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Fourth of July Legal History: How Did It Become a Holiday?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on
Independence Day, also known colloquially as the Fourth of July, celebrates America's formal declaration of independence from colonial rule. The Second Continental Congress officially adopted the final version of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. But beyond the official creation and adoption of one of our nation's founding documents, how did the Fourth of July come to be a federally recognized holiday?

Early Celebrations

After the American colonies officially declared independence from the British crown, it wasn't long before the occasion was celebrated. According to PBS, on July 4, 1777, Philadelphia kicked off Independence Day by "adjourning Congress and celebrating with bonfires, bells, and fireworks." This Independence Day celebration became more widespread at the end of the War of 1812. Notably, three of our nation's first presidents also died on July 4: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1826, and James Monroe in 1831. Some suggest that the deaths of some of our nation's founders helped cement July 4 as an important date.

Congress Acts, Then Acts Again

Like many holidays, it took an act of Congress to transform a popular national celebration into a federally recognized holiday. In 1870, Congress passed H.R. 2224, establishing the Fourth of July as an unpaid federal holiday, as part of a bill that acknowledged other holidays like New Year's Day and Christmas. According to James R. Heintze, author of "The Fourth of July Encyclopedia," the bill didn't propose to create any holidays, but rather to simply acknowledge those legal holidays in "every state of the Union." It wasn't until almost seven decades later, in 1938, that Congress established the Fourth of July as a paid federal holiday along with Christmas, New Year's, Memorial Day, Washington's Birthday, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving.

Current Holiday Recognition

Unlike other holidays, it isn't hard to tell when Independence Day will land on the calendar. However, thanks to a federal law passed in 1959, if the Fourth of July lands on a Saturday, then federal workers who normally work Monday through Friday are given Friday off. More than 200 years since its inception, many Americans still celebrate Independence Day as those early colonists did, with fireworks, picnics, and jubilant noises.

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