What Are You Celebrating?

On Monday, July 4, families across the United States will be enjoying family picnics, barbequing in the back yard and watching parades, but what are they celebrating? Most people would quickly answer, “The founding of our country” or “Independence Day.”

However, it was on September 3, 1783, not July 4, 1776, that representatives of King George III and representatives of the United States of America signed the Treaty of Paris, which were the terms of agreement to end the war and gave the United States of America its independence from Great Britain. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783 and the United States “Congress of the Confederation” ratified the Treaty of Paris on January 14, 1784.

In 1775, people in New England began fighting the British for their independence. On July 2, 1776, the Congress secretly voted for independence from Great Britain. Two days later, on July 4, 1776, the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved, and the document was published. The first public reading of the Declaration of Independence was on July 8, 1776. Delegates began to sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776. In 1870, Independence Day was made an unpaid holiday for federal employees. In 1941, it became a paid holiday for them.

The first description of how Independence Day would be celebrated was in a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776. He described “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations” throughout the United States. However, the term “Independence Day” was not used until 1791.

Interestingly, on this day in 1826, former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were once fellow Patriots and then adversaries, died within five hours of each other on July 4, 1826 – exactly 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the last surviving members of the original American revolutionaries who had stood up to the British Empire and forged a new political system in the former colonies. However, while they both believed in democracy and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their opinions on how to achieve these ideals diverged over time.

Adams preceded Jefferson as president (1797-1800); it was during this time that their ideas about policy-making became as distinct as their personalities. The irascible and hot-tempered Adams was a firm believer in a strong centralized government, while the erudite and gentile Jefferson believed federal government should take a more hands-off approach and defer to individual states’ rights. As Adams’ vice president, Jefferson was so horrified by what he considered to be Adams’ abuse of the presidency – particularly his passage of the restrictive Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 – that he abandoned Adams and Washington D.C. for his estate at Monticello. There, he plotted how to bring his Republican faction back into power in the presidential election of 1800. After an exceptionally bitter campaign, in which both parties engaged in slanderous attacks on each other in print, Jefferson emerged victorious. It appeared the former friends would be eternal enemies.

After serving two presidential terms (1801-1809), Jefferson and Adams each expressed to third parties their respect for the other and their desire to renew their friendship. Adams was the first to break the silence; he sent Jefferson a letter dated January 1, 1812, in which he wished Jefferson many happy new years to come. Jefferson responded with a note in which he fondly recalled when they were fellow laborers in the same cause. The former revolutionaries went on to resume their friendship over 14 years of correspondence during their golden years.

On July 4, 1826, at the age of 90, Adams lay on his deathbed while the country celebrated Independence Day. His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” He was mistaken. Jefferson had died five hours earlier at Monticello at the age of 82.

July 4th, 1776, is a day worth celebrating. It is the day on which the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence stating their intent to become a new and separate nation.

What Are You Celebrating?