedom, equality, and independence was not granted to Black people, who were enslaved and oppressed. Frederick Douglass powerfully addressed this painful paradox in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In it, Douglass memorably remarks:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? –


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2 Responses to The Real History Of The 4th Of July

  1. John Porter says:

    A very good collection of quotes. I strongly recommend Bights recent ( years ago) biog of Douglass. Amazing man. John P

    On Sat, Jul 4, 2020 at 3:21 PM Global Macro Monitor wrote:

    > macromon posted: ” Good stuff from Looks like John Adams > was two days early in his forecast on the date of the celebration. > Fortunately, he wasn’t trading S&P options, where timing is everything. > The history of Independence Day was also/still is v” >

  2. John Porter says:

    Four years ago JP

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