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Pauline Maier on The History of the Fourth

June 2024
2min read

In her 1997 essay, one of America's most celebrated female historians explains why Independence Day falls on July 4th.

On the Fourth of July, Americans gather to celebrate our nation's history with fireworks, barbeques, and family. But many may be surprised to learn that July 4th is not the technical date of American independence—that would be July 2nd, when the Second Continental Congress formally voted in 1776 to separate from Britain. Instead, July 4th is the day that Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, announcing to the country—and to the world—America's newfound freedom.

So how did Americans come to celebrate the adoption of the Declaration—a document that one of its own authors, John Adams, once described as “dress and ornament rather than Body, Soul, or Substance"—rather than their formal day of independence? 

At a time when the relevance of many of our founding documents and figures is being called into question, Maier's essay shows us why Americans should continue to care about the Declaration.

The answer, as the late Pauline Maier explained in her seminal American Heritage essay on the history of the Fourth of July, lies with the Declaration's enduring power to inspire Americans in Adams' time as well as our own. "The declaration we celebrate, what Abraham Lincoln called 'the charter of our liberties,' is a document whose meaning and function today are different from what they were in 1776," Maier writes. "In fact, holding our great national festival on the Fourth makes no sense at all—unless we are actually celebrating not just independence but the Declaration of Independence."

Appearing in the July/August 1997 issue of American Heritage, Maier's essay takes readers back to the founding era to show how Americans' perception of the Declaration has evolved over the years. Initially minimized by figures like Adams as a bit of congressional housekeeping, the Declaration was eventually taken up as a symbol of national unity and liberty, including by Republicans in the 1790s who heralded it as a “deathless instrument” written by “the immortal Jefferson.” That reverence later culminated in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who believed that the Declaration spoke not merely for Americans but “contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere.”

"In short, during the nineteenth century the Declaration of Independence became not just a way of announcing and justifying the end of Britain’s power over the Thirteen Colonies and the emergence of the United States as an independent nation but a statement of principles to guide stable, established governments," Maier writes. "Indeed, it came to usurp in fact if not in law a role that Americans normally delegated to bills of rights."

A former William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of American History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the most celebrated historians of her time, Maier was an expert on America's Revolutionary era. She wrote several books on the subject, including Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788, which won the George Washington Book Prize in 2011. Maier, who passed away in 2013, also contributed several times to American Heritage, including a moving tribute on 9/11.

But her essay on the Fourth stands out, both for its contribution to our understanding of the founding era as well as for the case it makes for the continued importance of one of our most famous founding documents. At a time when the relevance of many of these founding documents and figures is being called into question, Maier's essay shows us why Americans should continue to care about the Declaration. In her words:

"The Declaration of Independence itself is not and has never been legally binding. Its power comes from its capacity to inspire and move the hearts of living Americans, and its meaning lies in what they choose to make of it. It has been at once a cause of controversy, pushing as it does against established habits and conventions, and a unifying national icon, a legacy and a new creation that binds the revolutionaries to descendants who confronted and continue to confront issues the Founders did not know or failed to resolve. On Independence Day, then, Americans celebrate not simply the birth of their nation or the legacy of a few great men. They also commemorate a Declaration of Independence that is their own collective work now and through time. And that, finally, makes sense of the Fourth of July.


Read Pauline Maier's entire essay, "Making Sense of The Fourth of July," here >>

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