July 4, Juneteenth, and the meanings of national holidays

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The Declaration of Independence was officially endorsed by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Within days, celebrations began: parades and public readings; bonfires and candles; and the firing 13 musket rounds for each state.

Fast a century had passed before the country was officially declared its founding holiday.

The country now has 12 federal holidays, thanks to the passage of the Juneteenth Federal Independence Day Act. This act commemorates the end of slavery in America. Although many of these holidays are a part of the American calendar, their existence is not a sign of inertia. They are a reflection of how the U.S. evolved from an association of states with a small federal government to becoming a more centralized nation.

The tradition of Independence Day celebrations at both the national and local level is as old as the country itself. The first round of federal holidays, which were named after federal employees who initially worked in Washington, D.C., were granted the day off, was not made law until 1870 by President Ulysses S. Grant, five year after the Civil War had ended.

Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, says that the Civil War “consolidated national power in many ways” and national holidays are an example of this. “There were many, many firsts following the Civil War.”

The passage of Juneteenth and other federal holidays has been achieved with large majorities in Congress. This suggests broad bipartisan consensus. Ron Chernow, Grant biographer, says that the first holidays were the most secure at the time: New Year’s Day and Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Christmas, George Washington’s birthday (enacted 1879).

They followed the Civil War but had no connection to the Civil War. Chernow states that the war wounds of the Civil War were still severe and irreparable and any memorial to it would have been considered divisive. He points out that Memorial Day, which honors those who have died in war, was not made a federal holiday until 1888.

Chernow states that the first five federal holidays “tried to restore common ground between North & South.” “Both sides of the Civil War claimed that they fought in the spirit and principles of the American Revolution. Both sides were able to celebrate Washington’s birthday as well as Independence Day.

Federal holidays reflect a country’s view of itself, and how it changes, whether they are statements of patriotism to social justice.