Independence Day hasn’t always been a U.S. holiday

Independence Day celebrations did not become commonplace until after the War of 1812, and July 4 did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

Every year on July 4th, Americans celebrate the nation’s birthday: Independence Day. In fact, many have the federal vacation off work.

It’s hard to imagine that the United States didn’t celebrate this holiday, a day now commonly associated with barbecues and fireworks. But has the US observed its independence and founding since the nation’s inception?

THE QUESTION

Has July 4th been a public holiday since 1776?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

That's wrong.

No, July 4th has not been a public holiday since 1776.

WHAT WE FOUND

Americans didn’t start celebrating Independence Day regularly until after the War of 1812. It did not become a federal holiday until 1870, when Congress first introduced it as one of the four original federal holidays.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously passed the Declaration of Independence to herald the separation of the colonies 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 the Fourth of July celebrations in Philadelphia.

“Yesterday the anniversary of American independence was celebrated here with a feast and ceremony,” wrote Adams. “The thought of taking note of that day did not arise until the second of this month, and it was not mentioned until the third. It was too late for the sermon they all wanted, so it had to be postponed for another year. The Congress decided to adjourn that day and have dinner together.”

But such celebrations were rare in those days. The Library of Congress says that Independence Day celebrations were not commonplace until after the War of 1812. From there, the Fourth of July celebrations grew until it was “the most important secular holiday on the calendar” by the 1870s.

In 1870, Congress passed legislation designating Independence Day, New Year’s Day, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving Day as public holidays in the District of Columbia. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), these were the first four federal holidays designated by Congress.

The CRS says that the 1870 statute granted federal employees in Washington, D.C., paid time off on those four holidays, and then, in 1885, Congress made it so that the holidays applied to employees “who work in Washington or elsewhere in States on duty in the United States.”

“This law appears to have extended at least limited vacation pay to all federal employees for the first time,” the CRS said.

In 1938, Congress passed legislation that guaranteed paid time off for holidays, including Independence Day, equal to a regular day’s wages.

Although Independence Day has been celebrated for most of the nation’s history, it did not become an official holiday until 1870. From then on, state leave benefits grew steadily until 1938, when they guaranteed fully paid leave, as they do today.

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Alley Einstein

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