Independence Day is the official federal holiday. It just so happens it falls on July 4th every year. I find it interesting that with regards to Independence Day, it is the only federal holiday to be so improperly referred to by the date it falls on the calendar, and that very few people really know why we celebrate it.
No one really refers to Christmas as “December 25th” or New Year’s Day simply as “January 1st”. So why do so many people simply refer to it as July 4th? Regrettably. it is not a new phenomenon. Other nations have similar remembrances simply referred to by a date, such as the 5th of November in Great Britain (Guy Fawkes Day). Some would say Cinco de Mayo, but since it is not truly a recognized national holiday in Mexico (it is far more widely celebrated in the United States and has nothing to do with Mexican Independence), I’ll let that one go. This article from Slate pretty well sums up the how and the timing, but not the rationale to my satisfaction. My suspicion is that it was simply easier than saying “Independence Day” all the time. I get that writing about it is not going to change the fact that most folks will continue to reference it as “The Fourth of July”, but honestly it made me feel better putting some thoughts around it. I don’t think I have the power to change 150 years or so of tradition.
What most folks don’t understand, is that while the holiday was designated as a time to celebrate colonial independence from England, it actually was not settled upon by the Continental Congress on July 4. The motion to declare independence from the British Empire was officially voted on by the members of the Congress on July 2, 1776, a full two days prior. After voting to declare independence, the Congress debated the actual language in the official document that had been drafted by a committee that included Thomas Jefferson. Once the document satisfied the various interests of the representatives of the thirteen colonies, the document itself was formally voted on and adopted on July 4th, 1776 — the date that is written on the “original” Declaration of Independence.
There were no fireworks or grand pronouncement on the 4th of July, 1776. There was no ringing of the Liberty Bell, or big celebration in the streets. It was not until July 8th when a celebration took place in Philadelphia, and July 9th before General George Washington heard the news and the troops celebrated in their encampment near New York City. It was the end of August, 1776 before the British received the news that the colonists had decided to emancipate themselves from British Imperial rule. News traveled quite slowly at that time.
While there are some claims that signatures were affixed on July 4, most historical reports document that August 2, 1776 is the date that many representatives affixed their marks, and for others it was several weeks or months after that. There is also limited historical evidence about the nature of the actual signing event. Needless to say, several stories and legends about the grand dramatic event were circulated, including by some of the notable signatories, such as Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson himself.
Note: There has been some contrary scholarly work indicating the the Declaration was indeed signed on July 4, 1776, but this is a minority viewpoint not supported by the vast majority of scholars on the subject.
Regardless of the actual facts of the real date of independence, July 4 seems as good a date as any. It is the date listed on the actual document, and the date of adoption of the language by the Continental Congress. Part of why I draw attention to it is that the actual meaning of the date is lost on many. It is not simply a day to take off from work, enjoy fireworks, and throw a party. Throwing the party itself is not the issue for me. Today and for all time, it is important for us to truly remember what Independence Day is all about, and give it the due reverence it should receive as one of the most important dates in the history of western civilization.
Great sources on the subject (just a sample; there are tons of writings on this):