Annual Birthday Party for the Declaration of Independence

Today’s post comes from Rebecca Brenner, an intern in the History Office at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The Fife and Drum Corps perform at the National Archives on July 4, 12013. (Photo by Jules Clifford)
The Fife and Drum Corps perform at the National Archives on July 4, 2013. (Photo by Jules Clifford)

For almost a half-century, the National Archives has held an annual birthday party on July 4, at the document’s home at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

This timeline marks the significant milestones in Archives Fourth of July celebrations:

  • 1776: Representatives to the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was printed on July 4, and John Carlisle, a friend of George Washington’s and successful merchant, read it aloud on the streets of Philadelphia.
  • 1952: The Library of Congress, which  held the Declaration from 1924 through 1952, transferred the document to the National Archives. The first Independence Day it was on display at the Archives was July 4, 1953.
  • 1969: The National Archives Fourth of July became more extensive. A special exhibit opened to the public. In the early afternoon, the U.S. Army Band played a concert on the Constitution Avenue side of the Archives.
  • 1970: Visitors listened to the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence in the Rotunda.
  • 1976: Celebrations reached new levels when the Declaration turned 200 years old and the Archives established its annual July 4th event. On July 2, 1976, President Gerald Ford spoke in the Rotunda to honor the Bicentennial, saying, “The Declaration is the Polaris of our political order—the fixed star of freedom. It is impervious to change because it states moral truths that are eternal.” That July 4 the National Archives had a four-foot cake on the steps overlooking the National Mall. Also for the Bicentennial, the Charters of Freedom (the collective name  for the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights) went on round-the-clock public view for the first time, ending on July 6.
  • 1977: The National Archives created the National Bicentennial Time Capsule, which will be opened on July 4, 2075.
  • 1990: The Declaration’s 15th annual birthday party included a reading of the document, Revolutionary-era music, a simulation of musket fire on Constitution Avenue, and a parade.
  • 2001: The 225th birthday of the Declaration marked the last day until July 4, 2004, that the Declaration would be on display for the holiday.
  • 2002–2003: The National Archives’ Fourth of July festivities took place at Union Station in Washington, DC, while the National Archives Rotunda underwent renovations.
  • 2009: The National Archives exhibited a rare print on parchment of the Declaration of Independence—made from the original copperplate engraved by William J. Stone in 1823—which was on loan from David M. Rubenstein.

Small details change each year, but annual traditions remain the same and grow even stronger. The reading of the Declaration of Independence, Revolutionary-era music, and various children’s activities will likely continue past the opening of the National Bicentennial Capsule in 2075.

The National Archives will be commemorating the Declaration’s birthday again this year. Celebrations will include a reading of the Declaration of Independence, a performance by the Fife and Drum Corps, and visits from costumed interpreters of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, among other activities.

For more information see our calendar of events.

Visitors at the July 4,1970, Ceremony in the Rotunda. (National Archives Identifier 4477182)
Visitors at the July 4, 1970, ceremony in the Rotunda. (National Archives Identifier 4477182)

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