A jubilant John Adams eagerly shared the news of the Continental Congress’ vote to declare independence from England with his wife, Abigail, in a letter dated July 3, 1776:
“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 forever more.”
His suggestion for how Americans should celebrate this momentous decision would come true. But the date would be two days later on July 4, the date that the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The following year, the city of Philadelphia, which was home to the Continental Congress, began celebrating what they called Independence Day on July 4 with bonfires, fireworks and the ringing of bells. Congress was adjourned as part of the celebration.
It would not be until after the War of 1812 between America and Great Britain, however, that July 4 would be widely celebrated. On the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, then former President Thomas Jefferson, who was ill, declined an invitation to come to Washington, D.C., to celebrate it. In declining it, he still supported an annual day of remembrance:
“For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
Jefferson would die soon after, ironically, on July 4, at the age of 83.
On the same day, five hours later, the 90-year-old Adams, who was both friends and adversaries with Jefferson during their lifetimes, died at his Massachusetts home while Americans celebrated Independence Day, just as he predicted a half century before.
This year marks the 244th anniversary of our nation’s declaration of independence (July 4 became a national holiday in 1870). While large gatherings may not be as numerous in this age of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can still safely celebrate “The Great Anniversary Festival” as we pause to remember the courage and hard work of the founding fathers who voted and fought to create the “home of the brave and the land of the free.” May we never take our liberties for granted.