There will be hotdogs, fireworks, and Sousa marches—but what else?

Soldier Carrying Toddler Daughter
There will be hotdogs, fireworks, and Sousa marches—but what else?
| Credit: MivPiv/Getty

If you think of the American Revolution as the ultimate action movie, then the Fourth of July would have to be that moment when the outgunned, outnumbered, heroes look at each other and say, "Let's do this."

As we're shopping for Fourth of July fireworks and planning the barbecue, it's worth taking a moment to think about the real meaning of the Fourth of July—specifically, July 4, 1776.

First, what it isn't:

It's not the date of the Boston Tea Party, when American rebels took their "no taxation without representation" argument to a whole new level and dumped British tea into Boston Harbor. That was December 16, 1773.

And it doesn't mark the fateful moment at Lexington and Concord, when American Minutemen faced off with the British army. That was much earlier—April 19, 1775.

It's not even the day when the Declaration of Independence was signed. That happened between August 2 and November, 1776.

So what is the Fourth of July?

About a month earlier, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia had presented a resolution for the Second Continental Congress to consider:

Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown . . .

A few days later, the Congress chose a five-member committee to draft a document making the case—to the whole world, really—for American independence. Among the members were Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. Jefferson was chosen as the primary writer.

The delegates approved Richard Henry Lee's resolution on July 2 and began discussing Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. After some editing, the history-altering document was approved by the Congress on July 4, 1776. Independence Day.

The first prints of the Declaration are called "Dunlap Broadsides," because they were printed by John Dunlap. According to, 24 Dunap Broadsides are known to exist, two of which are in the Library of Congress (including George Washington's personal copy). A Pennsylvania newspaper published the Declaration on July 6, 1776, and the first public reading took place in Philadelphia two days later. Spontaneous celebration broke out.

Of the 56 delegates who eventually signed the Declaration, 24 were from the South.

According to the Library of Congress, Fourth of July celebrations didn't become common in the United States until after the War of 1812. Congress declared Independence Day a national holiday in 1870 and later made it a paid federal holiday.

The Library of Congress digital collections includes an interview with a 96-year-old Dr. Samuel B. Lathan as he remembers Independence Day celebrations from his childhood in South Carolina:

A great barbecue and picnic dinner would be served; candidates for military, state, and national offices would speak; hard liquor would flow, and each section would present its ‘bully of the woods' in a contest for champion in a fist and skull fight. Butting, biting, eye gouging, kicking, and blows below the belt were barred. It was primitive prize fighting."

Interestingly, both Jefferson and Adams died on the same day—July 4, 1826. But the words they put on paper? Eternal.

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—

Here's another perspective on independent thinking:

Independence Day reminds us of what America can be at its best. So does Dolly.