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Why do we celebrate the Fourth of July?

Here's a brief history of "the most important secular holiday on the calendar" – Independence Day.

WASHINGTON — Across the U.S., Americans pull out all the stops to celebrate the Fourth of July – Independence Day. It's celebrated with showy fireworks, big cookouts and star-spangled parades. 

So what's the history behind the holiday? It commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but it took a long time to become the celebration it is today. 

Why do we celebrate the Fourth of July?

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, the Library of Congress says.

The actual vote for independence actually happened two days earlier, History.com says – but July 4 is seen as the "birthday" of American independence. 

The Fourth also isn't when the Declaration of Independence was signed. According to the National Archives, delegates began signing the engrossed Declaration of Independence on Aug. 2 – starting with John Hancock's famous signature. 

MORE: No, the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on July 4, 1776

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Independence Day celebrations grow

On the first anniversary of the Declaration's adoption, John Adams wrote to his daughter describing last-minute festivities in Philadelphia.

"Yesterday, being the anniversary of American Independence, was celebrated here with a festivity and ceremony becoming the occasion ... 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."

Despite its last-minute nature, Adams remarked on the "brilliancy and splendour" of Philadelphia's first Fourth of July celebration.

According to the Library of Congress, Fourth of July celebrations didn't become widespread until after the War of 1812. Celebrations kept growing, becoming "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, these were the first four congressionally designated federal holidays.

MORE: No, the Fourth of July hasn’t always been a holiday

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Finding common ground

The first federal holidays attempted to find "common ground" between the North and the South, biographer Ron Chernow told the Associated Press last year. 

“They followed the Civil War, but, by no accident, they had nothing to do with the Civil War. The war wounds were still deep and irrevocable, and any commemoration of the war itself would have been seen as divisive,” Chernow said. 

While widely celebrated, the holiday is also one of the most complex and debated. In the decades before the Civil War, Black Americans were often excluded from official July 4 events and instead would celebrate on July 5, both acknowledging July 4 and their distance from it. Frederick Douglass delivered his famed 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” on July 5.

Fourth of July celebrations today

You'd be hard-pressed to find a city without an Independence Day celebration, but some are different this year. Several cities in the western U.S. have canceled fireworks displays over dry weather and fire risks, while others ran into supply chain and staffing issues. 

The Associated Press and VERIFY's Brandon Lewis and Emery Winter contributed.

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