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20 Things You Didn’t Know About Independence Day

On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the birth of our great nation with picnics, fireworks, the colors of the American flag, and time with friends and family. Learn the true meaning, history, and facts behind this important day.

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Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

It’s our nation’s designated birthday

Independence Day, also known as the Fourth of July, is the day that’s long been designated as the birthdate of our great nation, which declared its independence from Great Britain by adopting the Declaration of Independence in early July 1776. Unlike the U.S. history you never learned in school, you probably knew about this July 4th date’s importance to our countries history. But you may not have known that the Declaration of Independence wasn’t necessarily signed on July 4.

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Illustration of Declaration of IndependenceEwing Galloway/Shutterstock

But it could just as easily be celebrated on July 2

It was on the second day of July 1776 that the governing body of the 13 colonies, known as the Continental Congress, voted in favor of declaring themselves independent of British rule, according to History.com. But it was on July 4, 1776, that the Declaration of Independence was finalized as a written document, and it’s “July 4, 1776” that appears on the document as its official date. Still confused? Here’s more about the whole July 2/July 4 thing.

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John Adams, President of the United States of America. Adams was the second president of the United States having already served as the country's first vice president. He was also one of America's Founding Fathers.Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

John Adams wasn’t happy about the choice of dates

On July 3, 1776, John Adams, who went on to become our second president, wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, to tell her how excited he was that Congress had voted in favor of independence. “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” he declared. Adams so firmly believed that July 2 was the correct day on which to celebrate American independence that he refused to appear at July 4th events as a matter of principle.

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Declaration of Independence Document 1776Historia/Shutterstock

And it could just as easily be celebrated on August 2

The Declaration of Independence was not actually signed until August 2, 1776. But as History.com explains, because the document bears the date of July 4, that’s the date people remembered as little as a year later when the holiday was first celebrated. Oddly enough, even though they all signed the important document, one of those signatures is actually more valuable than the rest.

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Boston Tea Party, 26 December 1773. Inhabitants of Boston, Massachusetts, dressed as American Indians, throwing tea from vessels in the harbour into the water as a protest against British taxation. No taxation without representation. Wood engraving, late 19th century.Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

And about that year, 1776…

By 1776, we’d actually been working on declaring our independence for years:

  • 1773: the Boston Tea Party took place as a protest against British taxation of colonial tea
  • 1774: the First Continental Congress began meeting to discuss what to do about Britain’s imposing unfair laws on the colonies.
  • 1775: the Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775, with the battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, and would continue until 1783 with America’s victory at Yorktown, New York.

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Engrossed and corrected copy of the Articles of Confederation, showing amendments adopted, November 15, 1777. (Page 1)F A Archive/Shutterstock

Plus our nation’s constitution wasn’t in place in any form until 1789

It wasn’t until five years after our victory over the British in the Revolutionary War that the Articles of Confederation, the first version of what was to become the U.S. Constitution, was ratified by Congress. Since the Constitution is what actually defined our form of government and set boundaries on what our laws could and couldn’t do, it’s arguable that we weren’t actually “born” as a country until 1789. That year may confuse you, but you’ll be more shocked by these 12 surprising places you’ll find the American flag.

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Declaration of Independence Document 1776Historia/Shutterstock

What the Declaration of Independence actually says

The Declaration of Independence begins with the preamble, “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” In short, it means, “When a group of people decides to split from a country and become a country in its own right, it’s only fair to explain why.” The rest of the document does just that, beginning with defining what the basic rights of a people should be and enumerating the ways in which Great Britain had violated those rights. Find out the U.S. state facts that everyone gets wrong.

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American Declaration of independence 4th july 1776 on usa flag backgroundAndrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

About that “pursuit of happiness”…

Arguably the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence is the second sentence of the preamble, which begins, “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, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But as originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the pursuit was not of happiness, but of “Property.” As the story goes, Benjamin Franklin convinced Jefferson to make the change because “property” was too “narrow” a notion.

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The Declaration Committee working on The Declaration of Independence; (left to right) Thomas JEFFERSON 1743-1826 , Roger SHERMAN 1721-1793, Benjamin FRANKLIN 1706-1790, Robert R. LIVINGSTON 1746-1813, and John ADAMS 1735-1826, lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1876.The Art Archive/Shutterstock

And about Jefferson being the author…

Thomas Jefferson is known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, but while he was the man officially responsible for drafting a formal statement of why the 13 colonies should break from Britain, the document was written by a five-man committee made up of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. According to History.com, Jefferson was not recognized as its principal author until the 1790s.

