Each year, Americans observe the nation’s birthday on July 4: Independence Day. In fact, many have the federal holiday off work.
It’s hard to imagine a time in which the United States didn’t celebrate the holiday, a day that is now commonly associated with cookouts and fireworks. But has the U.S. observed its independence and founding since the very beginning of the nation?
Has the Fourth of July been a holiday since 1776?
No, the Fourth of July hasn’t been a holiday since 1776.
WHAT WE FOUND
Americans didn’t regularly observe Independence Day until after the War of 1812. It didn’t become a federal holiday until 1870 when Congress first established it as one of the four original federal holidays.
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence to announce the colonies’ separation from the Kingdom of Great Britain, just two days after it was first written. In a 1777 letter, John Adams, who later became the second president of the newly created United States, wrote to his daughter Abigail about July 4 celebrations in Philadelphia.
“Yesterday, being the anniversary of American Independence, was celebrated here with a festivity and ceremony becoming the occasion,” Adams wrote. “The thought of taking any notice of this day, was not conceived, until the second of this month, and it was not mentioned until the third. It was too late to have a sermon, as every one wished, so this must be deferred another year. Congress determined to adjourn over that day, and to dine together.”
But such celebrations were rare at the time. The Library of Congress says Independence Day observances weren’t commonplace until after the War of 1812. From there, Fourth of July celebrations grew until it was the “most important secular holiday on the calendar” by the 1870s.
In 1870, Congress passed an act establishing Independence Day, New Year’s Day, Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day as holidays in the District of Columbia. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), these were the first four congressionally designated federal holidays.
The CRS says that the 1870 law granted paid time off for federal workers in Washington, D.C., on those four holidays, and then, in 1885, Congress made it so the holidays applied to employees “on duty at Washington, or elsewhere in the United States.”
“This act, apparently for the first time, extended at least limited holiday benefits to all federal employees,” the CRS said.
In 1938, Congress passed a law that guaranteed paid time off for holidays, including Independence Day, would be equivalent to the pay of a regular working day.
So although Independence Day has been celebrated for most of the nation’s history, it didn’t become an official holiday until 1870. From there, federal holiday benefits steadily grew until 1938, when it guaranteed full paid time off like it does today.
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