“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, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Widely considered to be one of the most famous sentences in the English language, these words form part of the opening to the American Declaration of Independence, which was formally adopted on 4th July 1776, a date that resonates with Americans and people around the world to this day. It is the USA’s most important national holiday and sees huge celebrations throughout the country.
The reason the Declaration of Independence was so important is that it marked the establishment of the United States of America as an independent country, separate from the British Empire. So when Americans celebrate 4th July each year, they are truly marking their nation’s birthday.
The original declaration was written and voted on amid the turmoil of the American Revolutionary War, which began in 1775, and it was signed by 56 political representatives, including two future Presidents. Although largely self-governing on a day-to-day level for some time by the 1770s, the colonies were still controlled by the British government, and the imposition of high taxes on residents of the colonies with no representation in the British parliament was a source of huge anger and resentment. Protests turned into political and diplomatic confrontation, which escalated into armed conflict.
But the Declaration of Independence was not just an expression of political rebellion. It was a clear statement by the 13 colonies that they wanted more than just a renegotiation of their relationship with Britain, and actually considered themselves capable of becoming a country in their own right. It was a massive declaration of confidence in their ability to create stable government and to take control of their own affairs with their developing economy and growing population.
At the same time, the opening lines of the famous Declaration show that the founding fathers of the United States intended their country to be one based on certain principles – namely freedom, tolerance and opportunity for all. As a country that was growing by attracting immigrants from Britain and other European countries with the promise of a new life in the “land of opportunity” this message was a very important one to portray. The new nation was keen to establish an identity far removed from the traditional, class-ridden monarchies of Europe, which were frequently torn apart by dynastic and religious conflicts that affected all levels of society.
Whatever you may think of the modern USA politically, culturally or economically, there is no doubt that the confidence and optimism expressed in the Declaration of Independence has shaped the country over the years since it was written and indeed they remain characteristics very much associated with its people. Meanwhile, the fundamental rights enshrined in the declaration continue to be a source of huge national pride for American citizens to this day.
From the year after it was adopted, the date of the Declaration of Independence has been marked in the USA and celebrations on 4th July quickly became part of the new nation’s cultural identity. For many years, federal employees had the option of taking the day as unpaid leave, but it has been an official federal holiday since 1938, which means that all non-essential institutions (such as the postal service and courts) are closed for the day. There is a long tradition of politicians speaking at public gatherings on 4th July, with their words generally focusing on national pride, achievements and aspirations.
For the American people, the date is marked in all kinds of ways. Because the event is so tied up with national identity, the flag – the stars and stripes – is an important symbol. Its 13 stripes represent the original colonies that declared independence to create the country, while the 50 stars symbolise the 50 modern states. Although the flag is widely flown throughout the year, much more than is the case in the UK for example, the 4th July is the day when you will see more US flags than at any other time. Its red, white and blue colours (or should that be colors?) also feature prominently in festive decorations put up in homes and public places.
The fact that the holiday falls in summer means that most Independence Day events are held outdoors. The most important public events tend to be parades and firework displays, with every town and city holding its own festivities for local people. In 2013, the value of fireworks imported to the USA from China for 4th July was more than $200 million! The parades and, particularly, firework displays tend to be accompanied by popular patriotic songs, including such traditional favourites as “America The Beautiful”, “God Bless America” and of course the national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner”.
As well as the public festivities, families traditionally get together for picnics and barbecues, or for baseball games. Depending on the day of the week the 4th July falls on, the celebrations are either held on the day itself or on the nearest weekend. Many Americans take advantage of the national holiday to take a long weekend break, to visit relatives in other parts of the country or as part of a longer holiday overseas.
For Americans living in other countries, organising Independence Day parties or events is one of the ways they maintain their cultural links to their homeland. In major international cities with large American populations, such as London, there are quite large-scale celebrations to mark the day. US companies in other parts of the world will generally hold celebrations for employees, while of course the date provides an excellent marketing opportunity for any US-themed bars, restaurants or other businesses!
With 4th July falling on the weekend this year, it is sure to be a huge day of festivities for all Americans around the world. While the barbecues, fireworks and family gatherings are fantastically enjoyable and a great part of summer, I think it’s also very important that the national identity aspect of the date has never been lost. The parades, the importance of the flag, the political speeches and the patriotic music are a reminder of how a nation that became one of the world’s leading powers in modern times actually began its journey.