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Martin Luther King Jr Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in WashingtonUncredited/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Who did the Declaration actually apply to? 

Since the Declaration of Independence was adopted before slavery had been abolished (that didn’t happen until 1865), there are some who believe that the Declaration of Independence was not intended, at least at the time, to apply to everyone, but rather, only to free white men. But others, disagree, perhaps most notably, Martin Luther King, Jr., who said in his “I Have a Dream” speech that “when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the… Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note… that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights.” (We assume that Dr. King was also referring to women.)

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George III ((1738-1820) King of Great Britain from 1760. Portrait of 1767 from the studio of Alan Ramsay.Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

A draft condemned the slave trade

In one of Jefferson’s earlier drafts of the Declaration of Independence, he called slavery “a cruel war against human nature” and denounced King George III for “creating and sustaining” the slave trade, according to PBS.org. The language was deleted from the final version. Jefferson owned more than 200 slaves in 1776.

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Washington delivering his inaugural address in the old city hall, New York' George Washington delivering his inaugural address before members of the Congress. Includes text of speech.Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

It caused a riot at home

When the colonists in New York City found out about the Declaration of Independence from George Washington who read it in front of City Hall on July 9, 1776, a riot broke out, in part as a reaction to the fact that British naval ships were occupying the harbor at the time. During the riot, a statue of King George III was torn down… and melted down to make 42,000 musket balls for the revolutionary army, according to History.com.

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Vintage American flag,thin fabrics cloth and corrugate.nampix/Shutterstock

The first official celebration took place on July 4, 1777

The first official national celebration of America’s independence was held in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777. John Adams did not attend in protest of the date.

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American War of Independence (1775-1783) English commander Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) surrendering Yorktown to the colonists, October 1781. Coloured engraving.Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

Massachusetts was the first state to declare it a state holiday

The Bay State did so several months before the key American victory in Yorktown in 1781.

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British flag flying on the balcony of a historic building in central LondonNataliia Zhekova/Shutterstock

One of the men who signed it changed his mind

On November 30, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was captured by the British and forced to repudiate his declaration of independence and to swear his allegiance to King George. A little over a year later, he escaped the British and re-avowed his loyalty to our country.

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Close-up of female hands filling the documentDragon Images/Shutterstock

A woman’s signature appears on some copies of the Declaration of Independence

Though she’s not an official signer, Mary Katharine Goddard, who was commissioned by Congress to print copies of the important document, added her name below the original signers. Though it’s not clear why she included her name, Goddard was a well-known patriot and one of the first women publishers and postmasters in the young country, reports The Washington Post. Don’t miss these other 58 female firsts.

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FireworksHillJau/Shutterstock

Here’s why we set off fireworks

At the first national Independence Day Celebration in Philly in 1777, 13 cannons were fired, one round for each state of the union, bells were rung, and fireworks were set off, according to the Smithsonian, which says the tradition grew from there. Here are some of the nation’s most spectacular Fourth of July fireworks shows.

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Steak barbecues cooking grilling on charcoalsRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Here’s why we barbecue

The tradition of grilling out didn’t actually get going in earnest until the early 1800s, but Virginia colonists had been barbecuing large animals over a pit for years by then in a tradition they imported, apparently, from the West Indies, according to Slate. The practice is said to have spread as political leaders began staging rallies to mark Independence Day and drew crowds by staging massive barbecues featuring whole pigs and oxen. Try these Fourth of July party games to turn your backyard into Independence Day Central.

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Nathan's Famous staged their annual fourth of July hot dog eating contest in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Promoter & MC George Shea tosses tee shirts to audiencea katz/Shutterstock

The hot dog-eating contest tradition

Since 1972, Coney Island’s hot dog haven, Nathan’s Famous, has been marking Independence Day with a hot dog-eating contest that’s now become so big that it’s broadcast on ESPN. The reigning champ, Joey Chestnut, holds the world record for the most hot dogs eaten (74!), which over 21,000 calories, beating out the runner up by nearly 30 hot dogs.

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August 15, 1923 - President Calvin Coolidge at his desk in the White House.REX/Shutterstock

The July 4 “coincidence”

Both Presidents Adams and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, and President James Monroe died on July 4, 1831. Some see it as meaningful, but it arguably seems less so when you consider that Adams never looked at July 4 as the “real” birthdate of American independence. Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872, the only president to have been born on Independence Day. The importance of Adams and Jefferson’s death on July 4th still doesn’t come close to the 18 history lessons your teacher might have lied to you about in terms of shocking revelations.