July 4, 1776 is the day the Continental Congress officially approved the Declaration of Independence. Celebrations began soon after with parades, public readings and other events.
Fighting in the nation’s war for independence had already begun.
But it was not until 1870 that the U.S. Congress passed a law to set July 4th as the national observance of Independence Day. The law was updated in 1938 and again in 1941.
Recently, another holiday to mark American independence was established by the U.S. Congress. The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act observes the end of slavery in the United States. The U.S. now officially observes 11 yearly holidays.
State and local gatherings for Independence Day and other holidays are as old as the country itself.
The Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Phoner said national holidays were a way to unify the nation after the Civil War. “The Civil War consolidated national power in all sorts of ways, and national holidays are an illustration of that,” he said.
Some observers point out that Independence Day has been caught up in the country’s divisions from a very early time. In the 1780s and 1790s, two political sides argued over who should get credit for writing the Declaration of Independence. The document famously declares that “…all men are created equal.”
The Democratic Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson thought that he should get the credit while supporters of a strong central government, the Federalists, said others helped too.
In the years before the Civil War, Black Americans were often not included in official July 4 events. Instead, they would celebrate on July 5. The Black writer Frederick Douglass gave his well-known speech, What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July, on July 5, 1852, at an anti-slavery gathering New York.
There is discussion in the U.S. about whether it is right to observe July 4 as Independence Day. The debates involve questions about the country’s beginnings and the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
Some say the meaning of July 4 continues to change over time. They note that Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush were among the presidents who honored the military in Independence Day speeches.
Last year, former President Donald Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore in the state of South Dakota. At the time, the coronavirus health crisis was intensifying but there also were protests across the country.
The Mount Rushmore memorial includes huge sculptures of the faces of four American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Trump praised those leaders and criticized people who would damage or deface statues representing the nation’s founders.
At the time, then presidential candidate Joe Biden released a video. In it, he said that the country had not yet lived up to the promise of equality. He noted that Jefferson was a slaveholder.
“America is no fairy tale,” Biden said. It struggles with two forces, he said: “The idea that all men and women — all people — are created equal and the racism that has torn us apart.”
I’m Mario Ritter Jr.
Hillel Italie wrote this story for the Associated Press. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
consolidate –v. to make something stronger and more secure
illustration –n. an example that makes an issue easier to understand
sculpture –n. a piece of art that is made by carving or molding clay, stone, metal, etc.
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